Disappointment of the Year

In my last post I mentioned that 2010 was a great year in terms of the games I got to play. Even my DotY was something I thoroughly enjoyed playing. If I was going for a worst of the year, I’d really struggle to make a choice, but disappointment is a different thing entirely. And as far as disappointments go, the choice was glaringly obvious to me. In terms of untapped potential, unfulfilled promise, and the amount of dreams that lay shattered like the glass at the Conservative HQ when there are students around; Final Fantasy XIII stands above all, a beacon of bitter disenchantment.

I have to stress again, it’s not a bad game. Although if you read any kind of internet forum with a topic about it, you’ll likely end up thinking that Square-Enix has stooped to a level worse than genocide, and you’ll probably be hearing a lot of that noise from people who haven’t made it past the first 8-12 hours of the game. If this is a situation you’ve found yourself in, then you’ve made two mistakes: firstly, you’ve gone on the internet to find out what people think about video games. Wait, that’s not going to make people read further. one mistake: listening to people who haven’t made it past the intro. After all, you wouldn’t pay any attention to a review of a whole album based entirely on the first song.

However, the intro portion people complain about is terrible. And long. And this is possibly the biggest place where Squenix have gone wrong. You don’t really get to play the game properly until you’ve got past that initial 8-12 hours and acquired a full party and unlocked all the facets of the battle system. Until that point the whole thing is excrutiating. The battle system is incredible when you’re playing with a full party and you understand how it all works. It’s fast paced, flashy and fun to watch. But for those opening hours it isn’t. And here’s a brief rundown of why:

The game has a party based battle system where you control one character and there are 2 others controlled by AI. Each character is assigned a role that determines what moves they’re capable of and how the AI will behave, it’s fairly typical stuff like healer, tank, etc. By the simple press of a shoulder button you open up a menu to choose from 5 combinations of roles that you’ve set up for your team, and you can switch on the fly. It can seem quite complicated at first, but once it’s all sunk in it’s actually incredibly intuitive. The trick to making the gameplay work is to have a certain balance of character roles in your team i.e. healer, tank, damage dealer. And for certain enemies you’ll need to use certain setups for best effect.

The problem with battles during the intro portion of the game is that you only ever get to use two characters at a time, and they’re locked into only being able to access a limited number of roles. This makes things move at an incredibly slow pace, and makes the battles unenjoyable.

The battle system is the least of the game’s disappointments though. At least it rectifies itself. My two biggest gripes with the game are it’s linearity, and the story.

I’m of the disposition that linearity is not necessarily a bad thing to have in a game, depending on what the game is. If this were Halo, for instance, it wouldn’t really be an issue. But if there’s one thing fans of main series Final Fantasy titles expect, it’s a degree of openness within the game. FFXII managed to do a spectacular job of creating a sprawling world for players to run riot in, and that was on the PS2. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation to think that the next game in the series would be at least able to match that, especially with more powerful hardware, and the extra storage capacity afforded by a blu-ray disc.

But for the most part FFXIII eschews an open world, in favour of pushing you down a series of corridors. It doesn’t even try and feign a sense of being part of something larger. If the game didn’t involve battles, you’d almost be able to tie an elastic band around your thumbstick so that it points up, and watch the game complete itself.

What really rubs salt in the wound is that there is a section of the game where the world becomes incredibly open, and if you get involved in the side quests that avail themselves to you during this section, you find yourself enjoying a glut of content and actually doing a bit of exploring. The problem is, that this section is pretty small in terms of both the game proper, and in comparison to other gamess. And if you don’t do the optional content, you soon find yourself going back through the corridors. But nevertheless, this section of the game gives you a glimpse of the Final Fantasy XIII that could have been. And just to make it clear, if you go by that section, the game could have been bloody fantastic.

It’s that failed promise that really builds the disappointment. If the game was entirely linear, it would just be a really badly designed game and I’d think about the whole thing no more. But the game does show that it’s capable of delivering, it just doesn’t deliver enough. It could have been so much better.

The same is the case with the story. It reeks of unmet potential. Although there’s also a serious issue with the pacing. Throughout the game there’s a real sense that Square-Enix have built a rich world that’s just waiting to be sunk into. The foundations of the story are solid, and the world the characters inhabit is thoroughly compelling. The setting is unlike that of any game I’ve played in recent memory. It’s just begging to be cracked open. And you never really get to.

There are moments where it feels like you might, and strangely enough, the majority of those happen during those introductory few hours of the game that I was bemoaning earlier. The story is one of the few elements that section of the game does okay. And I say merely okay, because they’re still not great. But then, that’s usually how stories go, the introduction is there to build you up to something greater, it’s there to get the ball rolling.

But that something greater never comes, the ball stops rolling. And it’s exactly at the moment where the gameplay picks up. For the next 10-20 hours of the game there’s basically no real story development, bar a few bits of exposition. And that’s the greatest disappointment of the whole game. If they’d just kept the ball rolling, and actually added more of a story to the middle section of the game, Square-Enix may have actually had a great product on their hands. Not without it’s flaws, but forgiveable.

And then you get to the end, after several hours of pushing your thumbstick upward. All of a sudden some semblance of a story comes back into play, but it doesn’t really seem to follow from what was just going on. I don’t mean that in the sense that the story isn’t well explained, but rather that the sudden jerk in tempo is abrasive and seems incongruous with how the game has unfolded until then.

Overall the game just fails to deliver on every level. There are hints of genius dotted throughout, glimpses of what could have been, but those glimpses don’t remotely represent what actually is. I still really enjoyed the game, although it seems I’m one of the few that did, but it could have been so much more. Here’s hoping Versus XIII manages to pull the series back to where it belongs.

    • Hunam
    • January 6th, 2011

    Thank god you didn’t play Final Fantasy 14 then. You’d be in tears.

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