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Final Fantasy XIII - First Impressions
It was well publicized that Final Fantasy XIII was a pretty radical departure from its predecessors. As soon as the Japanese version hit, English reports came in that the game was without towns, without free exploration, and without leveling - all as much a staple of the franchise as cactuars and chocobos. Some people loved it, but some people loved the changes made to Mass Effect in Mass Effect 2, too. I've not played that game - but precisely for the reason that I did not think well of the changes they made. I was considering avoiding FFXIII, too, but thankfully a friend lent me a copy, and I've been able to try out the changes for myself without putting down $60. Thankfully, too, as for the most part, I quite like them.

Apparently the game is about sixty hours, and changes a fair amount halfway in, allowing you access to free roaming, picking your party, and other things withheld from you in the first half of the game. I find it entirely ridiculous that you still don't have access to all the game's features, some of them quite significant, at hour twenty-five. I mean, it's not impossible that you can play through the entire God of War trilogy in that amount of time. But, hey, whatever, this is Final Fantasy; that's how it goes.

True enough, the game has no towns, and it does feel like they're missing. It's not too big a deal, though; you can shop at every save points, and more shops and more items gradually open up to you. No, you don't have free roaming, either, and that, too, does feel like it's missing, but they keep you on a fairly fast-moving path in order to keep the story moving. Both of these are changes that really do take something away from the game, but in either case, I'm not too disappointed. The game does make it work, so the absence doesn't sting too much. Conventional, unlimited leveling is also gone, and the way they executed this I actually like. You have access to a leveling system not unlike FFX's Sphere Grid, but new sections of the grid only open up upon beating areas. Thus, within any given area, you're effectively "level capped." There are two primary upsides to this: there's never any way, or reason, to grind, and more interestingly, the fact that the creators know precisely how powerful your characters can be makes it possible for them to create some truly difficult, yet possible, battles.

The battle system is pretty awesome, too, when you have access to everything and really understand it all. You have, at most, yourself and two allies in battle. You can input all of your commands directly in pseudo-real time, or you can just let the computer choose, with you simply picking the target. Allies always control themselves. And though this might sound horrible - everything but target selection can be auto - it's actually pretty awesome. The Paradigm system lets you swap you and your allies classes mid-battle. Go from pure damage to damage, defense, healing, and then to defense, buff, debuff, and then into fill-up-the-stagger-meter mode. Once you understand how the paradigms work, you do a lot of switching, and most of your concentration is spent on targets and switching paradigms rather than selecting commands. Like the leveling system, I think this is actually a change for the better.

Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII has made me realize that, as strange as it sounds, I'm in the JRPG genre for the gameplay. I know that's an odd thing to say when you spend half of each game watching, but it's true. The plot for FFXIII is the same as the plot for every Final Fantasy is the same for every JRPG; I'm not even going to bother typing it out again. The characters almost uniformly suck; they are unsympathetic, uninteresting, and poorly written, just like the dialog and plot and even the setting. Lightning is an emo, tries-too-hard-to-be-badass annoying bitch, Hope is a dumbass kid who's trying to be like Lightning, Snow is a dumb, over-the-top meathead, and Vanille is my absolute most-hated Japanese anime character archetype: the endlessly happy, upbeat, and perky airheaded girl, who laughs and giggles her way through the Holocaust. Only Sazh is worth half a shit, and, to be entirely truthful, he would just be mediocre in any other company or game. His primary virtue is how shitty everyone surrounding him is.

I still have a long, long way to go on virtually all counts - plot, characters, gameplay - but so far I would consider Final Fantasy XIII a successful experiment. The plot is lame, and the setting is overly complicated, poorly named, and ridiculous, but, hey! This is Final Fantasy. You expect that, just like you expect incredible graphics and music and polish - which are in fact incredible.

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