Retrospective: “Final Fantasy XIII”

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Much like most other North American gamers, the first time I played Final Fantasy XIII was back in March 2010. My verdict then was that though the game was brilliant gameplay-wise, the series had gotten too flashy at the expense of substance and story. Enough for me to forswear, however briefly, the entire Final Fantasy franchise.

This year, with the release of its (semi-anticipated?) sequel, I decided to give unlucky XIII another try. And the new verdict? Well, though I still view Final Fantasy XIII as a sub-par entry in the series, I’ve come to set aside a place in my heart for it, enough to call it a legitimate (albeit unruly) part of the Final Fantasy family.

Unnecessary Convolution

Two years ago, my primary complaint about the game was not its linearity, but rather its bent towards convolution. The story made better sense after a second playthrough, though it needn’t have been so confusing the first time round. Part of the problem is the gabbledygook terminology of the game, like “fal’Cie,” “l’Cie,” and “Cieth.” If you lose your “focus,” as it were, on the dialogue, the characters start to sound like they’re talking in some lost language. I still don’t understand the writers’ logic in forgoing simpler but more readily accessible terms like “angels” and “demons,” or perhaps even “masters” and “slaves.” The nuance regarding Dajh being a Sanctum or Cocoon l’Cie (as opposed to a Pulse l’Cie like Sazh) was lost on me the first time through, because it was confusing enough having to make out the distinctions between fal’Cie and l’Cie or between Pulse and Cocoon. I also continue to find the mythology of Pulse and Cocoon random and rather uninspired, as if it were part of some nonsensical prompt for a writing exercise. A close read of the datalog entries (which often got vexingly repetitive) does help clear up some of the confusion, but a reliance on text that most players will not have the patience to read through, if anything, shows the game’s Achilles’ heel, storytelling-wise.

An Imbalanced Story

I had hoped with the disappointment of Final Fantasy XII’s excruciatingly over-simple and non sequitur story, that Square Enix’s next offering would harken back to mid-Final Fantasy storylines (VI, VII, VIII, X), which all had sound and decent stories. But instead the writers mistook story for the aforementioned convoluted details, over-the-top dialogue and melodrama. There are numerous throwaway scenes splattered throughout the game’s three discs in which the characters interact without much happening. The first part of the story, in which the band of l’Cie assemble and work out the kinks between them, is actually rather passible. It isn’t until Barthandelus comes in with his godly theatrics that the story turns for the ridiculous and loses all sense of inspiration. It’s as if the writers, having assembled Lightning and her crew, didn’t know what to do with them, and lazily resorted to the usual and often perplexing JRPG Sturm und Drang. The final battle with Barthandelus and Orphan, the game’s ending, as well as the seeming haphazard insertion of Leona Lewis’s “My Hands” as a theme song, still boggle the mind.

Incomplete/Hollow Characters

The characters, though well-designed, ring rather hollow. I loved the idea of Sazh (a sort of Barrett 2.0, I guess) as well as the storyline surrounding his son, though found it a bit of a cop-out to turn him into a doddering buffoon. Snow’s mindless heroics don’t amount to much (and there was something wrong seeing him paired with the figurine-like Serah, who looked often times like a child sitting on his lap). Vanille is the requisite annoying JRPG female character–always armed with gasping frailty, she’s every hetero gamer’s supposed dream woman and every feminist’s nightmare. Hope’s rage wears thin after a while. The moody Lightning and the butch Fang (yes, I said “butch”…loved the lesbian undertones) are my most favorite characters (I have an affinity for kick-arse heroines), though gorgeous character designs aside, they were underutilized or not leveraged in quite the most effective of ways (they came across, for all their heroics, rather mundane).

Addicting Gameplay

What constantly brought me back to the game, even amid its travesty of a story, was the gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII delivers the goods battle-wise, constantly drawing the gamer back with the challenge of increasingly more difficult enemies (Shaolong Gui et al.) and the promise of attaining increasingly more powerful items (the Gilgamesh gear, Dark Matter, etc.). The paradigm shift system is fluid, and I enjoyed the challenge of building up enemies’ chain gauges to stagger them.

Good, Not Great, Music

I loved Masashi Hamauzu’s work in Final Fantasy X, and have no problem with having a Final Fantasy not bearing Nobuo Uematsu’s musical imprint. The main theme of the game is indeed catchy and even beautiful. I loved the battle theme, “Sunleth Waterscape,” and “The Archlyte Steppes.” However, there’s only so much variation on the same theme one can take.

Overall Gorgeousness

The game remains to this day one of the lushest games out there. The Pulse landscapes are cromulent, if a bit extravagant. There is much to admire in the game’s visual architecture as it balances its characters within its vistas.

The Problem is Partly Me

The twelve installments (plus the random sequel and gaiden here and there) of the Final Fantasy series preceding XIII have each expanded the boundaries of role playing games in general. Final Fantasy XIII has contributed its own share, but with such high expectations from a long-time fan like me, it’s easy to overlook those contributions. Because Square Enix is working off of the Final Fantasy template, I’m hard-pressed not to compare any new title with old tried-and-trues. But I have to disavow myself of the notion that I have to employ arbitrary rubrics for these games. The days of Final Fantasy IV when you could supply your own imagined voices to sprites on the screen with speech bubbles are long gone. There will never be another epilogue as epic nor touching as in Final Fantasy VI. There will never be quite as big a reveal story-wise as we saw in Final Fantasy VII. There will never be another heartbreaking ending like in Final Fantasy X, nor a redemptive one like in Final Fantasy X-2. And it’s just as well, as the franchise would otherwise have gone stale from replicating its previous feats.

With my embargo on the FF franchise lifted, here’s looking forward to finishing FFXIII-2!

Read another FFXIII retrospective by one of my favorite video game journalists, Peter Tieryas Liu  »

Read my Ruelle Electrique article, “A Video Game Manifesto: Final Fantasy XIII As A Prototype” »

Recommends: Peter Tieryas’s “Recipe for the Perfect Final Fantasy Game” on GameDynamo.com

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I, too, wasn't able to save Cid during my first playthrough of "Final Fantasy VI."

Peter Tieryas recently wrote an engaging article for GameDynamo.com called “Recipe for the Perfect Final Fantasy Game.” Gamers, RPG lovers, and “Final Fantasy” enthusiasts in particular will appreciate the walk down memory lane that the article will provide. I have very fond memories of the “Final Fantasy” series, from ever since I was a preadolescent  bemusedly perusing a “Nintendo Power” strategy guide for the first “Final Fantasy.” The FF franchise is one very dear to me, and whose future I am invested in. I hope Square Enix heeds the article’s suggested ingredients for the perfect “Final Fantasy.” Read on and contribute to the recipe.

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Elsewhere: “Video Game Review: ‘Dragon Age 2′” on Ruelle Electrique

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I like men with dark pasts, too, but I like games with well-written stories even more.

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2

Ruelle Electrique just posted my review of Bioware’s role-playing video game, “Dragon Age II.” You might remember me railing back in 2009 about the paucity of video games even attempting to cater to gaymers, a gripe brought about by playing “Dragon Age: Origins,” which in hindsight I now view as one of the past decade’s best RPGs. Well, I got my wish (Score!), as gaymers can now engage in a decently written gay romance in “Dragon Age II.” Unfortunately, the game now lacks in the other departments its predecessor excelled in (ah, such a bittersweet trade-off). Here’s hoping “Dragon Age III” will be the next well-written RPG of the decade to allow for gay romances! Hop on to the Ruelle for more.

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Review: “Fable III”

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It's a revolution, baby. (Well, sort of).

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆

Fifty years after saving the land of Albion from the madman Lucien Fairfax, the Hero of Bowerstone from “Fable II” has passed on, leaving his eldest son Logan to rule the land with a tyrannical fist. This is where the player steps in, taking on the role of the late Hero’s youngest son (or daughter), spurred on by recent injustices committed by the throne to overthrow his/her brutish brother. Central to the game then is the concept of revolution:  The Prince/Princess must gather allies throughout Albion to help oust the sitting monarch. But once in power, the player must decide whether or not to keep any promises s/he may have made to those allies, a reality that manifests itself as the country balances limited treasury funds with the many needs of its people. It’s an intriguing premise for a game that makes for enjoyable gameplay. Unfortunately for a game about revolution, “Fable III” feels less like a revolution and more like a devolution.

The “Fable” franchise has never been about complex storylines; it’s always been about good, cheeky fun, paired with great gallows humor. Though simplicity has its charm (what might be construed as shallowness can keep things light and the storyline from getting overwrought), unfortunately simplicity here does a number on “Fable III.” On a technical level, the game is a bit of a throwback compared to “Fable 2.” Though made more easily accessible, the weapon/spell mechanics come across as not so much streamlined as dumbed down. Even in terms of morality, which the “Fable” series has leveraged so well (that is, the choice given the player to align him/herself with the good, the bad, or neutral), everything is cut and dried. There’s a certain predictability to everything:  Hold the green “A” button on your 360 controller and you’ll always be doing the “right” thing. Pretty soon you’ll be sprouting angel wings (literally; the player will “morph” angel or devil wings during battle, depending on his or her past actions). Though the answers may be transparent, the questions “Fable III” throws at its players are very topical. I became king of Albion on Election Day (that is, I overthrew Logan the same night the Repubs turned the electoral map red through the massacre of so many Dems), and I was thrown into the fray straightaway. I had to figure out whether to bail out financial institutions (ha!), and elevate spending for the good of the people. Also at several points, I was afforded the choice to transfer my own funds (that is, my avatar’s personal gold claimed in-game) to the kingdom’s treasury to compensate for shortfalls. Made me feel like Meg Whitman, haha. I’m just glad I didn’t have a bicameral Congress to spar with–as king after all, all my decisions became the law of the land just like that!

You can dress up your Hero...or not.

The voice work, though not the most excellent, is still very good. John Cleese’s Jasper has a certain innocuousness to him, which is just right given his role as your guide throughout the game; but also, he provides often pleasantly random comic relief throughout. Stephen Fry as the morally challenged immortal Reaver is sinister but not too. Simon Pegg as Ben Finn is lovably gruff. Ben Kingsley’s Sabine is somewhat throw-away, but still good. Zoe Wanamaker’s Theresa remains intriguing as the mysterious and morally ambiguous soothsayer, but more for what we know of her in the past games (though her role here is limited, I still can’t wait to find out what her ultimate role is in the whole series, i.e. is she good or bad?). But most importantly, I love that the playable character finally has a voice (much like with the main character Hawke in Bioware’s upcoming “Dragon Age 2,” though probably much less prominent). Though it can work (such as with “Final Fantasy VIII” and “Dragon Quest VIII”), having the main character not utter a word throughout a game can often render him/her hollow. It’s the unfortunate and ironic trade-off for allowing an open-ended interactive experience for the player. Still, the Prince’s dialogue here is maintained at a minimum so his words don’t override the agency of the player.

It does feel like “Fable 3” is a regression, which is ironic given the progression of time in the game series (we’ve come from the Middle Ages [or something] to the Industrial Age in the span of three games). Still it’s good, cheeky fun. I found myself laughing throughout at the game’s constant self-deprecating humor. (One of my favorite quests involves helping three wizards [aka “nerds”] with their role-playing game; the quest manages to be both meta and poke fun at role-playing geeks and the conventions of the RPG genre, i.e. the buxom damsel of distress, the necessity of story in a video game, etc.). It also provides great escapism:  It’s nice to be able to buy houses relatively easily and get same-sex hitched and have kids, when in real life I can hardly get any of my home buying offers accepted and it’s illegal for me to marry the man of my dreams and/or adopt, ha! (I’ve always loved “Fable” and Peter Molyneux for being gaymer-friendly). It may not have the greatest story and it would be nice if future installments of the series truly felt more like a revolution, but “Fable III” can still provide a very enjoyable and meaningful experience.

Have you played the game? I invite you to share your thoughts!

Elsewhere: “In Search of a Meaningful Video Game: A Review of Tom Bissell’s ‘Extra Lives’” on Ruelle Electrique

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Tom Bissell's eye-opening collection of essays on video gaming is a must-read for lovers of video games like Jonathan Blow's indie platformer, Braid.

Rating:  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

If you’ve been reading enough of my posts, you’ll know how much of a devoté I am of video games. You’d also probably be well aware of my frustration with the form, which despite its great technological achievements is largely still in a very inchoate form. In an article I wrote for Ruelle Electrique, I review Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter,” a collection of essays that shows how video games can rival the import of other artistic forms by providing uniquely meaningful experiences to players. Hop on over to the Ruelle to find out how Bissell’s book, which is chock full of references to games such as Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Mass Effect, and Grand Theft Auto (among many others), can be a meaningful experience in itself.

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Elsewhere: “A Video Game Manifesto: Final Fantasy XIII As A Prototype” on Ruelle Electrique

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The Ruelle recently posted a new article of mine in which I tackle the question of whether video games currently are or can even become art, a response to a really insightful (but ultimately wrong) essay by Roger Ebert on his blog. I argue that it is understandably debatable whether video games can be considered art as they currently stand, but that there is no question that they can indeed reach the level of what may be considered art. Let it be said that Ebert is a legend in my book, someone I have always deeply admired for his intellectually satisfying and enjoyable reviews, as well as his savage wit; however with all due respect, I cannot disagree with him more when it comes to video games.

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Elsewhere: Exploring Story Interactivity & Gayming in “Dragon Age: Origins” on Ruelle Electrique

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Story of my life. Falling in love with the straight guy. Even in a video game. Ugh. (LOL).

Damn video game strategy guide and damn skimming, an unfortunate combination of which led me to believe a particular male character in “Dragon Age: Origins” (the dashing Alistair, above) was actually romanceable for a gaymer like me. Oh, how devastating it was to realize too late that my flirtations with the would-be king could never amount to anything more than a mere bromance. In an article I wrote for Ruelle Electrique, I ask the question, “Will there ever be a video game that can throw a gaymer a, er, bone?” (Ha!). But on a less facetious note, I delve into the deeper issue of being able to mold a video game story as the player pleases. The great thing about role playing video games is how customizable the experience can be of playing, which is essential for allowing a gamer to fully immerse him/herself in the game. But interactivity and customization can only go so far. In the case above, the author had intended for Alistair to only be a female romance option, meaning no luck for me. It’s an odd balancing act, as the author should rightly have control over the story, but in an interactive game such as this the player should also be able to craft the story to fit his/her experience.

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