I was so certain that Final Fantasy XIII was going to be a brilliant game that when I returned from Egypt on April 1st, I toddled straight off to GAME to purchase a copy of Final Fantasy XIII and the official strategy guide without reading any reviews.
Or checking to see whether I had my keys.
Thus I spent the afternoon of April 1st sitting forlornly on the pavement outside Well-Rendered Towers, flicking through a dreadful review of Final Fantasy XIII in my newly-purchased edition of EDGE (which I bought after shelling out for the game) and wondering quite how silly I would look if I returned Final Fantasy XIII not two hours after buying it.
But by the time the other (more organised) resident of Well-Rendered Towers returned with the other set of keys, my burning desire not to look silly had won out over my pragmatic urge to have a good read of Metacritic before possibly obtaining a refund.
And just as well too, because Final Fantasy XIII is a corker that kept me entertained for the entire month.
Although (as many people have pointed out) the game takes its sweet time to get going, it's well worth the slog.
The fight system was a departure from previous games in that it used time, rather than attack/magic points as battle currency and only allowed players to control one character during a fight. Uncomfortable though I initially was about having the bureaucratic opium of micromanagement wrenched from my itching fingers, the speed it afforded was exhilarating.
Rather than being allowed (forced?) to direct the every move of party members, players of Final Fantasy XIII prepare for battle by creating combinations of battle roles (mage/healer/tank/saboteur/soldier etc) in anticipation of what lies ahead. Once engaged in a fight, they can then command their party to assume any of the combinations they have created whilst directing the every move of the party's leader. It sounds quite complicated, but it's very intuitive.
The system also allows you to take several approaches to battle. Although there are six roles a character can assume (initially, certain characters can only assume certain roles), there are 147* or so combinations, or "paradigms" which a player can create. There's even variation between roles because different characters have different powers. And they each have their own "Eidolon", an unearthly being that can be summoned during battle. The Eidolons are a bit like Transformers, as each can transform from their original organic state into a mechanical one for their devastating final move.
My favourite is Shiva, a pair of icy sisters who can turn themselves into a demonic motorbike.
After the battle system, the design, graphics and artwork are definitely the most exciting things about Final Fantasy XIII. It's possibly the best-looking game I have played on the XBOX 360, even if it does require three different discs.
Despite the praise, I'm still a little irritated by the game's shortcomings. I can just about forgive the overly long introduction and tutorial sequence (20 hours???), but its length would not have mattered were it less linear. The game is spectacularly beautiful, especially in the subterranean opening sequence. But the route you have to take through the scenery is heavily prescribed, meaning that rather than behaving like a dynamic world, Final Fantasy XIII's first half plays like a journey through an exquisitely painted corridor.
I'm also a little bit sad about the lack of civilisations to explore and people to talk to. To me this exploration, context and even mundanity is hugely important to my enjoyment of a role-playing game. If I'm going to get into character, I need to be able to explore my surroundings.
The story was standard Final Fantasy fare, featuring a mismatched bunch of vigilantes who go after an evil entity in order to save the world. I liked the division between the inside-out utopian planet Cocoon and the infitite expanse of the Pulsian wilderness below it, and I was amused by the way the game's English dub gave all the Pulsian characters Australian accents (they're from "down under", see).
But the central romance was so awful I could barely watch it. This is not because it was overblown JRPG nonsense. I like overblown JRPG nonsense.
No, it was because the "man" in question was the kind of braindead So-Cal meatbag who wears woollen beanie hats on the beach.
His beloved, Serah, doesn't help matters by not being a playable character, so you never really get to know her.
I was also a little discocerted by the fact that she only looks about ten.
I think she's meant to be all floaty and delicate, but really she just looks like a child and I couldn't help being a bit disturbed by the 6'5" Snow's manly devotion to her. He proposed to her without even taking into account the fact that he will spend the rest of his life checking the sofa before he sits down in case he squashes his tiny little wife.
The relationship isn't sinister though, possibly because Snow has a mental age of six.
Either way, I simply couldn't care less whether or not the two of them overcame the boundaries of time and space to be together.
I did care, however, about the relationship between Fang and Vanille.
Maybe it was just because their accents reminded me of the many happy hours I spent watching Neighbours as a teenager, but I found Vanille (left) and Fang (right) hugely engaging.
We meet Fang as an mercenary with amnesia, convinced that she is responsible for a recent catastrophe and is trying to make amends. It's unbelievably difficult to create a charismatic video game character, but somehow Fang manages to exude the kind of easy sexiness that's almost always missing from the humourless super-vixens of gaming. She doesn't do or say anything suggestive, and not even her clothes are particularly provocative. An overwhelmingly large proportion of female video game characters are either preposterously pneumatic or ethereally waifish, but Fang just looks like a woman, albeit one who spends a lot of time running about in the sun.
Vanille is slightly less blessed in the personality department. Though not as infantile as Serah, she still wafts about like a malnourished pixie in a snowglobe and utters paragraphs composed entirely of squeaks and gasps.
But despite her irritating mannerisms, Vanille's a steely character who won me over with her philosopical approach to people-management. Narrative too often relies on showdowns, so Vanille's deft navigation of the various vendettas and preoccupations of her cohorts was refreshing.
The fact that she was also largely responsible for their woes gave her a dark edge, and made her the perfect foil for Fang. Whereas the latter tries to right wrongs by uncovering her own dark past, Vanille tries to create stability by smoothing over the cracks and concealing inconvenient truths.
|Cocoon, the inside-out planet that our heroes must save.|
Like so many Final Fantasy games, the story's strength is in the characters rather than the plot.
The gameplay's strength is a little harder to pin down. Although Final Fantasy XIII is blessed with one of the most sumptuous mechanics to be found anywhere in the current generation of RPGs, it's not always keen to let you play with it. I would be the first to complain about Final Fantasy X's interminable Blitzball sequences, but at least that game let you make your own mistakes.
Final Fantasy XIII seems so keen to keep you from stumbing that it keeps the stabilisers on for the first few days of play. And I don't mean in-game days, I mean real-life, human days which you could spend cradling a laughing child, or being with your lover or do whatever it is you surface-dwellers do.
If I didn't love video games, I wouldn't devote so much of my mortality to playing them, but Final Fantasy XIII never quite earned my trust. It took a long time for me to feel like I was working towards a goal rather than just barrelling down a corridor, and I would be lying if that didn't make me a little anxious. There isn't a gamer alive who hasn't wondered, at least once, whether they would be better off doing something else, if only for an afternoon.
The best games never allow this thought to cross your mind. They grab your hand and draw you into another universe, whispering sweet nothings all the way. Final Fantasy XIII, bless it, put me on the bus to another universe, then forgot to pick me up from the terminal when I got there. That said, once I'd hitchhiked to the centre of the action, it was brilliant. There were all kinds of things going on, the locals were friendly and I kind of wish I'd taken more pictures.
I'd definitely recommend a visit.
*This number was reached by some collaborative Christmas Eve maths in my office, so it might not be quite right.