Game Review: Final Fantasy XIII

I was quite excited about Final Fantasy XIII back when it was announced, having just had a lot of fun with Final Fantasy X. Somehow I ended up actually buying it only much later after its release and then also only played it halfway through until I got bored with it or destracted by something else and forgot about it. And only now did I finally get to play the whole thing. I am not exactly a huge Final Fantasy fan. Before this one I played FF10, played maybe halfway through FF7, and also played a bit FF12. So mostly the most recent games. I don’t really know anything about the games before FF7, which I believe where really quite different things.

Final_Fantasy_XIII_EU_box_artFinal Fantasy XIII is set in the two worlds of Cocoon and Gran Pulse, the later being a big planet covered by wilderness while the former is an artificial hollow moon that has all the people living in the inside of the shell. Cocoon was created by the fal’Cie, a race of powerful and immortal crystal beings of huge size that runs the world both politically and mechanically. On Cocoon, the fal’Cie provide light, energy, food, and the entire infrastructure, making it a paradise for the millions of humans who live beside them. Sometimes they require special servants and pick more or less random people nearby to turn them into l’Cie, giving them great powers which they will need to complete their tasks. Those who complete their Focus are rewarded with eternal life, but those who fail eventually are driven mad and turn into rampaging monsters. Usually the fal’Cie of Cocoon send their l’Cie to fight against their great enemies, the fal’Cie of the planet Gran Pulse below and their own l’Cie which they send to attack Cocoon.

The game begins right in the middle of the action. It has been discovered that a Pulse fal’Cie has been hiding and sleeping on Cocoon for possibly centuries and now it has awoken and begun to recruit people from the nearby town as l’Cie. The response of the human military is swift and clear. Everyone in the town has to be deported from Cocoon and send to Gran Pulse, together with the huge ancient structure that is housing the Pulse fal’Cie. And they have absolutely no mercy. It’s either going to Gran Pulse or death. Anyone who tries to escape is killed immediately. But not everyone is willing to go along with it and we’re introduced to the heroes for this game as they crash the train in an attempt to give people a chance to escape. The most prominent character is Lightning, the lady from the cover of the box, but not truly a protagonist in the traditional sense. It’s not a story that is about her, but about all of the characters equally, though she quickly becomes a kind of inofficial leader of the group. Lightning is a member of the local police/military and looking for her sister Sera, who was the first person to be picked by the Pulse fal’Cie and turned into a l’Cie. The next character is Snow, Sera’s boyfriend and leader of a group of local vigilantes. There’s also Sahz, a middle aged man whose involvement in the whole thing remains quite unclear for a good while; a young boy named Hope whose mother gets killed when she joins Snow in fighting the military; and Vanille, an extremely girly and inappropriately cheerful girl who just somehow sticks to Hope in the chaos of the breakout. Soon all five of them find themselves inside the huge ancient structure in which the Pulse fal’Cie is hidden as it is getting transported to be thrown back down to Gran Pulse where they come face to face with the being and end up all getting recruited for a mysterious task as well. At that point their fate is sealed. Complete their Focus and be rewarded with eternal life by being turned into crystal, or turning into monsters. Both choices are not really appealing and to make matters worse they don’t really know what it is that the fal’Cie wanted them to do before they killed it. Over the course of the game they are trying to find out what’s really going on, what they are supposed to do, and how it might be possible to restore people who have been turned into crystal back to their normal form. Which doesn’t start out very well as both Lightning and Hope have a deep hatred for Snow, whom they both blame for Sera ending up as a l’Cie and Hope’s mother being killed. How the characters come to see things from different perspectives, learn to get along with each other, and how to deal with the situation they’ve been put in is the major focus of the story. And I think it’s done quite well. My first reaction to seeing the characters was thinking that almost all of them are really stupid ideas, but they all end up having a good amount of depth and interesting relationships with each other.

When the game came out there were a lot of complaints about the gameplay and the combat system in particular. I think the main reason for that is that the creators somehow decided to introduce new elements of the combat system very slowly and giving the players a lot of time to get familiar with each of them before adding the next piece. Which sounds good as an idea, but in practice the result is that you don’t really get to do anything but pressing “Auto-Attack” during what is basically a tutorial that spans three chapters and lasts over 5 hours. How did anyone think that was a good idea? I don’t need half an hour to practice the attack button. I don’t need another half hour to play the game with both the attack button and the ability to use a healing potion (which I almost never had to use). Then you get introduced to character classes and get another half hour to practice it. Which still really is just pressing the attack button and occasionally leveling up your characters a bit. This all takes way too long. This could have all been covered in half an hour, not five. But once you get past that point and make it to chapter four, you finally get the last pieces of the combat system, which are the really important ones which the gameplay is all about. There are six character classes, which are basically Fighter, Attack-Mage, Defender, Healer, Support-Mage, and Saboteur-Mage. You control only one of three or two characters in your active party while the others use whatever attacks or spells are the most effective against the current enemy you’re fighting. While you can select which abilities the main character is using, I almost never did it. Keeping it at using auto-attack the whole time and letting the AI chose spells for you works perfectly fine almost the whole time. What you’re actually doing during a fight instead is switching between the active classes for your characters. A character can only use healing spells while he has the healer class active, and to have him use attack spells you have to switch him to the attack magic class. You have up to six sets of classes for your three current characters and knowing which of these sets to have active at which moment and finding the right second to switch is what the combat system is really all about. If you’re fighting against a heavily defended enemy, you probably start with Fighter/Attack/Saboteur to lower his resistances, then switch to Fighter/Attack/Attack to deal maximum damage, and go to Fighter/Attack/Healer once your characters are starting to get beaten up. If you have an enemy that deals huge amounts of damage, you might instead go for Fighter/Defense/Support first and then later to Fighter/Defense/Healer, and so on. Once you get to the point where you can use the Paradigm Shift system I think combat becomes a huge fun. And as you progress through the game it also can get really fast paced and exciting, as you sometimes have to change classes every three or four seconds to get just the abilities you need. There have been a few moments where I’d wanted my support character to cast the shield spell on all characters first and increase our attack and magic values later, but most of the time the AI works really quite well in giving you just the spells you need.

The presentation of the game is also great. I think it looks wonderful. I remember when the first images and videos were shown back in the game, the graphics seemed unbelievable. Looking at them now, the detail and realism of the engine is not actually that outstanding. But the creators did a very clever trick and paid a huge attention to detail where it really matters. The faces of the characters, the clothing on their upper bodies, as well as the monsters are of much higher quality than the rest of the game, but it took me a very long time to notice because that’s where you’re eyes are focusing on all the time. It’s really only a few crowd scenes with lots of unimportant background characters that you can actually see that the engine looks a bit like an updated version of the one from FF10. The music I also really like as well. And the voice acting is done very well without anything to complain about. Which for a Final Fantasy game is really very high quality.

I love how the game looks, I love how it sounds. I like the combat system, I like the enemies. I love the characters and the character development. I also the like the setting as a whole. But the game does have one really big major flaw. The plot. Because there really isn’t any. A plot is a causal sequence of events. First one thing happens, then the characters process what they learned, then they do something in response. Then the antagonists process what they just did and response to it in turn. Final Fantasy 13 does not have that. The character scenes are mostly done very well, but nothing actually happens throughout the entire game. First they try to find Sera and then confront the fal’Cie they find. That takes probably 90 minutes to 2 hours of play. Then they try to find the exit. That’s basically what you do for the next 30 hours. Going forwards because there is nothing else to do. Nobody has any agency in the story. Nobody ever really makes a descision to take any kind of action. It’s just going forward. The other big problem, which is closely connected to that, is that for most of the game there isn’t a villain. If you ever played a final fantasy game before, you know that all of them are about stopping a madman who wants to destroy the world because he’s a whiny emo bitch. That’s basically what’s happening here again. But the first time he shows up after 30 hours or so I wasn’t even aware that he’s supposed to be important. I thought he was just some unimportant upstart who tries to gain some benefit from the current situation. The game took me a total of 44 hours to play and I first knew who the villain was after 36 of those hours. And he’s possibly the lamest villain I’ve ever seen anywhere. He doesn’t have any motivation or background at all. He just wants to destroy the world, because it’s a Final Fantasy game and that’s how these are supposed to work.

And to make matters worse, the ending is the perfect case study of Sanderson’s First Law of Magic: “An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactory with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” I like ambigous and mysterious endings. I love the endings of Inception and Metal Gear Solid 2. I even prefer the original mindfuck ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion. But I didn’t have the slightest clue what was happening during the last 30 minutes of the game. Especially the last 3 minutes. If a writer solves a problem with the use of magic, the audience needs to understand what the magic is capable of doing and the limitations of its use. Otherwise you’re just pulling stuff out of your arse because you clearly don’t have any idea how any of this works and don’t give a shit about your own story. And this game ends while doing this as bad as it can possibly get. Completely new powers show up from nowhere that save the world and don’t have any resemblance to anything that happened before. Dead characters are suddenly back as they come around a corner even though we have not yet had any indication under what conditions that might happen. Damn it, this isn’t just half-arsed. This is garbage. Fuck that shit!

"This is ridiculous. Worst ending ever."
“This is ridiculous. Worst ending ever.”

I really hate the story of this game. I really do. But if I accept that this game doesn’t really have a plot at all, and that the story is really about the characters and character development, I can still live with it. The sad thing with the character stories is that they are mostly solved by the 30 hour mark. After that point all the cutscenes are mostly repeats of always the same monologue: “We’re not going to let them control us. We’re chosing our own destiny.” By the 10th time it gets tedious. Overall it feels like they were trying to recreate FF10 but didn’t realize that they also need a story.

Yay or Nay?

Actually, Yay. Everything considered, I really liked playing this game. The characters are interesting and well written, the game looks great and sounds great, and combat is fun. And they actually made two more games continuing the story, and given how the world looked at the end, I am interested in seeing what they did with it. But if you have not played it, I would rather recommend playing Final Fantasy 10. That one’s a lot better.

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