felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
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Among the things on my to-review pile is that latest entry of that exemplar of the Japanese RPG, Final Fantasy XIII.

This is my favourite series, as those who know me well know. I have four major life goals, to which I added a fifth (only half-jokingly) playing every Final Fantasy. I've since amended that to every Final Fantasy in the main, numbered series, after the flowchart of Final Fantasy only became expressible through a fractal equation.

Final Fantasy generally agreed to be a series in decline. The exact shape of the decline varies depending on the reviewer, but most put the high-water mark at Final Fantasy 7 - pretty impressive for a game with such crappy graphics. But brilliant characterization, good plotting and twists, original writing, sly literary references, rich thematics, and all the rest put it on many video-games-as-art lists.

Since then? Every game except FF9 has its significant hatedoms. FF8 had a dull-as-dishwater romance plot and an unlikeable main character. Many people found FF10 cloying and goofy. FF11 is a much-hated MMORPG. FF12 has my vote for worst - no plot, the villain's not really a villain, and the main characters are cardboard cutouts designed with only the principle of "masturbation fantasy" in mind.

And FF13? Clearly divided. Though the people who really hate it seem to have not played very far into it. For my money, it's much better than FF12. But it takes a long time to get going.

The game gives you five characters right out of action films and anime. As the story progresses, these clichéd roles get stripped from them. So it's one huge deconstruction of the action story. At the end, the characters' stories matter, and that's always a sign of good writing.

So it is a deconstruction of the action genre, and a rather good one. I particularly like how the macho, American-style boasting Action Hero is dragged down several pegs. This is one of the most psychologically realistic games in the series - rivalling FF7. Instead of being superheroes, the protagonists are constantly being cut down to size.

There's a couple of other things going on here, though.

First of all, they were trying to remake FF7. This isn't a well-kept secret. Lightning's creator was told to make a female version of FF7's Cloud (and he famously complained that she's "not very feminine'). More than that, though, there's echoes of FF7 throughout - particularly in the settings. Cocoon echoes Midgard, and Pulse echoes Gaia.

(Sadly, they've jettisoned the eco-spirituality and the homoeroticism of FF7 - two things I would've liked to have seen reproduced - though some read two of the characters as a lesbian couple, and others read Hope as gay.)

The other thing here is that it's trying to be The Golden Compass, the video game, and mixing weirdly that with the other two goals. And I really do think The Golden Compass stuff is intentional.

I've read two books of His Dark Materials now, and I have to say that the echoes are powerful - and not just in the kill-the-gods-and-claim-our-destiny themes. Pulse reminds me of Cittègazze, for starters. And Cocoon is like Pullman's version of our (Will's) world, with boring, everyday life undercut by an ancient conspiracy

(Rebel angels are hardly a clear connection given how popular a theme they are, but how many stories give everyone an opposite-sex guardian spirit? Except Hope of course, who - if we're still working with Pullman's rules - is ambiguously gay.)

How successful was it? A lot better than Twelve. Not in FF7 range. I'm hoping it's a sign the series is coming back from the brink, though FF9 was so better than FF8, so this may be a blip too.

The good:
  1. Character development is excellent - not perfect, but it's been much worse. For those who love the game, this is held up as the feature that really made it. It's hard not to care about the characters. A couple of scenes brought me to the edge of tears.

  2. The plotting is generally good. The plot isn't particularly original, though many of the twists are. The mysteries held my attention - the game starts in media res, like FF7, and gradually pulls away the layers and fills you in on the background. It's done quite well.

    It's a well-structured game that never loses sight of its themes. There's layers of symbolism here (I have a theory that the twelve days symbolize the twelve previous Final Fantasies, though that's probably going too far.)

  3. The visuals are stunning. I like FF12's architecture better, but FF13's nature is gorgeously rendered. You really do feel the vibrancy of Pulse. And Pulse has some of the beautiful loneliness of Shadow of the Colossus.

  4. They aren't to everyone's taste, but some of the campier and unsophisticated elements are part of its charm. When I heard the horrible names - Hope, Snow, Lightning, Vanille, and Fang - my first thought was "Good - this one hasn't been focus group-ed to death." I suspect that's what happened with FF12. Also, the weird weapons are back - you fight with clothing decals, boomerangs, bayonets, and fishing rods. The weapons in FF12 were all so dull.

  5. As I said before, this game's weapons-upgrade system involves slathering your weapons in alien slime and dinosaur teeth, and then putting them in a disposable, portable particle accelerator. A lot more fun than buying new weapons in stores.

  6. For all the flack this game took for how linear the first half is, it was a vast improvement on FF12's infinite sandbox. Final Fantasy has always done tragedy well, and you can't have tragedy in a sandbox. Sandboxes don't change, and tragedy requires irrevocable change. FF12's tragedies all took place before the game opened, before you could care about the characters. FF13 does its tragedies quite well.


The bad:
  1. The initial character personalities and the linearity of the first half drove off a lot of players before they got to the good stuff. Penny Arcade's Jerry "Tycho" Holkins complained, "I don't understand the thinking behind giving me lead characters, which the narrative can slowly alchemize into gold. Why don't you give me gold characters, and then refine them into platinum? I mean, if we're absolutely dedicated to transmutation?" Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw reviewed the game without getting that far in, and naturally panned it.

  2. The linearity is a problem. They went from one extreme to the other, and the first half of FF13 will make you feel like you're being squeezed down a long tube - a very pretty tube with a lot of character development, but a tube nonetheless. You can never go back to an area you've left. As a result, in the second half of the game, you'll feel positively agoraphobic.

  3. One of the hallmarks of the series is sympathetic villains. FF4's Golbeze and FF6's Kefka aren't responsible for their actions, FF8's Seifer thinks has been convinced by stories that he's the hero of the game. FF7's Sephiroth, FF9's Kuja, and FF10's Seymour all had horrible childhoods. Even FF12's Vayne is hard to hate, considering that the game is basically about realizing that he's right. You aren't going to sympathize with any of the villains in FF13. They are thoroughly unlikeable, and rather over-the-top.

  4. The battle system is original, but gets awfully boring after awhile. It is fun to juggle enemies on the point of a sword, and to change classes mid-battle. But after awhile it gets dull as dishwater.

  5. Airships are definitively dead. One of the great pleasures of Final Fantasy right from the first was going for a joyride in an airship. "Getting the airship" was always the moment when the game gets good. The joyrides stopped in FF10, and in FF13 are mostly background scenery.

  6. The translation is good, but not brilliant. Alexander O. Smith's work on FF12 was one of the truly good aspects of that game - the brilliant archaisms really gave some gravity to a very lightweight game. The translator of FF13 (Phil Bright) mostly focused on making the characters sound natural, and avoiding embarrassing Engrish - or in one case, embarrassing Gelman, and in another embarrassing Flench. Not bad, but nothing really imaginative, and no real creative solutions.

  7. The voice-acting is very good overall. One serious exception though is Vanille, who was voiced by Australia's worst voice actress. It doesn't help that her friend/lover/whatever is voiced by one of Australia's best voice actresses. Their interactions sound like those strained conversations real people on the Muppet Show had with the puppets. As she is the narrator, this is a problem.

    Where was Nicole Fantl? She breathed life into FF12's worst-written character, and she's Australian. She'd have made a much better Vanille than Georgia van Cuylenburg, who was such a bad actress that people just assumed her real Australian accent was fake.

  8. This is a very short game. Half of it was left on the cutting-room floor, to fit it all on a single disk, and the gaps are showing. This was mitigated somewhat by allowing some parts to be playable after the end of the game, but that too doesn't quite work.


So yeah. Looking over the balance, the good is all character development, story, and theme, and the bad is mostly gameplay and localization. Since I play these games for the stories, I'm definitely recommending it, but there's no reason we shouldn't be able have both. I'd like to see what FF13's cast and writers could do with the programmers and translators of FF12. That would be wonderful.

I've been mostly without video games lately, due to computer failure. Though I did get to try the Scott Pilgrim game last Saturday - which even has a Super Mario-ified version of Toronto for its overhead map. And I got to guide the ever-wonderful [livejournal.com profile] em_fish through her final battle with a dragon-god last Saturday, which is always a lovely way to spend a weekend ^_^
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felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
felis_ultharus

September 2011

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