Developer – Square Enix
Publisher – Square Enix
Platforms –PS3, X360
I think it’s fair to say that most gamers have heard of Final Fantasy. I think it’s also fair to say that most gamers have heard a lot of negative feedback about the 13th main title in the series. For once I’m here to tell you that what you’ve heard is probably right. Striking out on story, character development and gameplay, Square Enix’s focus on graphical quality is pretty much the only good thing about Final Fantasy XIII, though that merely serves to emphasize the poorer quality of the other aspects.
Cocoon is the name of an artificial moon on which many people make their home. Life thrives, nurtured by the mysterious, powerful and beneficent Cocoon Fal’Cie, machines that cater to humanity’s every need. Life would be perfect were it not for the constant threat of violence from the planet below, Gran Pulse. So fearful are the citizens of Cocoon of the land they live above that when a Fal’Cie from Pulse is discovered near a Cocoon settlement, all of the region’s inhabitants are set to be exiled from their homes in what may as well be a death sentence. After all, Fal’Cie can take L’Cie, human slaves given a task that they must complete aided by the ability to use magic, or die trying. Any one of the citizens could have been turned against Cocoon. In the midst of all the confusion a group of citizens becomes trapped inside the Pulse Fal’Cie and are indeed turned into the L’Cie that Cocoon so fears. Hated by their own people and hunted at every turn, the group soon discovers the true, dark nature of the Cocoon Fal’Cie, and their quest for survival becomes something much greater.
JRPGs are known for their lengthy and epic stories, and though you could argue that Final Fantasy XIII fulfils both of those criteria, the story isn’t actually any good. You run around on Cocoon for a bit before running around on Pulse for a bit and then you fight the final boss. That’s pretty much it. The only part of the story that might be considered interesting is the background and the setting itself. Though the whole Fal’Cie, L’Cie, Cocoon, Pulse stuff could have been used to much greater effect (and indeed, the game contains screeds of background text that most players will ignore), they aren’t explicitly explored and integrated with the events you actually experience. On top of that the story is delivered in small chunks interspersed with long corridors of enemies for you to fight, meaning that there’s very little connection between the gameplay and what’s going on in the story at the time.
That leads rather nicely into my next point. Final Fantasy XIII is a JRPG that doesn’t act like a JRPG. When I said corridors in the last paragraph I meant it literally; the vast majority of areas you are in consist of a single linear path lined with monsters. There are no towns, no people for you to interact with and (almost) no areas for you to explore. The game opens up about 20 hours in, introducing a larger world and side missions for you to complete, and I’ve heard people say that the game improves at this point. For one thing, a game that only gets good after 20 hours isn’t good at all and secondly, I think it actually gets worse at that point. Though the story has a minimal input into what’s going on to begin with, after you hit the second part of the game it takes yet another step back, leaving you with what can only be called a glorified grinding session (and believe me, you will need to grind). I say that because, despite the more open world, all that is added to what you had already experienced is a greater number of areas to fight monsters in.
The other aspect contributing to the non-RPG feeling is the usefulness (or uselessness) of the items you can find, buy and use in the game. Normally finding a chest in any game is a big thing because something potentially rewarding lurks behind each closed lid. In Final Fantasy XIII, however, I could count on one hand the number of useful items I found in the entire 40 hours I played it. By the end of the game I just ran past most of the chests because I knew it wasn’t worth my time to open them, and even if it was something worthwhile I would be able to buy it in the store anyway with my oodles and oodles of money. What you do find in chests (and can also buy in the stores) are components used for upgrading your equipment. While I did spend a lot of time jumping through hoops to upgrade my gear, I never felt that it made any appreciable difference to how I was doing in each battle.
Combat is an incredibly important component of most JRPGs, as it’s something you’re going to be taking part in for a huge chunk of the time you spend playing. Final Fantasy XIII’s take on the standard turned-based battle system is certainly novel, though I can’t say it was one I enjoyed. During combat you only control one of your party members (which is immediately a downside because the AI just isn’t very good), choosing either to use the Auto- button or choose actions yourself. Early in the game using the Auto- button was preferable because, despite losing your feeling of involvement in the combat, it was simply faster and easier to allow the computer to choose actions for you. Later, however, the AI tends to make choices that aren’t sensible and you are forced to manually input every command, which wouldn’t be a problem if you weren’t racing against the clock to complete your orders. While the combat is turn-based your enemies don’t pause, so taking time to think about what you’re doing isn’t an option and rushing around your actions trying to find the one you want to use is rather stressful – especially since you’ll be trying to queue up 5 attacks at a time by the end of the game.
During battle you can change each of your characters into various combinations of “paradigms”, which are much like the classes you might select in MMOs. Ravagers use elemental attacks (mostly magic) and are best at increasing a target’s chain gauge, which staggers the enemy and makes them vulnerable to attacks once it is full. Combat is pretty much based on trying to fill up that gauge ASAP. Commandos deal neutral damage (mostly physical) and prevent the chain gauge from running out, as well as being the powerhouses of your group. Synergists and Saboteurs buff your group and debuff your enemies respectively, while Medics heal and Sentinels act as tanks and soak up damage so the rest of your party doesn’t have to. Because of the Auto- command I mentioned earlier, your input into the combat consists of choosing which paradigm you want everyone in and little else. You can choose to play as any of the characters you want after the half-way point, but you’ll probably want to play one of the better healers because the AI doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that if your main character dies it’s game over. While the spell effects and various attacks are flashy, the fact that you’ll be seeing the same ones over and over and over again, coupled with the unentertaining combat system in general, means that the gameplay just isn’t very fun.
Adding on to what I’ve already mentioned, the difficulty curve is absolutely horrendous and on multiple occasions, most notably at the end of the game, I was forced to grind experience for extended periods of time to be able to progress. Not only that, but as you progress you will find that you receive less experience for fights that take more time in order to buy skills that cost more. It’s rather bizarre, really, leading me to backtrack to areas I’d left behind hours beforehand just to get some decent experience. Even more odd, perhaps, is the fact that the final boss is an absolute joke once you’ve managed to survive fighting the normal enemies just before you reach it.
One of the big differences between western games and JRPGs is the focus on character development. Even if the plot is lacking, good characterization and strong character development can keep a game interesting. Unfortunately for JRPG fans that is not the case for Final Fantasy XIII. Because of the disconnect between story and gameplay the ability of the player to connect with the characters is blunted, though that wouldn’t be a major problem if the characters were at all interesting in the first place. The thing is that I just didn’t care about most of the characters in Final Fantasy XIII, and even discovered two of the most annoying characters in existence during my time with the game (who I’m pretty sure get more lines and more time in the spotlight than the actual main character). It’s not that there’s nothing likeable about the characters at all, it’s that they’re all incredibly superficial and barely develop through the course of the story. It’s like they were all born to be L’Cie and fight monsters, like it all comes naturally to them. They have no weaknesses to connect to, precluding them from being relatable. In all honesty, I only really liked one of them and that’s probably just because he was the comic relief.
When it comes down to it, Square Enix is consistently good with its pre-rendered cutscenes. While not as cutting-edge as they were when the game was first released, Final Fantasy XIII’s cinematic sequences are wonderful to watch. Unfortunately, while the normal character models aren’t bad by any means, the difference in quality after coming out of those gorgeous pre-rendered visuals is incredibly jarring. Having said that, it’s not a major issue and the quality of the scenery and monster designs cannot be denied. As I mentioned earlier, the special combat effects are also well done. If you ever do decide to play FFXIII I really hope you like the BGM, because you will hear the same tracks repeated throughout the course of the game. I personally didn’t find the soundtrack to be particularly special, and I’m sure that if I hadn’t played the game over a long period of time the combat music would have driven me insane. Still, the voice acting is fine and overall there isn’t much to complain about regarding the technical aspects.
Summary – Final Fantasy XIII is a huge disappointment. At least with FFXII I was able to say that it would have been fine were it not for the “Final Fantasy” attached to the name, but the latest release can barely claim to be a JRPG, let alone part of one of the major series of the genre. Lacking in most of the departments I consider when writing my reviews, Final Fantasy is neither a gripping, nor entertaining experience and none of its better features make up for that.
OVERALL SCORE: 3/10 – Bad