Square-Enix would love to create masterpieces of storytelling, if only the player and the whole gameplay aspect would stop getting in the way, which is why they are taking such drastic steps to phase them out. Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a roleplaying game, and perhaps calling it a game is stretching the definition too far.
Final Fantasy XIII is more like a ride. It is not an engineering marvel like a rollercoaster with sharp drops and loops that excite you with pure adrenaline, no. This ride is full of long stretches of flat track with things to look at on either side, but you must never touch them. Please keep your hands inside the cart at all times. The ride likes to mislead you with an ascent, making you expect that an exciting twist or a sharp drop is coming, but it never does. XIII’s narrative is happy to plod along at its own pace. There is often a lot of build up that goes absolutely nowhere.
The characters are the same stock archetypes we’ve seen so many times before. Lightning is the tough, silent loner — a warrior woman who doesn’t work well with others. She’s cold and distant, and has been described as a female Cloud, though not nearly as interesting. Lightning soon goes through her short character development episode and loses the only trait she has as a character. She becomes boring for the remaining forty hours of the story.
All the characters are like this. They all have one issue or one flaw, and eventually their turn will come up in the story, and they’ll resolve it. And they’ll resolve it easily. Remember when Cloud was put through an identity crisis? Or when Zidane learned the truth of his creation? Or when Tidus discovered Yuna’s fate? These created some powerful moments of video game storytelling, and the characters were pushed to their breaking points — but they got through it and became better for it.
There’s nothing like that in XIII, although it looks like the writers were trying to attempt it with melodramatic moments where the characters started to shout and cry, and the music started telling us how to feel, but the characters never reached their breaking points. They were always held back, protected by the writers from going too far. Lightning and her allies are never pushed too far, never allowed to break free of their moulds and become more than stock archetypes. This is why you eventually end up with a party of six drones who want to save the world because it’s the right thing to do. Each character becomes interchangeable. They are all good guys who have resolved their issues.
Snow is a cocky, overconfident tough guy who learns to take responsibility for his actions. Hope is an angry child who learns to put aside his anger. Vanille is the token jailbait who is hiding something. Fang is another female warrior even tougher than Lightning. Sazh, the most interesting character in XIII, wants to protect his son and he fights to save him. He learns forgiveness. Because he is the token old man of the party (probably in his 30s) he makes all the “I’m too old for this” lines, which I think many of today’s Final Fantasy fans can sympathise with when they are put through an experience like this.
The majority of the story takes place on Cocoon, an insular world in the sky that floats above the lower world of Pulse. Cocoon and Pulse were at war a long time ago, and the citizens of Cocoon are taught to fear and hate anything to do with Pulse. This is because both worlds are ruled by the god-like Fal’Cie who can touch people and turn them into l’Cie (servants). So, our party come together at the start of the game and are turned into Pulse l’Cie, and spend most of the game running from the military. There’s a good chance you’ll find this incredibly hard to follow, with all the in-universe terms thrown around. Luckily there’s a datalog that summarises everything succinctly… and actually manages to tell the story better than the cutscenes do at times.
There’s no clear goal or motive for our party for much of the game. They spend hours wondering what to do next, or escaping from the military. There’s no clear enemy to hate — no Sephiroth, no Sin… just the unknown political machinations and manipulations of the Fal’Cie. By the time you learn what’s actually going on, you’ll probably be long past caring. There’s one Fal’Cie that’s trying to use you, and it’s very important that you’re alive to fulfil his plans… so what does he do every time you encounter him? He attacks you, resulting in one of the tougher boss fights in the game. It doesn’t make any sense, but you can’t have a big reveal without a boss fight, can you?
When you’re not in a cutscene, you’re either in a battle or moving through the linear maps full of static eye candy. Final Fantasy XIII is one of the most beautiful games out there… but so was Myst, back in the day. And at least Myst let you interact with the environment to some extent. The cutscenes are brilliant, visually, but it’s hard to expect anything less of Square-Enix at this point. Some of the scenes are absolutely crazy, full of gravity-defying jumps that look more absurd than awesome.
It is a shame that XIII’s world is so static and disjointed, because Cocoon, an insular world in the sky, sounds like an interesting place to explore. But you will only ever get to see pieces of it. A forest here, a lake there, with no real idea of how they connect, because the party spends a good portion of the game in different places, and they seem to keep moving when they’re not on screen. At one point, Sazh and Vanille are in one city, while Lightning and Hope are in another, but we have no idea how far away they are from each other because we never get a feel for the layout of the world we’re in.
Final Fantasy XIII’s premise sounds so interesting, but the execution is a mess. Because of the importance of the story, every other aspect of what makes RPGs fun is stripped away. There’s no exploration. Our characters are on the run, and will definitely not go exploring a cave for some treasure. They will, however, go through cave-like environments on a linear path if that’s where the story needs them to be. They won’t stop and explore towns and talk to NPCs. Our characters are wanted fugitives, and the common people are too frightened to be anywhere near them. Our characters won’t do any side quests — except for one late in the game, a mark hunting game similar to the one in Final Fantasy XII. By the time this area opens up, you’ll wonder why the rest of the game couldn’t have been like this.
There was a time when stories were added to games to make them more interesting, but they were never supposed to impact too much on the experience of playing. Stories were often modified to fit the game. Here, it’s the reverse. The story is the most important part, and any aspect of gameplay that doesn’t fit gets cut.
Videogame stories have so far been unable to top books and movies. When a game like this comes along and makes the story its primary focus, this fact becomes even more obvious. Final Fantasy XIII is an animated story that lets you can play the battles and move from cutscene to cutscene. There are no extra bits to the story, either — no hidden scenes. You will see every last scene in the story, whether you want to or not. And sometimes you’ll just want the cutscenes to stop so you can go fight something.
When you are in a battle, you get to press X over and over to choose “Auto Battle”. You can input the selections manually, but Auto Battle is so much quicker and usually picks the most efficient choices anyway. All you really need to worry about is switching the classes of your characters — the paradigm shift, XIII’s battle gimmick.
If you disliked Final Fantasy XII’s programmable battle mode, then you’re going to hate XIII’s system even more, as there is now less strategy, less choice, and a lot less control. Your character has a choice of classes, which are gradually unlocked as the game progresses. There are only six, and each of these six classes can only do one thing. The Crusader attacks, the Ravager casts black magic, the Medic heals, the Saboteur casts debuffs on the enemy, the Synergist likewise buffs the party, and the Sentinel does absolutely nothing but defend. That’s it. That’s your strategy. Most of the time a Crusader and two Ravagers will get you through any fight, and if you’re low on health, switch to a Crusader, Ravager and Medic.
It’s easy. There are only a few bosses in the storyline that will actually give you trouble, and that is usually because the game will swap party members in the cutscene right before the boss fight without giving you a chance to set up some optimum paradigms. But if you just lose the fight and retry it, the menu will open for you. And if you lose a fight, any fight, for real, there’s no penalty. You’ll simply restart the battle. You’ll never see a game over screen. Your characters also heal completely after every fight, so you never have to worry about anything beyond the current battle.
Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t want you to get stuck. It wants you to keep enjoying the ride with minimal bumps. Don’t worry about the battles. They’re just there to give your hands something to do in between the story, and to stop your controller from switching itself off for being inactive for too long.
It’s worth mentioning that there are level caps throughout the game, and they only increase after pivotal moments in the story, preventing any grinding. There’s a ‘crystarium’ where you go to spend your experience on new stat boosts and abilities, but there are no branching paths, except for a few small one-way trees which you can ignore if you like, but probably shouldn’t. It’s like Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, but without even the illusion of freedom.
Choice is taken away from the player completely for the majority of the game. As the story sends the six main characters here and there, sometimes splitting up, you simply play who the game allocates as your lead character, and it usually switches at the most annoying places possible, such as when your character finally learns their summon — you don’t get to actually use it for another few hours. Final Fantasy XIII likes to give you new toys, but not let you play with them.
After a number of battles, you’ll want the next segment of the story to begin. You’ll then forget how repetitive the fights are when the story starts to confuse and bore you. The sad thing is you’ll probably delude yourself into thinking you’re having fun. I did. I don’t know when exactly it happened, but I did eventually realise that I was not having fun, that it was a chore… but I was so far in that I decided I needed to complete the game and then never play it again. It still felt like a ride, and I couldn’t just jump off before getting to the end.
I’m still kicking myself for buying the collector’s edition. Only a few months after release, I have already seen this game on sale at a fraction of the price in many major chains. Even the special edition is selling for half of what I paid for it. I can’t even look at the game with that half-price sticker without feeling bitterness and resentment towards Square-Enix for this blunder. Final Fantasy XII was a misstep for the series, but it was tolerable and it had some good things to talk about.
I can’t find anything positive to say about Final Fantasy XIII. Even the audiovisual presentation is undermined by the poorly-written story and lack of interactivity.