Final Fantasy XIII


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Review by · March 29, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII is difficult to swallow. It’s a feast for the eyes for sure, with bright colors and a meticulously designed mélange of visual delights, but there’s something wrong once it enters you. Perhaps FFXIII, unfinished and underdeveloped, was rushed to the table for slobbering masses. Then again, perhaps it was rotten all along, and Square Enix just can’t make a palatable game anymore. FFXIII marks the end of many traditions, and this would not normally be a transgression if those traditions were disposed of to make room for better conventions. Instead, Square Enix fills up the Final Fantasy name with hollow characters, race car summons, and heartless pop songs in a mockery of what was once a spirited franchise. FFXIII is not without its strengths, but its weakness is a deep one. Despite this, the general consensus will undoubtedly be that this thirteenth fantasy combines the good, the bad, and the stupid in an inconsistent JRPG that many will find entertaining and few will find profound.

FFXIII tells a story of oppression. Two worlds are at odds with one another: Cocoon, a floating globe, and Pulse, the land below. Players enter Cocoon amidst the Purge, a joint government-military operation to cleanse the world of all those tainted by Pulse influence. For as long as one can tell, Cocoon’s government has nurtured hatred and fear of Pulse and all Pulse related entities, for Pulse is Hell. At least according to rumor. As Lightning, Sazh, Snow, and others try to fight against the Purge, they soon become more involved in the fates of the two worlds than they originally desired.

FFXIII’s plot is not as confusing as rumor dictates. While the first few hours explain little, characters soon explicate the more beguiling terms such as fal’Cie and l’Cie. The developers took risks with the story, using flashbacks, narrative, and frequent changes in perspective. Initially the plot provides ample motivation for one to move the game along, even if the story is never groundbreaking. Eventually, however, the plot falters completely and falls into generic JRPG mediocrity about saving the world because we all have someone worth fighting for. There is no sophistication of theme and eventually the plot really has no meaning. This is partially due to unexplained plot points, and reliance on the codex to fully understand certain events. Even then, however, some are lost entirely in a sea of irrational character reactions and nonsensical phenomena. The colander of a plot only suffers more from weak characters and a weaker script.

FFXIII’s main cast numbers six, and it requires a certain quality to stomach half of them. This is largely a result of the script: a juvenile, melodramatic, child’s cartoon quality catastrophe of ill-used language. Better dialogue may have redeemed the characters, if only to a tolerable level. While some characters actually undergo change, motivations are thin, non-existent, or transparent from the start. At times, one has no idea why characters act and respond the way they do. Again, the codex explains some things, but this should not be necessary. Inter-party relationships offer some potential for attachment, but they too fail to evoke an emotional response. No one can be taken seriously in FFXIII thanks to sentimental, sappy dialogue through and through. I tried valiantly to connect with the cast and feel something, but I could only suspend my disbelief and intellect so long. In the end, I had to laugh.

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Annoying and unlikable non-player characters also make FFXIII even more difficult to digest. What few NPCs turn up during the story represent some of the worst in character design, voice acting, and characterization. The major and minor villains are a handful of zero charisma losers, and the rebel group NORA makes me want to kill or be killed. The main cast is as inconsistent as the rest of FFXIII. Lightning’s early potential fizzles out, although she’s still the least unlikable character (different from “most likable.”) Sazh is a bag of clichés that escape in droves every time he opens his mouth. Otherwise, he’s one of the better characters, even though he’s the subject of innumerable old man jokes despite his relatively young age. Snow is big, dumb and unpleasantly altruistic. Vanille is the embodiment of an obvious defense mechanism: covering sinister secrets with yippees, smiles, and stupid hand gestures. An altogether awful creature. Hope undergoes the most change and is surprisingly likable at times, despite being a nebbish for half the game. I almost forgot to mention Fang.

In a game so heavily plotted where dungeons are constructed to move the plot along at a rapid pace, a shoddy story, poorly developed characters, and a bogus script are unforgivable. The developers seem to think FFXIII has a good story, which only shows all the more that the writers at Square Enix are a panel of boobs with no conception of good storytelling. Unsettling, is it not?

Story and combat are FFXIII’s only major methods of expressing itself. It’s rather simple, and like a baby, has not developed higher functioning. Strip away the story, and one is left with a long string of battles. FFXIII’s lack of exploration and linear dungeon design may advance the story without interruption, but when that story has little to offer, problems arise. Players may find no motivation to continue when the story comes and goes in quality and eventually drops out entirely. When that happens one’s only motivation may be to play FFXIII to beat it and pursue better games. Fighting battle after battle, each increasingly difficult, at times unbearably frustrating, for hours and hours wears on one’s patience and fortitude. There is a significant difference between intense, challenging gameplay and stressful, exhaustive gameplay. Forty five hours of clenched jaw cannot be healthy.

There are so few breaks from the plodding pacing, and the general lack of activities hurts FFXIII and hurts me. True, the game opens up into a beautiful expanse in its eleventh chapter, but this area is mostly optional. That’s good because it gives one something new to accomplish, even after the credits roll. Exploring the open field and its related zones is liberating, although optional missions are all about battling, grinding, farming, and backtracking. But, once the plot continues, one finds another seemingly endless road populated by monsters and interspersed with badly scripted cutscenes. FFXIII is like a length of twine with a knot in the middle, and many might leave that knot alone to engage in some more meaningful activity.

Thankfully, FFXIII boasts a theoretically great Active-Time Battle system. Relentlessly beating away at enemies builds their change gauge in an effort to stagger them, which leaves a foe quite vulnerable. Similar to the previous Final Fantasy, one only controls the party leader, while AI operates the other two. Hence paradigms exist, the crux of FFXIII’s battle system. These give one some control over the actions of AI-controlled party members. Paradigms consist of pre-configured sets of roles applied to the party during battle. At any time during combat, one may change the current paradigm in an effort to meet new challenges, recover after a brutal attack, or take an enemy down more quickly.

In theory and when properly used, the battle system is fantastic. All too often, however, FFXIII fails to properly implement the new ATB system. Both its merit and its curse are related to a novel concept in a Final Fantasy game: auto-battle. Auto-battle is now the most logical and useful command instead of choosing commands manually. The AI is nearly perfect. This is good: it allows one to focus on changing paradigms, necessary to win many battles. This is bad: battles that require infrequent or no paradigm shifting are boring. Even in the most difficult battles, there are long stretches of time during which one needs only to press a button. Flamboyant attack animations and occasionally unresponsive controls make this more upsetting. When it works, battles are intense, scary, fun, tactical. But for every intense battle, there are ten boring ones that require little effort or strategy beyond pouring excessive damage into enemy receptacles. Again, FFXIII is extremely inconsistent.

Character progression does not rely on levels and experience points, but on the Crystarium, a sphere-grid-like concoction with a stupid name. Characters progress in each role using points obtained from combat. Thankfully, not every character’s roles are created equally; characters have strengths and weaknesses. Some characters are unlikely to be used often, but this prevents one from ending the game with six clones. The Crystarium is an enjoyable and satisfying system that complements the battle system and adds some much needed satisfaction to the game.

The equipment, however, does not work as smoothly. New weapons and accessories can be collected, but the best equipment is a product of the upgrading system. Instead of using a fixed system in which sword X requires six magical bones, ten pebbles, and a tin can to turn into sword Y, each component awards experience points to an item. More unique, but also much more difficult to get anywhere. In fact, upgrading anything to any effect isn’t lucrative for over half the game. At least it’s satisfying and helpful when one does happen to accumulate the gil to buy the 7000 components necessary to make a difference.

Whereas much of FFXIII’s quality is arguable, graphically the game is objectively impressive, at least technically. FFXIII is obviously the best looking JRPG currently extant. Character models are detailed and approach realism, animation is solid, and environments feature impressive vistas and atmosphere. Incongruously, lip-synching looks misshapen, and monster palette swapping reaches irritating heights. Furthermore, FFXIII suffers from questionable art design that mars the overall impression of the graphics. Environments generally have fantastic design and are a product of a unique vision, even if they never coalesce into a coherent setting. Outdoor environments especially make one stop and look, although a fickle, sloppy camera might have a different agenda. Some interior environments are a bit dull while still of superior technical quality. Enemy design ranges from perplexingly unique to generic, but most exist in the former end of that spectrum. Character design, however, borders on ludicrous. Characters like Vanille are created to look annoying. The members of NORA are simply ghastly.

While the technical quality of FFXIII’s audio needs no comment, the artistic dimension warrants some discussion. The voice actors for the main cast are above average for a JRPG, although given the cloying script, their performances aren’t overly impressive. Vanille once again manages to be a repugnant twerp with a high-pitched voice and chameleon accent. Minor characters give melodramatic performances worth a few laughs. FFXIII’s soundtrack includes the great normal battle theme, a vocal track with a catchy melody and maudlin lyrics, a few fun exploration pieces, some annoying jazz, and even some rock and techno. One warning: the very last cutscene in the game is accompanied by one of the worst pieces of music ever found in a video game. Square Enix, stop pretending to know something about popular music. Stick to instrumental pieces. Overall, FFXIII’s soundtrack is eclectic and interesting, but often inappropriate and unmemorable.

FFXIII is not the worst entry in the series. That trophy still belongs to FFII. Even then, FFXII is a worse game (complete lack of character development, thin plot, misplaced MMORPG elements, terrible combat, and even worse character progression). Nevertheless, FFXIII still hasn’t recaptured the magic of what made Final Fantasy great in the past, and there’s something particularly disturbing about it that did not plague FFXII. A few chocobos and a Cid don’t make a good game. I’m not asking for another FFVII either. I’m asking for a good JRPG. Dreadful pacing, a wreck of a story, and weak characterization represent FFXIII’s primary sins. Pretty graphics and solid gameplay hardly atone. Final Fantasy XIII is likely to divide players with elements that can just as easily be liked as disliked. After ingesting the entirety of the game, however, one is unlikely to enjoy every aspect of the experience, likely to find something to hate, slightly less likely to find something to love, and almost certain to feel slightly ill about the future of Japanese RPGs.

Overall Score 79
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Kyle E. Miller

Kyle E. Miller

Over his eight years with the site, Kyle would review more games than we could count. As a site with a definite JRPG slant, his take on WRPGs was invaluable. During his last years here, he rose as high as Managing Editor, before leaving to pursue his dreams.