Final Fantasy games represent a grand adventure of discovery. There’s nothing quite like the experience of the original Final Fantasy, after embarking on your journey to stop Chaos and having no idea where to go. But that’s okay, you wing it. You move your party up and down the continent, using Cornelia as a home base. If monsters posed a decent challenge, keep pushing forth. If monsters stopped you right in your tracks, probably best to turn around.
Final Fantasy XIII has none of that. There is no mystery to FFXIII. Sure there is the whole grandeur of the world of Cocoon and the obvious twisted perversion of the political system (all standard fare for an RPG). There are those breathtaking Square cutscenes, the Tetsuya Nomura character designs and a surprisingly complex combat system. All of these are features that are a given when it comes to a Final Fantasy.
Instead of placing you in a sprawling world and challenging you to make the adventure your own, FFXIII places you on a set path and tells you, “this is the story of Final Fantasy XIII.” Immediately the veil of illusion is shattered and you realize that you’re playing a game that is more about going through the motions than it is about curiously exploring your surroundings.
It is in this existence that I have struggled to complete FFXIII since its US launch back in 2010. The massive open world map is replaced with what amounts to be a series of connecting corridors. These corridors rarely have any significant areas to explore beyond a few nooks to hide treasure chests, and even those aren’t well hidden. Your task in FFXIII is essentially travel down this tunnel until a new tunnel opens up, fight some enemies along the way and watch a pretty cutscene.
It is incredibly pedestrian.
Walking at a leisurely pace seems to describe the gameplay soundly as even the combat has you only dictating inputs to one character. Surprisingly, I do enjoy FFXIII’s combat because it brings back one of my favorite Square creations, Active Time Battle. While the ATB is a far cry from the frenetic button pressing of classic FFs and Chrono Trigger, there is enough time to consider a multitude of strategies by timing inputs based on your computer controlled party members. Combat in FFXIII is all about balance. Party roles can be changed on the fly, and it is up to the player to choose parties that compliment each other given the circumstances of the battle. Roles can vary from all out physical attack, a balance of magic and physical, debilitating, defensive and so on. As is typical, each character plays different roles better than others with an example of Lightning being your primary physical damage dealer and Vanille primarily playing the role of healer.
The results of the combat engine in FFXIII result in me actually paying attention to my computer allies a bit more than my main character because they will follow a set path of actions, depending on their role. Honestly, if the combat weren’t as different as I’ve become accustomed to, I might not have survived the first two discs.
But as entertaining as the combat can be in a burst, it is still a JRPG and it ultimately ends up being a grind. This is why the exploration in a Final Fantasy is so critical. Because I know what my destination is (whatever is at the end of this corridor), it is difficult to come up with the motivation necessary to plod on. It is even worse when you’re circling aimlessly looking to grind a few more levels into your party.
I don’t hate FFXIII, I actually rather enjoy it. It has a lot of positives from its carefully crafted world, a story that has the makings of something bigger than its humble beginning, and characters that are fairly fleshed out and memorable. Except for Hope, I can’t stand Hope.
I have heard that the game will ultimately open up more towards the end so I am hopeful that I can survive however many corridors I have left. Besides, I still have to give FFXIII-2 a run and there is the upcoming conclusion, Lightning Returns, to look forward to as well. Square certainly has put a lot of stake into their Fabula Nova Crystallis saga, I just hope they can get through this tunnel.