Thursday, April 8, 2010
There was a good amount of time there when Final Fantasy XIII was as anticipated as it was mysterious. For years, we survived on 3 or so CG screenshots of Lightning and that same goddamn train trailer. The wait was enticingly painful, and so the game's actual American release was a bit surreal. What added to the oddness, however, was the fact that a great deal of that former excitement had deflated. People were complaining about the corridor-like levels, the absence of towns, and Vanille. Amidst such disconcerting word-of-mouth, I had faith. I told myself, "I'm a fan of the series, I don't completely revile Tetsuya Nomura, and I know I'll like it more than Mass Effect 2." Well, now I've played it for 10 hours or so, and my faith is a little bit shaken. Yes, it's extremely linear, and yes, every time Vanille opens her mouth I want summon Bahamut and Megaflare her. But, as much as I hate her (and I really do), Vanille isn't quite the problem. She's part of a bigger problem with the game though, which is the dialogue and characters. Except for Sazh, who I genuinely like, most of the characters are kind of shitty. At first I thought Lightning was cool because she's a hardass with a gunblade, but then she started spouting some cringe-worthy lines and her luster faded. Snow was designed to be a douche and as such is a complete success. I actually kind of like Hope but he's also really really lame: he attacks with boomerangs and wears a scarf and orange pancho thing. Fang isn't in my party yet but she doesn't seem as cool as she thinks she is. I don't particularly like Tetsuya Nomura, but sometimes his designs are memorable and charming. FFXIII's characters exude nothing but J-Pop and gaudy excess. Add to that some okay but occasionally grating voice acting, and you have a letdown in one of the series' key departments: the characters (again, Sazh is exempt from this criticism). This is a big problem to be sure, but it's not the big problem. That one is a little harder to explain. Part of it actually has to do with an aspect that normally receives nothing but praise: the graphics. You see, in Final Fantasy XIII, the graphics are almost ridiculously good. However, they're good only for the sake of being good; to me at least, they seem to serve no other purpose. Graphics, I believe, only really matter when they work to benefit another more important aspect, such as doing justice to great art direction, allowing more possibilities in the gameplay, or enhancing player immersion. The graphics in FFXIII, shiny as they are, do none of these things. The art direction is a huge step backwards from FFXII's sophisticated Mediterranean aesthetic, looking like a more futuristic Spira, but without the cohesiveness or novelty. The gameplay outside of combat is barely more evolved than that found in the Playstation iterations, and all the visuals do is make the corridors look prettier. There are details everywhere, but they don't matter. This is my big problem with the game. It's beautiful, it's HD, it boasts a really fun and engaging Paradigm-based battle system, addictive levelling up and weapon upgrading, it's full of melodrama and epic world-shattering events... but I don't really care. I don't like the characters so I can't be drawn into the plot. It's got messy art direction and restrictive level design so I can't get absorbed in the world. There's little charm, the only humor that's there is uncomfortable and vaguely perverse, and I don't get all teary when Snow shouts "Serah!" for the eight-hundredth time. Don't get me wrong; this is kind of just a rant and the game really is good, but something important is missing. I've come to realize that those cynical assholes who say that the RPG genre is facing an existential crisis aren't wrong. For all the 1080p displays of Square-Enix's special effects trying to visualize it, the magic isn't quite there.