Being a massive fan of the Final Fantasy series for many years, ever since FFVII made its debut on the PlayStation, I was expecting great things from Square Enix’s latest addition to the series. As the final months before release closed in I watched FFXIII’s International Trailer over and over in a high state of anticipation, a five minute visual feast set to the soundtrack of ‘My Hands’ by Leona Lewis, the official theme song for the game. Being a veteran gamer the days when I got excited about new games have long since passed. It takes something phenomenal for me to get that tingle and those goose bumps running up and down my arms. The International Trailer did it every time and I was fully convinced that this had the potential to be the best Final Fantasy yet, and therefore the greatest game ever made. Disappointingly the reality was very different.
Describing the storyline of a Final Fantasy game is always a difficult task, something in my youth that always daunted me when I attempted to explain an overall plot to cynical friends. The storyline and its accompanying elements are what have always defined the Final Fantasy series and therefore are a very important aspect. Without wanting to spoil the game for others the basic premise is this: separated into thirteen chapters the story revolves around two opposing worlds, a moon-like planetoid known as Cocoon which houses several million inhabitants within and keeps them protected from the untamed and wild planet of Gran Pulse below. Both worlds are watched over and maintained by huge mechanical beings known as Fal’cie, which are separated respectively into Cocoon Fal’cie and Pulse Fal’cie. Both versions of Fal’cie have the capability to enslave humans to their will, turning them into a l’Cie in order to carry out a specific task known as a Focus. The reward for completing this Focus is eternal slumber in a crystalline form and for those l’Cie that fail becoming a mindless creature known as a Cie’th is the fate that awaits them. Like the Fal’cie, the l’Cie slaves are divided into Cocoon l’Cie and Pulse l’Cie. In the fear and paranoid fueled society of Cocoon the latter form of l’Cie are considered a threat to the very existence of Cocoon. In the opening hours of the game we are introduced to five of the six playable cast; the main protagonist Lightning, the comedic Sahz, the young boy Hope, the overly optimistic Vanille and Snow, who is obsessed with becoming a hero. The staff wielding Fang is introduced in a later chapter.
The game opens promisingly with Lightning and Sahz flung straight into the middle of a Purge orchestrated by Cocoon’s Sanctum government. A Pulse Fal’cie has been discovered in a local village and all citizens in its immediate vicinity are supposedly being forcefully shipped off Cocoon to Gran Pulse under suspicion of contamination. As the story continues it is revealed that there is a darker motive behind the ‘Purge’ and the five playable characters are caught up in the civil uprising that results. Over the course of the first two hours the paths of the five heroes finally converge and as a result all are branded as Pulse l’Cie who all share the same vague Focus, becoming enemies of Cocoon in the process. At first all the information bombarded at you can be daunting to follow but as you get into it you learn to understand the meaning of things like Fal’cie and l’Cie and its various types. Unlike its predecessor, FFXII, FFXIII does not become hard to follow by the continually annoying use of unpronounceable names. If you are having trouble following events the Datalog, in the main menu there is a handy breakdown of the storyline, history and characters.
At first the storyline seems to have a lot of promise, but unfortunately the storyline is possibly XIII’s weakest point, which for a Final Fantasy game is pretty much a disaster. Once the opening reaches its climax it is basically a downhill slide from then on, and as all the characters sink into depression over their fate so do you as a player. There is far too much doom and gloom. Fortunately, it does recover slightly towards the end, but what usually propels Final Fantasy games to excellence fails to do so in this game. By this I mean the characters. What I have come to expect from characters in this series is incredible depth and back story, characters you connect with on such an emotional level it makes Heavy Rain seem like a ‘straight to the bargain-bin’ game. Disappointingly, XIII’s characters are uninteresting, superficial and driven by obviously simple motives. I remember reading somewhere that because of the PS3’s graphical power the character’s facial expressions would reveal more about them than what hours of dialog in previous games used to do. A fair assessment of the PS3 technical capability, but it was a promise that was not fulfilled. To be honest I’d rather have had hours of dialog instead. I think where XIII failed most is the way in which they went about their character development. Unlike other Final Fantasy’s rather than develop the character over the course of the game, shaped in the moment by the situations they found themselves in, XIII chose to use flashbacks. For revealing character motivation that would have been okay, but since those motives were uninteresting and simple anyway it seemed almost pointless. Flashbacks also failed to show character background with any depth since almost all the flashbacks were restricted to the same location on the same day. Even after seventy hours of gameplay I felt very little emotion for any of the characters. What I felt most all the way through the game was disappointment because it did have so much potential to be amazing. Perhaps Final Fantasy Versus XIII can make up for it when it gets released.
Graphically speaking XIII in full HD is virtually faultless. The visuals are breathtakingly beautiful, the character motion and facial expressions have been perfectly captured, the environments are impressive and painstakingly detailed. The only real issue with the visuals is that very often there is far too much action and movement occurring onscreen and it can be very hard to make sense of. It doesn’t help that XIII’s visual style also takes some getting used to.
The Final Fantasy series has always been well known for its soundtrack. Nobuo Uematsu had a distinctive style that made the music memorable and well-loved, but unfortunately without him XIII fails to produce anything worth mentioning. The music is bland and nothing really stands out. The most important part of the soundtrack for Final Fantasy is usually the battle theme, but XIII’s is not compelling and get’s very repetitive, even the boss battles have no memorable theme music. The only redeeming part of the soundtrack for me was in fact the official theme by Leona Lewis. Now I’m usually strictly a rock music kind of guy, but I thought ‘My Hands’ complemented XIII perfectly and was a great song choice. Despite the soundtrack being poor, the voice acting is done well. The only problem there is that the characters are so one-dimensional it doesn’t really add anything more to the game.