Written by  :  Lain Crowley (6797)
Written on  :  Mar 10, 2011
Platform  :  PlayStation 3
Rating  :  2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars

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A meandering and boring waste of everyone's time

The Good

I'm almost not sure it's worth talking about Final Fantasy XIII's positives. Yes, the graphics are good. Honestly, though, they're not that much better than Final Fantasy XII's. Maybe this isn't even SQEX's fault. Maybe people have an expectation of what a Final Fantasy game must look like, with its improbable clothing and frills on everything, that they have no choice but to just iterate with a new graphics engine. They certainly attempted to make their FMV look impressive, or expensive at least. XIII's FMV could compete with Michael Bay's Transformers 2 for biggest most confusing waste of millions of dollars on special effects not designed for the human eye to process.

I will say this in the game's favor though: Final Fantasy XIII has the most impressive real-time rendered facial hair I have ever seen in a video game. Never thought I'd be saying that about a Japanese-developed game, but there it is.

The Bad

XIII's troubled development is a matter of public record these days. Until the Advent Children demo forced the team to make their game playable they had no idea what the battle system would even be like; their E3 trailer from 2006 was invented out of whole cloth. This sense of aimlessness pervades every aspect of the game, from the non-existent plot, to the vaguely functional battle system, to the cutscenes that, were it not for three people being credited for writing, I would have sworn were improvised.

Above everything else Final Fantasy XIII is in love with itself. This was the game that was supposed to kick off a new franchise within a franchise; a herald of four quasi-sequels (two of which were cancelled before any information was revealed about them) that began development before their progenitor was even released. The developers have said in interviews that they cut enough out of XIII to make a complete other game, and I believe them, but they shouldn't have stopped there. The amount of time dedicated to characters repeating things that have already happened or things they/others have already said numbers in the hours; hours not spent doing anything of merit. I'm quite sure that more happens in the four hours spent in Midgard in the opening of Final Fantasy VII than in the 20 hours spent on Cocoon in XIII's first act. XIII has been described as a "character piece" by cowards who can't admit that it's a game where nothing happens.

When I was first playing Final Fantasy XIII I wondered if perhaps the writer of the game was autistic, or if the intended audience was autistic, because of the game's total lack of subtlety or subtext, and how every character loudly announces at any possible opportunity how they feel at that time. Later, however, I discovered what I was actually witnessing: Final Fantasy XIII is written and paced like a serial television drama. Suddenly the constant repetition of key terms (Sarah wants us to save Cocoon but we're Pulse lycee and Pulse is the enemy of Cocoon but we don't know our Focus and if we don't complete our Focus we'll die but if we do complete our focus we'll turn to crystal. Cut that sentence up, mix it up in a hat, spill it on a meeting-room table, and you have 80% of the conversations in XIII), the summaries of every cutscene recorded to an on-line database, and the constant flashbacks to the week leading up to the start of the game (which reminded me a whole lot of all the weakest episodes of LOST) made complete sense. XIII was written to accommodate for the person who starts a show mid-season because their friends keep talking about it. The problem, of course, is that you're not allowed to start XIII mid-season or skip past the filler to the good parts, were there even good parts to be found.

I guess this television style of writing also accounts for the game's small cast and very small rogues gallery. There are only four antagonists in the game: two of which properly fill the reluctant-villain and greater-evil roles, one of which is killed off in their second scene for no good reason, and the last which is killed off in his introductory scene only to be revived twice when the developers realised there was literally no one in the game they could summon to harass the party but him. In fact several of the plot elements late in the game retcon earlier parts of the game when the developers realised they actually had to make an ending for the thing, much like what will happen with long-running serial television shows approaching their finale.

Along with the "character piece" lie another common claim of XIII is that it "opens up" and "gets better" when the party reaches Pulse. This is a result of a certain kind of Stockholm Syndrome that sets in when someone tries to find something, anything, positive about the game. Does it "get better"? Perhaps, only insomuch as you no longer have to listen to the characters constantly repeat plot keywords at you. It certainly doesn't become good. Does it "open up"? Only as much as the Calm Lands were "open" in regards to previous areas in Final Fantasy X. The opening area of Pulse is a large disc connected to a series of tubes. When you feel like continuing the story you'll find yourself back in the same one-way tube that the entire rest of the game takes place in.

As befitting a battle system derived from a video, the "Paradigm Shift" system is all flash. Once an enemy's stats have been determined (by casting a determine stats spell on them) every battle will play out one of three ways: kill weak enemies quickly with high damage scrappers, build up the break bar on a moderate enemies with low-damage scrappers before switching to high damage scrappers to make use of the damage multiplier, or, for the really dangerous enemies, cast buffs and debuffs first then use the second outlined strategy. The speed of the battles makes actually choosing what abilities to use a liability, and in almost every situation the only way to stay on top of the fight is to hit the Auto-Battle button and let the game take control of your character, just like it takes control over your two allies who you can not control at all aside from setting their job.

I'm amazed and frankly a bit insulted that, despite the battle system mostly running itself and therefore not having to account for the player's whims, it still has some serious mechanical problems. The least of which is the AI, which, as expected when it's left to do everything on its own, will do some absolutely boneheaded mistakes a player would never make. This is uncommon, though, and were XIII a good game I'd give it a pass on that. Something I would not give anything a pass on is the extra-long animations while switching jobs (or Paradigm Shifting). The first time in any battle switching jobs will show every character on your team, in order, do their job-switch animation. Every subsequent time they all do the animation at the same time and it takes 1/3rd as much time. This is not an insignificant amount of time, as it is more than enough time for the enemies (who are still moving freely) to kill the lead character, which will lose the fight. Thus for difficult fights it is advantageous to start with a set of jobs you don't intend to use and swap first thing, thus giving yourself a faster swap time if something should go wrong and the party has to be cured in a hurry. Additionally, while the battle speed can be slowed down in the options menu, it is not in the player's best interest to do so. After an enemy has been "broken" it can then be launched into the air by some moves and juggled there, preventing it from acting. Slowing the battle speed, however, does not reduce the speed of gravity, and the only way to consistently juggle an enemy is to play on the high battle speed. These are both things that any QA team would have noted in just hours of testing, and yet here they are in a final product anyways.

As for that aforementioned quirk of the battle system where the game ends should the lead character, and only the lead character, fall in battle, this too I am willing to give the game a pass on. Not because it is a good idea (it isn't) but because it's necessary to keep the game from being completely broken. If the player was allowed to take control of the other two party members then the speed and ease of healing would make it impossible to lose any fight in the game. They built a battle system that didn't account for challenge, so they had to hack it in in the most obvious way possible.

The Bottom Line

As of this writing I have not completed Final Fantasy XIII. According to the trophies I am either on the last or second to last chapter, but I reached a point in the game where I just could not force myself to continue. If I'd been more honest with myself that point should have happened after the first two hours, during which the game thought it acceptable to give my characters only the "Attack" command in battle. It should have also happened before 17 hours into the game, which is the first time that the game trusted me to pick the members of my party myself. For everything I disliked about Final Fantasy X and X-2, and for the mismatched mess that XII ended up being, I still found something enjoyable in all of them. If that enjoyable part of Final Fantasy XIII is to take place after the credits roll when my party of whining almost-heroes gets shuttled back to the grass filled bathtub that is Pulse, 34 hours after their non-adventure started, then the game can fuck itself off a cliff. It takes a lot of effort to burn through all the goodwill that Square Enix generated in the past, but Final Fantasy XIII manages to do that with flying colors.