Final Fantasy XIII was “too linear.” That, amidst effusive praise for its gameplay, was the main charge critics leveled at the game. Linear. Sequential. Undeviating. Straight as an arrow. Not “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” No “long brown path before [you], leading wherever [you] choose.” Alas, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t meant for you.
Gamers hate boundaries, or forget gamers — that’s just people in general. Does anyone actually enjoy riding the bus? Sitting on passenger trains or packed into airplanes? Would you buy a car if someone said you could only drive it from home to work and back again? Whatever the case, several took one look at the 25-hour-long premium FFXIII charged to unlock its gargantuan off-world playground, where you finally could go anywhere to fight crazy-big (or just plain weird) critters, and balked.
I just finished an eleventh-hour replay of the game to ready myself for its imminent sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2 (a review copy’s sitting on my desk now). What can I say, it still works for me. Here’s a quick summary of why.
The battle system. How do you thwart gamers hell-bent on gaming your system by grinding their way to beat-all demigod status? Craft a sophisticated hybrid combat engine that offers the strategic pre-planning of a turn-based system coupled to tactics-level choices you have to make in realtime. Spam the “auto” combat button in FFXIII and you’ll surely die as your digital opponents display their mercurial sides, zigging when your latest move’s premised on zagging. Figuring out how to beat each enemy, to say nothing of the epic end-area “bosses” the series is famous for, requires a thorough understanding of how all the game’s this-beats-that elements align, as well as the acumen to change up battle orders on the fly. The design teams were clearly heading in this direction from Final Fantasy IV forward, and this version — the word’s probably not too strong — represents its apotheosis.
That ridiculous 25-hour “intro.” Except it’s not an intro. Not really. Great games teach you how to play without telling you. FFXIII takes longer than most, and that’s by design — there’s a lot to teach. There’s also a lot of story on tap here, and an ensemble of seven the game has to somehow make you care about (I’ll grant the latter’s the game’s weakest point). The game’s scenario designer, Motomu Toriyama, said in an interview “we’ve got a story to tell, and it’s important the player can engage with the characters and the world they inhabit before letting them loose.” In that sense, FFXIII is two games in one: A story-driven battle system that allows your particular way of playing to evolve gradually (and at a pitch-perfect pace, in my view), and a giant MMO-style battle arena bristling with to-dos, available once you’ve cleared (and trained on) the story’s first two-thirds.
The story. Not the schmaltzy, tin-eared character dialogue that made me cringe, too, but the framing narrative — a mythic science fantasy about existentially restless demigods taking human slaves as metaphorical avatars who, if they fail to achieve their conscripted purpose, metamorphose into hideous creatures doomed to wander without thoughts or emotions (contrast with something like Skyrim’s comparatively banal “you are the dragon-born, go kill some dragons!” plot). And there’s plenty of political allegory as well: The way the game world’s government cracks down on its citizenry, for instance, is a barely veiled assault on the scare-tactics mentality some accuse the U.S. and other governments of engaging in to ram controversial legislation through post-9/11.
The visual design. No, I don’t mean the number of polygons the game’s pushing or whether it’s using this pixel shader or that one. I mean the design itself, from the hybrid Aztec-by-way-of-art-deco style of the Pulse Vestige (it harbors one of the demigods at the outset) to the rococo crystal-scape you wend your way through early on to the crazy-wonderful “I’m playing Tetris in a black hole” vibe of the final level. Does much else in gaming look as visually daring (counting failures with successes) as the games in the Final Fantasy series?
The “we’re not hiding anything this time” angle. With exceptions made for anomalies like Final Fantasy XII, the Final Fantasy series has always been an A to zed battle slog. Take fan-favorite Final Fantasy VII. How long did it take in that game before the developers cracked Gaia wide for exploration? Instead of hiding its invisible hand, FFXIII shows all, letting you interact with passerby or go shopping without dragging you off the main path to a superficial interlude. Could a Final Fantasy game work in a sandbox-style game world? Maybe, but this just-the-fact ma’am version succeeds on its own merits and (rightly) makes no apologies.