Come, brave adventurers, and witness the Final Fantasy XIII Frankenreview, a Franken so disparate we decided to run the graph right at the top of the post.
As you can plainly see, Final Fantasy XIII isn't shaping up to be the runaway critical hit that Square Enix was hoping for. Metacritic scores are currently hovering at 83 for the Xbox 360 version and 82 for the PlayStation 3, making XIII one of the worst-reviewed games in the main, numbered Final Fantasy series, barring portable remakes. That's not a good way to make your multiplatform, current generation debut.
Of course even the most hardcore Final Fantasy fans have their favourites and least favourites. It makes sense that the assembled video game critics would as well. Let's check out the spread, shall we?
The first 20 hours of FF13 are like watching Star Wars' Death Star trench scene in excruciating slow motion. You march down tunnels, corridors, alleys-anything with high walls to keep you in the pipeline. It isn't just linearity that kills the fun. The excellent FF10, created by the same design team, also tended to proceed in a straight line. The real problem in FF13 is a pervasive disdain for players. The occasional battles peppered throughout the first few chapters are thinly veiled busywork, designed to kill time between hundreds of cutscenes. Those cinematics tell an imaginative tale, but in the most laborious manner possible. The story chronicles six characters-like rogue soldier Lightning and mourning father Sazh-who were marked for an unclear destiny by a self-serving race of demigods. Establishing that single-sentence premise takes the better part of a day.
Make no mistake-you'll be fighting a lot...You won't be facing random battles as you traverse through fields and forests. Instead, you're running down narrow hallways waiting for monsters to jump you. And, for the most part, you can't avoid enemy encounters, except when the game goes out of its way to tell you that you can: "Hey, check out that lumbering brute over there! It might be a good idea to run past him!" In those cases, yes, you can magically make your way past foes. But unless you use items that specifically enable you to avoid enemies, you're constantly getting jumped by the next mob of monsters around the corner. Unfortunately, without the conventional RPG downtime of towns and other assorted free exploration, that means that you're constantly on edge. There's no reward for getting through a dungeon; your reward is…well, another dungeon.
FFXIII dumps traditional levelling-up for a carefully-controlled system via what's called the Crystarium. It's a bit like FFX's Sphere Grid. You spend Crystarium Points - gained from defeating enemies - as you travel around the Crystarium, unlocking statistical bonuses and new abilities, and gaining role levels along the way. This, in theory, is fine. The problem is, the game "caps" the Crystarium relative to each chapter, limiting the number of Crystarium Points you can spend on your party members, and which roles are available to each character. Square Enix's goal in doing this is clear: to negate the need to grind. It's true, for the first ten chapters of the game (about 25 hours), there is absolutely no need to grind, or backtrack (you can't anyway), or move in any direction other than forward. But, ergo, there's no real need to think strategically about what you spend your points on within the Crystarium. You mindlessly evolve your character along a linear skill tree path in much the same way you explore the gameworld, stopping only to occasionally check out what your new abilities do.
Look, despite the depth, this just feels as if too much of the control has been wrenched from my grasp for the sake of streamlining very fast battles. I wrote an article earlier about how twitch-gaming may have affected FFXIII and I can only conclude that this is definitely the case. This is for people who quite honestly can't sit still for ten consecutive seconds. Even the cut-scenes, notoriously long in the series, have been cut down a lot. Just because there are a lot of things to consider doesn't mean I feel that depth in combat; too much is happening automatically behind the scenes. You can't ever control other characters in combat and although you don't need to, that's beside the point. You can't even choose your own party until you reach Pulse and even then, your options are always limited. Some of my favourite things about RPGs was setting up the party I wanted, exploring the landscape and visiting the towns, and feeling as if I were part of a virtual world. And you know, people can rag on turn-based all they want; as far as I'm concerned, that has always allowed the most amount of depth and intricacy because you had time to select from endless lists of commands.
Ever since FFVII, the series has been known for gorgeous CG cutscenes, and finally playing a Final Fantasy game where the in-game graphics aren't distractingly uglier compared to the CG cutscenes is pure joy. The in-game graphics are so good that it's not always obvious whether a cutscene is CG or in-game. You can still tell of course, but we often found ourselves checking for indicators like hair movement to figure it out. The graphics are the most instantly apparent aspect of FFXIII's polish, but there are so many other indicators that point to an absolutely meticulous attention to detail. For one, the menus are the most gorgeous menus of all time for any game ever. We dawdled around switching back and forth between character status screens admiring their beauty, and it never got old. Beyond that, it's amazing that in a game of this scope, we found absolutely nothing even remotely buggy or glitchy, something that's fairly rare to be able to say about a current-gen game.
I wouldn't say that Final Fantasy XIII has completely renewed my faith in the series, but it has shown me that Square Enix's experimentation with the classic role-playing conventions I had come to expect from the Final Fantasy can produce something fresh, new, and highly enjoyable. The company may have made a few missteps in terms of pacing, and they continue to try out new equipment systems that are far more complicated than they need to be (see The Last Remnant), but as a whole, Final Fantasy XIII is step in the right direction for the fabled franchise.
Considering the series, this Frankenview is one of the most shocking in years.