The Final Fantasy series is a highly popular video game series that some would argue revolutionised role-playing games as a genre. What makes them unique is that each game is individual, featuring a new set of characters, a new world and a whole new story. The series is constantly evolving and is never afraid to take risks. For many (including me), Final Fantasy VII was their introduction to the genre and the series. There are many fans who would argue this is the pinnacle of the series, and is yet to be bettered. The latest (offline) installment of the series, Final Fantasy XIII, was met with a very mixed reaction indeed...
So, What are the Problems?
Final Fantasy XIII was the fastest selling game in the series, selling over 1.7 million copies in the first two weeks following its release. It was highly anticipated by the fans, but the reaction to the game was certainly unexpected by the developers. Never before had a Final Fantasy game been so polarising. It seemed that people either really enjoyed it or hated it. Motomu Toriyama, the game's director, put the reaction down to players and reviewers comparing the game to open world games that were around at the time. This was particularly evident in the game's linearity.
For the first 10 chapters, the game guides your path with very little room for exploration. It is only in the 11th chapter that the player is given a bit more freedom to explore the world. Many players criticised the lack of towns, which were a staple of the series, and also the inability to revisit areas once you had left them. Many Western games that were around at the time took a different approach in allowing players to explore an open world, continuing the story at their own pace. In Final Fantasy XIII, the player is taken through an area and greeted with many cutscenes to break up the gameplay.
Restrictions placed on the character's development also added to the linear feelings. The Crystarium system, by which players level up and improve their characters, is limited in each chapter. This prevented players from levelling up past where the game will let them. This was another bone of contention with players. In previous games in the series, players could "grind" to their heart's content, levelling their characters as much or as little as they wanted to. This was not the case in Final Fantasy XIII.
But is it all that Bad?
And now begins my defence. Firstly, I want to start by talking about the graphics. It has become expected that all Final Fantasy games will look beautiful and Final Fantasy XIII is no exception. Graphically, the game is very impressive. I actually think Square Enix were trying to show off by making one of the areas an enormous, crystallised lake. I know good graphics do not make a game brilliant, but this is certainly a plus in my book.
The story is also very good. Yes, much of the backstory and world-building information is unfortunately buried deep within the game's Datalog, but once you delve into it, you find a sophisticated story. Essentially, the game is about fighting your fate and changing your destiny. The 6 main characters are all tasked with destroying their home by the Fal'Cie, god-like beings who protect mankind - but they seek to defy them. Instead of being slaves to their assigned task, they decide to save their home and fight against their masters. The ruler of the Fal'Cie, Orphan, explains to the party why they choose to make humans into l'Cie (humans cursed by the Fal'Cie as slaves):
"Have you ever paused to consider our reason for making l'Cie of men? We fal'Cie are crafted for a single purpose and granted finite power to that end. With men it is not so. Men dream, aspire, and through indomitable force will achieve the impossible. Your power is beyond measure. We take l'Cie that we might wield such strength."
Essentially, humans have free will and as such, have the power to achieve anything, even the impossible.
The gameplay is fun too. The battle system uses a function called "Paradigm Shift", which allows players to approach each battle in a unique way. Unlike other Final Fantasy games, the player must think in a very tactical way about the best way to defeat each enemy. The combination of the party is very important as the right battle team can make easy work of the enemies, but the wrong team can make easy battles drag on much longer than they should. The tactical approach is added to by the restrictions placed on the Crystarium system. By limiting the player's progress, that the game actually has a level of difficulty. The player must figure out the right way to beat each boss without relying on simple level grinding.
Another positive is the soundtrack, though this is another expectation of Final Fantasy games. The music adds to the atmosphere of every area and every cutscene. As the game itself mixes the highly advanced world of Cocoon with the more natural world of Pulse, the music matches this. The only request the director gave Masashi Hamauzu was to combine both orchestral and futuristic songs. I feel that he has done this successfully and has also given each area a unique feel, as well as giving each character their own leitmotif that matches their personality. However, I do agree with the criticisms of the decision to replace the song in the Japanese version with Leona Lewis.
All in all, Final Fantasy XIII gets a bit of a rough deal. Perhaps it is a loud minority who are prevailing over the silent majority in their opinions of the game. I liked it, as well as the sequels. Though it's not perfect, it is actually exactly what a Final Fantasy game is about: Trying new things and continuing to evolve...