As the first Final Fantasy of this current generation, you may expect there to be quite a lot of attention drawn towards this latest JRPG. You would not be wrong. Since its recent December launch in Japan, many previews have spoken of the fairly significant changes to the core Final Fantasy experience. Whether its the linear nature of the game, the complete lack of any towns or the inclusion of Leona Lewis in the Western version of the game, many had written the game off even before its release. But are these concerns warranted?
As I placed the game into my console I had my doubts too. But by the time my 60 odd hour quest had reached its conclusion, it was clear that my fears were unfounded. This game is not perfect however, in fact it has several issues which hampered my experience.
The game starts by placing you in the thick of the action with little description as to what is going on, but does do a good job of explaining the new combat system as you go. On the surface, the system in place appears to be very simplistic and lacking in any real strategic depth. You are only limited to a couple of options and therefore battles can become very tedious for the first couple of hours. However, as you progress with the story you gradually unlock new abilities and battle mechanics which start to make fights much more strategic than merely pressing ‘A’ or ‘X’ over and over. Even after the 10 hour mark, new combat and gameplay concepts will be introduced to further enhance the experience and therefore the game really does get better as you go.
Luckily the story is engaging enough to help keep you going in the early stages of the game. It involves, as you might expect, a group of individuals tasked with saving the world. Without ruining the story, it essentially turns the heroes into fugitives early on in the game, and the majority of the story involves running from what seems like the entire world‘s military, all the time saving the very world that is trying to kill them.
The lead character this time is Lightning, a female solider who carries a gun blade similar to Squall’s in FFVIII. She isn’t a bad character, but the story seems to be based around the group as a whole rather than a single person, and the fact that she is one of the least interesting is surprising considering the normal way Square Enix handle their leads. Her companions are more fully formed and certainly interesting enough for you to want to learn what their motives are.
Once the game is in full flow, the combat is both fast and tactical. Essentially each character is given a specific role, whether it’s a magic damage dealer, a tank or a healer. There are six types in total, and three per character that can be switched around on the fly during battle. The game lets you customise the configuration of these roles so you can change your tactics as the battle dictates. As you start to encounter tougher and tougher enemies, the constant monitoring of battle conditions and reacting accordingly becomes key to survival. Being a Final Fantasy game, there are summons to utilise as well. They still look just as impressive as ever, although thankfully the developers have allowed you to skip the animations this time to keep the action as fast as possible.
It seems Square Enix have tried to make this game more accessible to newcomers by lowering the difficulty. For veterans of the series the game can be incredibly easy in the early stages and is somewhat of a disappointment. As previously mentioned, this game is very linear; most of the maps are quite literally straight lines or single narrow paths with hardly any diversions. In fact, it continues in this vein for roughly 25-30 hours. Here the game changes pace and opens out considerably. You can essentially go wherever you want and fight whoever you want. However, it’s at this point that any newcomers will most likely give up and therefore the developers have totally failed to do what they set out to in the beginning. All of a sudden, the game becomes extremely hard and some grinding is required in order to proceed with the story and it can also be bewildering after being led by the hand for so long. I cannot recall any previous game in the series requiring the user to grind just in order to continue with the story, which breaks up the flow of the narrative and is certainly one of my biggest problems with the game. Make no mistake however, when it does open up, it is breathtaking. The sheer scope of the environments and the amount of action taking place on the screen at once is a true sight to behold. Once you start reaching the position where you can take on all comers, the game picks up pace again until its epic conclusion.
As you might expect from a mainline Final Fantasy game, graphically it looks excellent. From detailed character models to stunning environments, this game delivers a graphical tour de force on either console. Much like the gameplay, the locations you visit become better and better as you go and become more diverse and stunning - from a gorgeous beach enveloped with a setting sun, to detailed meadows, forests and cities. The audio is also very good with special mention to the music which is diverse and enjoyable. Even the presence of Leona Lewis isn’t that bad (honest!); you’ll only hear her song at one point in the game, and when it did come on I found it wasn’t distracting or out of place. In fact it complemented the on screen action quite nicely. It’s certainly no different from any other vocal song from previous entries in the series. The voice acting is generally very good and the programmers have even changed the lip syncing in cut scenes to match the English dialogue, which is a very welcome addition.
Much has been made of the fact that this is a PS3 game essentially ported to the Xbox 360 and as a consequence there are differences between the two versions. Whilst the PS3 version comes on a single blu-ray disc, the 360 version comes on three separate DVDs. Gameplay wise they are identical, but graphically the PS3 version is superior, offering higher resolutions and uncompressed audio and video. Whilst the 360 version isn’t as crisp, it still looks good enough that you could only really tell the difference if you had both running side to side. The one area that is clearly noticable however is the video. To fit the game onto the much smaller DVD, the developers have compressed the video and unfortunately have not done this very well. On the more intense scenes, the video look blocky and digitised. It’s not terrible, but one feels it could have been handled far better, especially given the fact that there was unused space left on the discs. Whilst the PS3 version looks better, it does suffer from some frame rate problems when the screen is crowded with objects in later portions of the game. On the other hand, the 360 version has a much more consistent 30 frames-per-second and whilst it also drops some frames in some scenes, it’s not as bad as the PS3 version.
So which version should you buy? If you are lucky enough to have the choice, it depends on your preference over graphics versus frame rate - or trophies versus achievements if you’re so inclined. Be aware, though, that this game does not give up points easy, and will take you over 100 hours in order to 100% the game. If you’re looking for a game that will offer good value for money, look no further.
If you can endure the linear nature of the combat and environments in the early areas and get to the meat of the game, you will reap the rewards that this title ultimately offers. Gorgeous graphics, an interesting story and a fun, frantic combat system are the reasons you should play this game. The startling spike in difficulty can be off putting , but with the right strategy you will be able to overcome this and enjoy the rest of the game. However, the structure of the game is so different from previous Final Fantasy titles that the game can be off putting for long term fans and therefore you may wish to employ some caution before buying.
If this is an indication of where the series is heading in the future, the future looks bright, if a little different. As long as you are prepared for some changes to the traditional Final Fantasy formula, you will have an enjoyable experience that you will remember for quite some time.