I have been waiting to revisit this game for years now. If only because I built up so much hype and excitement for Final Fantasy XIII before its release, and the fact that I actively enjoyed it back when it first came out. Heck, the fact it was a multiplatform title was what sold me on the console I primarily used for the next five years. As such, I felt I have some unfinished business to attend to with this title, and going back to it after all this time was at least a little disheartening.
Final Fantasy XIII Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360
Developer and Publisher: Square Enix
Based on roughly half a decade of observation, the biggest point of contention with this game is the story, and after going through it once more, making sure to read every single Datalog I received in the game, I can certainly see why. Quite simply, the story has some pretty major problems regarding the driving forces of both the storyline and the main characters. They are a group of six individuals, half of which are their own unique breed of obnoxious, who have been given a mission they do not understand by entities that are very poorly explained. In response to this, they begin wandering around the world, trying to figure out what their poorly defined mission is, and getting in trouble with the local law enforcement, who views them as terrorists.
From there, they each going through their own small and often poorly or weirdly written arcs before coming to a series of realizations about the world they live in. They discover that their futuristic Theocratic government and the backbone in which their society is fundamentally based in are both flawed, and should be exterminated. However, things get complicated, and the story devolves into the characters rushing to defeat the pope-king in order to stop him from committing genocide so he can meet god. Which they achieve through the power of love, friendship, and heart. It is a head scratching plot that is far more sensible if you read the in-game synopsis, but is still a mess regardless of how it is presented.
All of this is made so much more complicated through the vocabulary used by the game, as the words themselves are often bizarre and difficult to attach meaning to. For example, why exactly would you name a planetoid “Cocoon”? A cocoon is a temporary shell, created when an insect as it undergoes metamorphosis. It certainly has no relationship for the other half of the world, which is actually several times larger than Cocoon, “Pulse”, or rather “Gran Pulse”. What exactly is Gran short for in that context? Why is the region named Pulse? Does it throb and something goes through the region? No, it’s named after a god, even though the main plot implies this is a monotheistic religion, and the only god should be the Maker, who may or may not even be real. This is before getting into the pretentious sounding gobbledygook that is the trifecta of L’cie, Fal’cie, and Cie’th, which could easily be renamed to any number of things, such as… Branded, Providers, and Cursed.
One could easily do a thorough analysis of this entire game’s story and likely come up with hundreds of potential qualms about it, and identify dozens of basic writing mistakes that any professional writer should avoid. Or the confusing mess of the ending that, having followed everything up until the last thirty minutes, I could barely understand. There are certainly some emotional driving factors given to the story by its audio visual presentation, which should be accounted for given its medium, but if you were to write out the complete story, it would probably sound far more like something written by a teenager who can be a competent writer, but insists on focusing on producing a work that is far more grandiose than sensible. The story of Final Fantasy XIII is a prime example of style over substance.
The style over substance mentality carries over into the gameplay, and affects every element. The simple act of walking does not feel very good, and simply turning around can be made far more difficult than it needs to be due to the character animations and the camera. I do agree that characters do look rather nice as they trot through the game, but I would have much rather had them move at a slightly faster speed or need to cover less ground. As it stands, simply getting in position to get a preemptive attack on an enemy can prove to be challenging. Heck, the act of panning the camera around does not feel anywhere near as good as it ought to.
Moving to the combat, I see quite a lot of promise in it. A fast paced battle system where commands are made automatically, and you instead need to quickly adjust and change your team member’s roles in order to ensure a speedy victory. In practice, the combat is about switching between presets of roles for up to three party characters when appropriate, and letting the auto-battle do its thing as I absentmindedly pressed A. Now, you can, and it is often beneficial to, set the commands for your party leader yourself, but even when I tried doing so, I was still regularly bored by the combat for all of the fervor and effort placed into its presentation. Hit an enemy with magic and melee attacks until they die or are staggered, meaning their defenses are down and they may be air juggled, heal when necessary, buff or debuff when appropriate, and make one character a meat shield if an enemy deals too much damage too quickly.
That said, I am not going to go so far to say that every encounter is easy or some such thing, but rather they are hard because their attack stat is so high, they make liberal use of buffs or debuffs, and ultimately inconvenience you in a way you are unable to compensate from. This can best be remedied by changing your collection of six roles for your party of three characters, or by going around, fighting weaker enemies, and gaining CP until your numbers are high enough to withstand the enemy’s numbers. If none of these work, it may be due to how the other AI controlled party members can be utterly incompetent at times.
During the later half of the game, party members regularly did not make use of the number of actions they receive after an allotted time, choosing to only heal three times instead of five, or apply one buff instead of two, when it is ultimately beneficial to do otherwise. If you give them a combat role, and adopt a support role, party members may choose to attack the stronger enemy, rather than the weaker supporting enemies. Also, regardless of whether or not you are controlling a character, they will likely not take advantage of the 3D space they exist in, and gang up together, allowing for enemies to easily attack multiple party members at once, and you have little to no control over where your characters move.
The frustrating lack of control follows the game into its leveling system, which I find to be a pointless complication and simplification of a well established EXP driven system. You gain CP from battles, which you then invest into each character’s Crystarium, a series of linear nodes that boost a character’s HP, strength, and magic or give them new abilities, or another accessory slot. You can choose what role to invest your CP in, but the whole thing is so time consuming and uninvolving that I wish that it were ripped from the game in its entirety.
My cynicism expands into the way the game handles equipment upgrades, money, and materials. In short, you get materials from defeating enemies, and those materials can either be sold for money, or be converted into EXP to raise your equipment’s levels. Yet, without a spreadsheet by your side, it takes quite some time to determine the value of any material, and figure out what should be done with it. Then there is the EXP multiplier system, which encourages the player to invest a certain amount of EXP into equipment, or so I believe. This mechanic is poorly explained, and I largely ignored the system for the majority of the game. The materials I collected from fallen enemies were simply things that accumulated in my inventory, devoid of any real value or purpose, and I would have much rather been given a bland, uninteresting monoform point system devoid of any of these complications that disguise time wasting as depth.
The cherry on top of this disappointment sunday is that of Gran Pulse, which I recall being referred to as the saving grace of Final Fantasy XIII. However, what I experienced was the weakest attempt at creating a somewhat open world that I have ever seen, as it is slow, repetitive, and boring, all more so than when the game was a very linear set of encounters, set pieces, and item slightly off the beaten path. You walk, fight enemies, some of which are way too powerful for you too take on, find a quest stone, accept it, fight the enemy, get a reward, and walk to the next stone to repeat the elongated process of grinding. Because of how unenjoyable it is to move and fight most enemies, this is actually where I find the game to fall apart, and my mind started to drift to any number of games where exploring a beautiful and expansive world is enjoyable, instead of annoying.
It is all such a shame, because the amount of effort that clearly went into the visuals of Final Fantasy XIII cannot be understated. The world is beautifully crafted, combat can be a treat to simply watch, and the cutscenes can be a visual treat. Just about every aspect of this game looked appealing in some regard, but the art direction, unfortunately, began to wane on me. Everything is so detailed and convoluted in its construction, and I genuinely do not think the characters need the amount of detail that is applied to them.
It is also worth noting how the PC port of this title is pretty bad, if only because support for it ended a few weeks after release. Despite having a system above or around the recommended specifications, the game still ran at an inconsistent framerate that most floated around 30, but spiked up to 60 at times, and dipped down to 20 at others. There is no audio mixing to raise the volume of the atmospheric soundtrack, even though that is a pretty standard feature, and has been for about a decade, if not longer. All of these factors really make this PC port look shoddy and hastily constructed. Though, I would say the title as a whole is pretty shoddily constructed.
There is something to enjoy from Final Fantasy XIII in regards to its very presentation. When I started playing, I began to be whisked away by these very things, but as I went on, the confusion, questions, and overall boredom all began to pile on, and I was no longer enticed by the style, and could not retain my enjoyment with the substance of the story and characters. It was an upsetting experience for me, and I’m content knowing that I have finished whatever unfinished business I had with this game.
However, there exist two sequels that I am compelled to play, and I will get to them sometime next year.