And then of course, there are the graphics. FFXIII - the first HD FF game - looks fantastic. The in-game character models are superb. Lightning's hair blows in the wind, Snow's jacket ripples realistically as he dishes out his unique blend of knuckle sandwich, and Sazh's afro… well, it wobbles about like jelly, which isn't realistic at all, but from a distance it looks great. Some of the environments look stunning, too. The Hanging Edge, for example, is what you imagine Midgar would look like had it been created in high definition and powered by current generation processors. The vista in the seaside city of Bodhum is up there with the best Uncharted 2 had to offer. And, Gran Pulse, the setting of FFXIII's infamous chapter 11, is a genuine sight to behold - an open field safari packed with enormous, earth shaking four-legged beasts and rabid monsters sprinting in packs, all overlooked by the ominous vision of Cocoon hanging high in the sky. FFXIII's sci-fi world is as colourful and vibrant as any gamer tired of dour, depressing game worlds could hope for. It is quintessentially Final Fantasy - a distinctly Japanese take on science fiction - fuelled by a wonderfully uplifting score composed by Masashi Hamauzu - that acts as the perfect antidote to the concrete, post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3 and the lens-flare filled galaxy of Mass Effect 2.
But the CGI cutscenes will no doubt steal the show. They are, quite simply, the best ever; to our eyes as good as the Final Fantasy CGI movies. There are loads of cutscenes in FFXIII, but they are not, in isolation, offensively long, as they are in MGS4. They are bite-sized chunks of animated brilliance, and demand to be watched over and over again. But the more impressive feat is how good the "in between cutscenes" look. These cutscenes - not CGI but not in-game - look fantastic, and sometimes fool you into thinking you're watching CGI. There can be no doubt that FFXIII is a graphical feast worthy of anyone's high definition television.
However, it doesn't always look fantastic. Some of the environments look bland and, dare we say it, lack detail. This is particularly true of the Vile Peaks area - a land built with the debris used by the fal'Cie to construct Cocoon. Almost all of the game's interior sections are boring to look at - a particularly disappointing, and frustrating, sight to endure when you're forced to spend hours soldiering through these locales. It's particularly irksome because you know the game is capable of so much more - you've just seen it in the last chapter.
You all want to know about the differences between the PS3 and the 360 versions, don't you? Of course you do. Well, here's the truth: the PS3 version is the one to get. To our eyes, the gameplay visuals look similar across both platforms, but the cutscenes are vastly different. On PS3, and, therefore on Blu-ray, the cutscenes are displayed natively in 1080p, whereas the cutscenes in the 360 version are sub 720p. The cutscenes in the 360 version look, to the discerning eye, pixelated and blurry. But to the untrained eye, it's a case of much ado about nothing.
Despite the superb battle system, engaging cutscenes, and interesting characters, FFXIII, ultimately, is a disappointment. Taken in isolation, it is a fun game with stunning graphics and a compelling story. But compared with the wider RPG genre, and held up against the lofty expectations of the series' hardcore fans, it falls short. For this reason, newcomers may well enjoy FFXIII more than series' veterans.
Characters constantly refer to pushing forward no matter what. For much of the game, that is all the player can do.
You just can't escape the feeling that, in trimming the fat from the series, Square Enix has nicked FFXIII's bone. It's not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination; like a good song, or a slow-burning book, FFXIII grows on you the more you play it. It is, undoubtedly, the best JRPG to come out of Square Enix in a long time. But the inescapable, uncomfortable truth is that it is too linear. Without traditional JRPG features like towns, NPCs, and an over world, there is no real sense of ownership. Upon completing the game, you certainly feel as if you've enjoyed the 50 or so hours you've invested into doing so, but the experience is more throwaway than formative. Despite some incredibly tough monster hunting missions in chapter 11, there's no variation to the game whatsoever.
FFXIII spends too long easing players into its complex systems - complex systems which, really, aren't that complex. In a recent interview, Kitase said: "It's better to see some people be a little bit bored" than give players too much information to digest. We had no idea he was talking about 25 hours of boredom. Toriyama recently said that lower than expected review scores are the result of press reviewing "from a western point of view", as if to say we're missing the point. But surely, in today's global village and instant communication age, taking a global perspective on a high profile internationally-released video game is the only proper course of action.
As Western role-playing games have evolved, delving into open world, player-driven territory (Elder Scrolls, Fallout) and cinematic, cross-genre experiences (Mass Effect, Borderlands), Japanese role-playing games have remained largely the same - stuck in a rut, even - telling tales of teenage angst and upbeat heroic fantasy we've heard countless times before. We're not saying we wanted Final Fantasy to copy WRPG mechanics. We simply wanted - quite desperately - for Final Fantasy XIII to be the best JRPG of all time. You have to hand it to Square Enix for trying to move things forward - better that than yet another rehash of the tried and tested Final Fantasy formula (the less said about Infinite Undiscovery the better). But it does so along a path so narrow and straight that you long for the days of old. When Vanille is knocked out in battle, she sometimes says: "What went wrong?" It's a question we find ourselves wondering as well.