I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. The good news is that, well over a year after its North American release, I’ve finally beaten Final Fantasy XIII, the most recent single player entry in Square Enix’s beloved flagship series. The bad news is that I now know, beyond a doubt, that this is a terrible game. After roughly five years of development time, a fan of the series like myself would naturally assume that Square Enix was preparing for us an unprecedented masterpiece – an RPG that would stand in the annals of gaming history amongst the greats. FFXIII’s true legacy, though, will likely be the incredibly divisive response this game has seen from critics, game journalists and fans alike. For all of its detractors, there are certainly plenty of people ready to come to this game’s defense. Well, after investing about 55 hours in this notoriously mixed bag, I’ve come to a conclusion – Final Fantasy XIII is a failure.
I wonder if the bland box art for FFXIII was intended as some kind of warning.
First things first, the one thing I’m not going to talk about in this article is linearity (well, besides right now). While this is certainly a linear game, linearity is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, most people would probably agree that many of gaming’s classics tend to follow a very linear structure. More importantly, linearity is really the least of FFXIII’s problems. If anything, I think that the linearity criticism has become a bit of a deflection; it turns the argument into an east vs. west issue, as though it is somehow inherently impossible to enjoy both styles of game design. The linearity of FFXIII seems like a big issue because it is exacerbated by a much larger one – lack of variety.
If variety is the spice of life, then Final Fantasy XIII is one flavourless pile of mush. The gameplay of past Final Fantasy’s could typically be broken up into four distinct categories: combat (random encounters, boss battles), exploration (towns, “puzzle” dungeons), narrative sequences (dialogue, cutscenes), and mini-games (FFVII). For this game, Square Enix decided to essentially bet everything on combat, and while there is a narrative (we’ll get to that later), the vast majority of your time in this game will be spent in the new “Combat Synergy Battle” system. This system is sort of like a compromise between the Active Time Battles of FFVI-IX and the more MMORPG-style automated battles of FFXII. Now, whether you like the new battle system or not, the fact that there is quite literally nothing else to do in this game is an issue. The grind of constantly fighting really takes a toll, and the only reprieve you’ll get is the occasional cutscene.
Just when you thought you've beaten the Behemoth King, he changes forms and regains all his health. Fun!
The combat itself offers a largely mixed experience. While Square Enix should be given some credit for taking a legitimately unique approach to RPG combat, their experiment offers its fair share of frustration and boredom. For starters, in the first few hours of the game, fighting enemies is abysmally dull. In an effort to seemingly make the introduction of this game accessible to even small children (and maybe some domesticated animals), winning any battle is simply a matter of pressing ‘X’ a few times.
Of course, as any fan of this game will be happy to point out, it does get better. After twelve or so hours the game starts taking the training wheels off, and you’ll realize there is actually a fair amount of strategy to the system, and that not playing intelligently will result in a token game over screen. But, the opening up of the battle system has diminishing returns; once you learn the ropes and have a few foolproof strategies under your belt, battles become more of an exercise in endurance than mental footwork. By the end of the game — when nearly every enemy has roughly a million times more HP than your characters — I literally started browsing Reddit and checking Twitter to stave off the boredom while mindlessly mashing ‘X’ and occasionally glancing over to make sure my characters weren’t dying. Of course, when the battles aren’t too easy, they are usually hard in the most frustrating ways – including the bizarre decision to make the battle a loss if your lead character dies, regardless of the condition of the other two. Because of these disparities, the battles in FFXIII rarely hit that sweet spot where the challenge and mental engagement required feel just right – and for a game that is 90% fighting, this is not a good thing.
Lightning is like FFVII's Cloud Strife – minus the personality, interesting backstory or compelling character arc.
While the combat in FFXIII has its ups and downs, one aspect of the game that is uniformly bad is the story. Now, I’ll admit that the foundations of the narrative are actually pretty solid: an oppressive government led by the will of mysterious deities, a group of strangers forced to make difficult moral choices in order to save their own lives, and a mysterious underworld fueling the fears of an irrational society. The problem is that FFXIII opts for an obnoxiously cryptic approach to explaining all of this. The consequence of this lack of very necessary exposition is a feeling of alienation from this world; if you don’t understand what is so great about “Cocoon,” why should you care about saving it?
Even when you do feel like you understand what’s going on, a much larger obstacle gets in the way of preventing you from enjoying the story – the characters. I feel like the best description I can come up with for the majority of these people (whose fates we a supposed to be fully invested in) is ‘kind of annoying’. You’d probably think that the girl on the cover of the box was supposed to be the main character, but ‘Lightning’ (a name which really just rolls off the tongue) has probably the least amount of personality or influence on the story of anyone. The villains in this game are hardly worth talking about, as few of them appear in more than a couple of cutscenes, and none of them are memorable in any way.
This is one of FFXIII's villians. She appears in two cutscenes. You will not rememeber her.
Poor exposition and lack of interesting characters are both pretty severe problems for an RPG, but both these issues pale in comparison to this game’s primary narrative failure – the dialogue. This has got to be the least naturalistic dialogue ever written for a current-gen video game, and I know that’s a bold claim, but honestly I can’t think of another game released in the last few years that has so much groan-worthy cheese delivered in such rapid succession so frequently. Besides the very obnoxious over-use of awkward terminology like ‘falcie’ and ‘l’cie’, these characters seemingly think with the intellectual depth of elementary school children, constantly spewing cringe-inducing motivational speeches that very rarely add up to anything more than “do your best” or “believe in yourself.” Toss in a few lame attempts at humor and whole bunch of gasping (these characters are very easily surprised), and the result is on par with an worst overdubbed anime you’ve ever seen. By the end of the game, I couldn’t have cared less about what was going to happen to these characters – whether they lived or died, whether Cocoon was saved or not, I was just happy to get it over with.
Now, most critics of Final Fantasy XIII have echoed many of the sentiments I’ve laid out so far, but even its harshest detractors have tended to give the game high marks for its presentation. And while I’d tend to agree that the graphics are fairly pristine, overall the visuals of this game tended to be a disappointment compared to the hyperbolic reviews I’ve seen. There are plenty of environments that are surprisingly lacking in geometric detail, featuring plenty of completely flat looking surfaces (sometimes spruced up with a terribly cheap looking reflection effect). In fact, throughout the game, there’s no shortage of overlooked details. NPCs look like they were ripped directly out of FFX, with bizarrely ugly wardrobes and dull facial expressions. Walking past them, they will speak one line of useless stock dialogue to your character, of course, without bothering to turn their heads to face you. Walking past them again five seconds later will trigger the same robotic reaction – talk about immersion! Later in the game, you’ll run across a snowy field without leaving any footprints, and definitely without kicking up snow with each step.
In the world of FFXIII, sensible fashion and realistic human behavior are overrated.
Sure, some of this is nitpicking, but that anyone might say this game features the best graphics they’ve ever seen makes me wonder if they’ve never heard of a game like Uncharted 2, which was both released earlier and beats FFXIII visually in every regard. Admittedly, this game does have some great ‘wow’ moments, but there is also plenty of horribly gaudy visual overload – a great example of this are the many totally superfluous CGI cutscenes peppered throughout the game, all of which feature so much shaky-camera and egregious particle effects, you’ll hardly know what’s going on. No spoilers, but the big finale video felt more like a tech demo for a liquid dynamics simulator than a meaningful ending to the story.
I’ve covered what I see as Final Fantasy XIII’s major flaws, but there are still plenty of smaller issues which contribute to the overall disappointment this game delivers. The music, while usually not awful, is fairly bland and definitely lacks the impact of previous Final Fantasy soundtracks. Only the dreadful Final Fantasy X-2 matches this one’s penchant for meandering electronica and embarrassing j-pop. Fans of meandering electronica and embarrassing j-pop may enjoy this, but for the rest of us, the soundtrack is definitely missing that distinctive Final Fantasy flavor.
Upgrading your character is done manually, with a system that is practically identical to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. Both of these systems offer the illusion of choice in how you progress your characters, but the predetermined path is always the most efficient use of the experience points (or crysta-something or other points) that you earn, so the fact that this process can’t be automated is really just an annoyance.
Here's FFXIII's Sphere Grid…err, "Crystarium". Expect to waste a lot of time here.
Weapons can be upgraded as well, which is a cool idea in theory, but the process is unintuitive and relies primarily on trial and error to understand. Once you’ve got it figured it out though, it becomes just as tedious as upgrading your characters. You’ll also find tons of weapons scattered about throughout the game, but if you’ve spent all your time, money and resources upgrading the weapons you started with, why would you bother to ever use them?
I’ve already lamented on the variety the gameplay offers, but I can’t stress just how lame it is that when the game finally does give you some optional side quests, all that means is the opportunity to engage in even more combat doing completely pointless bounty hunts. It’s beyond me that some players would be willing to commit up to 150 hours to complete these monotonous tasks.
Vanille: Oh, look Final Fantasy XIII-2! Fang: No, wait! I think we should sit this one out…
I have to admit, it feels pretty good to get that all off my chest; my experience with Final Fantasy XIII has been a tumultuous one. The anticipation of a new game in a beloved series from my youth, the initial disappointment of an abysmally bad introduction, the hope that as promised the game would improve over time, and finally the realization that my 55 hour slog through this abomination probably wasn’t worth it. And although I say that, I do think there is a value in playing bad games – they can, after all, help steer the direction of the future of gaming just as much as good games can in that developers can (hopefully) learn from their mistakes.
Ultimately, this is why I wonder why so many people have come out in defense of this game. Even if you did enjoy it, which is totally fine, as obviously there is a lot that is subjective about gaming, I have to wonder for people who consider themselves fans of the series: is this really what you wanted out of this game? Is this really the direction you hope that Square Enix takes with future entries in the series? By now, the golden age of Square is long gone, and by most accounts, they’ve already managed to make a worse game with the online-only FFXIV. When we stand up for a clearly flawed game such as FFXIII, we’re essentially accepting this series’ fate to crash and burn in the hell of gaming mediocrity. Final Fantasy XIII-2, a direct sequel to this game, is planned for either a late 2011 or early 2012 release. This time, my expectations will be low – now, it’s up to Square Enix to prove to me they can still make a Final Fantasy game that isn’t terrible.
Matthew DiVito is a graphic designer and musician who hopes to one day pursue game design. Follow me on twitter at @mattdivito