The Final Fantasy franchise has been formative to who I am today. In our RPGs as Therapy feature in 2011, I commented on how these games, in particular, have made me a better person. Fast forward to today and I’ve somehow staved off any substantive exposure to FFXIII, since I’ve never owned a previous generation console. Throughout the harsh criticism, I insisted that it couldn’t be that bad, and even if it were, my fandom would help me to enjoy the journey. Whether people realize it or not, Final Fantasy has always reinvented itself, even if only slightly, while maintaining the magical, epic feel indicative of the series.
That said, this might be the worst modern Final Fantasy. I’ve joked in the past about how awful Final Fantasy VIII is, but that was always in relation to the series. Final Fantasy VIII isn’t actually that bad as a game in isolation. Final Fantasy XIII is, quite honestly, not a pleasurable experience. After investing fifty hours — and wishing I hadn’t — I’ve tried to tease out what’s objectively good and bad while setting aside my subjective feelings.
At its onset, FFXIII is exciting. A shipment of villagers speed down the rail to be “purged,” but some stalwart heroes have other ideas in mind. While most of FFXIII’s protagonists have similar reasons for fighting — to save someone or someones, big surprise — the backgrounds vary somewhat, which makes for a colorful cast. Initially, the storytelling effectively made me care about each character. In fact, unlike most FFs, a fair bit of conflict and scheming exists between the heroes. Each ally has a uniquely rich tale to tell with believable, moving motives.
And then about halfway through the game, they all set their differences aside rather abruptly and fight as one. Rest in peace, intriguing plot and insight into the human condition. I have to emphasize how suddenly they move on. A man’s child could be dead forever because of someone, but hey, it’s all good! My sister’s in an eternal stasis and I never really liked you, but your pretty words make up for all of the blundering and suffering you put my family through. Oh, and you killed a kid’s mother, but oh well. Yes, FFXIII offers some explanation and exposition, but the transition isn’t smooth, believable, and — most criminal of all — it squanders an opportunity to teach about forgiveness and big picture thinking. Instead, it tells us to forgive others because we just should. Quite frankly, the developers seemed to have gotten a kick in the rear at the halfway point as Square Enix tapped on its watch.
The reason I focus on the characters so much is because they’re the best part of FFXIII. Unfortunately, the plot is confusing right from the start. Two factions, nations, or whoever are fighting one another and the citizens of each group are clearly being manipulated. Some demi-gods called Fal’Cie taint select individuals to fulfill a Focus, which is a sort of mission. If these forced mercenaries, l’Cie, don’t fulfill their mission, they turn into wandering monsters after some period of time passes. On the other hand, if the Focus is completed, then they turn into crystals for eternity. Of course, our protagonists become l’Cie soon after the game begins (by “soon,” I mean a few hours in), with some unknown Focus. The overall theme of the game seems to be determining one’s fate and not allowing seemingly greater forces to forge a path. This is fine — wonderful, in fact — but the execution, like the characters, is lacking. Concretely, the plot is hard to follow, but only a cursory understanding of what’s going on is required to grasp the basics. But are the basics enough? Is that why we’re playing a Final Fantasy?
Some play Final Fantasy for its gameplay. Although random encounters and ATB combat system aren’t revolutionary concepts, the spin on leveling up, summons, and skills always satisfy and exceed expectations. Final Fantasy XIII has some success in this arena. At its core, FFXIII’s battle system is sound in theory. However, the execution with which battles occur grows exceptionally tiresome and linear about two thirds of the way through the journey, which is about the time when story takes a backseat to grinding in straight lines. Without going into too much detail, the Paradigm system allows characters to change “jobs” mid-battle, which is essential about a quarter of the way through the game. These jobs very much limit what each character can do. Similar to FFXII, the lead character is the only one players can reasonably control. Oftentimes, players will find themselves spamming Auto Battle because this is the most efficient and mindless part of combat. Almost as if playing a strategy game, the most fun aspect of combat is changing roles and adapting to the enemy. Paradigm shifts are dramatic and determine victory, not the abilities themselves.
Unfortunately, I found myself avoiding battles more often than not. While combat can be fun, it tends to drag even with the most effective strategy. I know that this is the most effective strategy because I consistently get a five star rating for speed after each battle. Each boss battle feels the same, as the game offers a mere six Paradigms, each with an obvious level of importance. Essentially, there’s a debuffer, buffer, physical class, magic class, tank, and healer. These battles can drag for twenty to thirty minutes, sometimes with controller-throwing nonsense resulting in a loss. If the lead is killed, the battle is over. This means that if the tank loses focus for the split second the enemy uses a one-shot-kill move and the boss (or normal enemy) happens to target the lead, game over. Try again, just because. AAA Design!
Fortunately, the Crystarium points earned usually reflect the time invested into battle, which is how leveling occurs in FFXIII. Similar to the Sphere Grid system in FFX, the Crystarium system uses experience points to add stats and learn abilities within Paradigms. Each character has a unique skill trajectory, and FFXIII clearly has an opinion on who should be the healer, muscle, and black mage. Visually, based on the character models, the roles are fairly obvious. Unfortunately, like exploration, this involves a shameful amount of linearity.
One major complaint I couldn’t avoid hearing since its release is the linearity of the world. Objectively, I can understand why this would turn people off. One of FF’s hallmarks is exploration, specifically in airships. This is not so in FFXIII. A single, solitary part of the game allows for some exploration, but this takes the form of a giant circle with some cliffs. Is it preferred? No, but this is the least of FFXIII’s problems. Honestly, the linearity doesn’t detract from the journey substantially, as the environments are astonishingly gorgeous, especially by today’s standards.
Another concern about FFXIII as released on the PC was its visuals. I didn’t have any problems with this. Many have complained about resolution, but the artwork and graphics stole the show, in my view. By far the strongest aspect of FFXIII, the visuals seemed to be the emphasis of its creation. Final Fantasy XIII presents itself like a movie in the first half of the game, with its camera angles and “cinematography.” The second half of the game feels like an upgraded version of FFX, which isn’t bad, but the inspiration warrants mentioning. Unfortunately, several enemies are re-skins of earlier foes, which is unforgivable in this age of gaming, especially in a supposedly AAA title.
Aurally, the sounds, music, and voice actors breathe life into the world. Every slash, crack, and pop is crisp. The ever-lauded battle, dramatic, character, and everything-theme, Blinded By Light enhances battles and the aforementioned cinematic scenes. Unfortunately, this seems to be the one ace the composer had up his sleeve. That said, the theme remains powerful for most of the game’s duration, but loses its impact when the storytelling falters and gameplay becomes a grindy mess. The voice actors expertly read the lines given to them and shape the identity of their characters.
In terms of control, FFXIII functions properly. Much of the experience relies on menus, but some major titles can’t even do this correctly. The hit detection of foes on the map is fair, and I never found myself complaining about an encounter with enemies resulting from faulty hit boxes. The hectic nature of battles requires quick, fluid movement of cursors without lag, and the designers met this expectation ably.
Though it hurts me personally to lambaste Final Fantasy XIII the way I have, what pains me even more is the poor design and direction I had to endure. Granted, the entire experience wasn’t that bad. Pockets of enjoyment exist throughout and the second quarter of the game is thoroughly enjoyable, but the introductory sequence is a little too hand-holdy and the last half of the game is unforgivably bland and vapid. If you’re like me and have waited years to try this title out, I plead that you look elsewhere. The mystery of what FFXIII holds is far more pleasing than the experience itself.