PS3A Writer’s GOTY: a role-playing masterpiece
If you asked me at the beginning of March what my favourite game of the year was likely to be, without a doubt I would have said Heavy Rain. With its incredible atmosphere, innovative gameplay and compelling story, it kept me engrossed for no less than five full playthroughs. However, on 9th March 2010 along came a game that completely blew me away: Final Fantasy XIII.
What with the ridiculous amount of blockbuster titles released this year, my choice for game of the year may seem a little strange, but Final Fantasy XIII simply had me hooked from start to finish (and then some), which considering it takes 50+ hours to complete, is a huge testament to the talented development team at Square Enix.
Perhaps the biggest reason for my near obsession with this game is because (believe it or not), before XIII I’d never properly played a Final Fantasy game. I’d briefly tried to get into VII, but this was years after its 1997 release, and so it unfortunately failed to keep my interest for long (although I do plan to go back to it one of these days).
Whilst some gamers would think this sacrilegious, it meant that I had very few preconceptions about the Final Fantasy series, and so (unlike many people) my views on XIII were not blurred by nostalgia for previous games in the franchise. This allowed me to judge Final Fantasy XIII on its own merits, and not constantly compare it to earlier titles.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first thing that struck me about Final Fantasy XIII was its often spellbinding graphics. Character models and animations in particular look superb throughout, and the pre-rendered cutscenes are the best I’ve ever seen. Not only that, but I encountered no hint of slowdown or any other performance issues throughout the entire game.
Indeed, when it comes to PlayStation 3 development, Square Enix is undoubtedly the most talented third party developer in the industry. One of the triumphs of FFXIII which is often overlooked is that it accomplishes everything it does with no install whatsoever (not even a single patch), which is virtually unheard of, particularly for a third party game, and shows just what is possible on PS3 when a development team knows what they are doing with the hardware.
Of course, Final Fantasy XIII’s visual prowess would mean nothing if it didn’t have an interesting story and entertaining gameplay to back it up, but thankfully it doesn’t disappoint on either count. Although some players thought that the story was confusing, and maybe even a little boring, I personally couldn’t disagree more, as I loved the mythology of Cocoon and Pulse, and constantly wanted to find out what was going to happen next (leading to many late nights on the PS3).
The six playable characters of Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Vanille, Fang and Hope are all interesting in their own ways, and whilst some were a little annoying at first, it didn’t take long before I found myself completely invested in their stories. Their epic tale of destiny and friendship was a pleasure to experience, and the spectacular finale left me dumbstruck.
Final Fantasy XIII’s gameplay is a bit of a contentious issue, as some players did not appreciate its linear nature or drip-feeding of features throughout the first 10-20 hours of the game. As for the game’s linearity, it was certainly a bold move to release an RPG with very few true open areas to explore, but in my opinion this was not a misguided one.
By limiting the open areas of Final Fantasy XIII to the wilds of Gran Pulse, Square Enix was able to craft a truly beautiful game world that would not have been possible otherwise (just look at the massive Oretoises roaming the Archylte Steppe or the stunning moving backgrounds in Orphan’s Cradle). This linearity also allowed the developer to create a much more contained and moving story, which helps increase the player’s empathy with the characters.
A lot of gamers also felt that the first half of the game simply acted as a tutorial, due to the seemingly slow pace of new gameplay features being introduced. However, in my opinion Square Enix is doing the player a favour, because limiting the amount of features at the beginning successfully eases players comfortably into the game, as the Active Time Battle system is tough to fully master, but great fun once you get the hang of it.
And finally, I couldn’t write about Final Fantasy XIII without mentioning its awesome music. Masashi Hamauzu’s score is nothing short of amazing, and a bold new direction for the franchise. Final Fantasy veterans may have been disappointed with the all-new music, but I for one loved it, and it’s even one of the (very) few game soundtracks that I listen to outside of the actual game.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII is a remarkable feat of gaming. Everything about it oozes style and class, from the beautiful visuals and epic story, to the incredible music and voice acting. Four years is a very long time, but the final game was well worth the wait (although I do hope we don’t have to wait quite that long for Final Fantasy Versus XIII).
I’ve sunk well over 150 hours into Final Fantasy XIII throughout the year (127 hours of which is on a single save file), and I can see myself spending much more time on it in 2011. In my opinion it’s a true gaming masterpiece, and is not only my PlayStation 3 game of the year, but also easily ranks as one of my favourite games of all time.