Two weeks ago, I decided to give Final Fantasy 13 another try. Again. Until then, I had not been able to tolerate the game for more than the first three hours. Thankfully, I had friends who were willing to play the game while I watched (to be honest, I was more interested in playing Peace Walker on PSP, so I simply watched some of the key cutscenes). The game felt so...empty.
The Square-Enix dev team was on some kind of crazy drugs while designing this game, but I have come to realize that they may have done better than most people will give them credit for.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way. For those who have not played the game, here is how the first eight to ten hours plays out: you run through linear hallways across only two different zones. For long-time FF fans, you know that - yes - the games tend to start off with some sort of training or introduction, but after two or three hours, they let you explore new areas and pursue new quests. Not so in FF13. In these eight hours, your quest is "kill bad guy". There are no sidequests, barely any storyline revelations, and the battles are painfully easy. I died once in all of those eight hours, and that was against the boss at the very end of that time period. I found a handful of weapons, and there are only two or three accessories to be found.
Here's the worst part: the first eight hours of battle mean nothing because you do not level up at all. That's right. You do not gain any experience whatsoever for the first eight hours of the game. You don't get to customize skills, improve stats, or anything. What drugs were they on? I have never played a Final Fantasy game that...wait, I'll take it further. I have never played an RPG with such a bad and drawn-out introduction. You do get a couple of items, but it's nothing groundbreaking.
Based on the first 8 hours of the game, the battle system also seems no better than a "choose your own adventure" storybook. You tap "X" repeatedly to Auto-Battle. And if you're thinking that you'd like to be strategic, then go ahead! You have a choice between either attacking one enemy or using an area-effect attack. How's that for strategy? I'm surprised S-E even allowed you to pick your target.
And that's for eight straight hours.
(On a side note, one positive thing I noticed during the first eight hours was that I was actually fighting, not spending hours and hours in long cutscenes and pointless conversations. I understand that these aspects add flavor to a game, but sometimes it's nice for a change of pace)
But after those eight hours, the game finally begins. Sadly, it isn't until you trudge through those painful first hours that you see the good aspects of FF13. Square-Enix should be ashamed of themselves for their decisions on the first eight hours, and there is no excuse. With that said, there IS a light at the end of the (eight hour) tunnel.
You DO get to level up, so to speak. The leveling system is a combination of the class-changing found in FF5 and FF Tactics and the sphere-grid found in FF10. As characters defeat enemies, they gain experience which can be spent to unlock health upgrades, new skills, etc which are different in each of the classes. Each character has multiple classes, or "roles", to upgrade, and even though the characters eventually have access to all six roles, they specialize in a few, so don't worry about a repeat of FF12's License Board where every character becomes identical. There are actually quite a bit of skills to improve when you consider you have several characters and each of them will eventually access all six roles, so you won't get bored here.
These roles fit into what is called the "Paradigm system". Similar to the Gambits of FF12, during battle you select a paradigm to suit the battle. So, at the start, you might select an offensive paradigm, and all the character roles change to reflect that paradigm, gaining all of the skills of that role. They will aggressively attack the enemy and co-ordinate their strikes. But in the midst of battle, you may need to switch the paradigm to a more defensive/medic paradigm. Again, this immediately shifts the roles and skills of all the characters, and they will begin to defend, heal up, and so forth. The combination of roles also confers various stat and battle bonuses to the whole party. These aren't just simple classes, either. Characters will actually act out their roles. If they are a medic, they will hang back, heal, and attack from a distance. If they are a Sentinel, they will distract enemies away from your weaker characters. To see the characters act intelligently in this way is very refreshing, and it's something that most RPGs with AI-controlled characters miss.
While this may seem sacrilegious and "dumbed down" to a Final Fantasy veteran, the heart of the gameplay changes seems to come from a desire to streamline the "same old, same old" RPG mechanics that we've had for decades, and for better or worse, FF13 is VERY streamlined. It's probably the most streamlined RPG to date (take that as you may). An example would be the new Potions. Now, these are basic items, right? Most everyone is familiar with potions. They heal some health of one party member. Nope, not in FF13. Basic potions give some health to ALL of your party members. And what about equipment? Well, you really only have your weapon (thankfully, the appearance changes based on the equipped weapon) and some minor accessories. The streamlined stuff goes both ways. On one hand, I wish I had more items to mess around with and more options in battle. On the other hand, the small fistful of options you are given are quite deep and are essential to winning a battle. Plus, it's nice to see my party acting in perfect unison in response to the paradigm I had chosen.
The storyline is actually quite good. In my opinion, having played nearly every Final Fantasy game, the best FF games are FF6 and FF12 due to their political storyline and (relatively) mature characters. I've saved the world millions of times. I don't need to do it again, Tidus and Cloud! I won't spoil anything, but FF13's storyline is more religious/political than the typical "let's save the world, friends! Yaaaay!" that we've come to expect from many S-E games. S-E's design choice of linearity instead of exploration (until the last hours of the game) is mind-boggling, but at the same time I do appreciate the fact that I could play through the story and not have to worry about wandering around aimlessly until I found my next storyline advancement. With that said, I still would have preferred more freedom.
There are some smaller issues with the game that remained even after the initial eight hours. One example would be the datalog. Like many RPGs, the datalog tracks info on enemies, world events, locations, and so forth. Some of this information is helpful and interesting. The large bulk of it, however, is repeated over and over again. Through the first two chapters, the datalog entries regarding "current events" repeat the same three key points over and over and over again. And over again once more. I stopped reading the "event" datalogs until later in the game when I realized they were gaining some variety, but then they get repetitive again. Another example would be the shops and item choices. There is not a lot of customization when it comes to your character's equipment, and there is nary a shop to be found. Instead, shops are bundled with the save spots you see scattered through the game. LOLWUT?
In closing, I just wanted to say that seeing all of the changes in FF13 was initially disappointing. We all know that Square-Enix had to cut some corners in graphics and in content to accommodate the multiplatform status, and the (apparent) changes to the battle system and leveling system (based on my first eight hours of play) disappointed me even more. Yet, once I got past that, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed the game and I will be keeping it in my collection. Despite my complaints, I am glad that I gave it another chance and continued to play through the game. So, please give FF13 a chance. I'm not saying you will love it or that it will live up to the lofty expectations we all had for it several years ago. Yet, FF13 is unique, and it deserves some credit for that.