I finally wised up and quit playing Final Fantasy XIII (FFXIII) after 27.25 hours of playtime, and believe it will be a landmark of our contemporary age of gaming for all the wrong reasons. Somehow, whoever was designing the game screwed up some ideas that on paper would appear to border on brilliance. A strong female protagonist with a diverse supporting cast, a polished combat system, and a targeted and in-depth approach to make the game accessible and appealing to a new and more broad gaming audience instead hinders the FFXIII experience. In theory, all of these points should be welcome additions to any RPG coming out of Japan (JRPG), so what went wrong with FFXIII?
Characters in FFXIII are uninspired anime clichés. This is disappointing because I really, really wanted to like the character of Lightning, who had the potential to be a radically progressive heroine for the Final Fantasy series, especially for a release coming out of a culture that is not exactly with the times that the rest of us are living in. There is a glimpse of depth to Lightning in her almost big-sisterly relationship to the archetypical young JRPG male, Hope, who is experiencing his own Bildungsroman in FFXIII’s narrative. The fact that Hope is nothing more than a trope cheapens any relationship involving him though, and Lightning’s character is severely diminished as a result: she has no other distinguishing traits beyond being angry and, depending on the chapter, resolute.
A similarly disappointing character is that of Sazh, the token character of color in FFXIII. What little that separates Sazh from the typical hip-hopping Afro-Samurai (using what must have been presumed by Square-Enix to be a “genetic disposition to rhythm and beat,” to his advantage in combat) is hidden away in cutscenes far from the relevance of the game or story. Supposedly Sazh is an older gent and also a loving father, but the situations and actual game-play do nothing to really support this or add uniqueness to his character beyond jokes at his expense and him being out of breath occasionally. Ironically, Sazh “houses” probably the best developed character in FFXIII, a chocobo chick that is only capable of chirping and fluttering about, inside his fro. Hopefully whoever designed this little detail got a bonus, because they deserve it. Chocobos sure have come a long way from being farmed mounts as FFXIII’s star chocobo subverts their stereotypical role in the series by riding a man.
Even though I mentioned him earlier, Hope deserves more attention. Clearly, Hope is the character that Square-Enix thinks all prepubescent males hope to be. He’s a young pretty rich boy with all the ladies in tow, rising to the challenge of impossible odds to become a hero. He has an inexplicable love for his suicidal mother that abandons him for the first hunk to cross her path and he is mostly hostile to his father for the majority of the game I experienced. This reveals Square-Enix to be the unimaginative Freud worshippers they truly are, comfortable in assuming their audience suffers from and relates to an unhealthy Oedipus complex. Unfortunately for Square-Enix, anyone who actually aspires to do something with their life will see through the thin veneer of being overly emotional and throwing boomerangs at bad guys, when not straddling giant robots to save the day.
The other cast members of FFXIII are even more disappointing, as implausible as that may sound. Fang is just Lightning, but she exchanged any resolve for slightly flirtatious behavior. I want to say that Snow is somehow a parody of other JRPG heroes, but that would be giving Square-Enix too much credit, particularly since Snow doesn’t really seem to be punished at all beyond his fiancé or whatever getting killed (how shockingly tragic). Then there’s Vanielle. Near as I can tell, the only reason she exists is to be some kind of imaginary consolation prize for any “Hopes” who can’t cut the mustard for the likes of Lightning or Fang; Vanielle is a victim that ultimately requires protection, even from herself. Anyone could hand Vanielle a stone and it would have no trouble somehow taking advantage of her. Vanielle’s unmatched idiocy alone probably serves to add about 10-15 grueling hours to the game instead of creating interesting situations for the player to try and role-play out of. But at least she’s there to be the chipper provider of morale, even if it doesn’t equate to even a drop of FFXIII‘s depressing sum, right?
The insanely long “tutorial” of FFXIII, which lasts anywhere from a couple hours to twenty depending on who’s talking, would theoretically make FFXIII the most accessible Final Fantasy yet. When I heard people talking about “changing synergies” and having “the ravagers attack after using their Libra” I had no idea what was being said. But after some time playing the game, this came to make sense, and to be fair, the combat system is pretty fun.
Until a couple things came up. Most notably, I found myself trying to maneuver around enemies and flee from them rather than spend the time trying to build up the stagger meter before being able to kick their asses. Fighting became a chore, not a fun aspect of the game. Additionally I started to get what felt like a repetitive stress injury (RSI) from my thumb pressing the “A” button. Aside from hitting the bumpers to change synergies or check out the enemy stats, hitting the “A” button is literally all you do. You don’t really get to reposition your character or go into action menus to manually cast spells because that takes too long and removes any advantage you may have built up. And then I remembered Dragon Age: Origins, where you can actually use the abilities of anyone in your party and not just the primary character, or Demon’s Souls, where combat is almost like a dance with real-time dodging, blocking, swinging, and parrying. Mashing one button really isn’t that much fun at all, and if that’s the hall-mark of RPGs that hold players’ hands (longer than most games take to complete these days), I think I’ll take a steeper learning curve with better rewards.
Any rewards beyond advancing the plot of FFXIII are few and far between. Occasionally new weapons or pieces of equipment can be found, but they must be “upgraded” by using drops from animals and whatnot to become noteworthy. Weapons can sometimes affect such things as how fast action meters recharge, but don’t really change anything up for the characters. If that sounds underwhelming, it is. FFXIII never really provides anything too awesome that could potentially confuse the player or grant an advantage that wasn’t earned by grinding countless enemies.
FFXIII takes this concern to the extreme. Usually when a game has the player allocate stat points after leveling up, they have some kind of choice as to where those points are allocated. Fallout, Dragon Age: Origins, and Demon’s Souls all trust their players enough to make a decision as to where earned points should go, and some games even give the players the option to let the game-auto-allocate stats for them. Typically, if the choice isn’t there the game will auto-allocate stat points anyways, and display to the player how their character has improved, as is the case with Phantasy Star Online and countless other RPGs. FFXIII doesn’t provide this detrimental luxury to the player though; as the player manually and pain-stakingly adds points on a tree with really only one branch, they will know that their Commando is all the stronger by +3 strength because they witnessed the change in a needlessly elaborate menu, even if they can’t explain just what exactly +3 strength actually does.
Final Fantasy XIII‘s story starts out strong with some really good ambiguity as to what the player’s party is actually supposed to accomplish, with almost sinister under-tones to their quest being strongly hinted at. The problem is that the world of FFXIII is so devoid of detail and meaning that the plot eventually becomes meaningless, unable to be sustained by the combat system acting as the sole driving force for myself at least. There are no towns and no real interaction with NPCs for the majority of FFXIII; this is largely explained in that the cast of characters are effectively outlaws on the lam. Anyone who buys this explanation at face value is neglecting the fact that many RPGs like the Fallout series, and even some FPS titles like BioShock, create rich, convincing worlds still at odds with the player characters and despite being in substantially more disarray and disrepair than anything seen in FFXIII.
When I finally had to put my controller down and declare that I had endured enough, FFXIII struck me as being as plain as the game’s title screen. The “Final Fantasy” is there, but everything else is incredibly vanilla and disappointing. Square-Enix tried to make a more appealing Final Fantasy with FFXIII, and as console market penetration is seemingly on the rise and exclusivity to the Sony platforms is no longer a factor nobody can really blame them for trying. The problem is that somewhere in the making of FFXIII Square-Enix forgot to add the fun, which is missing from almost every aspect of the game. I’d guess they probably left it with the 4th DVD that could have made the pre-rendered videos look somewhat decent on the Xbox 360.