Well, I've played twenty-five hours of Final Fantasy XIII in the past few days, and the one thing I can say with confidence is that I sure have played twenty-five hours of Final Fantasy XIII in a few days.
I suppose I'm not "qualified" to write a "review" because I haven't finished the game, and that something enormous enough to change my opinion of the game completely might spring up in the final three seconds of the end credits. I'm neither a pessimist, an optimist, nor a realist when I say that I'm guessing this isn't going to happen. I'm just being me. For god's sake, if the first twenty-five hours of your entertainment experience are not at least 90% indicative of its overall value, then you're doing at least one thing terribly wrong.
To summarize the experience of Final Fantasy XIII, I would like to use
a personal anecdote
Once I'm done with this, we can go right into the talking-about-a-videogame part:
When I was fifteen, I played Final Fantasy VI. It was one of the better things I had, by that point in my life, ever experienced. Let me tell you how I got the game: I rented it, once, from a video store that had only one copy of it. I played it for an hour and fell into a mesmerized type of love. Then I fell ill with a terrible ear infection. My fever climbed to around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Little did I know, I would be suffering these frequent ear infections for the rest of my life. I have Weird Ears. I have the same condition that made Beethoven deaf. They just didn't know, back in his day, how to stick a hypodermic needle through the eardrum to suck the blood out. Poor guy — he missed a chance to hear Beethoven's 9th before he died.
Well, with that ear infection all up in my stuff, I couldn't play the game. This was the precise shape of my torture: I lay there in bed, feeling underwater, and feverish, with severe head pain, thinking about Final Fantasy III (that's what we called it back then), in thatplastic case from our generic video store (this was before they built a Blockbuster right next door) lying on the floor, untouched. What terrible guilt it is, to rent a game and then not be able to play it! It's maybe worse than going to see a movie you really want to see and having to get up to do a deuce right as it's getting to the good part. The guilt, back then, tore me up about as badly as the ear infection tore me up.
The next week, I tried to rent it again. It didn't work. Someone else had the game. Damn it! The next week, the same thing. They said it was due back on Saturday, if I'd be willing to pick it up on Saturday. They said they'd call when it was in. They didn't call. I went in anyway. It turned out the previous renter was keeping it a couple more days. Those couple days would turn out to be a couple of, like, groups of seven days.
Eventually, a minor department store chain called Kohl's hilariously featured Final Fantasy III in their Sunday flier despite their actually not selling games at any of the locations in my town. They said it was $52.96. What a weird price! At Electronics Boutique (that's what we called "EB" back then), it was $79.99, though they also promised to do the price-match thing. I had $48 saved up. I took in a bunch of old NES games — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Arcade Game was one of them — and prayed that they would amount to at least six dollars. They did. I took Final Fantasy III home that Sunday evening. Of course, I went to bed early, so I could go to school the next day.
In last period of the next school day, the fire alarm rang. Our high school was the biggest in the state, which meant a lot of kids, which meant a lot of potential for pranks. The fire alarm got pulled all the time. This was before they put up surveillance cameras in the halls near every fire alarm. Here's why they put up security cameras: That day, just as everyone was starting to think this was just another prank, just as they were getting ready to go back inside, the brand-new six-million-dollar basketball gymnasium exploded.
We didn't have school for a week. When we got back to school, everything would suck. Metal detectors at the entrances, friskings at lunch; you'd get expelled if you were late to a class, et cetera. However, for that one week in November, by god, I had Final Fantasy VI, and there was nothing like it in the world.
Fifteen years later, I am a Real Adult who fears not expulsion and actually enjoys being frisked; I buy Final Fantasy XIII in the freezing cold at a 7-eleven in Tokyo, and play it for five hours, sleep-deprived, before getting on a train to the airport. For the first time since, well, Final Fantasy IX, I'm spending a Christmas with my family, in Indiana, in the United States of America. Final Fantasy XIII is not the thing I am most looking forward to — I am looking forward to food, to pizza and Chipotle.
Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the anti-humidity in the plane cabin dries out my top lip. As my face contorts with the agony-like joy of three days' worth of well-earned sleep, my lip breaks in three places. I wake up, two hours from landing, with blood between my front teeth. Thanks to the coughs and chokes of infants and children around me, my top lip is already miraculously infected. Twenty-four hours later I'd be eating Chicago-style pizza with green Tabasco all over it, and I tell you I have never felt so much pain related to pizza. That doesn't mean it's not still delicious.
That is what Final Fantasy XIII is like.
We Are Actually Talking About The Game Now
Okay, wait, let me say a few things about myself again before we really start talking about this game:
I haven't spent time in the "real" part of America (just California) in the last six years, so I've forgotten a lot of little things. For example, by looking at the medicine on friends' shelves here in the Midwest, I realize that, in Tokyo, over the past few years, I have not experienced:
It must have something to do with the diet, and the unavoidable daily exercise (walking).
However, in America for five days, I find myself suffering both headaches and gingivitis. I wonder if dandruff and diarrhea aren't far behind.
So, I am playing Final Fantasy XIII with a weird, meningitis-like spotty localized headache and an effervescent-like fever. I am convinced that this is, probably, the only way to play the game — that the game itself might be responsible for this weird feeling.
My friends Doug and Julie Jones and I played the game for eight straight hours at their house, from the very beginning, past the point I'd played in my living room in Tokyo, right up until the point where the story gets actually interesting. Then, with a fever — a provable, valid excuse to avoid my family for a few days — I stabbed the knife of my life into the meat of Final Fantasy XIII.
Short impressions: The game is entertaining.
Long impressions: The first thing I noticed, when playing the game on an American PlayStation 3, is that not only is it not region-locked — it is kind (?) enough to switch around the confirm / cancel buttons. I'm sure that's old news. Well, I never had any context to notice it before, so there you go.
Annnnnnyway, where the hell do I start with this game? I guess there's the issue of it being a straight line.
Final Fantasy XIII as: A Geometry Lesson
This one's easy: in Final Fantasy XIII, you're constantly moving forward. It's a moving-forward simulation. You know that map that emerged on the internet (here is where I type something in parentheses asking Stephen Totilo politely to find that map and insert it above or below this paragraph, whichever looks best. [Note from Stephen: Done, Tim, done!]) that demonstrates how straightforward the game is? The guy who made that map warns that it's only the first "five or six hours" of the game. Do not take this to mean that the game then becomes a Ponderosa Grand Buffet of nonlinearity immediately after the end of this map. No, loyal internetizens, the reason this Japanese dude only upped a map of the first five or six hours of the game is because he was likely playing it at breakneck pace and wanted to upload a map while the linearity of the experience was still newsworthy. He would have posted a map of the whole game if he could, and the lols would have been deafeninger, however, to do so would have been to risk a massive scoop by someone else. So he went with the first "five or six" hours.
"Five or six" is a weird number, by the way, because I got as far as that guy did in about three hours and forty-eight minutes. I know because I have literally 26 save files, because I kept forgetting that the game prompts you to make a new save file by default rather than to overwrite your old one. Maybe this is Square-Enix assuming that we might want to watch every cut-scene multiple times.
Anyway, one way to sum up Final Fantasy XIII is that it is a Horse-With-Blinders-On Simulation. It's about progress, and moving forward. It's not without a little bit of kleptomania, however, as sometimes there are little offshoots from the main path. Usually, you can see these offshoots coming a half a mile away, and, thanks to the mini-map's super-GPS level of readability, you can also see that the offshoots do, in fact, end after a distance of about ten game-world feet. This is crucial: the game's mini-map shows you the overwhelming straightness of the path, indicates the direction of your goal with a large yellow arrow, and then illustrates very clearly to you that every little offshoot is just that — an offshoot, an option. Each offshoot path is clearly a tiny fraction of the width of the main path.
At the end of each offshoot, you will find
1. A treasure
2. A monster
You will never find
1. Neither a treasure nor a monster
2. Anything that you couldn't possibly do without
This is very important to understand.
The more important thing to understand is that, the very first time you access a save point (contextualized in-game as a kind of nifty holographic computer terminal thing), the three options are "Save" "Shop" and "Quit." "Quit" doesn't mean "quit the game" — it means quit the save point menu. "Save" means save the game. "Shop" means — yes, enter the shop.
So, there's your first clue: You shop from the save point menus. Whoa. Have you solved the mystery yet?
Here it comes — I'll be gentle: No towns.
You gasp! Sadly, the only towns you see in the first great big chunk of Final Fantasy XIII are destroyed, dilapidated, filled with monsters. The major story MacGuffin is intimately tied to this floating Utopia called Cocoon, which some religious organization sees fit to regularly purge of shady individuals, so in order for this story to work, basically no towns in the "outside" world is kind of a given. Of course, the existence of a utopia doesn't precisely guarantee that all the world outside said utopia consist of straight lines in which large objects regularly fall, obstructing the path backward. Though there's a reason for that, too.
Final Fantasy XIII as: Something New
Square-Enix have no doubt done "The Research," and the numbers have come up in favor of "Players like seeing new things." The choice, then, was to drip-feed the players new things, or to bombard them with new things. The producers of Final Fantasy XIII bet on bombardment. Final Fantasy XIII is an impish ghoul standing atop a cliff, rolling boulders of fun down on the heads of unsuspecting players. Once I, personally, learned to stop worrying and love my own willingness to forgive Final Fantasy XIII for not having any towns, I came to applaud the ballsiness of it all. They are taking a genuine risk with this game. Does it pay off? Well, yes — after about eight hours. We're going to get to that in a minute.
Let's be as positive as possible for a minute: No towns means that the story doesn't ever stop and stick. It means no wandering around a town, talking to every NPC until the least likely one gives you the perfect piece of information you need to proceed. No towns means that no caves to the north of town that are locked and inaccessible until you talk to that least likely NPC who tells you that there's a cave to the north full of monsters. With no towns, all actions in the game are seamlessly linked to the story. We are moving forward. Why are we moving forward? Because the enemy is behind us. Why are they behind us? Because they don't like us. Or: Because we miraculously managed to escape in the first place. Why the need to escape; how did it all get started? The chase is so exciting, after a point, that we don't bother answering this question.
Square-Enix's market research must have yielded the result that fans' favorite parts of RPGs are the fighting, the dungeons, the interactions between the characters, and big-budget cut-scenes. By cutting out the towns and focusing on dungeons and fights, they give the game a breathless and relentless pace. They also make the cut-scenes feel more plentiful and closer-between. In short, funneling the player down one straight path gives the game developers more (and bigger) opportunities for entertainment. Also, there's the "artificial" "difficulty" issue — have you ever gotten stuck in an RPG because you didn't know where to go or what to do, probably because the game developers didn't signpost it clearly enough? Well, that won't happen in Final Fantasy XIII.
Now, to be negative: It feels empty. Without some concrete clues that there is a world worth saving, this weird, headache-like feeling of nihilism falls down over the experience like a curtain of ash. You start to feel like the janitor at Disney World — sweeping up empty Coke bottles beneath motionless symbols of dead splendor. I suppose this is a positive as well — the game exudes atmosphere and hokey tension; the "world worth saving," as embodied in a floating utopia seen mostly in beautiful CG cut-scenes, is less a thing we know and more a thing we believe in. The game suspends your disbelief in a religion-like way. It's kind of neat, after a while, and as the characters inevitably whine their little heads off, you think, hey, I'd be [I am] whining, too. Then there's the no-freedom-like no backtracking thing: Is this the game telling you not to look back, encouraging you to enjoy the story as presented, or is it the developers fearing that to let you linger is to potentially kill your interest in the game?
As you move forward, the game delights in dropping your characters head-first into new challenges. The challenges usually require you to Kill The Monster or Fight The Boss, though hell if those monsters and bosses aren't all new. More than merely "new," most of them are near-indescribably inventive. I had a friend in elementary school who used to draw swords. He'd put all kinds of little ornaments on them. Like, there'd be a chain hanging from one side of the hilt, with a little jewel on it. He'd never even seen a Yoshitaka Amano drawing — just the box art for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Eventually, he graduated up a notch and started drawing "cars." No one could ever tell they were supposed to be cars. He used to lie about having a dog that was half-wolf. One day, some other kid said he saw the kid's dog, and that it might actually be half-wolf. I'd like to think that that kid got a job designing characters, monsters, and vehicles in Final Fantasy XIII. Lord knows what any of these things are, or why they're designed that way — you'll know what I mean when you invade and destroy your first flying crucifix-shaped high-speed statuesque bejeweled airship-thing — though hell if they aren't all interesting. Eventually, the weirdness transcends from puzzling to second-nature to first-nature. As the film "Avatar" absorbs you into its world by using familiar imagery of trees, beasts, and insects, Final Fantasy XIII sucks you in by surrounding you with unspeakably foreign, weird things of such staggering design consistency that you start to subconsciously believe in it. Whatever "it" is.
Final Fantasy XIII as: The Feel-Strange Movie of the Year
There are so many characters in Final Fantasy XIII that you will lose track of their names within the first twenty minutes. People are introduced, speak lines of importance, and die at a fluid pace. Soon, the game falls victim to "Star Wars Action Figure Syndrome." I just made that up: You know those aliens in the "cantina scene" of the original "Star Wars" film? They never tell you those characters' names, though they sure as hell sold action figures of nearly every one of them, and all those action figures had names. The action figures, in fact, were the only way to learn the names of those characters. Final Fantasy XIII does a lot of things like that, all over the place.
The story is confusing. No, that's not the nicest way to put it: It is masterfully confusing. The plot is a labyrinth that might actually not have a piece of cheese in the middle. The events of the first two hours exist to confound and confuse you by nonchalantly mentioning and then forgetting the weirdest words dropped into the middles and ends of the plainest sentences. A man asks a woman, "What are we doing?" And she says, "We're going after a Pulse fal'Cie." The man recoils in horror at this response. We're sitting there, holding the controller and a beverage, maybe wearing Dolby Headphones, and we're like, ". . . Uh?" My friend Doug said, "I had to read the Wikipedia entry like three times before I understood what was going on in the trailer." I like going into my gaming experiences pure, so I had neither read the Wikipedia entry nor seen any of the story bits of the trailers. The labyrinth of the plot unfurled before me, and damn near put me the hell off, until the opening scenes crescendoed in a weird clash of near unspeakable portentousness that was, at the very least, slickly presented enough to encourage me to play further. Not much further, the game jumped back in time to two days earlier, to a neat little flashback in a peaceful village. The flashback was titled "On The Eleventh Day." The first line of the game, spoken by Vanille, in voice-over, had been, "Thirteen days after I awoke, the end of the world was beginning." I had thought, at the time, that that was a neat opening line. Now the game was showing me "the eleventh day." This was the first time I got the impression that some carefully crafted plot lay dormant beneath the talky, hyperkinetic surface of this game. Hours later, they'd have revisited The Eleventh Day four more times, from the perspective of four more characters. How many more flashbacks are we going to see? I wondered.
After its opening scenes, Final Fantasy XIII's plot primarily deals with the struggle of a group of people branded by some sort of virtual consciousness, tasked with saving the world from a vague apocalypse. If they succeed, they will turn into crystals, lose their mortal lives, and exist forever. If they fail, they will turn into demon ghouls which will sadly wander the earth for eternity. Yes, I realize that's kind of weird. The game manages to treat their struggle with tasteful dignity, and the voice-acting assists the visual presentation in communicating to you what the characters are feeling or thinking. Since the game itself is about forward motion, since the immediate-, short-, and long-term goals are always clear, the writers are able to concentrate firmly on the dialogue.
It's a shame, then, that some of the characters are annoying. Hope, the little boy with a voice six years too old for his little huge-headed body, is the be-all end-all of whiners. Vanille, with her constant pep-talking, is the exact opposite. Together, they represent the absolute worst character traits of Cloud, Squall, and Tidus, split up into some hopefully ironic anti-comedy duo. At the very least, the game never asks us to identify with Hope — and maybe he'll turn into someone cool by the end, who knows? — which is good, because I don't want to identify with him. I am a grown man, for god's sake, with a job and a home of my own, and a big TV and a PlayStation 3 and a copy of Final Fantasy XIII. Kids old enough to identify with Hope wouldn't even be able to afford a PS3! Anyway, let's stop with that.
Then there's Snow. First of all, why is his name "Snow"? That's a dumb name. Hey, what does snow come from? What does it fall out of? Ohh, right, clouds. Snow is annoying. He's big and dumb and super-positive. His hat is terrible. If he'd take the hat off, I bet he'd been kind of a cool-looking dude. As is, you keep expecting him to say, when the camera slides in his direction: "Hey, have you guys seen my keg?" (Things to note: he is dumb enough to misplace a keg of beer. He is strong enough to carry a keg of beer like a Double Big Gulp and then forget that he's not carrying it. He drinks kegs of beer all the time. He drinks them completely by himself. He wouldn't mind just buying another keg to replace the one he misplaced.) In battle, he attacks with his bare fists. The game focuses quite heavily, for a while, on his romantic flashbacks with a girl who is literally half his size. It's a little queasy. Eventually, neat things happen to him, and his accidental-tourist personality becomes genuinely endearing. However, for those first eight hours, he's what the Japanese call a "tsukareru yatsu" — a person who makes you tired [just looking at him / hearing him talk]. He is this big dumb ray of light and he screams happy things in your face and you wish he would go away.
Thankfully, there's Lightning. She is the best parts of Cloud, the best parts of Squall, the best parts of Auron, the best parts of Terra, and none of the bad parts of any of those characters. She's tough and she's hot. She is liquid-hotrogen. She isn't annoying or brooding at all! And she just keeps punching Snow in the face every time he says something dumb. You go girl! She is sympathetic to Hope, which is interesting, because you'd think she'd consider him as unbearable a little twerp as we do. That she has a little sister — the aforementioned tiny girl who has a romantic relationship with Snow — who she cares for quite deeply is even more interesting. She's not the cold jerk she could have been. The fans wouldn't have cared if she was a jerk, too. They like jerks. What Lightning represents is actual effort. Also, what were those things that lightning comes out of again? Oh, right — clouds.
My absolute favorite character, however, is Sazh. Yes, I know. Everyone thought he was going to be a jerk. In the previews, he just yells and screams constantly, like he's incapable of speaking a single sentence in a normal voice. For the first hour of the game, we witness Lighting do Something Fantastic, like jump off the top of a building and hit the ground running, and Sazh just looks down and yells something like "Hey, wait for meeee!" and then starts climbing down excruciatingly slowly. This is the game establishing that Sazh is Not As Cool as Lightning. Well, you get to a certain point, and Sazh is revealed shockingly to just be a Normal Guy. He is our player surrogate. We identify with him more than everyone else, because he's not a psycho-freak super-soldier or helicopter-surfing revolutionary leader, and also because, like us, he has a baby bird living in his hair. And once his little side-plot comes into view, it's interesting and tender and genuinely human.
Vanille — the huge-headed, T-rex-armed little girl — is kind of a tough nut to crack. She's narrating the game, on the one hand, so maybe she's important? Maybe she's the Vaan character. Maybe she's bigger than that? Maybe she has a secret. Then there's Cid — he's pleasantly, toughly hammy. Then there's Oerba. I don't even know how to pronounce that name. God, she's so hot. I want her to beat me with her belt — or, better yet, my belt. My belt is really heavy. It's probably heavier than hers.
What do all of these people add up to? Well, I haven't seen the full curve of the plot, yet, though I've seen enough bits and pieces of a carefully structured under-story to know that, at the very least, all of them serve some greater purpose. I am confident in declaring that the plot officially impresses me — it's ballsy that Square-Enix decided to go with a byzantine, confusing atmosphere-heavy plot that produces so little fruit in its first two hours. Looking at the breadth of the game, at how straightforward it is in its pacing, you'd presume that they were trying to make some kind of Japanese equivalent of Call of Duty or Half-Life — we at least know for sure that Square-Enix has their eye on Modern Warfare (they published it in Japan, after all) — though it seems like, in the end, the linearity of the experience serves to efficiently deliver the tangled plot (and not the other way around), because delivering it at a more deliberate pace would probably be even more confusing. So, in short, rest assured that Final Fantasy XIII does not, at least in its first half, fall victim to Kingdom Hearts's syndrome of tossing you back and forth between disparate worlds and plot threads. Though we frequently switch focuses, episodes, and main characters in Final Fantasy XIII, it all seems to be distinctly adding up to One Big Thing.
The biggest, most negative thing I can say, however, is that it takes to long to drop the first plot bombshells. Every hour or so, something pops up that makes you think, "Oh, that's it? That's what this game is about?" And then you plod forward half-disappointed, half-hoping that there's something bigger. Then it gives you something incrementally bigger. Then you plod forward again.
It's like this:
Cut scene —> Would you like to save? —> Cut-scene —> Walk forward five minutes, fight some monsters —> Save point —> Cut scene —> Boss —> Cut-scene —> Would you like to save?
That goes on for maybe the first twelve hours. If you like Metal Gear Solid, you won't complain. If you like Final Fantasy VI or VII, it's going to feel like a toothache.
In screenwriting, there is a damn-near ironclad rule: the first Hugely Interesting Thing happens at the twenty-two-minute mark. Why don't we have anything like that in games? Let's try to make one, right here:
The Two-Hour Rule Of Role Playing Game Scenario-Planning:
The first Hugely Interesting Thing should happen in the first two hours.
With an FPS, make it "the first ten minutes."
"Fun," however, should come in the first five seconds.
Final Fantasy XIII as: The Action Extravaganza of the Decade
Final Fantasy XIII's battle system is fantastic. It's the old-school ATB "Active Time Battle" system, with Final Fantasy X's strategy, Final Fantasy V's Job System, and Final Fantasy XII's Gambit System grafted on top of it. The best part is, Jobs and Gambits are fused into one thing, which can be activated / changed at any time during a battle with the press of one button. Neat!
It's called the "Optima Change" system, which sounds cool. I hear they're calling it the "Paradigm Shift" system in the English version, which sounds maybe even cooler. Either way, it's the same thing.
An "Optima" or "Paradigm" is an array of "roles." A "role" is kind of like a classic Final Fantasy "job," except instead of saying simply what a character can do, it says what they're likely to do. A "Healer" has healing magic, and is also likely to use it to heal. Healing will take priority over anything else. A "Jammer" has various status-destroy magic spells, and is likely to cast them. An "Enhancer" holds the keys to buffing spells, and will use them ad nauseum. An "Attacker" will attack constantly and ferociously. A "Blaster" will cast attack magic spells. These are just a few of the roles.
Between battles, you go into your little menu thing, and you configure your Optimas. You choose which character is which role for which Optima. A single Optima consists, then, merely of role assignments for each of three characters. You can store six Optimas at a time, so choose wisely.
There are no "Magic points" in this game. You can use magic all that you want. It's just as well — in Final Fantasy XII, your magic automatically recovered, after all. The thing is, battles very seldom stand on the edge of a knife, eager to fall one way or another. So having infinite magic points does not make the game easier. What you have is three ATB bars that all charge at once. You only control one character. You choose what three actions you want the character to take. Some actions cost more than one ATB bar, like Lightning's Area Flash slash move. Area Flash only hits an enemy once, though if several enemies are clustered together, it can hit all of them — the same for Snow's hand grenade attack. Protect spells take one ATB.
Let's say I have an Optima where two characters are attackers and one is a blaster. Then I have another Optima where two characters are Blasters and one is a Healer. Then I have one where one character is a Jammer, one an Enhancer, and one an Attacker. Let's say I use that third Optima as my default:
When a battle starts, my Enhancer is immediately using magic to buff up my dudes' defense. Next round, he casts shell on everyone, boosting magic defense. Your Jammer, meanwhile, is casting de-protect and de-shell — which, in addition to nullifying shell and protect spells, also increase default defense or magic defense. This is a first for Final Fantasy (though a standard for Dragon Quest or Persona, et al). Longer battles become mostly defense-focused: Lowering your enemies' defense while you boost your own, putting all your faith into single impactful attacks. Your attacker keeps wailing on the enemies while the Jammer and Enhancer do their work. Maybe your guys start taking some damage.
This is where you press the L1 button to bring up the Optima menu. Now you choose your Healer, Attacker, Blaster array. Now one of your dudes is healing while the other two attack physically or with magic. Maybe the enemies start to buff up, necessitating a switch back to the Enhancer and Jammer array. Or maybe you decide to force your way through by changing the paradigm to Blaster, Attacker, Blaster, and see if you can just put them enemies away ASAP.
When you win the battle — if you win the battle — you get a star ranking telling you how well you did, and some points to spend on (joylessly) purchasing new abilities or upgrades for each individual role.
The star ratings mean close to nothing for the first eight hours or so of game. All you're doing in the beginning is choosing "Go!", pressing the Yay Button, and then watching breathlessly as your characters score massive damage. The major battle system concepts trickle down the pipe, and after two hours, you have your first Optima change option. After four hours, the game has introduced the support classes; around eight hours, the game plops down a boss that requires you to actually think. Is this too slow? I, for one, think so. Again, I just have to mention the twenty-two-minute rule of screenplay writing: The art of crafting, choosing, and changing Optimas is so interesting in the context of a battle that it really should be something the game wears on its sleeve. It should be forcing you to dip your toe into its ocean not ten minutes after the very first fight. Maybe they could make it, like, Sazh has a healer role, or something. Nope: In the beginning, it's just all potions, all the time. You can use potions (or other items) whenever you want (no ATB charge needed). They take effect immediately, and they heal everyone.
The game's reluctance to roll out the battle system quickly might be an inferiority complex: the game is suspicious that you might not like it. Also, the first item you receive for use in the field is "Sneak Smoke," enabling you to avoid detection by enemies; this is more or less a sign that the developers know very well that RPG players sometimes don't like fighting battles at all.
The last word on the battles: Most of the time, they're really short. Like, ten seconds. Then there are bosses, which can be very long.
Final Fantasy XIII as: The Sequel to Final Fantasy XII
The biggest criticism of the game among those who have just started playing it is that you "only control one character." This is an unfortunate criticism, mostly because it's true. However, it's about as valid as the first major criticism of Final Fantasy XII: that there are too many enemies to fight, and choosing "fight" for all of them just takes too much time. This is because the game wanted you to use the Gambit system to program your allies' AI.
Years after Final Fantasy XII, the Japanese gamers still regard it unfairly as an atrocity, in that it made people motion-sick, that the characters were ineffectual, and that the battles were tiresome and confusing at worst and boring, tangentially interactive experiences at best.
Final Fantasy XIII features a much slower field-map camera, which moves at a much more human-head-like speed. The characters are all bottom-up-constructed cosplayers' dreams come true who are carefully and minutely constructed such that each character will be someone's favorite character. And the battles try admirably hard to be like classic Final Fantasy while also not completely ignoring the objective triumph of Final Fantasy XII's amazing, breezy, sticky, frictive conflicts. The Optima Change System makes you feel far more connected to and alive with the characters than the Gambit System did, probably because it requires you to press buttons every once in a while. The Gambit System, love it as I do, turns Final Fantasy XII into a kind of virtual pet: Wind it up and watch it go. Final Fantasy XIII gives you a button to press to change tactics, and then carefully constructs all manner of battles that exploit every nook and cranny of the mechanics. It's hard to explain exactly how a boss battle flows in Final Fantasy XIII. Suffice it to say that, after a point, the system clicks and you are In The Zone. You are Dodging Asteroids and Shooting Aliens at the same time. You are scoring four stars out of five at the end of a battle, sighing, and saying, "Yeah, I guess I deserved that." How do you know you deserved it? What has the game done to you? Who knows. It's got you, though.
Final Fantasy XIII as: A Bad Habit
I might have given up on Final Fantasy XIII, the way a friend of mine has given up on smoking. He's always saying, "I haven't smoked a cigarette in two weeks." It's like, he knows he's never going to give it up; he just happens to, sometimes, give it up subconsciously. What I'm saying is, I've had the game for one day shy of a week now, and I haven't completed it. I am halfway around the world from my home, and I have family members I haven't seen in over half a decade, though I also have this weird pseudo-illness with which to excuse myself from the world for a while, and I still can't bring myself to plow through the game. All this says is that the game isn't as immensely devourable for a thirty-year-old as Final Fantasy VI was for a fifteen-year-old. Maybe that means something, and maybe it doesn't. Who am I to decide?
This year, I got into a half-argument with a Japanese friend about the Hayao Miyazaki film "Ponyo." I said, I thought it was Miyazaki's best, most fully realized film. The friend said that I was wrong, that "Totoro" was easily the best Miyazaki film. I said I thought "Ponyo" was basically the same movie, only told in a more chaotically accessible form. It's more alive and motion-ful. The friend said, "You don't understand, because you didn't see 'Totoro' as a child." My reply to this was, "First of all, I did see 'Totoro' as a child. Second of all, you don't understand, because you didn't see 'Ponyo' as a child." The friend then accused me of using some evil logical fallacy, which nullified my entire argument. It was apparent that he learned that word while serving on his high school debate team, which in Japan, I think, means they stand on opposite ends of the room staring at the floor asking their rival in whispering tones to "please stop arguing please." I think I won the argument pretty well.
I also think I have matured less than one tenth of one iota since my days in high school. Well, maybe I've matured a tiny bit: these days, when I think of that week I spent locked in my bedroom (the very bedroom I'm using to write this article, in fact) plowing through Final Fantasy VI, all I can do is feel pangs of regret that I didn't force myself to do pushups during the non-interactive parts of every battle, after all the commands are plugged in and the battle turns are playing out. I could have made a game out of it — do a pushup, then grab the controller and input a command when the next character's ATB bar fills up. I'd be ripped as hell by now.
Maybe, though, that sitting and wallowing in the glow of the TV during those battles was half the fun of Final Fantasy VI. Maybe that's why I can't get so into Final Fantasy XIII — because the game just doesn't let you put the damn controller down, even for a microsecond. Then you've got the game world itself, a perfect straight track that offers you glimpses of the unspeakable expanse of the universe. It's like, you know why Americans like the Indy 500? You know why they like Nascar? Because they just want to see cars go fast. They don't like that shit they do in Europe, where the cars slow down to take corners. That's for the weak! If they could get their hands on enough land, they'd make a formula-1 track right here in Indianapolis, one that was 50 miles long and a perfect circle, just one never-ending curve so gentle that drivers could accelerate all the way through. Then they'd put maybe 500 cars on that track and the people would just sit there and go fucking insane watching these cars just endlessly stream by at dog-on-fire speeds, eventually screaming to let me off this crazy thing. That's what Final Fantasy XIII feels like, if you try to play it all day, and it kind of makes you nauseous. You don't feel like you own any of these characters or situations or what have you. The "Crystarium" (Sphere Board / License Board / Materia rolled into one) is so drab and linear: you just choose the next ability in line until your points are gone. A couple battles later, you open the menu again, spend all your points, close it, and go back to The Road. Your characters have two pieces of equipment: weapon and accessory. They have attack and magic attack in their status menu, and that's it.
As a thirty-year-old man-child with spectacular hair, I must say that Final Fantasy XIII does not impress me as much as Final Fantasy VI did precisely half my life ago, and whether that has anything to do with any universal truth or the fact that I've just played so many games since then is neither here nor there. Right now, today, it's not the greatest game I've ever played. It's nice, wonderfully crafted, and certainly a lot more fun than most of the games I've played this year. It is not, however, magical. Maybe that'll change in the last half of the game, though even if that is the case, boo to Square-Enix for not trying to push me into love with the experience a lot sooner.
Final Fantasy XIII as: A Sign of the Times
In the end, I'm going to say something edgy, something off-the-cuff: I talk in this article about how excellent the battle system is in Final Fantasy XIII, though why does it have to be a "battle system"? Why can't it just be a game wherein amazing things happen? In Gamestop for the first time in five years yesterday, I caught a glimpse of an in-store display for The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. One of the bullet points by the game description was: "Complete missions!" Seriously. Who goes into a videogame because they want to "Complete missions"? That's like an ice cream shop advertising to prospective customers by saying "Our ice cream cones will make the palms of your hands kind of cold!" Talk about the precise shape of the deliciousness, man! Anyway, we go into videogames because we want to "do cool stuff" or "see cool stuff", right? And while Final Fantasy XIII shows you plenty of cool stuff, it doesn't really let you do a lot of it. There's the should-be-infamous scene early on where two characters spy a parked sky-motorcycle in a cut-scene. Then the player is given control. You approach the motorcycles. A cut-scene starts. Your dudes get on and then fly away. They look like they're having a lot of fun! Too bad we can't have that fun!
Grand Theft Auto lets you have that fun. Jak 2 let you have that fun. Why does Final Fantasy XIII only let you direct the fun? In battle, it's like, you choose to change your Optima so that your dudes can shoot fireballs out of their fingertips. We don't feel what it's like to shoot fireballs with our fingertips: We just feel what it's like to tell someone to shoot fireballs out of their fingertips. When a player sees something happening in your videogame and says "Man, that would be kind of cool to do in a videogame", the ghost is basically given up.
What I'm saying is, I'm pretty sure "battle systems" are vestiges of a time gone by. I'm pretty sure they were only ever a placeholder for some Massive Fun To Come. Like, the old Dragon Quest games made you walk around an overworld. The town icons were as big as your dude. The forests were green panels. They were translucent if you walked through them. Then there was Dragon Quest VIII, on the PlayStation 2. The forests had real trees you could walk under. It still had a battle system. Dragon Quest IX was supposed to be an action game. A group of maybe two hundred vocal fans didn't like it. The people making the game backed down, made it a battle-system-game again. I'm pretty sure Square-Enix could have made an action game as exciting and accessible as Monster Hunterusing the Dragon Quest franchise.
They could do it with Final Fantasy, too. Final Fantasy XII was a remarkable step in that direction. Imagine, the depth of the Gambit System for two of the characters, and then intensely frictive action gameplay for the one character directly under your control. Then, maybe you press one button to shift the Paradigm (gambit configurations) of the other two characters. Wouldn't that be hot as hell? As it is, Final Fantasy XIII shows your dudes doing cool stuff — summoning twin ice princesses who then fuse into one giant motorcycle, then jumping onto that motorcycle and driving it over the enemies' frightened bodies — though there's such a weird disconnect between the stuff you feel in control of (walking down The Road) and the stuff that you only suggest (aforementioned vehicle-summoning). The "other stuff" always looks like "the fun stuff". There's so much grass, and it's so green, on the other side of the fence, and on our side of the fence, it's cracked concrete. Translation: In cut-scenes, it's all beautiful, expensive CG of gorgeous people doing impossible / awesome things, and in the actual game, it's accessing a spreadsheet, clicking on "go", and watching some guys jump toward a monster, numbers flying everywhere, and then jumping back.
Square-Enix might say that battle systems, that menus, are the most easily accessible means to deliver this kind of big-scale story to the public. I say, the emotional investment required to learn the ins and outs and nuances of the Optima Change System are no less than the emotional investment of every one of the millions of ten-year-olds who play Halo for the first time. Here's where we could play devil's advocate to ourselves, and start talking about the atrocities committed by Square's Western-style shooting experiment Dirge of Cerberus, though it'd be hard to do that without getting mean.
I suppose it'd be best to stop right there. No, let's do this, first:
The Music: Masashi Hamauzu's score is constantly effervescent and inventive. It's always doing something new. The battle themes are some of the best videogame music since Chrono Cross. People might not like XIII's music as much as the music in some of the other Final Fantasy games because it's clearly not bombastic or pop-song-like enough. Bombastic, pop-song-like music is great, though so is deep, complex, well-produced, musician-like stuff like this. Hamauzu is a talented musician, not just a "videogame music composer," and the quality of the tracks is staggering when you also consider their volume.
The Graphics: My god, I want to eat everyone's hair.
The Math: Some boss battles will make you feel like a genius.
The Structure of the Story: Every once in a while, the game's not about "I wonder what's going to happen?" — it's about "I wonder what already happened before the beginning of the plot to explain why I should care about that thing that just happened?" I am putting this under "love" (note present tense) because, if nothing else, it's a lot better than "I hate these people, I hope they all die, and I don't even care if they don't."
Whiners: I want to punch that little kid in the face. I go into every cut-scene hoping someone decks him, lays him out, lambastes him.
Vanille's arms: Why the hell are they so short? They're not even long enough to untie her pigtails. I pray they don't "explain" the length of her arms in a poignant cut scene at some point.
Having a Fever: Why are the words "Optima Change" literally visible on the screen at all times during the battles? I know I can press the L1 button to open my Optima Change menu! Stop crowding my Cinematic Action Movie Like Videogame Battle Experience with your Stupid Buzzwords! . . . . . . and several (infinite) other hot-headed complaints accessible only to people who are playing a game with lots of small text and flipping, flying numerals through throbbing skull pain.
tim rogers is the editor-in-chief of Action Button Dot Net, and will be posting a review of Final Fantasy XIII there shortly. you can also see action button's YouTube channel right here. If you're in Toledo, Ohio on the night of December 29th, come see my band at Frankie's!