Thirteen ... Not many game series reach this bad luck number. At least they don't admit it, instead they try to hide it away with fancy under-titles. That Final Fantasy has survived this long can partly be explained by the high quality of the games, but also by the fact that Square Enix never has settled for tried and tested. Each time a new game has been released, it has seen massive changes to the formula.
From simplistic to complex RPG dialogue systems and complex skill upgrades, from a huge range of characters to a focused story with a few playable characters, from steampunk fantasy to modern science fantasy, from a gigantic ultra-linear road movie to an online role-playing game. Because of the constant changes to the series it comes as no surprise that Final Fantasy XIII is also something completely new.
This time the innovation mainly consists of a basic idea: to strip away as much as possible in order to create an as quick, smooth and easily played role-playing game as we possibly can. Mass Effect 2, which also is very action-focused, feels infinitely complex in comparison. The story is linear, character development is linear and the fighting is fast and smooth. There are no cities in the normal sense of the word, not a wide selection of mini-games or secrets to hunt for. You buy new stuff through a kind of web shop at the save points, and if you survive a hectic battle you are always fully charged and ready for the next. It feels strange and unexpected after the super-detailed Final Fantasy XII, to say the least.
The game revolves around a bunch of colorful characters, as it should be. Lightning can probably be seen as the main character, but all of them get the opportunity to stand in the spotlight at some point during the story. They're all interesting once you got to know them, even the two teenagers Vanille and Hope (the former being an unstoppable pep-machine while the latter is extremely depressed and emotional). I also like the devoted hero Snow and the very sympathetic Sazh.
The problem is that I recognize all of them from the previous games in the series. Lightning is more or less Cloud plus Squall plus a pair of breasts, the quiet soldier who slowly thaws in her relationship with the others. Snow is Seifers' motivation (and wardrobe) mixed with Zidane's everything-is-possible attitude. Sazh is Barret and Cid, with a Chocobo hidden in his afro. Their styles have been changed, but you're not fooling me.
The fighting system is built from the ground up to look as much as the movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children as humanly possible. You no longer have to load up a Firaga or jump forward to make a single sword attack. No, we're not talking about long combinations and lots of stuff happening at once. Ideally, someone or something will also jump high into the air at some point. Hopefully while being on fire. Prior to each "move", you select a number of attacks and then which enemy you're aming for. If you can't be bothered to make these choices, the whole procedure can be automated for you.
To get any kind of overview of all this chaos, you only control a single character. You can give the other two general orders according to predetermined roles. For example you can pick on to get the attention of the enemies, while another one lowers their defenses. Or one can heal you while the other one helps you build combinations. You can change these roles at any time, something that you often need to do.
The whole idea is to do as long combinations as you can. If you get a sufficient number of attacks in the enemy goes into a so-called Shatter-mode, which means that they take a lot more damage and allow you to finish the fight within a reasonable amount of time. If you pull it off you get high points and get to run twenty meters down a corridor before it's time for another battle. If you fail you can look forward to a longer fight, defensively trying to get shots at the enemy and having the whole fight end with a degrading grade for your efforts.
Final Fantasy XII had a combat system deeply inspired by MMOs in general but also inspired by Bioware's classic Baldur's Gate II. In it, you had the options to both set strategies outside of fights and the possibility to adjust those strategies once combat had started. Final Fantasy XIII has rid itself of all that, instead opting for an "all or nothing"-system where you constantly have to exploit enemy weaknesses and switch tactics, similar to Shin Megami Tensai: Persona 4. It is also just as unforgivingly, and something unfairly, difficult as in Atlus' RPG masterpiece. What Final Fantasy XIII lacks though is a sense of control.
Way too often I run into a battle that is over in ten seconds, since the enemy decided to go for a couple of concentrated attacks on the main character. Fortunately, it's never far between save points. But when I finally get back to the fight and walk away victorious it never feels like it was because I used a better set of tactics, instead it feels as if though the enemy just decided to not use its most dangerous attack or that my partner just happened to synchronized his or her attacks with mine a little bit better. Although the whole genre is based on numbers and random values, this kind of randomness is the last thing I want to experience in a RPG. And since I can't control what happens in such detail as I could in Final Fantasy XII, Baldur's Gate or Persona, the difficulty becomes a big minus.
I mentioned corridors earlier. The game is extremely linear, even more linear than Final Fantasy X. Apart from the occasional side quests and the opportunity to go monster hunting towards the end of the game, just like in the tenth installment of the series, Final Fantasy XIII is more or less a single corridor from start to finish. The enemies can be seen while you run around, just like in Final Fantasy XII, but since the environments are often so small it's not like you get the option to dodge them very often. This linearity is hidden by the fact that you get to follow different team configurations throughout the story and the sense of wanting to know what happens next every time you are forced to change characters.
At least the corridors look great. Sometimes they even look incredible. With the exception of some typically unimaginative rocky environments, Final Fantasy XIII is a breathtaking journey through rugged mountains, dark forests and high-tech fantasy. All the pre-rendered movies are magnificent, but also dialogues and sequences made in the actual game engine are of the highest quality. Unfortunately, the 360 version doesn't look as nearly as good as the one on the Playstation 3, probably because Square Enix had to compress the game quite a bit to fit it on three DVDs.
Faces and animations are just as impressive, but I don't understand why Square haven't spent as much time on relatively important body parts such as arms or hands. Lightning's super-detailed face and stylishly animated hair sit a bit odd on her Playstation 2-like shoulders. Extremely weird.
In general, the animation brings the narrative to life and it's obvious that parts of the team that worked on Final Fantasy VIII and X are at work here too. The kinda sweet romance and a gripping tale of a dramatic destiny created a backdrop that is slowly woven into the main story arch through flashbacks, without clashing with the running through mountain vistas and the fighting with monsters. I always look forward to the next beautiful story sequence and Square have done an amazing job with the voice acting and lip syncing. Of course there are times when I would like to do nothing else than kill Vanille with a dull spoon, but at least she's believable most of the time. Even Snow's constant heroic babble and tender scenes work most of the time.
The music is written by Masashi Hamauzu, who previously wrote the music for Final Fantasy X and Dirge of Cerberus - hardly the highlights of the series. After the wonderful soundtrack of Final Fantasy XII, which had a perfect amount of nostalgia in it, this feels pretty dull. The only music that I can't get out of my head is the combat music, but that's probably because it's played so often.
It is mostly the fantastic characters, the action-packed fighting and the background story that make me want to keep playing. The story itself is quite predictable and not very interesting. High production values don't really compensate for the lack of real content and Final Fantasy XIII does become a bit monotonous after a while. The way you upgrade your characters and their equipment is nothing except a cumbersome way too hide away the fact that you don't really have many options to choose from.
After Final Fantasy XII (and Crisis Core, for that matter), I thought Square Enix had a revolution on their hands. That they had understood that which no other Japanese RPG studio had, that all their future games would be amazing. Instead they took a step backwards and one to the side at the same time. Final Fantasy XIII is populistic, incredibly good looking and very accessible. But I would have hoped that the inspiration would have come from Square's own backlog of great games instead of looking at Star Ocean's and the Tales of-series' action RPGs. No, a strong seven will have to be enough.