Now, I was quite excited for Final Fantasy XIII when it came out. I played the demo on the PS3 about two times and I digged the gameplay. It was simple, fun. Of course, this demo lasted about 2% of your over-all playtime with the final retail product and what I failed to notice at the time was that perhaps, just maybe, this simplistic, hands-all-over-you approach to Final Fantasy wouldn't really hold up 20 or 40 hours into the game. This was my biggest mistake. While Square said they wanted to appeal to the mainstream with Final Fantasy XIII, what they ended up doing was make a boring game. One which you feel less in control of than a modern Sonic game. And oddly enough, I found myself far more invested in the characters and setting of the game than I did the actual gameplay. It's like the inverse of Final Fantasy X, only it's far more grating when you dislike the gameplay but like the story. Almost like you just want the game to be one long-ass film, which, frankly, it almost is.
Because everything that's happening's in a pre-rendered CGI sequence and these sequences must cost an awful lot to produce, stuff happens at a frantic pace for instance; out of seemingly no-where and quite instantly, Starfox turns up to shoot the hell out of the train. Out of what I can only assume is her arse, Lightning produces a rocket launcher and proceeds to fire at the ships, hitting Peppy, who failed to heed his own advice and DO A BARREL ROLL. Afterwards an inexplicable saw-hand robot thing starts cutting the train to shreds. To cut this a bit short, here's an over-view of the story from here-on-in: So Lightning has a sister; Serah. Serah is engaged to Men's Health cover model; Snow, Snow which is a girls name... Serah, for reasons never fully understood gets too close to a Fal'Cie, one of the many "Cie"'s in the game, Fal'Cie's are big, mystic and frankly, God-like paperweights who control ever aspect of life on the planet. Some give food, some give clothing, some give electricity... Yeah, don't ask, you never get answers about what the hell that's all about. By getting too close, she gets taken by a crystalline entity... No, Star Trek nerds, not that crystalline entity... And effectively becomes that Fal'Cie's bitch.
Once you get touched inappropriately by a Fal'Cie, you become a L'Cie. Think of it like a Fal'Cie being Mario after getting a Mushroom and a L'Cie is like being small Mario. When you become a L'Cie, rather than give you a 3 day seminar on what the Fal'Cie wants you to do, it instead gives you short flash of imagery on what you're supposed to do. This is called the person's "Focus". If a person fails at their focus, or spends 100 hours on Angry Birds rather than complete the Focus, they turn into a Cei'th, or as I like to call them "the easiest enemies in the game". So yeah, that kind-of sucks. Alternatively, completing their focus turns them into... A crystal. Yeah, I'm not seeing the whole risk-to-reward ratio here. Also, why are Fal'Cie's such dicks? I mean, they can maintain all life on the planet, but when it comes to convincing someone to do something, they just pluck anyone who gets just a bit too close to them, brands them with a tattoo which gets larger the closer they are to being turned into a monster of unspeakable ease to kill and then, if they do a good job, turn them into a crystal? Okay... Well, perhaps I jumped the gun there for comedic effect, see, there's two types of Fal'Cie as there are two types of 'world', as it were in Final Fantasy XIII. You have "Sanctum Fal'Cie" which are the good guys, they help the people of "Cocoon", a floating continent where Fal'Cie are used to bring prosperity to people and then you have "Pulse" and their corresponding Fal'Cie who are more hands-off and let nature take care of everything, not otherworldly ornamental pen holders.
So yeah, turns out that one Fal'Cie wants another Fal'Cie dead. The Fal'Cie in question is named "Orphan", and is said to be the devil as far as Cocoon mythology goes. To rid himself of the other Fal'Cie, the murder-bent Fal'Cie uses Serah to gather other people so they can be given the actual Focus of destroying Orphan. This seems to anger Lightning and Snow, especially when upon completion of her focus, Serah becomes a giant crystal, as promised. Other characters who I can't really go into great depth explaining because you'll literally be reading this until next week are Hope, a teenage lad who also has an oddly effeminate name and rightly blames Snow for the death of his mother who, despite falling the same distance as his mother in the opening 30 minutes of the game, Snow survived. Presumably using Hope's mother as a cushion on the way down. Sazh, the effective "Comic Relief" of the game... Well, part of the game at least... Fang, a Pulse L'Cie whom along with Vanilla Ice Cream, err... "Vanille", have awoken from a few centuries of Fal'Cie crystallisation, only to be given a new Focus with the threat of going back into the big sleep, that Focus supposedly being "annoy the hell out of the audience", which they did a grand job, don't know why Vanille didn't just crystallised the moment she opened her mouth, though.
So, phew, there we go. Story briefly explained for you. So, you may be wondering, what part of that do you like? Well, you see, out of all the Final Fantasy games I've played over the years, this game has a protagonist I could probably get along with if I met in real life. Mostly because she punches annoying characters who fall into Japanese media clich´s in the face. I'm pretty sure Lightning gets into a fight with most of the main cast, everyone except Hope and Vanille who she has soft-spots for, which is disappointing, but it's like me having a soft-spot for the Kingdom Hearts series, despite the fact everything about it should disgust me to my very core. And you wont know this until you really play, but the world in which Final Fantasy XIII is based in is really compelling, and I don't mean their weird architecture, rituals, light cycle racing or bizarre holographic version of "Deadliest Warrior" which they use to vaguely tell the story of Orphan in that one scene everyone goes on and on about. No, it's the moments where the characters are running through cities and suddenly everyone's like "Oh shi--" when they realise these people are L'Cie. The undercurrent of prejudice which the game quietly tries to focus on is also well received my end as well, however it just wasn't really pushed. You had one or two scenes where characters would question why people were afraid of L'Cie, however, given the fact they're human beings with the ability to shoot fire out of their hands, I don't think I'd really like them living next door to me either. Last thing I want is my cat bursting into flames as someone pets it. But the issue is completely mishandled, rather than saying "what makes us so bad?" it should be "What makes us so different?", other than the whole fire-shootin' bit, you could argue they are rational people... Who at any moment could turn into hideous creatures and rip your heart out, or have a Focus which includes harvesting the innocent. Wait, no, now that I think about it, the whole prejudice sub-sub-sub-plot is a bit silly, really...
Whoo! Action. Shame it'll be counter balanced by mashing buttons and 20 years worth of menus. I can't stress those damn menus enough.
Whoo! Action. Shame it'll be counter balanced by mashing buttons and 20 years worth of menus. I can't stress those damn menus enough.
Four paragraphs in and finally we get to talk about the big mess of Final Fantasy XIII. The "Game" aspect of it. So where to begin? Well, you start in a battle, so why not start there? The battle system in the game was the main focus of the developers to help "streamline" and "casual-ise" the game so that more people could play. For instance, those tipper ornaments which drink water can now play by rocking back and forth, tapping on the confirm button on the controller. See, the game has been build with a more frantic pace, rather than have set-in-stone "wait" bars like older Final Fantasy games had (VII through X), you now have this "action gauge". The Action Gauge is separated into slots, the number of slots is determined by what character you use and how many bars that character has is determined by how far into the story you've progressed. You fill this gauge with actions you can select from the game's menus and sub-menus. The nice thing about it, in theory, is that you can queue up items you want to use and only use them, meaning you could only use half the gauge on one action and a completely different action fills the rest of the bar. Sounds great, right? Wrong! See, the game moves at a fast pace and your cumbersome use of menus or sub-menus to fill your gauge will result in you failing and failing hard. The game isn't setup for you to manually queue up attacks. Instead, the game quite literally pushes you to use the "auto battle" option in the menu which gives you the 'best' possible attacks already lined up for you on the Action Gauge. The game hammers home this point by making it the default option regardless of what you did on the last 'turn'. Human input into the game is frankly, not needed. The game just sort-of battles itself, the only thing stopping the game actually playing itself is minimal user-input to confirm stuff or swap "paradigms", which I'll come onto next. There's a very simple way Square could have avoided this... Slow down the passage of time when the player is in a sub-menu. Thinking-time is important and with the normal flow of the game as it is, thinking-time is just not there.
The "Stagger" bar is a mechanism in which an enemy becomes more vulnerable to attacks. Each enemy has their own "Stagger" bar, filling the bar makes the enemy enter a "Staggered" state where huge numbers will fly off their body when they're hit and generally die a lot quicker. As mentioned above, the Stagger bar fills with each hit on the enemy. Physical attacks will make the bar jump up more than magical attacks, but the bar will also deplete over time a lot faster than magical attacks. So your ultimate strategy, really, is to have one Commando team mate and one Ravager team mate (you being either of those) and try and time it so that the Commando attacks first and the Ravager has the last blow, thus introducing... Gasp, strategy. However, I think this is actually just more a case of "oh, this is a nice work-around the Stagger mechanic" rather than a legitimate strategy the developers were expecting people to use. Instead, legitimate strategies are simply abusing the paradigm system to swap between 'attack' formations and 'heal' formations. Since most characters are about as resilient as a wet paper bag, you wont go a single boss fight without a arse-clenching moment, more than 15 minutes into a battle where the boss will unleash some sort of cheap-as-hell attack which will instantly kill one or more of your team. So generally, you have one big flurry of attacking followed by one big flurry of chain-healing, all while trying to juggle the Stagger bar.
The game does have the good grace of giving you special paradigms in which you can strengthen your team and attempt to weaken enemies. These generally don't work out so great later into the game, where bosses will literally buff themselves up, instantly kill your buffs and remove any status aliments to themselves. ... What the hell. No, no, that's not cool. The whole game up to this point has been about juggling paradigms and trying to strengthen your team while weakening the enemy, having this thrown in your face is like going into a town where people walk in the road and cars drive on the pavement and no one tells you of this change. You're thrown into car-wreck of a battle where you're now desperately trying to work out a new battle strategy... But then you realise there isn't one. You just got to keep pounding the guy with attacks as quickly as possible and try not to die in the process. So it's just back to paradigm abuse, but bosses aren't that simple because these later bosses will literally just attack YOU. I call it the "Mario Kart" philosophy. Since the game knows that killing you will cause the game to end, your character is always the primary target. Like how in Mario Kart, the AI will always hit you with shells and there always seems to be an abundance of blue shells whenever you're in 1st place, but not when the AI is. So yeah, despite the fact your two AI team mates are free-thinking and have the ability to revive characters, if you hit 0 HP, game's over. So what, I couldn't just jump to another character and heal my main character? Or even better, just let an AI team mate go into my pocket, find a Phoenix Down and pour it on me? What a load of bollocks.
Pretty early on, I say, 'early on', but at this point it's about 15 hours into the game, you're introduced to summons. Rather than summons working like Pokémon and you throw Eidolon-balls at these monsters to catch them after weakening a bit, instead you have asinine encounters with these "Eidolon" creatures, who come out of no-where and challenge you to battle them. Only, it's not really a battle. See, you're essentially on a timer to defeat the Eidolon or it kills you instantly. Rather than having a "Stagger" bar, these Eidolons have a "capture" bar or something along those lines. You fill the bar and hit a button to capture them. But, as you may have guessed, the the criteria to fill this bar is radically different to that of the Stagger bar. So what you have to do, is "scan" the Eidolon for weaknesses with an ability called "Libra" and read what, roughly you have to do. So, counter productively and while this thing attacks you, causing you to heal yourself, you'll often have to heal or strengthen team mates to make the bar fill up. I'll be honest in saying I have no god-damn idea how to really and fail-proofly defeat an Eidolon. Every time I did it, it was after about 10 attempts and the game just threw me a bone or something. What the hell's the point in these battles. They're frustrating as all hell, they hardly make any sense and there's no way of just skipping the battle. Like "It's okay, I never use Summons in Final Fantasy anyway, I don't want this thing. Go away." No, you have to battle that bastard and win, the story compels you and it's like if you don't get the summon, the whole game's story collapses.
Eidolons, once you acquire them are somewhat useful. You summon them in battle and they literally become like Pokémon, only Pokémon which transform into strange stuff. Like for instance, Sazh's summon goes from ass-kicking robo-cop to a god damn sports car, which Sazh jumps into and power slides into enemies. This transformation is yet another made-up, crazy-ass word from the Final Fantasy Dictionary of Stuff No One Cares About, "Gestalt Mode"... Well, okay, in fairness, it's a German word for "form", so... "Form Mode"... Makes sense, right? (He lied.) In this state, you are literally invulnerable and can attack enemies, however are limited to the Gestalt Meter, which every attack in Gestalt Mode drains. It's a nice diversion from the monotonous, control-lacking gameplay you're normally restricted to, and is a nice morale-booster when fighting that tedious boss you've been stuck on but on balance, not really worth doing annoying Eidolon battles to acquire.
Much like other Square Enix-made RPG games and similarly to Final Fantasy X, the game doesn't have a 'traditional' levelling feature. Where as in standard RPGs, you gain experience or "EXP" when you defeat an enemy. This EXP goes towards a new 'level', in which your character grows in some aspect, usually strength or gains a new ability. In Final Fantasy X, this was done away with in favour of the "Power Grid" system, which you acquired various "Power Spheres" from defeating enemies and using these to power up characters. In Final Fantasy XIII, this idea has been expanded. Now, each Paradigm the player can shift into has it's own "Crystallarium", in which "Crystallarium Points" or "CP" is used to power up a character. The idea is pretty simple, it allows you to choose what Paradigm to power up and when, for instance, if you use Commando a lot, you're probably best powering up that rather than, say "Saboteur" which you use less frequently. However, there lies two problems with this. First is quite an obvious one, the game never informs you what you may need to power up. You could invest heavily in physical attacks for your character, only to find the up-coming boss is weak to magical attacks or worse, weak to a specific magical attack you're no-where near acquiring in the Crystallarium board of the Ravager paradigm. Second is the fact that Crystallariums are capped. Yeah, no brainer, right? Story dictates how far into a Crystallarium you can go, and this sucks. See, if you can't get past a boss in a traditional RPG, you do what anyone frustrated enough has to do and "grind", the means of engaging in battles just for the sole purpose of levelling up, levels which usually go all the way up to Level 99 or 100. In Final Fantasy XIII, you're boned if you reach a boss and already at the maximum extent of your Crystallarium for all characters (which I was at one particularly insane boss and spent several hours of my life shouting at the TV as a result).
Worst of all about the Crystallarium is that, because you get CP at an irregular rate, you will spend most your time in the Crystallarium trying frantically to power up your character. So in the end, the game basically becomes a menu trawler. Great if you're used to managing a warehouse distribution computer, not so great if you want an action-filled RPG game. And here's a major disconnect. The gameplay moves at a frantic pace when you're in battles, but when you're out of battles, the game slows to a complete crawl as you spend half an hour in menus trying to figure out who needs what upgrading. And I haven't even mentioned the item customisation mechanics. See, most the time on the overworld or 'not in battle', you'll find weird spherical chests which you take loot from. Usually these are somewhat useless items to you, until about 10 hours in and you unlock the crafting mechanic, which you can take items you've looted off dead enemies and found in floating chests and and use them to increase the rating of your weapon, when it reaches a "star" rank, the weapon is at it's optimum rating or level. This is all well and good, however you find new weapons all the time at their base level, as a result, the weapon you've spent all game powering up is a far better weapon. You can take apart other weapons to get parts, however there's no guarantee that the weapon you just found, when powered up, will be as strong as the weapon you took apart about 5 saves ago. So there's very little incentive to do this unless you have a handy cheat-sheet or player's guide next to you. So you'll generally just not want to ruin your starting weapons and just keep powering them up instead, making new weapons utterly useless. And once again, while you decide, probably with a spreadsheet and a 20-slide Powerpoint seminar on what the best course of action to take is, the game hits yet another bloody stand-still while you shuffle through menus!
The whole damn 'game' aspect of this game is a complete mess. The game doesn't want you to be playing it, it would much rather be able to swap paradigms and auto-battle without pesky human input, although it would just be easier if the game was, as I said before, one long-ass 50 hour movie, but let's be honest, after about 5 hours of menu-trawling, 10 hours of wandering around and getting into battles just for the CP and a few hours of boss retries, you're probably only left with a 25 hours of anything substantial. And this is why I always feel cheated by RPGs. As soon as I look at my save file's playtime, I get all giddy, "whoa, I've played 45 hours of this game", like my investment has been well worth it... I then think of all the useless bollocks I've had to endure to get there and suddenly, the vanish of the whole 'experience' flakes away. How much of that 45 hours did I enjoy? About 80% of it was wishing I was playing something better, 19% was shouting at the TV and 1% was actually enjoying it.
Worst of all, however, is that I have no idea who this game is aimed at. The game's far too boring and complicated to appeal to casual gamers, although I think Square's idea of a "casual" player of Final Fantasy XIII is someone who plays Halo or Grand Theft Auto and sees Final Fantasy like one long mathematical problem with odd symbols they don't know and a million brackets everywhere complicating matters. Not the people who occasionally play Farmville or Cut The Rope every once and a while. It's surely not aimed at the core Final Fantasy fanbase, because everything about this game was made to annoy the hell out of them. I mean, did anyone actually like Final Fantasy X's Power Grid? The story isn't anywhere near as whiny, annoying and nonsensical as normal to appeal to these people either. It's just a complete mess. Rather than appease their core audience, which is able to amass a good 2 million sales easily in most regions, they decided to alienate everyone instead. And worst yet, they're making Final Fantasy XIII-2. Lord help us...
So, just before we wrap this up, one last thing. If you ever intend on playing the game, avert thine eyes from this paragraph, just go on ahead and skip it, because I'm about to detonate on the ending of the game. Everyone here that wants to be? Yes? Good. No turning back after this sentence. So, right, at the end of the game, you defeat Orphan and it seems that there's going to be this big cataclysmic event about to occur when... Fang and Vanille suddenly Captain Planet into a giant monster and crystallise the planet about to destroy everything. And because Orphan's dead, all of Cocoon loses power and everyone's been plunged into the dark ages again. Yay, happy end! Even better, all these characters you've hated through-out the game all get crystallised and the game fades to white. Well, at least it wasn't a cop-out ending where everyone gets an unusual happy ending, despite all the doom and gloom and their inability to escape fate... Oh wait, no, that totally happens. The god damn screen fades again from white to reveal that everyone becomes de-crystallised, including Serah and Sazh's kid. Hope aimlessly looks around for his mother, hoping that this illogical happy ending might just make even less god damn sense, thankfully, (in the cruellest possible way,) Hope's mother doesn't return. And they all live happily ever after. But you know, never explain why they stopped being Crystals... I mean, Fang and Vanille were Crystals for centuries before they were de-crystallised, seems a bit unfair that these bunch of wasters get a free ride. It's not like Fal'Cie can really discern who has a more important Focus. They're just given the Focus and turn into a Dinner Party table ornament. Speaking of Fang and Vanille, they still remain crystals at the end of the game, despite being the people who should have probably got a happy ending. So yeah, great ending there, Square. Really made those tens of hours really bloody worth it. Oh and Leona Lewis, stop making god damn credits songs for movies and games. Just stop.
In conclusion, then. Final Fantasy XIII can go tombstone into a dry lake. The game hardly makes any sense at the best of times, even if characters have a somewhat unusually compelling nature about them, but what about them is compelling, I can't really explain. It's just personal preference, I suppose. The game's nothing but mashing a single button followed by several hours of menu trawling. It's frustrating, it's obnoxious and you can't even say the best part about it is when the game ends, because they botched the god damn ending. Most likely just to facilitate the aforementioned sequel to this game. Frankly, there's nothing of any real redeemable quality about Final Fantasy XIII and it deserves all the hate it gets. It was over-hyped, under-developed and focused far more on looking pretty than having any notion of 'fun'. And seeing how much this has alienated even die-hard fans, it may be tough for Square to draw back it's core customer base for the next instalment of the Final Fantasy series... Seems they haven't been having much luck getting Final Fantasy XIV off the ground, so I wonder if that's any indication for you.
Not perfect, but the best part of the game, whatever that means to you.
Boring, monotonous and down right tedious. Not to mention you spend most of the game IN MENUS.
Looks fantastic, doesn't really make up for other short-falls.
A nice soundtrack, however does fall short when tension is trying to be build in boss battles.
???Who knows? The game's too damn long at any rate. If you count it by hours of gameplay total, about 60 hours. If you go by "fun"... About 2 minutes.