Why must the Fantasy be Final?
If there’s any one takeaway to pull out of Final Fantasy XIII, it’s that it’s an incredibly divisive game. In fact, it’s difficult to discuss or express an opinion on any one aspect of the highly anticipated Japanese epic without almost immediately receiving the opposite viewpoint from someone. To be quite honest, in all of the years I’ve been gaming, I’m very hard-pressed to think of a single title that’s been so loved and hated, appreciated and dismissed, and admired and looked down upon at the same time as FFXIII. It truly is an intimidating task then, to write something concrete about this game, knowing all of the emotion, expectation, hope and disappointment that will be wrapped up in any semblance of a response floated my way. Almost everyone “important” has already had their say, and, at least to a large degree, it seems to be less about how cautiously you word your opinion than what side you ultimately fall down upon. And this, I think, is both the most fulfilling and disappointing aspect of Final Fantasy XIII – its critical reception.
Expectations are sky-high.
To be clear, I’m a fan of the series. Not a die hard by any means, I’ve played only a few entries – namely VI, VII, part of VIII and X – but I still find myself happily anticipating new chapters in the main franchise. I’ve lived in Japan, I speak the language, I enjoy anime and I generally like Square Enix. Add to this the fact that some of my favorite games of the past few years include Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, LittleBigPlanet and Gears of War 2, and I think you’ll understand that I’ve tried my best to diversify my palette. After recording this podcast for over two years and taking a serious look at what our industry has had to offer, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s really something great out there for everyone, regardless of genre, platform or country of origin.
I therefore find it to Square Enix’s credit that FFXIII has had such a varied response – the fact that there are so many diverse types of gamers all giving the game a shot is a testament to the staying power of the franchise. In a way, I would have been a bit disappointed to see the game be universally praised – it would show little in terms of developing tastes among RPG fans, and would suggest dishonesty from those who dislike the genre. Make no mistake, FFXIII is many parts old and many parts new, and it’s more than a bit unreasonable to think that the majority of players would appreciate both parts equally. But on the positive side, I can’t think of any thirteenth entry in a franchise outside of FFXIII that’s garnered just as much positive buzz as it has negative.
I love the fact that our medium has become home to divisive games like FFXIII – games that reinforce the notion that it’s actually OK to create experiences that aren’t for everyone yet still have the ability to succeed. Games that people love and hate but at the end of the day are still options for anyone who wants to give them a spin. Games that let us reevaluate what it is that we truly enjoy about a franchise, genre or style and provide a forum for debate regarding its merits and faults.
My struggle then comes from my own reluctance to play defense for Team FFXIII – because I fall on the positive side of the critical wall, I’m constantly finding myself under attack from a combination of insatiable nostalgia, preconceived notions and inflated hype that all surround the franchise from its past and present fans. For as much as I reiterate that there is as much to like as there is to dislike, the immediate focus for detractors seems to be to latch onto the perceived faults as a way to completely dismiss the gains made by this entry. And for a title whose every aspect is one man’s gain and another man’s bane, it’s a bit hard to swallow that there are many RPG fans still unwilling to give it a chance despite not knowing which side they’ll fall on. I truly don’t believe there’s any critical consensus here – no universally “good” or “bad” judgments to be made. The only valid criticism can come from your own personal experience with what the game has to offer – and it might be completely different from your neighbor’s.
Yet when we’re backed into corners regarding things we like, we often push back equally as hard in order to prevent ourselves from being marginalized. My hesitation with pushing back on FFXIII’s faults stems from the fact that each of them personally works in my favor. The game’s too long? I want something lengthy. The battle system is introduced too slowly? I rather not be overwhelmed too quickly. The exploration is too linear? I don’t really like side-quests. Lucky for me, but definitely not for everyone else.
The kids are alright.
Pushing back too hard often leads us to seem extreme, and there’s nothing to be “extreme” about in Final Fantasy XIII. To quote 1up’s Jeremy Parish, it’s a “game at a crossroads,” defined by mixed execution yet met with high expectations. So I’ll hesitate from making any kind of definitive remark here regarding FFXIII, save for one: if you have the chance to check it out and you’re remotely interested, give it a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an understanding of what works for you and what doesn’t and hopefully be willing to add to the conversation. All I ask is that you steady your sword before you decide whether or not the beast in front of you is the best summon or worst boss you’ve ever encountered. More often than not, it turns out to be both, and I personally think that’s pretty great.