1 hour and 27 minutes into Xenoblade…

…and it’s already the best RPG of this console generation.  My God.

Advertisements

List Reflection: Batman: Arkham Asylum Edition

So, Asylum placed at #11.  I’m just not ready to say it’s better than Mass Effect and let it hang out in the top ten.  That said, I’m feeling like there was a delta between ten and eleven…Dynasty Warriors is now at #12…but I can see tons of games going above it. Batman fits nicely in there, not as a threat to the top games but as a middle tier experience.  Also, I’ve got twenty games in my list!  Whoa.

Next Review: Crimson Shroud

333ijw8
—————————————————————————————————————————————
(XENOGEARS)Tough one.  My placement of Xenogears at #3 reshapes the top five a little bit.  It’s kind of telling, I suppose, that the Two and Three spots are going to games with a lot of developer crossover…in particular the composer Yasunori Mitsuda.  Sometimes I even think of Chrono Cross as a refined Xenogears type of game.  A ‘what if’.  Chrono Cross suffered from no budget or time constraints, no creative shackles…things that some people think destroyed Xenogears.

For the people who feel the same as me, though, Xenogears is a work of art.  As beautiful (if unfinished) as the painting of Sophia herself.  There is a sadness in me when I reflect on Xenogears and not because of these constraints or lost potential, but because the game itself has an almost sorrowful undertone to it.  The ‘happy’ ending does little to lighten the overall mood of a game with themes as dark as Xenogears’.  Lost love, envy.  Death, torture and murder.  Corruption in the government and in the people.  War.

All said and done, Xenogears is amazing and deserves a high place on my list as well as a spot in video game immortality.

I’ve said things like this before that seem to end up changing but I’m fairly certain that the top three might be locked in.  Maybe even the top five.

Now Playing: Resident Evil 2
Just Finished: Mass Effect 3, Resident Evil
Next Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Xenogears


Xenogears came to me unexpectedly when my gaming experiences weren’t nearly as robust as they needed to be.  RPGs were still a relatively new thing to me at the time and I was only just starting to understand what they were all about.  Looking back on it now, Xenogears is probably the last thing that I ever should’ve considered playing.  I seek out this type of alternative experience now but back then I was just looking for the closest thing to what I already knew, Final Fantasy.  What a blessing in disguise.

Truthfully, I never would’ve found it at all if it wasn’t for big Mike on the bus home from eighth grade.  One day he started poppin’ off about some crazy RPG he just had finished called “Zenno-gears”.  Other than the name and a stubborn proclamation that Zennogears was easily the Best RPG Ever Made he wasn’t providing a lot of meaty details.  Intrigued upon his attempt to lend me the game I optimistically obliged…which ended up as maybe the best decision ever.

I was immediately struck by the cool box.

Remember the old days of “Non Final Fantasy Squaresoft RPGs Made By Non Final Fantasy Designers That Don’t Get Hardly Enough Credit”?  They used to be pretty damn good.  Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross…things of that nature.  While you could always depend on Final Fantasy to provide a solid experience, these other games were less chained to convention.  Back then some serious designers took part in what could be described as obscure projects that were really anything but.  When you’re SquareSoft, though,  and you’ve already got your breadwinner it isn’t necessary to market anything else you’re doing.  We still get awkward off brand Square Enix RPGs (Drakengard, Nier) but they aren’t quite what they used to be during those Golden Years.

Xenogears was a product of this PS1 role playing renaissance.  Released in 1998 and riding the heels of the enormously successful Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Takahashi’s religiously saturated RPG was not exactly center stage in the popular sphere.  People found it, of course, like my friend on the bus did.  But I wouldn’t say that it was even near the forefront of an already massive catalog of PlayStation RPGs.  The last thing I want to do when I talk about this game is stubbornly proclaim that Xenogears should’ve been a huge hit, or even that a few more people had played it.  The game is just genuinely not made for the general gaming public.  Time to sound like an elitist asshole!  A lot of people don’t have the capacity to appreciate Xenogears.  Yeah, I don’t go there often but there’s no better way to phrase it.

Takahashi and crew were not making a Final Fantasy.  This simple fact allowed these developers to bend the boundaries of convention a bit.  It provided them an arena to express their creativity more freely, and it shows.  The battle system was innovative and complex.  The story was brutally mature in concept, not only in its imagery but in its references and emotional themes as well.  Both the music and art were beyond brilliant and the character sprites rendered over the fully 3d world were beautiful.  You know, there was a lot going on in this obscure RPG from 1998 that I would have loved to see again at some point but non of it really seemed to stick with anyone other than its fans.

|Xenogears’ Battle System|
I can honestly say that Xenogears’ battle system has remained pretty damn unique.  Nothing before it and certainly nothing that followed seemed to even acknowledge that someone had created a turn-based system in an RPG that was actually fun.  Not only were you expected to understand classic RPG mechanics to succeed but you had to wrap your brain around a borderline Street Fighter-esque button combo input.  God forbid one of those wacky JRPGs incorporate some sort of interaction for once.  While the standbys of ‘Magic’ (Arcane or Ether) and ‘Defend’ were ever present the ‘Attack’ option was where the real innovation came through.

The sprite animations are also really fluid and well done.

In essence Xenogears presented a system that recognized a series of button presses as combos that would eventually lead your character to perform a finishing move.  X, Square and Triangle were all assigned basic (but different) attacks that when pressed in certain orders would allow you to perform a special deathblow attack.  While, for example, seven triangles in a row wouldn’t perform a combo you’d still hit the enemy seven times.  Fun, but I always thought the real beauty of the system was actually learning the deathblows.

If you happened to perform a triangle, triangle, X enough times (provided that’s a recognized combo) your character learned that combination and from that point on performs a specific deathblow every time you enter it.  Once a deathblow for a combination is learned you can use it endlessly or move onto spamming the next unlearned combination.  What ends up happening is that you spend most of your random battles trying to learn new deathblows while using the ones you already have on bosses and/or tough fights.  This system performs miracles in terms of making the grind less boring and creating a level of immersion that is damn near impossible with most other RPGs.  It was completely unprecedented for a player to feel like they had that much control over their party member actions or development, even if it was just a fancy elaboration on a simple theme.

|The Story|
Perhaps right now you feel that what I just tried (in vain) to explain is a little complex.  It is…and I’ve found it extremely demoralizing trying to puzzle out even the simplest pieces of this madness for mass consumption.  To my sorrow I should also do my best to explain Xenogears’ STORY in a WAY THAT MAKES SENSE, maybe to a reader who HAS NEVER HEARD OF OR PLAYED THIS GAME.  Luckily, if you break down all of the complicated twists and turns you’ll find that behind all of the perceived insanity is a simple tale of love, or rather, lost love.  It’s a tragic narrative that boils down to a single moment when two men reacted differently to losing the same woman.

Then it gets complicated…Krelian and Lacan begin to weave a history for Fei and company when they react to the tragic sacrifice Sophia makes in order to save many lives during a war, including Lacan’s.  His bitterness towards himself for being too weak save her (or himself) drove him nearly mad and he adopted the persona of Grahf, the Seeker of Power.  He then sought to destroy God himself and the two entities involved in the conflict that took his true love’s life.  Fei’s encounters with Grahf slowly unfurl the twisted tale of that singular tragic event while simultaneously revealing pieces of Fei’s past in the process.  How these two characters relate in the end is absurd, intense and beautiful.

As interesting and deep a character as I’ve ever seen.

Krelian on the other hand, a dear friend of Sophia, took the loss differently.  Devastated by her sacrifice, Krelian declared that were there truly a God watching over them Sophia would never have been put in a position to sacrifice herself.  That someone as kind and good as her would be protected.  From that moment on Krelian set out to fill the vacancy in heaven he knew existed, to create God with his own hands.  Sadly, ‘creating God’ required vile acts that split Krelian’s soul asunder.  What remains of this extremely complex character by the climax of our story is difficult to describe.

On top of that there are wonderful character elaborations here that most game creators don’t even have the capacity or nuance to understand.  For instance, Lacan was a painter whose feelings grew for Sophia while he worked on her portrait.  As time went on and the painting neared completion he slowed down fearing the day he would complete it, that sad day he would no longer be able to spend hours examining her beauty and relaying it to canvas.  He ends up not actually finishing because the war comes and steals her away…an even worse fate.

This is about as simple as it gets with Xenogears, because almost everything else is layered upon that concept…that relationship between these characters.  I’ve found that my interpretation of the story is at its most powerful when I begin to relate every event to that core idea.  Yeah there’s crazy shit about religion, lost civilizations, giant robots, Id (most ridiculous and amazing character storyline ever), reincarnation even…but the entire game is anchored by the tragedy of Sophia’s sacrifice and the destruction it wrought on two important characters.  And it is powerful.  When you can finally get to a place with Xenogears where you understand all of the moving parts the depth of the themes really start to shine brilliantly.  In fact, it’s only through two complete playthroughs and a shit ton of reading Perfect Works translations that I can even give a base account of what the hell is even going on.

Xenogears’ story requires an investment and dedication.  Things are not explained to you in any sort of digestible manner, you’re expected to put the time in.  Were the personal rewards not as robust as they are for doing so it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.  But it is.  Never have I encountered in any medium a saga so affecting, so worth it.  As devoted as I am to my Shepard and the reaper invasion or as nostalgic as I am about the Final Fantasy series, none of them carry nearly as much weight or hit me as hard as Xenogears does.  It’s both emotionally and physically devastating to play the whole way through but in the end you feel as though you’ve done more than just played a simple video game.  This is also the reason I find myself slow to recommend Xenogears to any but the most sincere and understanding people.

And the people that do find the courage to commit to this game?  They discover a story filled with maturity that could really only resonate with an adult, a person who has actually experienced shit in their life.  I think Xenogears is the only video game I have ever seen that actually depicts the serious love interests laying in a bed naked having just slept together (and not in that very BioWare overt fan service way).  Or that an extremely manipulative relationship between two other characters would take them to the same place with a much different tone.  Silly, that a game with a love story might actually relay that intensely personal ‘thing’ that every single human being on the face of the earth can identify with: physical attraction, sexual intimacy and taking a relationship to the next level.  I would call it ballsy in any other game but these sequences fit the tone perfectly, implemented in a way not to shock the player (but it is kind of shocking anyway), but to make the characters and situation seem all the more realistic or identifiable.

|The Music|
Yasunori Mitsuda is Xenogears’ composer and it is some of the finest work I’ve ever heard.  In fact, I would have a hard time describing Xenogears as ‘realistic’ and ‘identifiable’ were it not for its soundtrack.  If only songs like these were playing somewhere in the distance in our real lives when epic things happened.  Finding anything that compares to this OST is really hard for me, and I’ve tried.  It’s true that I believe Chrono Cross to have the best music in video games and I will stand by that statement, but Xenogears is special.  I’m hesitant to even list it by comparison because it’s difficult for me to qualify just exactly what it does.  There are honest to god moments in my daily life where a song like “The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen” will play on random and I will stop what I’m doing because I have to concentrate on not shedding tears in front of my computer screen.  There is a beauty in this soundtrack that very few other things in this world have achieved, a very pure and emotional sentiment that makes you feel as though Mitsuda himself was moved during its creation.

The entire score is extremely heavy, or powerful.  It’s a tone that compliments Xenogears perfectly, a game that is itself very serious and thought provoking.  Tracks like “The One who is Torn Apart” (Id’s theme) express something through subtlety that is hard to find anywhere but here, and it’s something I struggle to describe…so I won’t waste my time.

These songs are two examples from a score that honestly doesn’t have a sour track in it.  While you may find the quantity to be somewhat lacking considering the size of the game, each song has an important quality that does nothing but elevate Xenogears every moment a tune can be heard.

I should be honest, this has been my most difficult game review to write on this blog.  Xenogears really means a lot to me, not only for the way it introduced me to the idea of mature themes in an entertainment medium before I had really developed a taste for it, but kinda just for being what it is.  Not even Takahashi’s own works after Xenogears come anywhere near it.  Every time I play the game I learn something new and my adoration grows, the experience and memory becomes more potent.  This, to me, is the definition of a masterpiece.  A vision.  Something that words simply just cannot describe.  Truly one of the best games ever made…Mike was right, even if he couldn’t tell me why.

Reading back over this I’ve found, not surprisingly, that I haven’t written much at all about the game itself.  Usually when I do these things it’s more of a stream of consciousness effort than a structured outline of points.  I knew Xenogears was going to put me in a weird place for that reason.  When I think about the game the things that come to mind aren’t the menus or the pacing…I don’t even really consider the wonky delivery of the narrative.  Playing this game isn’t always fun, it’s just not.  There are obvious imperfections, I’m not trying to hide that.  In fact, many aspects of this game could be called less than average.  The gear battling is not nearly as robust, fun or interesting as the regular.  The second disc is enough to make a gamer who’s used to Final Fantasy polish throw his copy out the window.  All I have to do, though, to remind myself that this game is special is remember how hard I fought back the tears when I heard the music box version of “Small Two of Pieces” play in Citan’s backyard hut near the beginning of the game.

Or think of the phrase Fei’s Kim.

Or ponder the tragedy that is Ramsus.

Or to know that I’ve experienced something not meant to simply sell the most copies or spawn the most sequels.  That I walked down a path that was someone’s vision and not just a yearly corporate creation advertised in GameStop’s window.  Not only is Xenogears one of a kind, it very well could be described as the last of it.


Click here to see where Xenogears placed in my Master List!

The Last Story

I don’t know exactly what to think about Mistwalker’s The Last Story.  Despite having “The Gooch” running the show, they just don’t seem to have made anything, like, super awesome yet.  Blue Dragon was interesting (but not quite interesting enough for me to finish it) and Lost Odyssey, to me, only had flashes of brilliance.  Considering Sakaguchi hasn’t really directed anything since about Final Fantasy V, maybe this can be his return to prominence.  Or not, who knows!

All things considered, I will purchase this game when it releases here and not necessarily because I expect it to even be good.

Other reasons include:
1.  I want to support localization of any and everything.  The more stuff we get here the better, especially RPGs.
2.  My Wii needs some love and Nintendo needs to show the fans that they’re willing to give us what we want.
3.  There’s a soft spot in my heart for old Gooch and Uematsu.  Their works more or less shaped my early gaming years and I’m willing to support/follow them through even mediocre games.
4.  THE ART

Special mention to that fucking crazy guy that looks like Ganondorf.  I mean…I haven’t been following this game that closely because there seemed to be only a slight chance that it was coming here but now I’m FUCKING JAKKKKKKKKKED.

So yeah, pretty cool shit.  Big ups to Nintendo for at the very least pretending to care about the fans.

New game get!

Today I added a new game to my collection: Dissidia 012 [Duodecim] Final Fantasy.  Got it from this weird place, amazon.com…don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it.  I’ve also been kicking around the idea of buying some other games but haven’t decided just yet if they’re worth a shot.  Let me know what you think about each or any of these!

Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy: Despite the silly name and premise I’ve been anticipating this game for a while now.  If you read my review on the original Dissidia you know that I actually liked it which means I’m actually excited to play the sequel.  Is this a guilty pleasure thing?  Do other people like this game?  I just don’t know if it’s okay to think that it’s pretty awesome.

Resonance of Fate: I’ve had my eye on this weird tri-Ace game for a little bit too.  After watching the gametrailers video review I’m even more intrigued.  Outfits you can actually change?  Check.  Seemingly brutal difficulty?  Check.  Obscure design elements?  Damn, why I drawn to this shit?  I will probably buy this game if I can find it somewhere cheap enough to not feel totally disappointed if it sucks.

Derp?

Radiant Historia: The one thing that initially drew me to this DS game was that some people from Radiata Stories worked on it.  Then there’s the premise of being able to go to certain points in time and change history, thus the name.  The soundtrack is done by Yoko Shimomura, the art is awesome and it’s developed by Atlus.  Might even been a no-brainer.

I know art doesn't always say much about what to expect from a game but it doesnt hurt when it's gorgeous.

Xenoblade Chronicles:  If you haven’t heard, yes this game is finally coming to America.  Need I say more?

Oh my Christ yes.

Expect to hear at least something about any or all of these in the future, but for now the only one that gets added to the Game Index is Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy.

List Reflection: Final Fantasy XIII Edition

It was pretty hard for me to write about Final Fantasy XIII.  My dislike for the game is accurately depicted by its placing pretty low in my list.

The hard reality that I think I might be running into here is that Square Enix just doesn’t make stuff I like anymore.  And why is that?  Many if not all of my favorite games come from this developer, or rather the long lost SquareSoft that once was.  Is it the exodus of my favorite developers?  Probably.  XIII most definitely has a feel that is entirely new and not in the sense that “new” can sometimes mean “good”.  Much of what once made Final Fantasy great wasn’t evolved or progressed but mostly ignored or made unrecognizable.

Remember in, like, every single FF ever you could find a room somewhere near the beginning of the game where a bunch of tutorial NPCs just sat around waiting to teach you every basic thing you’d need to know to succeed in the coming adventure?  You could argue that this idea, much like world maps, is an artifact of an earlier time that’s no longer necessary.  I would disagree.  I think something like that is exactly what Final Fantasy XIII needs.  All I wanted was someone to just sit down and explain to me the inner workings of every weird system in this game.  Instead, I found myself seeking answers on FAQs or from people I’d known who might’ve played the game…things of that nature.  Are we past a point in video games where tutorials are worthwhile?  Was this brought on by the ease of internet use?  I certainly wouldn’t have been insulted had there been some room in some town (oops) somewhere where I could chat up some wise NPCs or even get into a tutorial battle of some kind.  They did a half-assed job explaining things and that left me frequently frustrated, attempting to discover the quirks, nuances and subtleties of almost everything in the game.

Although it’s not like explanations of any kind would’ve made me feel better about it all.  There’s no reasoning or tutorial in the world that can excuse all of Final Fantasy XIII’s shortcomings, it would’ve just been slightly less agonizing to get through.

As far as I’m concerned the only game currently worse on my list is DOAX2 and that’s really only because it’s not much of a game at all.  I’d also like to take a second here to say on a greater scale that FFXIII is easily the worst Final Fantasy game in the series.  Yes, X-2 is better…much better.

Now Playing: Final Fantasy VI, Yakuza
Just Finished: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Next Review: Xenogears

Final Fantasy XIII

Since I will probably spend at least some time in this review comparing Final Fantasy XIII to its predecessors I think it’s only fair to give a short account of my history with the series.  While it’s not completely necessary to scrutinize it based on what the previous games have done as they commonly have different development teams, I do feel strongly that there is a rich history there that cannot be ignored.

Final Fantasy VII was not only my first foray into SquareSoft’s popular RPG franchise… it was my first RPG.  I know how dangerous that statement can be for some people to read.  Worry not, I hardly think Final Fantasy VII is the best RPG ever.  As with all firsts, though, the game had (and still has) an effect on me.  Besides starting an obsessive new interest by introducing me to my first JRPG Final Fantasy VII was a breath of fresh air to a maturing young man that had only seen the likes of Mario and Mega Man.  The darker world, adult themes and epic life-threatening peril that Cloud Strife and his party mates faced was something completely new.  In retrospect Final Fantasy VII was my Japanese culture gateway drug.  Never before had I seen so much spikey hair, disproportionate women and crazy ass giant swords.

What began as a random encounter with a cool looking game coupled with a recommendation from a friend became a serious interest in anime, manga, and more of that same brand of RPG.  Inevitably when I found that I rather enjoyed all of it I wandered back into the Final Fantasy realm for more.  VIII was a stark departure from VII… but I beat it anyway.  IX was an amazing experience that I hardly appreciated at the time… what I’m trying to say is I’ve played and beaten damn near all of them.  In fact I’ve conquered all but one, Final Fantasy VI.  I Don’t think that alone is all that impressive, but it’s important to me and will continue to influence my opinions and reviews for Final Fantasy games as well as any other RPGs.

Alas, things have changed lately and it’s been getting harder to get jacked about a Final Fantasy release.  Series creator and iconic game developer Hironobu Sakaguchi handed Square his resignation papers (aka they handed him termination papers) long ago and apparently inspired many of the other classic FF designers to do the same.  Nobuo Uematsu no longer lends his musical talents to the series, for instance.  The RPG powerhouse known for polish and innovation merged with the RPG powerhouse known for Dragon Quest and everything went bonkers.  B-Team players and new-blood employees now handle arguably the most iconic RPG franchise in the world.  Somewhere in the very back corner of my heart I’d like to just say that it’s not really that big of a deal, that the brand is strong enough to carry on.  Unfortunately for a guy like me, someone who has seen his passion for RPGs slowly develop and mature over time, Final Fantasy XIII just doesn’t have it.

So here we are.  I don’t like Final Fantasy XIII and I’m ready and equipped to give an in-depth explanation as to exactly what it is that has gone missing.  This game will probably get a more thorough review for as low as it’s going to score than any other game on my list and that’s due not only to the level of disappointment I feel but because of my love for the franchise as a whole.  I’m a reasonable enough person to understand that nostalgia manifests sometimes as reality obscuring goggles and that first appearances are misleading, so I won’t sit here and repeatedly proclaim that Final Fantasy XIII DOESN’T STACK UP TO THE SERIES or get really worked up that the villain isn’t silver-haired.  The truth is, FFXIII just isn’t that good of a game or an RPG.  It’s only because of my respect for the brand that I even made it to the credits.

I want to structure this review by creating categories that I personally feel are the most important for an RPG to excel in so that I can be very clear about exactly where I think Final Fantasy XIII fails.  To keep it interesting I’ll also point out an example for comparison from somewhere in the series where that category has stuck out.  Here they are:

Story presentation/Narrative/Character development
Character and World Design
Music
Battle/Character Growth systems

Story Presentation – Narrative – Character Development
There’s a reason that this category is first and that’s because if there’s one thing I’ve learned that RPGs can do better than any other genre or medium it’s tell a story.  It’s pretty common for me to get part way through a game and quit because I just don’t give a shit about what’s happening.  Whether be uninteresting or thoughtless characters, boring cutscenes or bad writing… I won’t hesitate to drop out of a game and never look back.  Eternal Sonata is a great example with its colorful world, interesting battle system and top-notch graphics.  I couldn’t get more than ten hours into it because literally nothing about the story or characters were even remotely interesting.  Quite the opposite is a game like Xenogears, one of my favorites.  The dialogue is long (and sometimes arduous) but wildly interesting.  The characters are obvious cliches but have depth.  The translation can leave you baffled at times but the strength of the narrative overshadows it.  This may be a moot point for a lot of folks but for me it’s the make-or-break element.

The Eidolons come to each character in their biggest time of need.

Unfortunately for Final Fantasy XIII it’s more like ‘break’.  The story in this game is downright horrendous.  In fact, it’s just the template for Final Fantasy X done worse.  You may argue that one of the foundational themes of the entire Final Fantasy series is this government/technology vs. nature, so that rehashing it here isn’t a sin.  You Are Wrong.

Final Fantasy XIII goes out of its way to bludgeon you over the head repeatedly with imagery that doesn’t just suggest this common theme, but is LITERALLY depicting it over and over.  A wild wooded area that has mechanical trees and leavesA dangerous ‘natural’ planet (considered the enemy by the general populace of this game) that our characters’ technologically advanced home is a moon to.  The party characters you meet from said planet are tribal’ish looking while the other half of the party is slick, neon colored and full of advanced weaponry.  If I wanted to have this sort of commentary shoved in my face I’d go back to high school sociology class.  Yes, I get that the people on the planet are not actually wild savages and the ‘superior’ people are anything but.  The fact that Final Fantasy XIII touches on these extremely tired themes yet again is abusive enough, but to have the entire plot of the game revolve around it?

And I use the term “plot” loosely here because there is enough familiar territory here to anyone who’s held a controller in their hand to predict almost every big storyline moment.  The ‘gods’ who rule both worlds are not actually benevolent, BUT MALICIOUS BEINGS? WHHAAATTT?  Our party members are unwilling but destined heroes who must potentially give their lives to destroy said gods.  No way!  Someone will have to sacrifice their life to BECOME A MONSTER STRONG ENOUGH TO BEAT THE GOD MONSTER…SOUND FUCKING FAMILIAR? Maybe this character is someone who has done this before unsuccessfully! Barf.

I’m willing to accept a certain amount of these tropes because let’s face it, the JRPG genre is stale as fuck.  But to be subjected to a manipulated copy paste from the same series two games ago?  Not acceptable.  Whelp, might as well toss in borderline amateur voice acting from half of the cast, boring character and world design (colorful neon shit might be bright and stuff, but that doesn’t make it interesting) and lack of significant character depth

Good Final Fantasy series example: IX
The ninth game in the series proved without a shadow of a doubt that you can actually rehash or reuse concepts, make them better and it can be awesome.  Final Fantasy IX is well known to be a historical document on the workings of the franchise so there’s no excuse that XIII can’t figure out how to improve or remix simple ideas.  Every single character in FFIX is the the most obvious cliche: a princess who doesn’t want to be so she runs away, a stout knight who knows only duty, a young and energetic thief who doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s going…the list goes on.  What they did so beautifully in IX was give each of these characters a nonstandard quirk.  Zidane loves to hit on women and Vivi finds out at a certain point that his body may just stop working at any moment, providing him with an existential crisis that ends up as one of the most powerful storylines for a character in the series.

The overall plot itself is the same as always:  The planet faces an unknown and pending doom that our characters end up having to stop.  What IX has that XIII doesn’t in this regard is a face for the chaos.  XIII’s baddies are gods, ones that you meet only a handful of times in the game.  Other than that you battle against the government, monsters and opposing personalities.  And I’m not saying that every game needs to have a definitive ‘final boss’ but it’d be nice to be able to identify the enemy somehow.  Kuja is the manifestation of this idea.  He himself is not the ultimate evil here, but a character within the plot and effects it in ways that not one single person or being in FFXIII does.

———-

Character and World Design
Art direction in video games is really important to me.  I don’t think the general audience gives enough credit to the way an artist can shape the feeling of the game they’re playing.  It’s because of this belief that I not only follow certain directors and producers but also artists.  People like Akihiko Yoshida (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII) and Kunihiko Tanaka (Xenogears/Saga I) are reasons for me to play a game that I might not otherwise be paying much attention to.  Which brings me to the start of my point for Final Fantasy XIII’s art direction.  Tetsuya Nomura is the character designer and that sucks.  This fucking guy has his hands in every Square Enix property since about 2001 and it pisses me off.

Nothing about his designs resonate with me in any way.  To me, his best work was Final Fantasy VII and it has steadily declined since.  I mean… do you really want to make me post a picture of Tidus again?  His particular brand or interpretation of popular teenage style has me shaking my head almost every time I see something new.  Hoodies, excessive belts and zippers just don’t have a place in the Final Fantasy world.  That is of course an opinion, but I didn’t particularly miss all that nonsense in FFXII.

The only thing that I can really get behind in terms of FFXIII’s design is that a couple of the female characters are hot (see first four pictures).  Beyond that the males are just downright stupid looking (see last three pictures) with stupid names and stupid backstories.  My favorite character would have to be Sazh but even his design was stupid.

Oh ya know, just bein' Sazh.

Again I must say that many of the sensibilities apparent in Final Fantasy XIII are in fact just taken from Final Fantasy X and altered slightly.  I could almost see XIII being a spiritual sequel to X in many ways.  Truth is, there seems to be a clear trend that the last three games in this series has been following, not including XII.

One of the things I’ve watched happen that I legitimately HATE is the slow but steady loss of a world map.  I know, I know…  argue all you want that world maps are a relic of the past but I just can’t accept that we’re all okay with not being able to run from town to town (here’s my obligatory mention of FFXIII having no towns, and yes it is incredibly stupid).  In Final Fantasy X the powers that be threw our beloved world map right out the window in favor of a point and click system.  You still had an airship and areas still connected to each other via roads you could travel sometimes… okay, I can stomach that.  Instead of evolving this concept into something even more workable, FFXIII just decided to do away with traveling altogether.

Instead of flying from point to point our characters are subjected to ridiculously long “hallways” of areas that take you from point A to B without any other path, hallways that also double as dungeons.  No going backwards, no revisiting areas, no fucking exploration of ANY KIND WHATSOEVER.  And that would be cool if I was playing an action game that didn’t require grinding for levels or something, but I’m not…I’m playing an RPG from SQUARE FUCKING ENIX in the FINAL FANTASY SERIES.  Which even then would be okay if they implemented some sort of battle system that didn’t require complicated leveling and mountains of experience points, but they didn’t.  You still are required to grind it out and get your characters leveled to points where they have good enough abilities to best the bosses.

Because of these design choices the world itself feels less like a living breathing thing and more of a series of VR missions.  I mean, hey, that lush forest is actually pretty cool but because just two minutes ago I was hanging out in the middle of a super techno cityscape I’m kind of at a loss for where I am or how this fits into the world.  Perhaps if I were to have traveled out on my own, found a forest and wandered into it I would’ve felt less displaced.  The lack of immersion in Final Fantasy XIII is one of my more serious complaints about the game and almost all of it has to do with the way the characters and world were designed and implemented.

The goggles! They do nothing!

For as colorful as Final Fantasy XIII is I couldn’t have been more bored with its design, and I think that’s actually the biggest point here.  I found it difficult to connect to either the characters or the world separately and impossible as a whole entity.  The game is a visual feast and that’s not really an arguable point.  The graphics are extremely impressive at times and I can respect the power of the PS3 when Final Fantasy XIII is spinning around in there but at some point I just have to admit to myself that there are maybe only one or two legitimately interesting things visually going on.  For instance, the lush green forest (not the one with the techno-leaves) is nice.  The enemies were cool and seemed like they fit in.  Everything about it was “Final Fantasy”.  Instead of fully appreciating it by knowing exactly where it was geographically on a map, knowing how I get there…hell, even where I was fucking going it remained visual eye-candy and nothing more.  It really is too bad because the other 85% of the game takes places in retina burning vegas-esque light shows that somehow bore me to death despite being the most vibrant thing I think I’ve ever seen.

Good Final Fantasy series example: VII
Final Fantasy VII to me is a shining example of cohesive design.  It must be hard to make everything in a huge RPG world seems like it fits together but VII did just fine.  I’ve poked fun at the ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’ feel that is used as the template for FFVII in the past but at least everything in the game fits the damn theme.  The characters themselves are from the slums so they don’t look pristine or wear extravagant and complicated clothing.  Some of it is even torn (*gasp*).  The whole world just feels kind of rundown, which not only gives it a good amount of character as a whole but fits a subtle plot point: Shinra has been slowly draining the world and its population of its life force for years.  Simple concept huh?  It just might make sense.  The further you get away from Midgar the cleaner things seem to get.  Places not under the influence of a Mako Reactors are noticeably better off.  It’s just smart world design.  The ability to travel across the world on foot and witness the slow change as I get further away creates a level of immersion that Final Fantasy XIII just simply cannot emulate…but does it even try?

———-

Music
Masashi Hamauzu is Final Fantasy XIII’s composer and he does an okay job.  I don’t think it would be prudent for me to criticize an entire work based on the four or five really annoying songs that repeat ten or so times over the course of the game.  There is some legitimately good music here (as there always is with Final Fantasy), which is why I won’t say that the score is “awful” or “terrible” but it certainly isn’t memorable.  I’m going to classify Hamauzu as a FF “new-blood” based solely on the fact that his discography contains games like Dirge of Cerberus and Musashi: Samurai Legend.  FFXIII follows those in those games footsteps artistically and in feel so I’m going to group them all together as the new generation of Square Enix development.

Music is an important and essential part of presenting a video game.  Without it you can eliminate at least fifty percent of all atmosphere, emotional impact and overall themes you would be trying to convey.  Excellent games like Vagrant Story or Xenogears convey their ideas powerfully due in large part to the fitting musical accompaniment.  The song “My Village is Number One” (fuck yeah) from ‘Gears is a perfect example of using music to embellish an attempted “feel”.  It’s bright and cheery but has a hint of emotionality to it.  This is Fei’s hometown, the place that took him in as a very young child and nurtured him to adulthood.  Yasunori Mitsuda is the master of layering his music to help present something deeper within a scene.

No such depth is present anywhere in the score for Final Fantasy XIII.  You know, maybe Hamauzu needs more time and experience with major projects to get a feel for how to present a cohesive and affecting total work.  I think it’s a bad call to have someone with this little feeling for how a FF soundtrack should be composing for one the most legendary RPG franchises of all time.

Cohesion is missing in this work.  Artistic cohesion is missing, thematic cohesion is missing…naturally the music follows suit.  When I listen to the OST I can’t pin down an overall “feel”.  The one track that I really like, the regular old battle theme, utilizes a violin and it works really well.  Where is a violin in the rest of the songs?  Why isn’t this instrument that’s used so effectively in the ONE SONG YOU HEAR OVER AND OVER used nearly as well (or at all) anywhere else in the OST?  It’s this lack of tying it all together that really tells me that as high quality as the orchestration in this game is, the subtle implementation of a greater theme is missing.

I guess the best way to describe what I’m feeling would be to say that I think Hamauzu is missing a personal style.  I can pinpoint a Yasunori Mitsuda or Hitoshi Sakimoto song within seconds simply because they have identifying instruments or themes.  In time I think Hamauzu could be a wonderful composer, and maybe his coming work on FFXIII-2 will evolve further.  Just don’t have the guy doing a Final Fantasy as his first big gig, ya know?

Also…why wasn’t Takeharu Ishimoto chosen for this game?  He is new’ish and has proven his work to be stellar with amazing soundtracks from games already in the FF franchise (Dissidia and Crisis Core).  That would’ve been a perfect fit, and he’s earned it.

Good Final Fantasy Example: VIII
When I think about Final Fantasy VIII one of the first things that comes to mind is the soundtrack.  I still remember the atmospheric melody that filled the halls as you wandered Balamb Garden, trying to get your bearings at the beginning.  Or the epic, militarily charged theme that accompanied the FMV as you rode your boat towards the shoreline for your first mission.  Had someone made a call to Harry Gregson-Williams?  Talk about music creating fucking memorable experiences.  These were masterpieces that somehow did the unbelieveable and compared to VII’s OST.  While other aspects of Final Fantasy VIII may have fallen short compared to some of the other games in the series the music was damn near the top of the pile.  And it served the game so well.  Also, the Triple Triad theme.

———-

Battle and Character Growth systems
I saved these two categories for last because this is where I feel the game was almost unplayably bad.

I don’t even know where to fucking start with the abomination they’re calling a battle system.  Let’s forget for a moment that our classic “jobs” have been renamed moronic shit like Commando and Ravager…I can deal with that.  I’ll put aside for now the summoning that plays out almost identically to Final Fantasy X where you call a beast, it replaces your other two party members and fights until it’s timer or HP runs out (god I hate it now even more than I hated it then).  I am even willing to accept that turn-based battling and loading into fights have returned in full force after Final Fantasy XII proved that altering the formula actually works.

What I simply cannot accept is that Square Enix is going to sit there and fucking pretend that the battle system presented to us in Final Fantasy XIII is something more than it was even in the old days of the SNES.  There is nothing new under the sun, so sayeth the Bible and so sayeth I in reference to this shitty game.  As flashy, quick, cinematic…WHATEVER we’ve been told this fighting is, it is actually anything but.

Example #1: The Auto Battle Function
Just insulting.  I think they’re kind of trying to somehow acknowledge the gambit system from FFXII with this but I’m not sure.  Instead of being awesome like gambits were, now you’re honestly just hitting “x” over and over again without even having to think.  XII was blasted because it supposedly took the strategy out of battling (nothing could be further from the truth) but let’s be honest here, Final Fantasy XIII not only picks the most effective attacks to use it makes the battle menu much slower to use and too complicated to want to figure out.  You’re actually strongly encouraged to just auto-battle every round of every fight with every character.  Fun.  It even figures out the enemy element weakness and then automatically just chooses whatever magic spell is most effective against it.  Are they fucking serious?  I know they want to get new fans, and have the RPG seems less scary and complicated to your average gamer…but COME ON.  So if I want to play legitimately (of course I do) and have any sense that I’m putting thought into anything that’s going on I have to traverse this ridiculously over-stylized menu system under the duress of enemies freely attacking me unapologetically only to find that I’ve used the wrong spell or attack on an unrelenting enemy or group of enemies that have copious amounts of HP.  Which brings me to my next point…

Example #2: The “Break” system
This stupid idea has never worked.  It didn’t work in Xenosaga 2 or 3 and it certainly didn’t work here.  What I’m talking about is that in Final Fantasy XIII every enemy has a meter in addition to their HP that has to be filled up in order to ‘break’ their defenses down.  What this entails is so obtuse that it hurts my cock to even try to explain it.  Essentially what you need to do is assemble a party setup that does physical AND magical damage to an enemy.  A Commando (warrior) will not really increase the break gauge, but will sustain it and keep it from falling back to zero.  A Ravager (mage) is then the party member type that can increase the break gauge.  If you used only commandos the gauge would never go anywhere.  If you used only Ravagers the gauge would sink faster than it takes to hit your enemy again.  Keep in mind that you’re not ever really doing sufficient damage to kill the enemy during this period of breaking, you’re just trying to get the gauge full so you can actually start doing damage to whatever it is you’re fighting (at Square Enix they call this “strategy”).

Once your enemy is broken another timer starts indicating that you have a short period of time where your enemy can actually receive real damage.  I call this the “The Way Every Fight Has Gone In Every RPG Since The Beginning Of Time” phase…and you better hit hard here because if you don’t kill whatever you’re fighting their defenses get re-upped and you start the whole process over again.  Many random encounters will require this method multiple times in one fight for just one enemy.  RANDOM ENCOUNTERS.  Don’t even ask how many the bosses take.

My problem with this system is that it’s just pretending to be different than everything else.  Instead of just being able to use my GOD LIKE super characters to deal a REGULAR enemy damage, I must somehow damage Random Soldier A’s impervious (unexplained and invisible) force field with TRICKERY before I CAN EVEN GET A REAL SHOT IN thus giving me a very short window to do what every FF character does best and whoop some sorry ass weakling’s pathetic ass.  Why does every single creature and human that I come across have to be ‘broken’?  Doesn’t this Lightning chick have extensive military training, super powered weapons and magic handed down literally from GODS?  None of this makes a lick of fucking sense.

Example #3: The Job System
Necessitated by the whacko break system implemented in the fighting, the job system is probably even more stupid.  Despite being very specific in their titles and actions (Commandos hit stuff, Ravagers nuke stuff, Medics heal…etc etc) it’s wildly unclear from the beginning how to go about forming an effective combination of the three in a battle (or actually just two people for a lot of the game).  By the time you do actually figure it all out, which is a while because many of the encounters require completely different setups, you’re then left with something you can’t learn how to do better: Navigate the Menus in a Productive Way.  Because I wanted to do a lot of things manually fighting-wise, I was left to determine the nuances of selecting actions within a battle.  And there are a few.

For one, the menu itself so stylistic and visually important to them that they just had to make the selections fucking spin around.  Spinning action selections that you have to WAIT FOR.  In the many high stress situations I found myself in, life or death situations, knowing what I wanted to do next…I WAITED FOR THE FUCKING ATTACK OPTION TO FUCKING SPIN AROUND WHILE I FURIOUSLY JAMMED ON X TRYING TO SELECT IT. FUCK YOU.  For as fast paced as the games presents itself to you as, the menu options are frustratingly slow.  And it seems like your enemies are just constantly flying off the handle, hitting you a few times before you get your one sequence in.  I sent so much time actually waiting in this game.  Just waiting and waiting for my characters to move and act while just SO MANY GRAPHICS WERE HAPPENING ON SCREEN, but only really causing a small portion of it.  Your input into the madness that you’re witnessing is honestly very minimal…and really spaced out.  Nothing that is actually happening is nearly as fast-paced as it appears.  As your characters progress and you earn yourself more action bars, you will actually find yourself waiting even longer in battle to perform actions.  You can at any point cut off your wait time and perform whatever actions have been queued up and start the bar all over again but it’s not nearly as efficient as waiting it all out and doing everything in large clumps.  Which is because when you perform an action sequence your character has to run over to the enemies, flip their weapon around about a thousand times, jump around like a complete idiot and do some really cinematic shit before your actions can be performed.  So I’d rather just wait until it’s all queued up for five actions rather than see all that nonsense for a single action.

For two, switching between the different party setups is a chore.  It’s easy enough to hit L1 and select whatever Paradigm you want but for some godawful reason the first time you switch your paradigm in every battle you are treated to a sequence showing everyone in the party changing their class.  Every paradigm switch from that point on in the battle is a very quick thing that takes half of the time.  Remember in Final Fantasy X-2 where when you changed your job mid-battle you could watch the character do a little switch-over cutscene, OR YOU COULD SELECT TO SKIP IT because why would you want to watch that more than fucking once.  Well, they’ve apparently lost that sensibility in Final Fantasy XIII and every single first time you do a paradigm shift per battle you half to watch that full switchover.  And it’s not really all that long, honestly, maybe a few seconds.  BUT ENEMIES AREN’T FROZEN DURING THIS IT.  THEY CAN AND WILL HIT YOU.

The one consistent strategy I used to avoid this annoyance was to start every battle with a paradigm setup that I didn’t actually want to use and then immediately switch to the one I DID want to use before anything in the battle could really happen, so I didn’t have to watch the stupid twice-as-long switchover sequence in the middle of something actually threatening.  Thanks a lot guys!  The fact that I even have to come up with this micro strategy and employ it for every battle to rid myself of an absolutely ridiculous design flaw is the strongest testament as to why this game is fucking terrible.  There was just no common sense used anywhere in the creation of this damn game.  It’s all this flashy, self-indulgent and completely HOLLOW development mindset that serves only to dumb down ideas that have worked so well in the past.

I don’t feel the need to say much about the character progression.  The Crystarium or whatever it’s called is just a copy paste from FFX’s (no way!).  No real choice of path, no difference at all really between this and just having an automatic leveling system like in the past.  Again it’s just an elaborate illusion implemented to make you think you’re figuring something out or somehow involved in something complicated.

Too many options here, better start railroading people after this.

Good Final Fantasy Example: XII
Final Fantasy XII is the series’ pinnacle in terms of the battling and leveling, and I’d say a lot of it has to do with the freedom given to the player.  The License Board is an ingenious system that allows the player to develop a character in any which way they please.  Yeah, everyone can easily turn out the same way BUT that choice is up to you…and at least you have a fucking choice, something that is sorely lacking from FFXIII.

Freedom is the key word within the battle system as well.  Because you have the option to form every party member into every possible character type, party setups and strategies are endless.  While some people might like to be pointed (or forced) in a clear direction, FFXII went the opposite way and was better for it.  Character affinities were definitely hinted at (Balthier just doesn’t look right without a fucking gun in his hand) but this was by no means a strict implement, more of a suggestion if you wanted an idea on what characters might do what best.  Brilliant shit man.

———-

I’m hesitant to accuse Tetsuya Nomura of creating or even instigating many of the flaws as he is only named (and has never for a main entry Final Fantasy been listed as anything more than) an artist for this game but his particular brand of design just seeps out of every pore of FFXIII.  The sensibilities apparent in this game are hard not to associate with that of what you can find in Kingdom Hearts.  A lot of it is superficial but attempts to hint at something more meaningful with it’s convoluted plot and transparent character development and relationships.  As much as they wanted me to care when Sazh turned a gun on Vanille to save his son, I just didn’t give a rat’s ass.  The dialogue was just so poorly written and acted.  The characters looked incredibly silly while trying to be serious.  I didn’t have a good feel for where the scene was and what exactly the motivations behind almost every moment were at that point.  I had been given no real reason to care and was naturally distanced from the supposed emotionality of the events taking place.  AND I LIKE SAZH.  This game makes you pretend to even think you might care about anything…you really have to work at it.

If what we’re looking at in Final Fantasy XIII is any indication of where Square Enix wants to take my favorite RPG franchise then I simply will have no more of it, period.  I hated this game.  I just fucking hated it, and it was a goddamn life or death struggle to even get to the end.  But I did and I can feel okay with writing all of that because I know for certain that it is legitimately bad.  Not bad because it wasn’t “Final Fantasy” enough or that I have a hardon for the standbys but because if you take away the Final Fantasy title this game is shit out of ten and everyone would be much more comfortable admitting it.

At least there's something to look forward to in the future.

Click here to see where Final Fantasy XIII ranks in the Master List.