SummaryJapanese rail-playing game
The GoodAs it has always been the case with Final Fantasy games, graphic designers did their job in Final Fantasy XIII. Visually, the game is splendid. There is of course no real interaction with the world and the visuals are all pure eye candy; but it's a lot of eye candy, and it is very impressive. Most of the effort went into designing the characters; indeed, they look great in that specific Japanese way (style over substance).
The gameplay system has a few nice ideas. The "breaking" of enemies (taken straight from Xenosaga) can be satisfying; the speed of the battles allows for relentless, almost visceral chains of attacks, which feel good for the first few times. Otherwise, many familiar Final Fantasy elements are back, sometimes in a disguised form - a few jobs, typical spells, Eidolon summons, etc. The "Crystarium" system - a somewhat simplified version of what we've seen in Final Fantasy X - is not bad, allowing some nice combinations, though it all gets broken by the inability to directly control the characters in combat.
The narrative has potential. In fact, if I had to point out one thing I liked in Final Fantasy XIII, that would be the premise of the story. The sci-fi elements, the dark setting, and the original presentation of the world could have become a stage for a strong plot. I wonder what BioWare would have done with such a world. Square refused to populate it with people other than our party and their enemies, which made it clearly artificial, intangible, and lifeless. But the premise is there, and it is good. As in most Final Fantasy games, you are thrown right into the midst of events; characters with conflicting agendas meet each other, etc. The presentation is typically dramatic, and the occasional successfully realized emotional moment sustains interest and urges to play forward.
Same goes for the character cast: much could have been done with it if the writers didn't insist on building the story like a TV soap opera, repeating and over-explaining things at every corner. The strong-willed Lightning is one of the more interesting lead characters the series has seen. Snow and especially Sazh come across as genuinely likable. I actually wish the game would just concentrate on those three, because the others are annoying cliches that seem completely out of place after the initial tone of the story has been set. But of course, a Final Fantasy game must have irrelevant anime-esque characters no matter what its story is about.
I must stress that whatever its flaws are, the story is still by far more appealing than the gameplay in this installment. So if you play Final Fantasy games only for their stories, you will probably not find Final Fantasy XIII too terribly disappointing.
The BadWhen Final Fantasy X came out, many fans (including myself) frowned upon its linear gameplay. Well, playing Final Fantasy XIII certainly sweetens that pill, because the tenth installment looks like a sandbox game compared to this one.
Final Fantasy XIII is probably the most dreadfully linear RPG I have ever seen. It breaks all records in this category; without exaggeration, over 50% of the game are spent walking in a straight line. For more than half of its duration, the game allows no exploration whatsoever and no freedom of choice; you don't go where you want to go, you go only where the game sends you to.
Maybe you'd say that the previous games in the series weren't exactly epitomes of non-linearity and free-form exploration either. To this I can only say: play Final Fantasy XIII and you'll see the difference. The tenth game was the most linear one in the series. But at least it had towns! At least you could choose whether you wanted to explore a town, go to the next hostile area, return to the previous one, and so on. Final Fantasy XIII has no towns at all. It is entirely composed of hostile areas. It is basically an excruciatingly long dungeon crawl, but without the excitement of exploring and mapping; the dungeons are lines that connect between A and B.
Some reviewers of this game stated that it had "streamlined" gameplay, that it got rid of "unnecessary fat". But if exploring the world, talking to characters (you can't talk to anyone in Final Fantasy XIII. Seriously. There are simply no people you can talk to), visiting populated places, deciding where to go, etc. are all "fat", then I don't think I need a diet. Final Fantasy XIII takes away what makes playing an RPG fun in the first place, without replacing it with any other substantial gameplay concept. Why didn't they just go further and got rid of all the other "fat"? Why does the player need to waste his time moving a character from place to place, or pressing the attack button in a battle? Let's just get rid of all this "fat", too, and make a movie. Because that's what Final Fantasy XIII wants to be, though it lacks the means for that as well.
People complained that Final Fantasy X had too many cutscenes. But wait till you see number thirteen in action. Cutscenes are everywhere. You literally can't make a few steps without triggering a cutscene. A cutscene should serve as a reward, a poignant, dramatic moment that moves the narrative forward. In Final Fantasy XIII, the cutscenes don't move the narrative; they chew it like cud. Cinematic treatment? No, more like "TV soap opera" treatment. That's what the game would have achieved if we removed the gameplay remnants from it.
Aggravating linearity is not the only issue here. The previous game gracefully brought exploration back to the series. It also made a step further: it made battles part of the exploration process, the way they should have been in the first place (what Western RPG understood aeons ago). What does Final Fantasy XIII do? Nullifies the achievement of its predecessor. We are back to stone-age "battle screens", with the player's input again reduced to menus. The twelfth game tried to reach the Western RPG world; the thirteenth throws us back to the outdated Japanese system.
The designers of the game probably thought that automated exploration would go well with automated combat. You see, in this game we can only control one character. The other two are controlled by the AI. In the twelfth game, you could pause at any time and manually input commands for all party members as much as you wanted to. Here, all you can do is use the so-called "paradigms". They only allow assigning basic roles (for example, a Medic who cures or a Synergizer who casts buffs). It means that you can switch jobs (like in several earlier Final Fantasy games), but you still can't tell the characters what to do in combat. You can't, for example, tell a Medic to cast Cure if somebody has less than 20% HP. You can only make that character a Medic, and then he/she will always cast Cure. So in order to stop that character from idiotically casting Cure on healed characters, you'll have to switch a paradigm - which means that all the characters will have to perform a switch to another combination of jobs during battle. In another game, this whole process would have been reduced to choosing one command, but apparently the creators of Final Fantasy XIII thought they needed to compensate for the lack of the proverbial "fat" with a tumor.
It doesn't end there. During its first half, the game splits your party and forces you to play short stretches with different combinations of two characters. This maddening decision takes away the last illusion of freedom - you can't even manage your own party. You must trudge through linear corridors with characters who were just paired up with each other, unable to form any sort of gameplay attachment to them, unable to plan anything, because you never know when the game wants to take you away from them and force you play as others. As I said, this mockery lasts for the whole half (!) of the game. When you finally leave Cocoon, you are thrown into somewhat wider areas; you can finally manage and develop your own party; you can even take side-quests (all hunting, though). But it's much too late, much too little.
The narrative can't really save the game. I already referred to the soap-opera style of the storytelling, which is taken to the extreme here, beyond anything you've seen even in a Final Fantasy game before. The story is always delivered with melodramatic overtones that make the narrative of Final Fantasy VIII feel like clever, sophisticated prose (and that despite the noticeably improved translation). The problem is that this story could have been much better were it not constantly undermining itself with needless cutscenes. The interesting premise gets quickly dissolved, and we are left with the usual tale about a bunch of nobodies who must, of course, get involved in pseudo-metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, kill the big bad guy and save the world. Even the "cute/annoying young girl with mysterious powers" cliche plays a prominent role. Much like the gameplay, the story turns out to be very bare-bones in the end, even compared to other Final Fantasy narratives.
The Bottom LineFinal Fantasy XIII mirrors the worst prejudices against Japanese RPGs. It is a dragging string of cutscenes with depressing on-rail gameplay thrown in between. All the negative aspects of the series made a reunion in this installment, with some new ones invented specifically for it. I'm a long-time fan of the series, but this installment makes me say: if this is the direction the series has taken, let this fantasy truly be final.