I have never approached a Final Fantasy game lightly. Most of my time with the franchise has been spent alongside an official strategy guide. Exploring every nook in the game world, finding all the hidden gems and best weapons, made up half the joy of my early JRPG experiences. I eagerly consumed each new complicated and sometimes rigorous adventure with pleasure, even when I knew I would never finish the game. When I first dipped into Final Fantasy XIII, its simplified system made it seem more accessible and therefore more appealing. Unfortunately, Square Enix has created a casual game, and it has come at a price.
A few weeks ago, Scott wrote about Final Fantasy XIII's artistic representations devaluing the power of imagination in earlier titles, stating: "Make no mistake: Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful painting, but I do miss being able to add my own brushstrokes." My attitude towards the game's adjustments mirror Scott's sentiments. While I appreciate what the game has become, I too lament the newest addition's shift towards an easily consumed world.
In a way, Final Fantasy XIII is a lot like Peggle. Besides a few monstrous road blocks here and there, the game is remarkably easy. While combat within a linear stage does become progressively more complex, even the enemies near the end of a section can be taken down with little hassle (For an very comprehensive discussion of the game's mechanics, see Simon Ferrari's post at Rules of the Game.) Eidolon summons, while visually attractive, are functionally useless. Most matches never become dangerous in the slightest. If they do and the player is killed, they respawn again moments before the fateful battle.
As a result, exploring the world of Final Fantasy has lost some of its dangerous thrill. In earlier titles, venturing off the beaten path holds as many risks as it does rewards. Traipse into a high-level area to find hidden treasure and you could find yourself confronting a sinister malboro and the threat of having to start over at an old save point. Because the first half of FFXIII is so painfully linear, and because the gameplay is relatively easy, I never felt enveloped by a realistic world full of dangers and possibilities - what I considered to be a franchise staple.
Along with these adjustments, dropping in and out of FFXIII is effortless. Every time a save is loaded, players are greeted with a "previously on..." bit of text, reminding them of recent story events. The high number of save points also makes getting out of the game a breeze. As a result, I find myself playing the game an hour here or there and then quitting when I get bored or real life intercedes. While this is not a bad thing per say, it has changed my approach to the franchise. While before I entered any world of Final Fantasy with commitment, I now dip in and out of the fictional universe with abandon, as if I were playing a few rounds of Peggle before bed time.
The story is partly to blame. While the dichotomous worlds of Pulse and Cocoon are interesting, the narrative pacing is terrible. Unlike other FF iterations, the game has abandoned large cities and calm home environments where characters interact with NPCs at their leisure. Instead, the cast of FFXIII is always busy and on the move. Yet at the same time, they accomplish so little. Even if the game were not introducing mechanics many hours into play, it would still feel like a long introduction well over fifteen hours into the story. I am given no narrative vantage point to view the world, no rest points to examine the story from a larger context, and few reference points from which to build my own conclusions or theories. While the leads carry on with their business, I feel like an outsider looking in, as if I am meant to wait around until the story is told directly to me.
Yet I still enjoy the basic repetition of combat and forward progress. Equipment upgrade management and even the "crystarium" experience points system are largely superfluous, yet needlessly confusing. It is the combat itself that is rewarding. But the interface is a mess, making it hard to discern how my individual decisions affected the outcome of a battle. As I have discussed before, the game cannot be praised for its transparency. So while I am pleased to receive a five star rating after a battle, it tells me very little about my performance. Like Peggle, the repetition and visual spectacle of battle, coupled with a largely useless reward system, creates a feeling of unearned jubilation upon success. A feeling, in retrospect, I begin to resent.
I keep returning to Final Fantasy XIII the same way I return to my favorite casual games. When I think about it, the game is actually pretty boring. The paradigm system, which turns combat into a risk-reward strategy game, can be very fun during more difficult boss battles. However, the vast majority of my time is spent hitting the "auto-battle" button while I wait for the next cut scene. While maintaining the visual spectacle we come to expect, the game world feels less rich than any of its predecessors.
In an effort to simplify the series, making it more accessible and friendly to modern audiences, Final Fantasy XIII has lost the ability to envelope me completely in a mythic world full of strife and mystery. It has become casual filler. While I enjoy the experience, I am still gripped by a sense of loss. I feel like an old explorer on a tourist train through the jungle. The ride is actually quite nice, I would even recommend it, but I also miss adventuring into new worlds on my own.