Our Game of the Year list represents the thoughts of the VideoGamer.com hive mind, but what about the individual titles which slipped through the cracks? Our Staff Picks might not be GOTY material, usually because they're deeply flawed in certain areas, but they still managed to strike a chord with us in some way. Today, Jamin talks about Final Fantasy XIII...
When Final Fantasy IX was released back in 2001, I feigned illness so I could skive off school and acquaint myself with Zidane and the gang. When Final Fantasy X hit the PS2 the following year, I did the same thing; explaining to my parents that a slight cough I had was in fact a full blown asthma attack. In 2006, when FFXII came out, I couldn't be bothered with excuses; I simply didn't turn up to my lectures. I locked myself away in halls for three days straight, only surfacing for food when my stomach started growling loudly enough. It's shameful to admit, but these were quite possibly the best days of my life.
Imagine, then, the nauseating excitement I felt on the day of Final Fantasy XIII's release. I had no need to play truant at this point in my life, either; I was free to enjoy Square Enix's latest to my heart's content. One hour in and I was delirious with joy; great characters, a fantastic battle system and oh-my-gosh the graphics. The further I journeyed in Cocoon, however, the more my enjoyment dwindled. Where were the towns, NPCs and inns, from whose cupboards I could pilfer a cheeky Phoenix Down? Where was the world map? The infinitude of side quests? Why could I only control one character in battle? Why oh why was there a bloody limit imposed on how much I could grind in one area?
I'm not going to sugar coat it: Square Enix messed up. In its relentless quest for Westernisation, Final Fantasy XIII managed to piss off an alarming amount of people. In a series that was always famed for being expansive, and teeming with distractions from the main path, FFXIII was distressingly one-dimensional. The game pushes you through corridor after corridor after corridor, and refuses to open up until some thirty hours in. It's linear, overly simplified and incredibly back-heavy.
So, why does the game find itself getting an honourable mention, then? Three reasons, primarily:
1. The Battle System
I still regard the Dress Sphere system from X-2 to be the best combat system the series has birthed to date (truly, bring on the flames), but XIII isn't far behind. It's fast and fluid; simple at first yet brimming with strategy as you start taking on tougher opponents. Auto-battle handles most of the decision making for you, but this lets you focus your strategies on the bigger picture instead of restricting you to navigating menus.
These tactics are derived from the new Paradigm system, which allows players to change the whole dynamic of their party with a button tap; a versatile evolution of the Job system first introduced in Final Fantasy V. The class of all three active party members can be changed on the fly, meaning you can set up combinations to cover every eventuality in battle. Two Commanders and a Ravager is the Relentless Assault Paradigm, for instance, whereas two Medics and a Sentinel is a Combat Clinic. Setting up your paradigms properly before battle is the only way to ensure a victory.
Combine this with the Stagger mechanic (which brings an enemy to its knees for additional damage), summonable Eidolons and the usual item malarkey (Phoenix Downs, Ethers - you know the stuff) and you have an involving battle system. Combat in FFXIII is, without a doubt, the game's strongest asset.
2. Sassy Women and Sazh Katzroy
Packed with enough history and politics to fill a small encyclopaedia, the world of Cocoon is easily as cohesive as Spira or Ivalice, but it's the characters populating its world that make FFXIII such a captivating place. The plot revolves around Lightning; a female Cloud Strife with none of the cliché. As well as being subtle and solemn, she also happens to have the coolest hair in video game history; I can often stop and watch the wind playfully blowing hair across her face.
While I might happen to have the biggest crush in the world on Lightning, she's by no means my favourite of the L'Cie bunch. The best character is undoubtedly Sazh Katroy, the hopelessly uninformed, slightly pathetic ex-military pilot who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. As well as the comic relief, he's also a conduit for the player's curiosity - asking the relevant questions to help fill in the frequent holes in the plot. He also has a baby Chocobo that lives in his bouncy afro; if that doesn't make him the best character in Final Fantasy history, I don't know what does.
The rest of the game's cast are equally strong, with personalities developed incredibly well over the course of the game. While I hated narcissistic douchebag Snow Villiers at first, his turbulent relationship with the young Hope Estheim quickly won me over. To see a character mature and purge themselves of their annoying traits during the course of the narrative is a rare thing in video games. That said, the overly chirpy Vanille never really stops being annoying, but I forgive her because she's totally hot.
3. Sweet, sweet eye candy
I'm going to go out on a limb here - Final Fantasy XIII boasts the best character designs of any game this generation. I've always been a fan of Tetsuya Nomura's work, but he's outdone himself here. If I was feeling particularly adventurous, I might even venture that FFXIII is the best looking game of 2010. In terms of fantastical scenery, stunning vistas and otherworldly architecture, FFXIII has no equal. And I don't think anybody would argue that the game has the best FMV cutscenes of the year. It might not be in-game, but who cares when it looks this good.
There are other points worthy of celebration, too. Like Masashi Hamauzu's glorious soundtrack, the Crystarium and Gran Pulse - but I've already gone over my word limit and should probably start wrapping things up.
Final Fantasy XIII is likely to find itself on more 'most disappointing games of 2010' lists than Game of the Year, which is part of the reason why I felt such a compelling need to defend it. I'm not saying I wasn't disappointed myself - I was, but that doesn't stop it being a fantastic game. While the western RPG is moving forward with relentless pace, Japan's efforts have remained largely the same for two decades. So despite getting a few things wrong, you can't blame Square Enix for trying something a little different.
For more end of year content, head over to our Game of the Year 2010 hub. Amongst other things you'll be able to watch videos in which we talk about each game in the Top 10.