Video Game Review: Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII is a ridiculously beautiful game, and one with ludicrously high production values. It can certainly be argued that SquareEnix has lost their way when it comes to making an engaging RPG, but only the blindest of persons would attempt to argue that they have stopped being able to make a good looking one. It was the beauty and style of Final Fantasy XIII that convinced me to buy the game, and to give it a shot against all of my better judgments. I went so far as to pre-order the game, while trying to convince myself that it would be worth playing, and that everything I had been hearing about it had been blown out of proportions. It was with a degree of horror that I realized all of the early complaints about the game being as linear as a Popsicle stick were not only accurate, but somewhat understated. I had begrudgingly accepted, by this point, that there would be no towns, no overworld, and no random battles. What I hadn’t accepted, and which jolted me quite harshly, was that there wasn’t much of anything for the first twenty-five hours of the game.
The Twenty-Five Hour Tutorial...
No hyperbole: this game’s tutorial is twenty-five hours long. And that is terrifying.
Let me elaborate on what I mean by calling the first half of this game a tutorial. In each of the first ten chapters of the game, you control a fixed party. It will change frequently, so as to allow you to experiment with the various characters and paradigm classes. In theory, this isn’t too much of an issue, but all of the game’s features are drip-fed to the player at an antagonizingly slow rate. In the first chapter you can’t do much aside from repeatedly hit attack, since you don’t know any skills. In fact, you can’t even level up to improve your characters until the third chapter. So until then, you are just left to traverse the railway you are placed on, enjoying the scenery, and killing enemies for no particular purpose. Once you unlock the ability to level up you begin to feel that there’s at least some semblance of purpose to your battles, but this feeling goes away when you realize how easy it is to remain at the “level cap” – since the game only gradually, and infrequently, grants access to new portions of your Crystarium grid – a poor man’s sphere grid with fewer branches, and abilities placed on it.
This is added to the fact that without any random battles or branches in path, you are always at exactly the right level for whatever the game wants to throw at you. Without any sidequests, places to explore, or even NPCs to chat with, the whole thing comes across as feeling like little more than a battle simulator, and it gets old very quickly. For entirely too long, there's no feeling of growth, decision making, or accomplishment.
When the game does open up, things get a lot better. You finally gain the ability to switch your party around in the tenth chapter. At this point you'll also finally have your Crystarium expanded to the point where you get to make a decision or two in regards to how your characters level up, and this adds a lot towards keeping things interesting. Or rather, it makes things interesting for the very first time.
By this point, you’ll also be getting used the game’s unique battle system. You’ll be learning how to properly make use of Synergists to Haste and Protect/Shell your party, and how to use Ravages to chain enemies so that you can deal big damage with your Commandos. And to be truthful, the added freedom goes a long way towards making the battle system seem fun. At the very least, it adds a certain degree of strategy to the whole thing. Unfortunately, though the core is sound, the system feels really shallow. There’s just not enough abilities that do different things. Forget about series mainstay techniques like Steal: Final Fantasy XIII offers nothing like that. The game gives you basic skills like Fire and Thunder early on, and you’re still using them at the end of the game – because there’s nothing stronger offered to you. It’s actually kind of embarrassing. Scratch that. It's entirely embarrassing.
The Meat and Potatoes
In the eleventh chapter of the game, when you'll very likely feel your interest in playing waning, things will open up completely. This is when you gain access to the game’s mission system, and -- praise be to Yevon -- these missions are spread out through a world that is large enough to explore, even if it isn't particularly vast. These missions will test your skills in taking down stronger foes, and will rank you based on how quickly you complete them. A few of the battles are challenging and require you to plan out a specific strategy, to cautiously gear up, and to pay close attention to the battle. Some of them will even pit you against familiar foes such as Tonberries, which is an agreeable nod to previous entries in the series.
The missions that are designed well are the most fun you'll have playing Final Fantasy XIII; but far more often, the battles are grindy, and uninteresting. You will reap more of your five-star ranks by landing a pre-emptive strike (caused by sneaking up behind an enemy on the map) and emptying its health before it ceases to be staggered. Not helping the game’s cause is that your five-star target times are actually lowered the higher your stats become. What this means is that some of the earlier missions become very, very difficult due to you taking the time to obtain a character’s ultimate weapon. That’s right. You’re punished for gearing and leveling up. Can anyone else see a problem with this, from a design perspective?
On the subject of ultimate weapons, you gain them through crafting them. You can also craft a variety of different accessories. Now if you have played any game with a developed synthesis, alchemy, or crafting system this may sound like a promising feature. The promise that this feature shows is immediately thrown out window when you realize that you can’t possibly obtain enough materials to use during the main game. Because of this, it is recommended to forego synthesis until you reach chapter eleven. In chapter eleven, you become capable of synthesizing items due to being able to farm mobs for hours, and to sell the drops for money. If you are wondering why you’d farm for money instead of components, it’s because components in Final Fantasy XIII are all largely the same. They don’t possess any unique attributes – they just grant varying amount of EXP to a piece of gear, which will level up on their own as you funnel components into them. So you just buy the components and number-grind your way to supremacy. This would be an unexciting feature on its own, but the absurd number of time it takes to farm money in this game – monster’s do not drop gil – just makes the whole thing even more distasteful.
Don't even get me started on the fact that the enemies you'll need to farm are wandering around with seven million HP. They also hit like trucks on fire. Whenever "Spam Death and pray" is not only a viable, but the best strategy, something has gone horribly wrong during development of a game. And I wish I could say that this is true only for a single enemy, but that would be a lie. Death-spamming is the best way to farm items off of all of the enemies you'll be obtaining high-level synthesis from for a very long time. Until your Crystarium grid is almost completed, Death-spamming is the way to go. And that's just stupid.
By the time I finished the game, I should have just been relieved to have it over with. It was at this moment that my horrible OCD tendencies crept up, and demanded that I make every effort to earn a platinum trophy. To my pleasant surprise, a lot of the trophies turned out to be fairly well accessible. Some of them were even fun. Certain ones, such as felling a Gigantuar, five-starring every mission, and obtaining five-stars during the final boss battle are enjoyable milestones to work towards. Even the one that's granted for completing each character’s Crystarium grid seems like a logical inclusion in an RPG. However, there exists, also, an achievement for obtaining every item in the game. At first impression, this sounds tedious. But as one considers the amount of gil needed to make all of the items that are only obtainable through crafting, this feeling of indifference turns to one of horror. I am actually still working on this – and I have to take it in small bites, because it's been very stale, for a very long time already.
I feel as though I have done nothing but trash this game so far. I’m not going to apologize for that, because it’s certainly not an undeserved trashing; but I will say that the game doesn’t do everything wrong. In addition to its incredible graphics, the music is also really good. The cast of characters is likable also, even if they hold exactly zero candles when placed in comparison with the crews from… well, any game in the series since Final Fantasy V. The story won’t leave a lasting impression, but it gets the job done, and there is some appreciated character growth along the way.
I can’t help but feel, however, that all things considered… they should have just made this game into an anime series. It’s missing way too many basic features of an RPG to be considered something other than a joke. Consider, for example, items in the game. You get Potions in the first chapter, and they stop being useful halfway through the game. You can also get an Elixir, but you are limited to only four -- in the entire game. You can't buy them, synthesize them, or obtain them as a drops. There are no other health restoratives. On one hand it's kind of funny, but on the other hand... it's really pathetic. Pitiful, even.
At it's best, Final Fantasy XIII is a pale shadow of a once-great series. At it's worst, it's an exhibition of offensively poor game design.
- The characters, especially Lightning, are good.
- The game looks and sounds absolutely phenomenal.
- A twenty-five hour tutorial is completely unacceptable.
- Maps are stupidly linear.
- Way too many features are missing, and the game seems incomplete.
- The battle system isn’t horrible, but it is bare-bones.