Sunday, February 19, 2012

Guest Article: A Final Fantasy XIII Review
by Richard "jedirnc" Chang


I’ve been busy as of late, and every time I get busy I make other people do this kind of charity work that I do for you for me. Is that confusing? It should be, because stuff like this should never have to happen, but dammit, here we are, aren’t we? Life sucks, sometimes.

Anyway, I’ve never played Final Fantasy XIII, but I have friends with whom I’ve talked long and hard about it and by their kind hearts and wretched opinions, I feel strongly averse to it. Averse enough to publish a review that essentially tears it apart and really talks about why it’s so terrible. Also, I can’t say no to free material. Unless it’s from you, so no, don’t ask me to publish your stuff. Well, only sometimes. I have to read it first.

Anyway, here it is.

Final Fantasy Episode XIII: A Ridonkulously Long Review
By Richard “jedirnc” Chang

Final Fantasy XIII is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was a new version of a classic series, both highly anticipated and beautifully designed, but ultimately, falling far below fan expectations. Lots of reviews have already gone through its flaws (the linearity of the game and the lack of certain keystone final fantasy rpg elements) and I'm here to echo those sentiments briefly as well as to add a bit more of my own take on it.

First off, let's talk about hype. The trailers were beautiful and the game itself did not disappoint visually. A futuristic world? Gunblades and fast, real-time active battles so your characters don’t look like they're just standing around half of the fight? A sassy black man that we've been missing since Barret? AND he has a chocofro? I'm in!
But, I could say the same for The Phantom Menace. Remember the excitement of seeing a trailer for Episode I back in the day? Exciting moments were captured, such as Obi Wan meeting Anakin for the first time, new characters and worlds, and even fantastic heroes and villains! A dual sided lightsaber wielding Sith?! Fast-paced action and lightsaber battles? I WANT.

But, when it came down to it, flashy visuals couldn’t make up for flat characters and boring plotlines.

Story

I'll be honest with you. I tend to be a cutscene skipper. I want to jump right in and start fighting. Since this is the case, I made a purposeful effort to pay attention to Final Fantasy storylines. But, Final Fantasy XIII's plot did not manage to captivate me.

Here is my brief synopsis of the game: You’re thrown into the middle of a war. You meet almost all of your party right away and you’re united because you all get space cancer. The main character, Lightning, has a sister, Serah, who also had space cancer and became frozen as a result of it. So your goal now is to find a cure to heal your party before you get frozen too. And the only way to do this is to defeat the space pope! And so you venture out to save the world...
So my version of the story sounds ridiculous I realize, and that’s fairly intentional. Sometimes the truth is just ridonkulous.

Here’s my problem with the way the story was presented: at the start the game, the war is in progress. The characters have been fighting and experiencing hardships for a while. As the audience, however, we have no knowledge as to why the fighting is occurring, who is involved, and what the stakes are. On top of that, the usage of unfamiliar terminology complicates an understanding of the world.

The way the world is introduced in the beginning of the game assumes the players have sufficient background knowledge to understand what Fal’cie, La’cie, Focus, Cocoon, and Sanctum are. Now, I realize that you learn more as the game progresses and you’re caught up to speed eventually, but I’m not a huge fan of this form of narrative. The problem is that it’s difficult to feel immersed into a world in which we are strangers and have few ways to identify with it.
The characters are basically on their own track with or without us and it feels like we’re just outside observers watching them do things rather than allowing us to take the role of the character (hence the genre: role-playing game). What happened to the Final Fantasy games where you could name your character anything you wanted? You made “Buttface” your own character and you experienced all his (or her) adventures vicariously.

For a great review of The Phantom Menace, look up the review by Red Letter Media on Youtube. It basically covers this point in detail. Often in movies (and games) we have a main character we can identify with, and this person guides us through the story as they learn and grow themselves. Someone who is new to the circumstances of the storyline, who takes us through the world and the story. But Final Fantasy XIII lacks this. The point that the reviewer, Plinkett, makes is that the Phantom Menace didn’t have a “main” character(Anakin? Qui-Gon? Obi-Wan? who IS the main character?) and here, though Lightning is the title character, there’s no reason (other than seeing her on screen for the majority of the time), to really feel connected to her.

Characters

I like most of the character designs but dislike most of the characters because they lack personality. What they do have is a lot of emotion, and I feel like this is what is substituted for real character traits.

Here’s what I can say about the characters: Lightning is a stoic character. We've seen this before in many other Final Fantasy’s such as with Cloud and Squall, but we’re given very little to work with in terms of her dialogue and back story, which makes her seem very boring. With characters like Squall, we get to see his thought process, letting us understand why he doesn't want to associate with other people and why he doesn't want to react to others sometimes. Lightning stands around looking pretty and miffed all the time.
Snow is the polar opposite. In the story, he is Serah’s (Lightning’s sister) fiancé and he is determined to save her after she becomes frozen. He’s always yelling: either angry at the world, jubilant that something went right, or depressed from a failure. Also, he wears a hat.
Hope is my least favorite character. His mother dies at the beginning of the game, an indirect fault of Snow, and he’s emo from that point on. He evolves from being a grumpy little kid who wants to kill Snow into a sad little kid who wants to play with the big boys. He's a civilian with no training and it's not very believable to me that he'd be able to hang with all these soldier characters in battle. His primary weapon is a boomerang, but it’s about as effective as a nerf gun. Of all the characters, he is the one that actually grows and changes the most, but after his story arc where his feelings about his mother’s death and Snow are resolved, he fails to maintain a strong role on the team.
Vanille is another bipolar character (and something about her voice acting is just a bit off). She tends to take the narrator position and I can't quite put my finger on it but she has an accent that really bothers me. It’s some hybrid of a British, European, Australian accent? Or maybe it just changes in every cutscene?
Most of the characters have their own mini story arc where we learn a little bit about their past. Story progression also generally involves the characters being angry in the first phase, followed by becoming severely depressed and suicidal, and ending with them inexplicably uplifted and positive. And then they get some vehicle/summon hybrid like a motorcycle Shiva or a railroad train Alexander (and you thought the Power Rangers went out of style).

As an ensemble, I don't see these characters having much chemistry. A few of these characters have histories with one another, and some others just meet in the course of the game. Friends, family, and loosely tied strangers simply tossed into a quest together. The problem is, I never felt like there was much of a bond between any of the characters. Previous Final Fantasy games had parties that had characters that were formed from a ragtag crew, but eventually it was shown that they supported each other, worked together, and grew together as dysfunctional families. In Final Fantasy XIII, I don’t see any of these characters wanting to associate with each other once the game is over (besides the people who are related or married or something).

Gameplay

It’s been said in almost every review. The linearity. Yes, that was a fairly big deal breaker. It changed the genre from being an rpg to an action game with an rpg system. Basically it was a game where you followed a non-branching pathway and encountered events along the way, without being able to turn back. Other than what the story dictates, you’re not allowed to interact with the world or the people in it. How is this an rpg? Instead of having towns where people sell you items, everything is online. The world is just so devoid of life and you’re given the minimal amount of freedom. It comes down to three elements in the game. You walk, you watch cutscenes, and you fight. This leads me to my next point.

I had mixed feelings about the battle system. When I first started playing it, I liked seeing the characters active in more fluid ways, chaining combos together, and the flashy animations with the summons, magic, and limit breaks. The more I played it however, the more the lack of control became obvious, and the more sterile it felt.
In this rendition of the battle system, you have control over one character, and the other 2 members of your party are assigned roles while the AI takes control of their actions. For example, you can set Snow to be the Sentinel to tank the damage and Hope to be the White Mage to heal your party, while you control Lightning to be the damage dealer. It was an interesting concept, and you could mix and match different combinations within the battles. After a while though, I felt that having the system control your characters just didn’t give you the complete management of your party that you really need to make you feel like you’re actually doing something. Everything is too automated and you can even set the one character you have the ability to control to actually follow an automated sequence.

By the end of the game, I felt like each battle consisted of watching the fights and intervening only when characters needed healing. With having fairly minimal control over your battles, it feels like you’re just playing survival matches, intervening only to keep your characters alive until they defeat the enemies at hand. In another means of overcompensation, your characters can do high amounts of damage (that explode into huge numbers!), but enemies have ludicrous amounts of health too. It basically makes the numbers for the damage you deal essentially irrelevant and make the battles drag on far too long without engaging you in them

Music

*Sigh* So while the Phantom Menace at the least had John Williams going for it, Final Fantasy XII falls flat here too. Nobuo Uematsu was the regular composer for the Final Fantasy series up until Final Fantasy X, and the music was brilliant. They all had epic, orchestral feels to them, even though the early technology was fairly limited to MIDIs until the most recent entries. The use of thematic music was well thought out and appropriate to scenarios to express elements of drama, humor, and personality. Battle themes pumped you up, boss themes gave you the sense of urgency and power, and the following fanfare signified victory and reward. Music was able to express the personality of the characters and the emotion surrounding a scene as effectively as any amount of emotional yelling in the voice acting of Final Fantasy XIII. The Nobuo Uematsu era of Final Fantasy music was epic.
I wish I could say the same for Final Fantasy XIII, but I can’t. Most of the music in the game is ambient, jazzy background music, which is unremarkable and tedious. The only music that stuck with me was the main theme, which they repeated in nearly every flashback or dramatic cutscene involving Serah (Lightning’s sister/Snow’s fiancee). I equate it to “My heart will go on” from Titanic (that’s not a compliment). The battle themes and fanfares were absent and as a whole, it was fairly disappointing. There was very little to stimulate you along your journey and combining the repetitive battles with the soporific music led me to several naps while playing.

Summary

So there’s so much more that I can say that I disliked about the game, but this is already a fairly lengthy essay for a blog post. I realize that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is out already and some of the snippets of reviews I’ve read about it comment that they’ve changed the linearity and a lot of other complaints people had about the first game, but that doesn’t make me want to play the sequel any more.

I’ve seen the world of Cocoon and I don’t have any desire to learn more about its history, and I certainly don’t want to hang out with Lightning and her friends if they don’t want to hang out with me.
For more Star Wars related humor and webcomics, check out my site: www.retcon5.blogspot.com