I’m so old, I can remember when Final Fantasy VIII came out and everybody complained about it. Too sappy compared with VII, they said. The same thing happened with IX (too juvenile), X (too linear), definitely XI (an MMO?!), and, of course, Final Fantasy XII (new-fangled battle system). It’s a funny thing: every time a Final Fantasy game comes out, some fans rush to declare it inferior to their favorite entry in the series — which usually turns out to be the one they played when they were 13 years old.
|Final Fantasy XIII | For PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 | Rated T for Teen | Developed and Published by Square Enix|
So it’s no surprise that the latest installment is also taking its licks. An anguished post by Rob Bricken at the Topless Robot blog listed 13 separate ways that Final Fantasy XIII has disappointed him — everything from the story to the inventory system to, uh, the story again. To bolster his case, he recited his Final Fantasy fanboy bona fides. Which makes sense. When have fanboys ever been overly critical of anything?
Truth is, almost every game in this ceaseless series has experimented to some degree. Final Fantasy XIII innovates by streamlining. Its focus is on the battle system; just about everything that doesn’t support the combat has been removed. Gone are the maze-like dungeons. Gone are the towns that provide safe haven. Gone is the world map; in its place is a rigidly linear dungeon crawl with preconfigured battles in set locations. (It’s true that the game world opens up a bit after 25 hours of play, but surely we can agree that if you’re not having fun by then, you’re just being a masochist.)
The overhaul of the battle system is so complete, it’s unrecognizable. Instead of issuing direct orders to your party members, you assign them each roles that they perform on their own initiative. These party configurations — called “paradigms” in the game’s parlance — can be swapped on the fly. Similar in concept to the gambits from Final Fantasy XII, paradigms give you high-level tactical control without sacrificing the fast pace of battles, in which chaining several attacks together opens up massive damage multipliers.
Also stripped down are the character-upgrade systems. Each of six playable characters can be developed along several tracks. There’s little room for customization, though it’s smart to have each character specialize in just one or two roles. Weapons and armor have also been simplified — rather than accumulating reams of barely distinguishable items, you acquire just a few, any of which you can upgrade to provide the expected stat boosts. The upgrade menus and submenus could be better integrated. Then again, in the context of something like Dragon Age, they’re iPhone-like in their simplicity.
As for the story, it will not shock you to learn that Final Fantasy XIII is about a rag-tag band of adventurers who find themselves thrown together by fate and circumstance to confront some vaguely defined — but epic — evil. Both the voice acting and the dialogue are better here than in past Final Fantasy talkies. Only one character feels obnoxious and out of place, since she talks and acts like an eight-year-old but is at least a D-cup. She’s creepy.
Time will tell where fans come down on Final Fantasy XIII. Approach it with an open mind and odds are, you’ll find something to like. Then you can get a headstart on bitching about Final Fantasy XIV. That one’s another MMO, can you believe it? How could Square Enix possibly abandon the core gameplay tenet of linear corridors? This series used to be so much better.