Ah, Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy. The repetitive gameplay. The entirely unnecessary complexity. The boys who look like girls. The ludicrous hair. The inappropriate adventure-wear (isn’t she/he cold in those double-buckled-together stocking/boots and micro-skirt?). The bizarre plotting. The incomprehensible emo-ness. And yet, for all your flaws, I love you. I love you because of the flaws. Tis a love affair that, as for many in the west, I am sure, began with Final Fantasy VII, which still remains the quintessential best in the series for me. And don’t tell me about how number five is actually the best because I don’t need to hear that shit, it’s like someone telling you your wife got around a bit before you met her.
So number VII was one of the best games of all time for me. X ran it pretty damn close. XII I liked a lot, although I can’t really remember any of the characters, it’s a hazy fudge of girl/boys and crazy hair. Didn’t one of them have big ears like a rabbit? Or did I dream that? IX was enjoyable, but a bit cutesy and forgettable. VIII was, frankly, a bit crap. But what this variability indicates is that they’re always twiddling about with the basic formula, tweaking the game system and the style of gameplay, changing up the graphical style, presenting a different world, while various features, particularly crazy hair, remain constant. I’m a big admirer of this semi-experimentation, and think it’s helped to keep the series (relatively) fresh even if it has resulted in a few missteps.
So how does the latest installment, XIII, fit in? Well I thought it was pretty good. Not as good as VII or X, certainly, but better than VIII or IX and perhaps on a par with XII. Once again they’ve twiddled with the game system and you could probably say it’s somewhat paired down, a bit simpler, a bit more arcadey, if you can use such a word about Final Fantasy, which is probably no bad thing.
The structure’s a bit odd, though. It basically follows a single path for about 70% of the game before opening out into a single massive free-roaming area then closing back to a single path again. And though there’s quite a lot of side-stuff to do when it does open out, one can’t help feeling that most of the game feels like a giant introduction/tutorial section, albeit a spectacular one. The result is that, since you can’t go back and explore earlier areas as you can in earlier games, even if it’s plenty long in fact, it feels a little smaller, a little less epic. The plotting seems more daft than usual, as well. Side-characters come out of nowhere then suddenly disappear only to reappear without explanation. Or without explanation that made any sense to me, anyway. The actual plot doesn’t emerge until a fair way through, and up to that point moves on the rather unconvincing whims and daft decisions of the characters, accompanied by much emo blather. They decide to do something momentous for no good reason and ten minutes later totally change their minds. Possibly while shedding a single, impossibly beautiful crystal tear. Hmmm.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the best instalments, particularly VII, seemed to have a grittiness about them, a darkness and an unpredictability to characters and storyline that this one seems to lack. It’s all a tad shiny, perhaps. The characters really look spectacularly beautiful and expressive, hitting that tricky mix between cartooniness and realism that is the sweet spot for computer game characters, but I found on the whole they were too overwrought for there to be much emotional punch. Strange how the characters in VII, despite being pixelly cartoons with waving blobs for hands and speech bubbles often containing ‘…..’, seemed to emerge so much more clearly and convincingly than do these ones. They seem a bit, how to say it, one dimensional. Unless hotness is a character dimension, in which case two. Fang is sarcastic and hot with a tattoo. Vanille is naive and hot with an aversion to clothes. Lightning is tough as nails and hot, and has hair which redefines the entire concept of chopiness. Perhaps with the hair she’s three dimensional. Hope is whiney and hot. Hold on, is he a boy? Now I’m confused. But the whole look of the thing is incredible, not just graphics, but the design and the level of visual imagination, on characters, monsters, and settings, really is second to none.
So overall a weird mish-mash of frustratingly silly and amazing? Hey, it’s Final Fantasy. Over time love changes. The first unreasoning flush fades and it becomes more everyday, more aware of the other’s shortcomings. So I see it ain’t perfect. It takes more work than it used to.
But I still love it.