[I’m going to try very hard not to spoil Final Fantasy XIII for you but there is a chance that I might. Keep that in mind.]
The Final Fantasy series has always been at the forefront of the JRPG genre. (Sometimes it has literally been the genre.) Other game developers and publishes look first at what Final Fantasy has done or is doing and try to pull out what is working and then make their own games. Most of the time, this is for the best. The creative teams behind the various Final Fantasy games have all innovated in small ways. Many have similar ideas but each game is different.
With Final Fantasy XIII, I think maybe they went too far. There are three core changes to the series that I find worrisome:
1) Active time battles
One of the reasons I used to love role-playing games was that I could take my time. Each move was a delicate thing that took thought and was done with purpose. Should I use a healing spell now or wait? Should I attack now or try to support my other characters? Each battle was a game within the greater game. I had to understand the system and act accordingly.
Final Fantasy XIII has an active time battle system. The battle happens regardless if you are paying attention or not. It is an ongoing organic thing that grows by itself and could strangle you unless you keep it in check with the right commands at the right time. It is that last bit that’s concerning and is leaving me apprehensive. It takes time to master new spells, skills and commands and this game is not giving me the time I need…yet.
This game is extremely linear. Each area is a straight path that leads from one side to another. You fight battles in the middle at (somewhat) random times but it is a path. Gone is taking your time to explore a dungeon or wander a new area seeking out treasure. No, you walk a single path. Occasionally, there might an offshoot to some loot or another enemy, but there is only one way to the end.
3) Ease of use
This game is very friendly to new players. Maybe too friendly. Every time a new character, event or enemy is introduced, they are recorded and logged to a special menu section. Gone are the days of trying to remember which spell or technique worked well against which enemy. The game will remember for you. Don’t know why this side character is important? Look them up and read all about them. Did you see something shiny and miss a plot point? That’s okay. You can go read what happened. Want to go back over how to do something? You can see the tutorial again. There is very little need for the player to remember anything at all.
Save points are very frequent. I think the idea is to make it so the game can be played in smaller chunks. The effect of having so many save points though is that I spend more time in the menu than actually playing the game too often. Fight a couple of battles. Want to save? You just saw a cut-scene. Want to save? Maybe it changes later on but now, it is slightly ridiculous.
These problems haven’t stopped me from playing (I’m about 7 hours in) but they do make me stop and take note. If this is the future of the genre though I am worried that they will become less about Have An Adventure and more about Press Buttons Really Fast To Win.