-The inventive, fast, challenging, and satisfying battle system.
-Absolutely beautiful fantasy visuals
-When the menu and upgrading systems open up, they are the best in the series
-The fact that those good things open really far into the game
-Practically zero opportunity to connect to the primary world
-Apart from the battle system, very unfocused and practically automatic gameplay takes the front seat for most of the game
Note: I rarely go into detail explaining mechanics or story elements in this review. If you’re very unfamiliar with the title, our Final Fantasy XIII Week in the Riddlethos archives has a wealth of details.
Final Fantasy XIII. Like all the other iterations in this heavily and emotionally debated series, this one has the fans divided. I strangely stand somewhere on both sides. I enjoyed my 60 hours with the game and have a lot of high praise for the game in some areas, however I cannot deny some tremendous design flaws and missed opportunities that weigh down all the highlights at every turn.
This is the most bizarre sub-category to both score and talk about. That’s because it can range from either the very best or the very worst I’ve experienced in a very long time.
I’ll start with the good stuff. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is top-notch. The focus on individual battle strategy finally let me go all out and use spells and strategies that I would flat out ignore in other iterations. The pay-off is huge. Planning paradigm combinations and successfully navigating a challenging battle to the finish is incredibly satisfying. Experimentation begets powerful strategies for boss fights, and a hard-fought win has never been such a good feeling in a JRPG before. Mass Effect 2’s combat seems like filler after this. To supplement this system, Final Fantasy XIII almost does a lot of things right, and this is when it gets difficult to write about.
Like almost every single thing in Final Fantasy XIII, the Crystarium powering-up system is either a non-interactive tunnel with the illusion of choice at best, or a fantastic and open system representing a high-point of the series. It’s truly a staggering difference. In the “tunnel” portion of the game – that lasts around 30 hours, no joke – the system might as well not exist but function automatically. Once the game and system opens up, however, it becomes interesting and important strategy to decide if characters are going to learn another role at a very high price and abandon buffed stats, or favour more powerful characters instead of extremely helpful choice in battle. And there are many more micro-decisions within those major choices. It’s like night and day.
But that’s the issue present in all the gameplay except the battle system proper. Upgrading weapons is fantastic, but weighted such that nothing significant can really be done until late in the game, and same goes for complete customization of the party. There is no reason for it. The game becomes even more difficult at the end, so the hand-holding gives a false impression to newbies and frustrates veterans. In fact, the game only fully opens up after completing it. It’s as if the game wanted to hide all of its fantastic gameplay elements away.
And the “tunnel” I speak of really is that bad. It takes place any time you’re in Cocoon and it very rarely is anything except for a straight line that your character runs down. You can’t go off the beaten path to find your own perspective of the world and feel like you discovered Cocoon because there is no Cocoon to discover. The world is explicitly presented to you, and the personality and depth suffers greatly for it.
As a final complaint, Final Fantasy XIII seems to make things worse by occasionally showing a hint of how it could have done more in the tunnel. One location allows you to explore just a tiny bit so that you can overhear conversations with regular non-distressed citizens, while another section takes place in a flashback in which you can actually talk to a few characters at your own pace. But both of these examples literally only happen once a piece, so they are more frustrating than refreshing on account of their rarity. And all of this wouldn’t be so hard to bear if the story was well told…
Final Fantasy XIII has a horribly told story. Sure, the scene direction is fine, but even Final Fantasy X – a title I consistently bash for mediocre characters, melodramatic dialogue, and poor scene direction – had me emotionally invested in the ending. There is some great character design in Final Fantasy XIII (some of my favourite) and solid voice work, but the writing steps on all the potential. There are some interesting set-ups for character arcs, but every climax is handled either in a forgettable or terrible manner, placing preference on gimmicks and melodrama before respecting the characters. The premise and many of the plot points are incredibly intriguing, but one of the game’s rare consistencies was in missing these opportunities. Also, even with all the dud or absentee villains of VIII, X, and XII, XIII trumps them all with the most bland, one-dimensional villain in Final Fantasy history.
I beat the game yesterday, and I remembering thinking to myself during the final scene, “if this was a well-told story, this ending may have been beautiful,” but as it was, I was just excited that I finally reached the post-game and thus the final level of the Crystarium.
What an incredible waste of a gorgeous world and intriguing premise.
Speaking of gorgeous world, if nothing else Final Fantasy XIII is jaw-dropping. While not technically the best, it is my favourite looking game of all time. There are a few dud animations, but the environments, character and enemy design, and unbelievably beautiful CG scenes are just some of the reasons why Final Fantasy XIII is a perpetual joy to look at. The PS3 has very rare frame-rate hiccoughs, but it never seemed to affect the silky-smooth and blazing-fast battles for a moment. The only other small complaint is some enemy pop-in once you’re out of the tunnel. The landscape is unbelievable, but a massive creature quickly fading into view on occasion ruins the magic a bit.
The music is a mixed bag. There were some very great moments in the soundtrack when I was happy to see risks pay off to create a unique and fitting soundscape. Other tracks, however, were distracting and out of place. Other tracks still would surprisingly loop very awkwardly as if they weren’t written for a video game. The rest of the aural experience, however, is very pleasing. Context sensitive quips from party members are generally better dialogue than what the cut-scenes have to offer, and sounds from the environment often offer the only connection to the surrounding world.
Final Fantasy XIII may have some outstanding and even unparalleled gameplay, but waiting for 30 hours to access a lot of it is way too much to ask of newcomers and veterans alike. If the tunnel had better writing, it would have been more forgivable, but the fact is that it doesn’t and so it just comes across as unfocused and simply bad design. It’s deceptive, inconsistent, and devoid of the sort of rewarding exploration that Final Fantasy is known for. Cocoon could have been an amazing world to explore and get to know, but instead nobody got the chance and Final Fantasy XIII has all its gems –and believe me, they are truly gems – in the menus and battle system in late and even post-game. You have to really love the battle system to get to where FFXIII truly shines. For me, that worked just fine, but for many it will be too little too late.