March 19, 2010

What I'm playing this week: "Final Fantasy XIII"

I'll just come out and say it: the latest edition of "Final Fantasy" is simply the most gorgeous game I've ever played. Yes, it's relentlessly linear, at least for the first 20 hours or so. Sure, the characters are about as deep as those you'd find in a Saturday morning cartoon. But "Final Fantasy XIII"'s layered battle system is addicting, and the graphics—from the moment-to-moment gameplay to the big cinematic cut scenes—are often staggering to behold.

Full disclosure...I've only played a couple other previous "Final Fantasy" games, both for the PSP: "Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII" and "Dissidia: Final Fantasy," so I came to "XIII" with little or no preconceptions to how the game would actually play.

Early reviews have slammed the new "Fantasy" for being too "linear"—just one "room" after another of monsters to slay, over and over, with no chance to wander through towns, chat with party members, or alter the plot in any meaningful way. And indeed, after grinding through about 25 hours of FFXIII, I can attest that all those criticisms are spot-on. Unlike the open worlds of "Dragon Age: Origins," "Mass Effect," "Fallout 3," and previous "Final Fantasies" (or so I understand, anyway), "Final Fantasy XIII" is pretty much an "on rails" experience (or at least it is in the early going).

So why am I having so much fun, then? Well, if Final Fantasy XIII really is nothing more than a series of battles, it helps that the actual combat is challenging and addictive. In the early going, you're not doing much besides hitting the "X" button (on the PS3; for the Xbox 360 version, it's "A"), but as you progress, the game piles on more layers of complexity. Characters can be developed in different roles, such as "Commando" (your garden-variety warrior), "Synergist" (someone who casts spells on allies to enhance their abilities), "Sabateur" (a spellcaster who hinders opponents), "Sentinel" (a high hit-point character who soaks up attacks), "Medic," and so on. You then set up sets of roles that suit specific combat scenarios—like "War & Peace," with a Commando who attacks and a Medic who heals—and you can "shift" your combat "Paradigms" on the fly. Indeed, "Paradigm Shifts" make up the core of the FFXIII combat system, and shifting paradigms at just the right moment can make you or break you, especially when it comes to the game's fearsome bosses.

The plot of Final Fantasy XIII is...well, pretty nuts, and I'm only managing to follow it about 50 percent of the time. (Mild spoilers ahead, so beware.) Something about a war between Cocoon and Pulse, with the inhabitants of Cocoon being deathly afraid of beings called the Pulse l'Cie (who are from Pulse, natch), and that fear leads to the Purge, a "relocation" of Cocoonites that turns into something akin to a slaughter. Our heroes—the gruff, determined Lightning, the blond, muscled Snow, the wise-cracking Sazr, the naive Hope, and the relentlessly chipper Vanille—start the game trying to defend Cocoon from the Purge, but then they all become l'Cie (I'm not entirely clear on how that happens) and end up being hunted themselves.

And so begins a long, straight-as-an-arrow journey through various dungeons, spaceships, and forests, battling one enemy after another. But while it sounds like a chore, I actually had a blast, mainly because the world of Final Fantasy XIII is truly something to behold. Quite simply, I've never played a game that looks this stunning. On the PlayStation 3, the visuals are near-perfect, with little or no jaggies and no screen-tearing whatsoever, gobs of detail, and plenty of big, wide-open spaces that make you want to stop and gape (which I've often done). The regular gameplay in FFXIII looks as good as the cut-scenes in most games, and XIII's big cinematics are simply jaw-dropping; a daylight attack on the inhabitants of Cocoon by a fleet of shimmering silver spaceships that swoop down from a brilliant blue sky rivals the best CGI in any movie you'll see in a theater.

So yes..."Final Fantasy XIII" can (at least in the first 20-or-so hours) be accurately described as an RPG-on-rails, but if you ask me, this is one exhilarating roller-coaster ride. My understanding is that the game does open up about 25 hours in, and that's about where I am in the game now, so I'll have more thoughts on that soon.

Anyone else playing "Final Fantasy XIII"? Love it, hate or, or "meh"? And what are you playing this weekend?

No comments:

Post a Comment