The many varied opinions of Final Fantasy XIII: Was Square Enix trying to please too many people simultaneously?

Final Fantasy XIII comes out on Tuesday, but Square Enix‘s review embargo must have lifted yesterday, since pretty much ever Web site ever has published their review. Not us, of course. That’s fine. I’ll just buy the game and play it quietly by myself next week. Be that as it may, let’s see what people are saying about it.

First thing’s first: if you have both a PS3 and Xbox 360, you really ought to get the PS3 version. Eurogamer goes into the technical details, but the gist of it is this: the Xbox 360 version runs at a rubbish resolution compared to the PS3. When you consider that Square Enix had to squeeze a filled-to-the-brim Blu-ray disc (50GB) into three Xbox 360s discs (each disc maxes out at 6.8GB), well, mazel tov, Squeenix programmers! It’s a technical achievement, yes, but the PS3 version is clearly the superior game. Go ahead, PS3 fans, hoot and holler till your throat is sore.

With that out of the way, the reviews. With the exception of one really high-profile negative score, all the gaming publications that I care about gave the game good marks. You all already know that I think review score numbers are dumb, but I’ve read most of the big reviews from start to finish (I should get a job at a publishing company!), so I have a basic idea of where they’re coming from. Eurogamer, always a fine site for reviews, did go out of its way to praise the game’s battle system, a modified version of the ATB system we’re all familiar with:

Which brings me to Final Fantasy XIII‘s star attraction, and the one area where its pacing is thrilling and perfect. Its all-new version of the series’ Active Time Battle (ATB) system has been controversial, and initially seems worryingly basic. It takes a few hours to reveal its true colours; in the end it turns out to be radical, ingenious, elegant and exciting to use.

1UP, another site I usually read for my reviews (I’m an old EGM fan, you see), is no less positive:

In practice, however, FFXIII is far from awful. It’s unquestionably a huge departure for the series, but taken on its own merits, it works. If the quality of a game is defined by how well it lays down a series of objectives and proceeds to fulfill them (traditions be damned), FFXIII is an unqualified success. Yes, it abandons a great many RPG traditions, but it does so in the name of creating a highly focused experience. The elements it abandons are features Final Fantasy has rarely done as well as the competition, while the components it retains are the ones Final Fantasy does best.

But enough praise—what’s wrong with the game?

IGN UK sums it up quite well:

But the lack of anything substantial to do beyond fleeing and fighting soon brings the game crashing back to earth, and even when the walls are lifted Final Fantasy XIII’s world can seem strangely lifeless. As a technical feat the game is a triumph, but it seems a slave to its own spectacle, manacling the gameplay to serve its own bombastic vision and ultimately while the excellent combat and stunning visuals are enough to recommend it, they’re not enough to earn it a place amongst the series’ top rank.

Edge magazine, probably the closest thing video games journalism has to a paper of record, um, hated the game, giving it a 5/10.

It’s a significant prop to a story that has moments of poignancy and a few good characters, but ultimately falls flat. This is such a well-realised world that to have it inhabited by Final Fantasy clichés is especially disappointing. Hope (really) is a kid tormented by the death of his mother. Vanille’s an over-sexualised nonentity. Sazh is a convincing argument against Danny Glover and Lionel Richie ever again being combined into a single character. The biggest problem is that there’s simply no one else. Outside of the main party, every single character in this game is either a cackling cipher, a bystander with a few repeated lines, or a deus ex machina who’s there and gone within the space of a cutscene.

Wow, you really don’t want to see any of your characters referred to as a deus ex machina, so that’s not good.

So I don’t know what to say. I do have the feeling that Final Fantasy XIII is a game that would have been bought sight-unseen by many, many gamers. I’m one of those gamers: even if every single publication under the sun absolutely hated the game, I’d still buy it and probably love. I’m a Square Enix apologist, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about that fact. You do get the sense that Square Enix was trying to appease people who’d have no interest in the series to begin with, and that makes no sense at all. Some people, myself included, do like an old school JRPG every now and then, so Square Enix would have done better to play to its true fans than trying to rope in the Modern Warfare 2 crowd, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with a linear story—do we hate novels because they’re linear?—and I don’t mind level grinding every now and then. I never finished Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2, but I’d have no problem putting that up against Western classics like Mass Effect or Fallout 3 (with apologies to fans of the orignial Fallout games—No Mutants Allowed and all that!)

But, like I said, I could sit here and write 30,000 words on the game, and it wouldn’t convince people one way or another about the game’s value. Final Fantasy is just one of those things.