Its stunning visuals and fast-paced combat shine and elevate the series to new heights, but overall, Final Fantasy XIII is a harsh reminder that beauty is only skin deep.
I'm having a hard time admitting to myself that I don't like Final Fantasy XIII. By all accounts, I should love it and instead, I'm disappointed by it. It's not because Final Fantasy XIII is a bad game - it's because it's not the game I wanted it to be. My disappointment runs deeper than that, though. I have a longstanding emotional connection to the Final Fantasy series and it feels to me like XIII is trying to break it off in an awkward, mean way. It's like a boyfriend I've been on-again, off-again with since middle school invited me to coffee. He can't just tell me "It's over," so instead he tells me he's married and lets me figure out the rest.
Rejection stings. It makes us bitter and more prone to passing unfair judgments on the jerk that jilted us just so we feel better about where we're coming from. I am bitter about Final Fantasy XIII not being the game I wanted it to be. Perhaps that makes me harsher on it when I see that there's no Japanese audio track option and there's not a single town to visit within the game. But I'm a jilted lover; I'm a letdown JRPG fan. How else am I supposed to act in the wake of a breakup?
Perhaps I should've been ready for it. After all, every Final Fantasy is a little different from the game that precedes it. I've lived through shifts in gameplay between Final Fantasy VI's Active Time Battle system, Final Fantasy VIII's Junction system, and the Active Dimension Battle system in Final Fantasy XII. After all that, I felt like I could handle XIII's Paradigm Shift system. What I couldn't handle was how different XIII was, especially in terms of how linear a game it is.
Instead of an open world the player can explore bits of at any given time in the story, the world in Final Fantasy XIII is broken up into 13 levels called "chapters". Of those chapters, 11 consist of fighting your way through soldiers, monsters and robots (or a combination of the three) down a long hallway toward an orange target symbol on your mini-map that triggers a cutscene, a boss fight, or both. Then you move onto the next hallway or level and do the whole thing over again. That change was a bit too much for me to handle as a JRPG fan, especially because it felt like an obvious attempt to woo someone else rather than me, its loyal fan.
I remember reading quotes from the development team where they discussed making these dramatic changes in XIII, largely as a response to the lukewarm reception XII got. I'd been warned that the game wouldn't have as much world exploration as other Final Fantasy games and that the battle system would make combat faster and more actiony. On an intellectual level, I was happy about these changes because they represented a break with JRPG tradition.
In the past two years, Japanese developers at the Tokyo Game Show have been very vocal about the need for their games to "catch up" to Western RPGs in order to appeal to a wider audience. I actually agree with part of that sentiment - I think JRPGs grew stale somewhere between Suikoden V and Dragon Quest VII while new, Western-developed RPGs like Mass Effect and Fable feel fresh and exciting to me.
At the same time, I can't just shift my expectations of Final Fantasy with a button press. Numbered Final Fantasy games mean something to me. They're not like the Crystal Chronicles or Tactics spin-off series which I can justify ignoring because they're not part of the "main series".
From CC and Tactics, I expect lip service to Final Fantasy tradition - from a numbered Final Fantasy, I expect it to be tradition. I expect a gripping epic story accompanied by swelling dramatic music. I expect glitzy cutscenes and Limit Breaks. I expect to play a numbered Final Fantasy and feel the same way I felt back in high school when I finally beat Final Fantasy VIII and had an emotional reaction to the ending that resulted in Kleenex and a the compulsive need to call my then-boyfriend at three in the morning.