Oh I’m sorry, is this controller bothering you?

Early impressions of Final Fantasy XIII. Initial outlook is grim.

laciedrive.jpgThe joke about Final Fantasy X was that it was called Final Fantasy X because all you did was hit the X button over and over again. I’m a little over three hours into Final Fantasy XIII, and so far it seems like Square Enix has been spending the last eight years trying to find a way to dispense with even that level of meddlesome button-pressing.

Granted, I’d been warned about this. Most reviews hit the same points: it’s a lot more stripped down and linear than previous Final Fantasy games, with all the exploration jettisoned in favor of long tunnels leading up to a boss fight. But the only review I’d read that was actually negative was Chris Kohler’s on the GameLife blog. All the others I’d seen warned that the game takes fifteen hours to take off, but once it does, it has the most interesting combat system in the series to date.

I’ve played at least half of every Final Fantasy game since VII, so I figured it was inevitable I’d end up getting it. I just figured it’d be later rather than sooner, until Best Buy informed me that my store credit was about to expire and I’d best get to stimulating the economy, pronto. (Incidentally, at the store I was trying to decide between a videogame and a printer. Both were the same price. Did I miss some event that made the bottom drop out of the printer market? Or have I been so wrapped up in digital distribution that I didn’t notice that games have gotten crazy expensive?)

So I’ve just been taking it on faith that if I keep at it, the game is suddenly going to open up and reward me with a complex and interesting battle system. And so far, it’s just been testing my faith. They’ve stripped away all the stuff that makes Japanese RPGs compelling, in favor a barely interactive Japanese anime that’s every bit as over-produced and murky and vapid as the ones that made me stop watching anime after Cowboy Bebop.

I don’t mind their mixing up the formula; in fact, I’m all for it. This is of course the series that defines what Japanese RPGs are supposed to be, and if they want to try new stuff instead of just making the same game over and over again, more power to them. But it feels like they’ve jettisoned the core game in favor of all the surface presentational stuff. There’s no leveling up (yet), just a score and a star count at the end of each battle. The stars are good for… I’m not sure, exactly. The game will occasionally toss me a new weapon or piece of equipment, but there’s no real choice involved: this weapon goes with this character, and it’s better so use it now. And I’m being led through a two-hour-long series of tutorials that claim to be introducing more and more complexity, but in fact just have me pressing A more often. (I’m playing on the 360, or it’d be X).

They’ve just started to introduce some limited customization in the form of the big stat wheels from X and XII, but as in those games, it’s something that looks like interactivity but really isn’t. The characters are pretty much pre-defined, and I can only decide whether my obnoxiously twee pre-teen girl is a magic user with 400 HP or 420 HP. They’re clearly heading in the direction of more AI control, like the previous games, and let you do “paradigm shifts” to switch the whole party between attacking, defending, healing, etc. Which sounds fine at first, but results in less interesting choices: it’s as if they replaced a party of characters with just one character. No interesting experiments turning a ninja into a black mage or anything like that. Plus, it’s been almost three hours and I have yet to fight a fireball or an angry custard.

The visuals are outstanding, but that’s to be expected from these things. And worse, they’ve reached Star Wars-prequels levels of over-saturation: the opening has a big train escape sequence through a futuristic city with mechanized monsters with deadly scorpion tails and all kinds of airships and lasers and space tunnels and crumbling buildings. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what was actually happening, though. The cutscenes in Final Fantasy VII were amazing for their time — no doubt they’d look horribly dated now, but the one thing I do know is that they were used effectively. When the game cut to a full-motion video of a new city or a wide vista or the appearance of some huge monster, it was a big moment. Here, it’s all thrown at you at once.

And over the years I’ve developed a lot of patience for the weak characterization in these games — in fact, it’s usually part of the charm of them — but my attachment to these characters ranges from “don’t care” to “actively dislike and want to fall down a deep crevasse.” Final Fantasy XII did a good job of combining moderately annoying characters with a story that seemed pleasantly familiar: a brash backwoods kid teams up with a rogue pilot and his quiet, inhuman sidekick to save a beautiful princess from an evil Empire. Final Fantasy XIII seems familiar, too: there’s the taciturn ex-soldier with a troubled past, the wise-cracking black guy who’s a gun expert, the perky inappropriately dressed girl… hey, wait a second! For good measure, they added a sniveling little whiny boy who needs to die soon, and the lead singer from any given Japanese boy band.

It’s entirely possible that I’ve just outgrown these things. I still haven’t finished Final Fantasy XII, and that was one I was actually enjoying quite a bit. I suppose there’s a devoted (and much younger) audience who just loves poorly-defined characters and J-pop songs and scenes where everyone speaks in half sentences, and this is the game for them. But it seems that there used to be at least a stab at balancing the anime and the actual game. And I always got the sense that there was a little bit of humility on the part of the makers of the game, acknowledging that they’re passable storytellers but great game-makers. Here, it’s gotten Metal Gear Solidified: the cutscenes aren’t nearly as interminable, but they’re given every bit as much focus. The game seems like an afterthought.