Final Fantasy XIII – My First Five Hours

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Not sure if you’ve heard, but Final Fantasy XIII came out this week and it’s kind of a big deal. OK, it’s a HUGE deal. After all, it was only in development for something like four to five years (even longer if you count its origin as a PS2 game), and the hype machine has been humming along all that time.

I’ll be blitzing through the game to get to a review as quickly as I can, but seeing as I’ve only just started, it’s going to be at least a few weeks. In the meantime, I would like to share my first impressions. Here are some random thoughts I have after a shade over five hours in.

Overblown Linearity: The hot topic of debate over Final Fantasy XIII since it launched in Japan in December has been its linearity, and now that I’ve had a chance to see it for myself I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Yes, the game is linear, and the opening environment is as straight as an arrow. But newsflash: most Final Fantasies (except for FFXII) and JPRGs in general are extremely linear. Sure, FFXIII clips out traditional town and world map exploration, but in previous games those things were illusions of freedom if you think about it and never really served a purpose until later on. By the end of the game I will be disappointed if there isn’t substantial side mission content, but to this point I haven’t seen how it is any more linear than any other JRPG.

Great Pacing: In fact, by trimming out the meaningless town intermissions and aimless world map wandering, FFXIII‘s pacing is far better than most other JRPGs, which I often find painfully slow over the first few hours. FFXIII pretty much drops you straight into the action and from there manages to provide a smooth ratio of cutscene to gameplay so you always feel involved. The transition from cutscene to gameplay is incredibly smooth as well, almost seamless in fact.

Exhilarating Combat: FFXIII‘s battle system is like the classic Final Fantasy ATB (Active Time Battle) system on a Speed overdose. It feels familiar in that an ATB gauge fills dictating when you can attack and you must choose your actions in real time while the battle carries on around you. But the pacing of it all has been ratcheted up to a new extreme and the way your party members and enemies constantly shift around the 3D battlefield makes the action more dynamic. The Paradigm Shift mechanic is the main new feature and it really plays into the game’s focus on quick-thinking tactics by allowing you to essentially shift the class structure of your party on the fly. To an extent it reminds me of FFXII‘s Gambit System, only condensed into a more simplistic means of real-time AI control. I’m loving it so far.

Visual Spectacle: FFXIII does not disappoint in the graphics department — it’s certainly in the same league of “best graphics this generation” games like Uncharted 2, Killzone 2 and Gears of War 2. The game just looks so shiny and pristine, and the art direction is the best I’ve seen from the series in a long time.

PS3 vs. 360: Square Enix was kind enough to send me both versions of the game for comparison purposes. I’m using the PS3 version for my main review run, but I’ll also be dabbling with the 360 version to see if any noticeable differences pop up. After a quick comparison, I honestly don’t see that there is much of a difference. The 360 version’s graphics were compressed to fit on three DVDs, so the cutscenes aren’t quite as crisp, the lighting doesn’t seem quite as rich, and there is some aliasing (especially on characters’ hair), but I really had to pay close attention to notice any of it. Compressed or uncompressed, the game is gorgeous and runs smoothly on both platforms, so please don’t get caught up in the fanboy platform wars.

Too Hands-On: FFXIII effectively streamlines many staple JRPG mechanics, but in these early stages I do feel like, in certain areas, the game is holding my hand a bit too much and limiting my ability to play how I want to play. A few examples: you only choose actions for your party leader in battle, you can “auto-battle” through the first couple hours with no trouble, exploration almost feels automated as your character hops through designated platforming areas without a single button press, the Crystarium character advancement system is pretty rigid, and character equipment customization is limited to a weapon and one accessory slot. Simplicity at its best or worst? I’m not sure yet…

Story Concerns: Really the only part of the game I have concerns about is the storyline. It’s good so far, but also pretty confusing with details you’ll only pick up on if you consistently read the Datalog (a journal system that constantly updates with character profiles, event recaps and other back story info) and flashback sequences that I don’t think flow together particularly well. The voice acting and lip-syncing are quite good — even better than expected, actually — but the writing is still riddled with a lot of JRPG anime silliness that just makes me cringe at times. I’m also still feeling out the cast too. Lightning kicks ass as the female lead, but I haven’t taken to any of the other characters yet. Vanille in particular is seriously fucking annoying!

Immense Potential: Many of the things I just complained about are, more likely than not, the result of early game hand-holding, and surely as the game progresses these automated elements and curious plot points will flesh themselves out. That’s what I’m banking on at any rate, because I can see the makings of a classic, and once the story starts to come together and its individual parts fully develop I think this game is going to be something special.

Have you started Final Fantasy XIII yet? What do you think of it so far? Share your thoughts in the comments!

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!