Final Fantasy XIII: The Breakdown

Posted by dankempster (2254 posts) -

Yeah, I played it on the 360. So sue me.
Well, this is one blog that's been a long time coming, and not just because I've been steadily writing it over the last week. As a Final Fantasy fan of roughly ten years now, it probably wouldn't surprise you to know that I'd been waiting for Final Fantasy XIII pretty much ever since the first footage surfaced way back at E3 2006. After coming around to the realisation that I'd have to shell out a significant sum of money for a PlayStation 3 to play this Square Enix behemoth, the E3 2008 conference revealed the infamous deal with Microsoft, meaning that I'd be able to experience the game on my Xbox 360 without having to drop around £300 on a PS3. When this smartly-dressed man made us aware of the Western release dates last November, I couldn't believe that a game I'd been waiting so long for was finally so tantalisingly close. Much like the long wait for Final Fantasy XII (a longer wait than the one for XIII, believe it or not), the last leg of the wait saw me get off the hype train, in fear that the game I was so eagerly awaiting might be a disappointment. Such was not the case with XII - although I know a lot of people flat-out hated the game, I thoroughly enjoyed it and considered it well worth the wait. As for whether or not it was the case with XIII... Well, I won't get into that here, otherwise there wouldn't be much point in me writing this blog, would there? 
 
My time with Final Fantasy XIII didn't exactly get off to the best of starts. I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon.co.uk at the start of February, well over a month before the March 9th release date, hoping to at least get hold of it the day after release, if not on the day. Unfortunately the game took over a week to arrive, finally making it through my letterbox on March 17th. Putting the bad start aside, I popped the first disc into my 360 and booted up the game. What followed over the next couple of months was a fifty-five hour journey that reached its conclusion on May 28th. This blog is an attempt to document that journey, exploring my opinions of pretty much every aspect of the game. Spoilers will be kept to an absolute minimum, and there certainly won't be any major ones over the course of this blog, so if you haven't reached the game's conclusion, don't worry about having it spoiled for you. Given how long it's taken me to write this thing (I started it last Wednesday, believe it or not), this is likely to be a pretty lengthy read. Given the way it's laid out, there's likely to be some overlap between the sections, so I apologise in advance in case I've repeated myself at all. If you're not up for an essay, then simply scroll down to the paragraph titled 'The Verdict' for my final word on the game. The rest of you, let's start with the obvious:

The Graphics

You won't find many games that look better than Final Fantasy XIII 
There really aren't many ways of saying this without sounding hyperbolic - Final Fantasy XIII is an astoundingly beautiful game. From the character models through the locations and right down the visual effects in battles, I didn't pick up on a single art asset in this game that was anything short of gorgeous. The characters important to the story, both playable and not, are all painstakingly detailed and surprisingly well animated for the most part, too. Video games are notorious for recycling assets, particularly bit-part NPCs, but I honestly don't think I saw the same face twice in Final Fantasy XIII. Then again, the situations where groups of NPCs were encountered were few and far between, so there might well have been some recycling going on there. One area where there is a lot of asset recycling is in the case of enemies. It's noticeable, but there's enough individuality and detail in each of the enemies that it's never really an issue. If anything, it creates the impression that there are multiple sub-species of each enemy type, adding to the depth of the world (more on that later). On the subject of battles, everything looks great, with sweeping camera angles showing off spectacular effects of spells and attacks in a very cinematic fashion. The Eidolons all look great, too, although that won't come as much of a surprise to anybody who's sat through a Final Fantasy summon sequence before. Perhaps the most understated aspects of the game's visual majesty are the environments. Not only is each one beautifully detailed both on and off the path, but there's also a wide variety of colours and types of location on offer. From the pristine urban environments of Palumpolum and Eden, through the lush vegetation of the Sunleth Waterscape, the arid deserts of Gran Pulse, and the purples and golds of the night-time trip through the Nautilus amusement park, the variety of environments on offer in Final Fantasy XIII really has to be seen to be believed. In a gaming environment dominated by "realistic" greys and browns, it's also a welcome change.
 
As a 360 adopter, I'm aware that the version of the game I played is the graphically inferior version. Complaints directed at the 360 version as far as I'm aware extended to noticeably jagged textures that are supposed to look layered and feathery (particularly hair), a lower-resolution image, and some artifacting in action-heavy cut-scenes caused by poor video compression. Maybe it's because I was playing on a standard definition TV with a 14-inch screen, but I only ever noticed the first of these problems, and slightly jagged-looking hair is not a game-breaking issue. As a player of Final Fantasy XIII on the Xbox 360, I'm still more than happy to hold up my hand and profess that this is probably the best-looking game I've ever played. If I have to find fault with the visual presentation in any form, then it'd have to be the animations. While characters seem to have been motion-capped with great success for cut-scenes and in-battle, and the Western release gets its own lip-syncing, there's a lot of awkward-looking canned animation and over-gesticulation in the field. I suspect it's a series throwback from the days when sprites used to shake their heads, waggle their fingers and laugh in an overly animated fashion, and thankfully it never gets quite as bad as Tidus' spasmodic hand movements in Final Fantasy X, but it's still noticeable. A minor complaint, though, and one that doesn't detract from the overall point - Final Fantasy XIII is one good-looking game.
 

The Music

Final Fantasy XIII's music man 
Music has always been the Final Fantasy series' strong suit, and that's largely as a result of the compositional genius of series stalwart, Nobuo Uematsu. As a long-time fan of the franchise, the soundtracks from Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII represent the pinnacle of video game music for me. Their strong, thematic compositions, filled with recurring leitmotifs and iconic character themes, are as important a story-telling device as the script itself. Final Fantasy XIII marks the first game in the main chronology of the series to lack even a single composition from Uematsu, and while there's nothing wrong with the composition of his successor Masashi Hamauzu, it simply doesn't quite live up to the series' impeccably high standards. I think part of this might have something to do with the modern game's tendency to lean towards voice acting, though. In older Final Fantasy titles that didn't feature voice acting, music was an integral component in the evocation of player emotion, helping the player to understand and empathise with the mindsets of the various characters. With Final Fantasy XIII's fully voice-acted script, music isn't as important in establishing the emotions of characters anymore, and so it's taken something of a backseat. 
 
I guess what I'm trying to say is, the music of Final Fantasy XIII isn't particularly memorable. I didn't really notice any particular pieces of music standing out, with two exceptions. The first of these is the battle theme, Blinded By Light, which is appropriately up-tempo and almost annoyingly catchy (I can hear it in my head now as I type). The second of these is the game's main leitmotif, Serah's Theme, which is memorable for much worse reasons. Given I've already cited FFVI and FFVII as boasting my favourite soundtracks of the series, in addition to loving rock operas like Tommy, Quadrophenia and The Wall, you can probably tell that I've got nothing against the concept of the leitmotif. My problem with Final Fantasy XIII's leitmotif is that it recurs in almost every piece of music in the game. It's almost like you can't venture into a new location without hearing some variation on Serah's Theme, and it has the annoying property of beginning to grate on a person very quickly. Beyond those two themes, there really isn't anything memorable about the Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack. It's ambient and fits well, I suppose, given that it rarely detracts from the experience of playing the game. A point of contention among fans of the series is the decision to use Leona Lewis' song My Hands in the game. Having played it through, I wish to inform skeptics that the song is only heard once, over the game's final cut-scene, and while it's not the most congruous piece of music ever assigned to an unrelated media, it doesn't stand out in an ugly way. It's not as bad a fit as it's been made out to be, is what I'm saying. Not that I liked the song, mind. 
 
In addition to the game's music, I'll use this spot to quickly talk about the game's voice acting and sound effects. The voice acting is a pretty mixed bag, although to be fair this is largely due to the quality of the game's script, which varies from pretty good to woefully clichéd and covers just about every point in beween. There are moments like those between Snow and Serah that come off really well in terms of their sincerity. On the other hand, there are moments where characters like Lightning and Hope play the melodrama card way too freely, making some scenes almost unwatchably cringe-worthy. It certainly doesn't live up to the high benchmark set by Final Fantasy XII's immaculate localization, but it's a passable effort from all involved (yes, even the voice actress who portrays Vanille). The game's sound-effects are pretty great all round, although fans of the Kingdom Hearts series of video games might notice that a lot of the game's menu sounds seem to have been ripped straight from the Square/Disney crossover action RPGs. It's not a big deal, but when a game was in development for four and a half years, you'd think we'd at least get some original 'ding's for menu navigation. On the whole, Final Fantasy XIII's audio is decidedly average, with its occasional highs being cancelled out by its occasional lows.
 

The World

It's a beautiful world. Shame I couldn't see more of it 
I'm going to come right out and say it - Final Fantasy XIII's world is its strongest selling-point. More so than the graphics, the music, the story, the characters, or the gameplay, it's the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse and the attention to detail within them that made the game truly special for me. As much as I love the older Final Fantasies that drew a lot of their artistic inspiration from more traditional fantasy lore, I much prefer a game where the world is unique and original enough to be considered a character in its own right. Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X all achieved this, and Final Fantasy XIII does too. As mentioned above, the game boasts a wealth of incredibly diverse locations. The highly mechanized urban environments of Cocoon hark back to the world of Final Fantasy VIII, with their high-speed trains and incredibly clean architecture looking highly reminiscent of Balamb Garden. The natural environments, in addition to providing a contrast to the urban ones, are also appropriately varied amongst themselves, showing off the game's whole colour palette. Whether it's the blues and whites of the crystalline Lake Bresha, the vibrant greens of the Sunleth Waterscape, the arid oranges and browns of the Gran Pulse wastelands, or the neon yellows and purples of the Nautilus theme park, there's more colour in each of Final Fantasy XIII's environments than there is in a lot of "realistic" current-gen titles. Of course, it also helps that every map the player traverses is meticulously detailed, making each unique location a joy to behold both up close and at a distance. No matter where I was in the game, my mind's attention was often left lingering in the previous location, while simultaneously anticipating what gorgeous locales awaited me in the future.
 
Unfortunately, it's this very fact that ultimately works against the favour of the game world. Each of the environments is so intricately detailed and lovingly crafted that I often found myself wishing that I could return to previous locations in order to re-experience their beauty. However, backtracking isn't something that the game allows, save for right at the end when you're given the freedom to return to Gran Pulse as is your wont. Beyond the superficial aesthetic reasons for wanting to do so, though, there's very little incentive at all for wanting to return to previous locations. The game's linear nature means that a lot of what you can see on-screen isn't accessible, removing an incentive for exploration. This, coupled with the lack of side quests, means that even if it were possible to return to old locations, there would be no real reason to do so from a gameplay standpoint. More on all that later, though, in the relevant sections below. Final Fantasy XIII does a great job of creating a beautiful, unique and immersive game environment that you'll want to spend a lot of time in, but without the ability or a cause to stay there, it almost feels like all that effort was for very little pay-off.
 

The Story

Proof, if it were needed, that the script writing leaves a lot to be desired 
Final Fantasy XIII has come under fire from fans for featuring a story that's difficult to understand at best, and impossible to comprehend at worst. Maybe it's because I've spent a lot of time with the franchise in the past, but there wasn't much in there that I found it difficult to wrap my head around. I very quickly grasped the concepts of fal'Cie and l'Cie, of Cocoon and Pulse, of Foci and Cie'th. Personally I felt that it wasn't any more difficult to pick up than, say, the Summoners, Guardians, Pilgrimages and Calms that collectively made up the lore of Final Fantasy X. I also felt it was a very strong concept on which to pin a game's story, if a little clichéd in parts - a band of rebellious humans from Cocoon are marked as l'Cie by a fal'Cie from Pulse, rendering them enemies of their own homeland and people, and slaves to a Focus over which they have no control. Of course, as with any Final Fantasy, there's a handful of sub-plots focused on human emotion. Some of these, such as the love story between Snow and Serah, or the father-son relationship between Sazh and Dajh, were conveyed surprisingly well. Others, like Hope's obsession with becoming stronger in order to avenge his dead mother, are portrayed pretty abysmally. On the whole, though, Final Fantasy XIII's story is a strong one, and certainly becoming of a game bearing the Final Fantasy moniker. 
 
Where it all falls apart for Final Fantasy XIII is the way in which this story is told. Most notably, there's the way in which the game's lore is handled. Previous Final Fantasies have done a great job of integrating story exposition into the games' scripts, working it into the dialogue of characters and often making parts of it available to only the most diligent of players in the form of secret events (Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X are two great examples of this at work). Instead of taking this approach, Final Fantasy XIII decides to lump all of its exposition into a journal-like menu entry dubbed the Datalog. This means that in order to read up on the game's lore, it's necessary to actually remove yourself from the game world, completely shattering any sense of immersion that's built up. It also makes the game's story itself seem rather hollow, given that it leaves all the explanations to the Datalog. The other thing that really lets the game's story down is its script, which fluctuates wildly between 'ok' and 'downright terrible' throughout most of the game. There were a lot of moments where the awful script translation, coupled with the inconsistent quality of the voice acting, left me cringing at what I was watching. A lot of moments. In conclusion, Final Fantasy XIII has a pretty good story that suffers heavily through being told poorly. I found a lot to like beneath the surface, but in doing so I did a lot of unnecessary research through the Datalog that I really shouldn't have had to do.

The Characters

Presenting Sazh Katzroy, Final Fantasy XIII's saving grace
In moving on to the cast of Final Fantasy XIII, I move on to one of the biggest problems I had with the game. For pretty much the entire duration of the game, I thought that the characters of Final Fantasy XIII came off as decidedly bland and poorly-written. While pretty much every character in the game's extensive cast exhibits their own unique personality traits, I didn't find any of them to be particularly likeable (with one exception, which I'll get on to in a minute). They could also be said to noticeably develop over the course of their adventure, but rather than illustrating this development subtly through gradual changes in attitude and manner, character developments are dealt with clumsily, through sprawling melodrama and monologues that spell everything out in a way that's almost insulting to watch. This combination of a lack of likeability and awkward character development made it very difficult for me to come around to caring about any of the characters' plights. By the time I'd seen the game's final scene and closing credits I was no more attached to any of the characters than I had been after the first couple of hours, which is a first for me as far as Final Fantasies go.
 
Let's start with the game's six playable characters. To say that they adhere rigidly to archetypes of the series would be putting it lightly. There's Lightning, the moody soldier who keeps to herself, much like Cloud and Squall before her. Snow is the self-proclaimed hero and all-round good guy, somewhat reminiscent of Zell, Tidus and even Zidane to some extent. Vanille is a chirpy, happy-go-lucky girl in the vein of Selphie and Rikku. Fang's a tough one to place, but with her down-to-earth, tough-girl attitude and Pulsian wisdom, she seems closest suited to the "elder" role previously adopted by characters like Cid Highwind and Auron. Hope is possibly the sole exception to this rule - a whiny, down-on-his-luck teenager who, in avoiding conforming to Final Fantasy archetypes, instead manages to go one step even further in the wrong direction by conforming to more generic JRPG archetypes. They all stick to their pre-determined natures consistently, and there is some character development (Lightning lightens up a little, Hope moans a little less), but ultimately there just wasn't anything unique enough about the cast to get me interested in their plight. I'm not saying I expected characters as great as Final Fantasy IX's existentialist black mage Vivi, or Final Fantasy XII's smooth-talking sky pirate Balthier, but a little originality would have been nice. The aforementioned exception, as some of you might have guessed from his omission, is Sazh. I was very worried about Sazh going in, given that the last time a Final Fantasy game featured a playable black character, he was essentially Mr. T, but I was proved very wrong and by the end of the game, despite not particularly caring for him, I did find him to be a pretty likeable guy compared to the rest of the cast. I think it's because he never came across as overly dramatic - he simply decided to grin and bear the situation, against insurmountable odds, and got on with things. When his emotions did come into play, it was always for valid reasons. I think that anybody who dismisses Sazh as a comic relief character does so at the risk of completely missing the game's best personality.
 
I don't have an awful lot to say about the game's supporting cast, which probably goes some way towards expressing how unmemorable most of them are. Bit-part characters like the other members of Snow's Team NORA, Hope's parents, and PSICOM members Jihl and Yaag all serve their purposes in terms of propelling the story forward without taking up too much time in the limelight. The NPC focus in Final Fantasy XIII is on Lightning's sister Serah, Sazh's son Dajh, and the leader of the Guardian Corps, Cid Raines. All three characters were tolerable, but they suffered from the same issue as the protagonists - they managed to evoke nothing but apathy from me. This fault even extends to the game's villain, the fal'Cie Barthandelus, who in spite of the power at his disposal, never really feels like a threat. Maybe it's because he takes so long to make himself known, but by the time he surfaced, even his plans for world destruction seemed uninteresting. Seeing as all the other fal'Cie don't possess any kind of personality, I don't even feel the need to address them in this section. For me, the cast of characters was one of Final Fantasy XIII's weakest components. Between the lack of originality displayed by the protagonists and the poor way in which their development was handled, I simply found myself unable to care about them at all. If I can walk away from almost sixty hours of gameplay without caring about the characters I've spent that time with, then something is pretty wrong.
 

The Exploration

 Final Fantasy XIII's narrow corridors don't allow for much exploration
I was debating whether or not to address Final Fantasy XIII's approach to exploration in this breakdown, mainly because it doesn't really have one, but I figured that given the discussion surrounding this aspect of the game it's something that I should at least mention. In the run-up to its release and in the weeks since, Final Fantasy XIII has come under fire for the linear nature of its environments. People have claimed that the game's linearity is its downfall, stating that the game lacks any sense of openness without a huge world map to explore. Having played through the game now and witnessed well over 90% of the gameworld, it's true that Final Fantasy XIII is a very linear game. As far as obligatorily following a set path goes, it sits just below the God of War games and your average FPS campaign. Much like vidiot has already articulated in a much better way than I ever could, I don't think that linearity is Final Fantasy XIII's problem. It certainly didn't bother me any more or less than it did in Final Fantasy X, that's for certain. Nor is it the lack of an explorable overworld - that much was proven by Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII, both of which abandoned the world map concept, and in the case of XII delivered what is arguably the most open Final Fantasy game to date. What Final Fantasy XIII really suffers from is a lack of opportunities for exploration of the world as a whole. With the exception of Gran Pulse, it's impossible to revisit any of the game's environments once you leave them - something that no other Final Fantasy has done to this extent before. As much as I don't want to say it for fear of sounding like I'm jumping on the critical bandwagon, the lack of towns is also a major hindrance, because it reduces the out-of-combat gameplay to exclusively running forward looking for the next battle. No NPC interactions, and no downtime either. Without dwelling on side-quests too much, there are no motorcycle mini-games here, no card-battling, no sphere-based puzzles to solve. It's the fact that there's nothing to break up the flow of Final Fantasy XIII's exploration except for the combat that really holds it back in this department, and not its linearity as so many people seem so eager to profess.
 

The Combat

Fast, frenetic and fun - exactly how I like my JRPG combat systems 
JRPGs have long been accused of going stale, and one of the prime targets for this criticism is the games' combat systems. Final Fantasy XIII's combat system attempts to address some of this criticism with its innovations, and I think on the whole it's a resounding success. Right from the outset with Final Fantasy XIII it's obvious that the primary focus of the development team was to streamline and speed up JRPG combat, while retaining the strategic aspect of conflicts. Perhaps the best way in which they've approached this is through the notion of battle 'roles', combined with the Paradigm system. At first the roles seemed like little more than a glorified Job system, but the more time I spent with the game the more I came to realise that the true strength of the role system is the way it trims all the unnecessary fat off of battle menus. Commandos are the only role with a traditional JRPG 'Attack' command, but that's because they're the only ones that really need it. Would you really want a Medic or Synergist to be able to attack? No, you'd want them to focus on healing and buffing. Similarly, the Paradigm system ensures that you have the relevant abilities on hand when you need them, and only for as long as you need them - there's no point in fielding a Medic if the team is at full health, so the option to change roles on the fly is a welcome one. In tandem, these two systems make for a combat system that is incredibly fast-paced and also extremely unforgiving. The closest comparison I can draw is the supercharged, dressphere-focused battle system of Final Fantasy X-2 (which, on-record, I think is the strongest Final Fantasy battle system prior to that of XIII). There's seldom such a thing as an easy battle in Final Fantasy XIII, and Paradigm strategy is often just as important as understanding your opponents' elemental weaknesses. The result is that even standard encounters can end up feeling like boss battles because of the level of strategy involved. Even when I was farming for CP in Final Fantasy XIII, I never felt like I was grinding in the traditional sense of the word, because each individual battle was its own entity. I guess that's not only a compliment, but confirmation that the developers achieved what they set out to do.
 
People have complained about only being able to control one character at a time. Personally, I didn't mind it in Final Fantasy XII, and I don't mind it here. Granting the player full control over all three combatants would mean slowing the whole battle system right down, which would kill the sense of urgency that makes battles so exhilirating. My one complaint related to this comes from the fact that every character has access to their own individual Eidolon, but only the party leader is able to use the Summon command in battle. Video_Game_King brought this up in his Final Fantasy XIII blog, and pointed out that there are two unused shoulder buttons on the controller during battle that could very easily have been used to cycle player control between the three party members. It also would have really helped to make early-fight preparations a little bit faster - being able to switch to Hope at the start of a battle to cast all the relevant buffs before switching back to Lightning to focus on dealing damage would have made a few boss battles a lot easier. Final Fantasy XII boasted this feature, so why Final Fantasy XIII doesn't is beyond me. This complaint aside, though, I really can't find much fault with the Final Fantasy XIII battle system. It's a brave and exciting attempt to breathe new life into old mechanics, and it's arguably the most successful attempt to do so since way back when Final Fantasy IV first introduced us all to the Active Time Battle system in 1991.
 

The Statistical Stuff

 The Crystarium - one of the more disappointing aspects of Final Fantasy XIII
Compared to older iterations of the franchise, Final Fantasy XIII doesn't seem to have a lot of statistical stuff going on under the hood. If the changes made to the battle system were a case of streamlining, then the dumbing-down of Final Fantasy XIII's statistical aspect could best be described as a six-lane motorway being funnelled into a one-way street. Instead of overloading the player with stats pertaining to characters' strength, speed, and physical and magical resilience, Final Fantasy XIII simply has two stats to worry about - Strength and Magic. While this no doubt upset a lot of series purists, I didn't find it too bothersome. To me the influence of stats in JRPGs has often seemed somewhat artibrary, particularly with regards to extraneous stats like Vitality or Luck, so this simplification was somewhat reassuring in a way - I felt like I could keep track of the ways in which my characters were progressing, and notice tangible improvement in battle situations as a result. Similarly, the removal of MP didn't phase me either. Given the nature of the role-based battle system, MP would have been a colossal waste of time, and the slot-based ATB gauge works like a treat. 
 
My complaint with the statistical side of Final Fantasy XIII comes in the form of the Crystarium levelling system. Having heard the comparisons to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid and (to a lesser extent) Final Fantasy XII's Licence Board, I was quite excited to see for myself how character development was going to be handled. This excitement turned quite rapidly to disappointment as I realised that the Crystarium was actually as linear as the game's environments, with set paths and set nodes for each character. This meant I had only one way to develop each character in each role, giving me no room to experiment with character development whatsoever. Given the streamlined statistical aspect of the game, this also means that a lot of Crystarium roles seem pretty much identical and it's difficult to know which roles offer the best statistical pay-off. With the pre-defined roles turning out to be as important in combat as they are, I suppose flexibility was never really going to be a viable option, but in that case, why tout the Crystarium as a flexible character development tool? I don't think the Crystarium would have disappointed me had I not had expectations for it, but it was precisely the way the developers talked about the Crystarium that got me hyped up for it. In conclusion, the cutting down of the statistical aspect is fine by me, especially if it makes the franchise more accessible to newcomers, but the rigidity of the Crystarium left me feeling disappointed and lied to by the developers.

The Side Quests

In fairness, trying to race on this little fella would be pretty cruel 
Final Fantasy XIII isn't big on side quests. That's a mighty unusual set of circumstances for a Final Fantasy title, especially after every Final Fantasy from VII through to XII offered so much in the way of side activities to engage in. This wouldn't be a problem if the few side quests on offer were compelling, or at least made for an interesting distraction, but they don't, and that's their biggest downfall. From what I experienced, Final Fantasy XIII has one true side quest - Mark Hunting. Despite getting involved in the first few Mark Hunts, I soon left off them and pushed on with the story. The reason for this is simple - side quests are supposed to be distractions from the main game. Whether they be centred on item collection, puzzle-solving, rhythm-based mini-games, whatever, they're supposed to offer something a little bit different from the gameplay that makes up the bulk of the experience. Final Fantasy XIII is, at its core, built on the gameplay theory "run, fight, repeat". This exact same gameplay theory is recycled for the Mark Hunting side quest, and the result is that it doesn't really feel like you're taking time out from the game's main quest. There are other things that might be considered side quests, like weapon development for example, but even these are focused on the player fighting in order to harvest components, and as great as the combat system feels, I don't want to be doing that all the time. Without something non-combat-related to get lost in, like a card game or chocobo racing, Final Fantasy XIII really suffers in terms of its side quests. 
 

The Verdict

With its prolonged development cycle and the immense level of hype surrounding its release, Final Fantasy XIII was always going to leave some kind of lasting legacy. For me personally, it will be remembered as an aesthetically magnificent adventure through an incredible world, telling a compelling story. Admittedly, it doesn't do the best job of telling that story, and its poor script-writing and voice acting often left me feeling apathetic towards the events and the characters. In terms of its gameplay, its strongest suit is by far its overhauled combat system and its attempts to streamline character development. It falls short of the mark with regards to exploration and side quests, simply because it doesn't offer much to do outside of running and fighting. It's a real shame, because Cocoon and Pulse are worlds that I would have loved to spend more time in, but the game gives me no real incentive to do so. It's not the best Final Fantasy ever made, but nor is it by any means the worst. If anything, it's an interesting experiment - a development team's tentative first step into the current generation, and hopefully one that they can learn from with a view to making bigger strides in the near future. With Final Fantasy XIV announced as the series' second foray into the MMORPG genre, I'll be holding out for news on Final Fantasy XV, as and when it comes, and hoping that Square Enix play to their strengths in the development of the next title in one of my favourite game franchises of all time.

 

 
Whoa. Long blog. No word of a lie, this thing is genuinely longer than any single essay I've written since I started University almost two years ago. Then again, it has taken me well over a week to work my way from the top of this page to the bottom. I guess at this stage, all that's left for me to do is apologise about the wall of text above (as far as walls of text go, this must be the Great Wall-Of-Text Of China), and leave you all with some closing thoughts. I'm currently playing Red Dead Redemption, which in itself has proven to be a factor in this blog's incredibly late arrival. I've already managed to sink nearly thirty hours into it over the space of about two weeks, so I think it's pretty safe to say that I'm absolutely hooked. I've just unlocked the second landmass, Nuevo Paraiso, so I'm currently exploring the new territory and getting the lay of the land before I get stuck back into more story missions and stranger-helping. It's distracted me almost completely from Enduring Final Fantasy VII, but you have my word that a new episode of that will be coming before the month is out. Other than that, I really don't think there's much else to say. Probably just as well, because I think I've said more than enough. I hope you're all well, and hope to see you around Giant Bomb a little more over the coming summer months.
 
 
Dan
 
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Currently playing - Red Dead Redemption (X360)   
#1 Posted by dankempster (2254 posts) -

Yeah, I played it on the 360. So sue me.
Well, this is one blog that's been a long time coming, and not just because I've been steadily writing it over the last week. As a Final Fantasy fan of roughly ten years now, it probably wouldn't surprise you to know that I'd been waiting for Final Fantasy XIII pretty much ever since the first footage surfaced way back at E3 2006. After coming around to the realisation that I'd have to shell out a significant sum of money for a PlayStation 3 to play this Square Enix behemoth, the E3 2008 conference revealed the infamous deal with Microsoft, meaning that I'd be able to experience the game on my Xbox 360 without having to drop around £300 on a PS3. When this smartly-dressed man made us aware of the Western release dates last November, I couldn't believe that a game I'd been waiting so long for was finally so tantalisingly close. Much like the long wait for Final Fantasy XII (a longer wait than the one for XIII, believe it or not), the last leg of the wait saw me get off the hype train, in fear that the game I was so eagerly awaiting might be a disappointment. Such was not the case with XII - although I know a lot of people flat-out hated the game, I thoroughly enjoyed it and considered it well worth the wait. As for whether or not it was the case with XIII... Well, I won't get into that here, otherwise there wouldn't be much point in me writing this blog, would there? 
 
My time with Final Fantasy XIII didn't exactly get off to the best of starts. I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon.co.uk at the start of February, well over a month before the March 9th release date, hoping to at least get hold of it the day after release, if not on the day. Unfortunately the game took over a week to arrive, finally making it through my letterbox on March 17th. Putting the bad start aside, I popped the first disc into my 360 and booted up the game. What followed over the next couple of months was a fifty-five hour journey that reached its conclusion on May 28th. This blog is an attempt to document that journey, exploring my opinions of pretty much every aspect of the game. Spoilers will be kept to an absolute minimum, and there certainly won't be any major ones over the course of this blog, so if you haven't reached the game's conclusion, don't worry about having it spoiled for you. Given how long it's taken me to write this thing (I started it last Wednesday, believe it or not), this is likely to be a pretty lengthy read. Given the way it's laid out, there's likely to be some overlap between the sections, so I apologise in advance in case I've repeated myself at all. If you're not up for an essay, then simply scroll down to the paragraph titled 'The Verdict' for my final word on the game. The rest of you, let's start with the obvious:

The Graphics

You won't find many games that look better than Final Fantasy XIII 
There really aren't many ways of saying this without sounding hyperbolic - Final Fantasy XIII is an astoundingly beautiful game. From the character models through the locations and right down the visual effects in battles, I didn't pick up on a single art asset in this game that was anything short of gorgeous. The characters important to the story, both playable and not, are all painstakingly detailed and surprisingly well animated for the most part, too. Video games are notorious for recycling assets, particularly bit-part NPCs, but I honestly don't think I saw the same face twice in Final Fantasy XIII. Then again, the situations where groups of NPCs were encountered were few and far between, so there might well have been some recycling going on there. One area where there is a lot of asset recycling is in the case of enemies. It's noticeable, but there's enough individuality and detail in each of the enemies that it's never really an issue. If anything, it creates the impression that there are multiple sub-species of each enemy type, adding to the depth of the world (more on that later). On the subject of battles, everything looks great, with sweeping camera angles showing off spectacular effects of spells and attacks in a very cinematic fashion. The Eidolons all look great, too, although that won't come as much of a surprise to anybody who's sat through a Final Fantasy summon sequence before. Perhaps the most understated aspects of the game's visual majesty are the environments. Not only is each one beautifully detailed both on and off the path, but there's also a wide variety of colours and types of location on offer. From the pristine urban environments of Palumpolum and Eden, through the lush vegetation of the Sunleth Waterscape, the arid deserts of Gran Pulse, and the purples and golds of the night-time trip through the Nautilus amusement park, the variety of environments on offer in Final Fantasy XIII really has to be seen to be believed. In a gaming environment dominated by "realistic" greys and browns, it's also a welcome change.
 
As a 360 adopter, I'm aware that the version of the game I played is the graphically inferior version. Complaints directed at the 360 version as far as I'm aware extended to noticeably jagged textures that are supposed to look layered and feathery (particularly hair), a lower-resolution image, and some artifacting in action-heavy cut-scenes caused by poor video compression. Maybe it's because I was playing on a standard definition TV with a 14-inch screen, but I only ever noticed the first of these problems, and slightly jagged-looking hair is not a game-breaking issue. As a player of Final Fantasy XIII on the Xbox 360, I'm still more than happy to hold up my hand and profess that this is probably the best-looking game I've ever played. If I have to find fault with the visual presentation in any form, then it'd have to be the animations. While characters seem to have been motion-capped with great success for cut-scenes and in-battle, and the Western release gets its own lip-syncing, there's a lot of awkward-looking canned animation and over-gesticulation in the field. I suspect it's a series throwback from the days when sprites used to shake their heads, waggle their fingers and laugh in an overly animated fashion, and thankfully it never gets quite as bad as Tidus' spasmodic hand movements in Final Fantasy X, but it's still noticeable. A minor complaint, though, and one that doesn't detract from the overall point - Final Fantasy XIII is one good-looking game.
 

The Music

Final Fantasy XIII's music man 
Music has always been the Final Fantasy series' strong suit, and that's largely as a result of the compositional genius of series stalwart, Nobuo Uematsu. As a long-time fan of the franchise, the soundtracks from Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII represent the pinnacle of video game music for me. Their strong, thematic compositions, filled with recurring leitmotifs and iconic character themes, are as important a story-telling device as the script itself. Final Fantasy XIII marks the first game in the main chronology of the series to lack even a single composition from Uematsu, and while there's nothing wrong with the composition of his successor Masashi Hamauzu, it simply doesn't quite live up to the series' impeccably high standards. I think part of this might have something to do with the modern game's tendency to lean towards voice acting, though. In older Final Fantasy titles that didn't feature voice acting, music was an integral component in the evocation of player emotion, helping the player to understand and empathise with the mindsets of the various characters. With Final Fantasy XIII's fully voice-acted script, music isn't as important in establishing the emotions of characters anymore, and so it's taken something of a backseat. 
 
I guess what I'm trying to say is, the music of Final Fantasy XIII isn't particularly memorable. I didn't really notice any particular pieces of music standing out, with two exceptions. The first of these is the battle theme, Blinded By Light, which is appropriately up-tempo and almost annoyingly catchy (I can hear it in my head now as I type). The second of these is the game's main leitmotif, Serah's Theme, which is memorable for much worse reasons. Given I've already cited FFVI and FFVII as boasting my favourite soundtracks of the series, in addition to loving rock operas like Tommy, Quadrophenia and The Wall, you can probably tell that I've got nothing against the concept of the leitmotif. My problem with Final Fantasy XIII's leitmotif is that it recurs in almost every piece of music in the game. It's almost like you can't venture into a new location without hearing some variation on Serah's Theme, and it has the annoying property of beginning to grate on a person very quickly. Beyond those two themes, there really isn't anything memorable about the Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack. It's ambient and fits well, I suppose, given that it rarely detracts from the experience of playing the game. A point of contention among fans of the series is the decision to use Leona Lewis' song My Hands in the game. Having played it through, I wish to inform skeptics that the song is only heard once, over the game's final cut-scene, and while it's not the most congruous piece of music ever assigned to an unrelated media, it doesn't stand out in an ugly way. It's not as bad a fit as it's been made out to be, is what I'm saying. Not that I liked the song, mind. 
 
In addition to the game's music, I'll use this spot to quickly talk about the game's voice acting and sound effects. The voice acting is a pretty mixed bag, although to be fair this is largely due to the quality of the game's script, which varies from pretty good to woefully clichéd and covers just about every point in beween. There are moments like those between Snow and Serah that come off really well in terms of their sincerity. On the other hand, there are moments where characters like Lightning and Hope play the melodrama card way too freely, making some scenes almost unwatchably cringe-worthy. It certainly doesn't live up to the high benchmark set by Final Fantasy XII's immaculate localization, but it's a passable effort from all involved (yes, even the voice actress who portrays Vanille). The game's sound-effects are pretty great all round, although fans of the Kingdom Hearts series of video games might notice that a lot of the game's menu sounds seem to have been ripped straight from the Square/Disney crossover action RPGs. It's not a big deal, but when a game was in development for four and a half years, you'd think we'd at least get some original 'ding's for menu navigation. On the whole, Final Fantasy XIII's audio is decidedly average, with its occasional highs being cancelled out by its occasional lows.
 

The World

It's a beautiful world. Shame I couldn't see more of it 
I'm going to come right out and say it - Final Fantasy XIII's world is its strongest selling-point. More so than the graphics, the music, the story, the characters, or the gameplay, it's the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse and the attention to detail within them that made the game truly special for me. As much as I love the older Final Fantasies that drew a lot of their artistic inspiration from more traditional fantasy lore, I much prefer a game where the world is unique and original enough to be considered a character in its own right. Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy X all achieved this, and Final Fantasy XIII does too. As mentioned above, the game boasts a wealth of incredibly diverse locations. The highly mechanized urban environments of Cocoon hark back to the world of Final Fantasy VIII, with their high-speed trains and incredibly clean architecture looking highly reminiscent of Balamb Garden. The natural environments, in addition to providing a contrast to the urban ones, are also appropriately varied amongst themselves, showing off the game's whole colour palette. Whether it's the blues and whites of the crystalline Lake Bresha, the vibrant greens of the Sunleth Waterscape, the arid oranges and browns of the Gran Pulse wastelands, or the neon yellows and purples of the Nautilus theme park, there's more colour in each of Final Fantasy XIII's environments than there is in a lot of "realistic" current-gen titles. Of course, it also helps that every map the player traverses is meticulously detailed, making each unique location a joy to behold both up close and at a distance. No matter where I was in the game, my mind's attention was often left lingering in the previous location, while simultaneously anticipating what gorgeous locales awaited me in the future.
 
Unfortunately, it's this very fact that ultimately works against the favour of the game world. Each of the environments is so intricately detailed and lovingly crafted that I often found myself wishing that I could return to previous locations in order to re-experience their beauty. However, backtracking isn't something that the game allows, save for right at the end when you're given the freedom to return to Gran Pulse as is your wont. Beyond the superficial aesthetic reasons for wanting to do so, though, there's very little incentive at all for wanting to return to previous locations. The game's linear nature means that a lot of what you can see on-screen isn't accessible, removing an incentive for exploration. This, coupled with the lack of side quests, means that even if it were possible to return to old locations, there would be no real reason to do so from a gameplay standpoint. More on all that later, though, in the relevant sections below. Final Fantasy XIII does a great job of creating a beautiful, unique and immersive game environment that you'll want to spend a lot of time in, but without the ability or a cause to stay there, it almost feels like all that effort was for very little pay-off.
 

The Story

Proof, if it were needed, that the script writing leaves a lot to be desired 
Final Fantasy XIII has come under fire from fans for featuring a story that's difficult to understand at best, and impossible to comprehend at worst. Maybe it's because I've spent a lot of time with the franchise in the past, but there wasn't much in there that I found it difficult to wrap my head around. I very quickly grasped the concepts of fal'Cie and l'Cie, of Cocoon and Pulse, of Foci and Cie'th. Personally I felt that it wasn't any more difficult to pick up than, say, the Summoners, Guardians, Pilgrimages and Calms that collectively made up the lore of Final Fantasy X. I also felt it was a very strong concept on which to pin a game's story, if a little clichéd in parts - a band of rebellious humans from Cocoon are marked as l'Cie by a fal'Cie from Pulse, rendering them enemies of their own homeland and people, and slaves to a Focus over which they have no control. Of course, as with any Final Fantasy, there's a handful of sub-plots focused on human emotion. Some of these, such as the love story between Snow and Serah, or the father-son relationship between Sazh and Dajh, were conveyed surprisingly well. Others, like Hope's obsession with becoming stronger in order to avenge his dead mother, are portrayed pretty abysmally. On the whole, though, Final Fantasy XIII's story is a strong one, and certainly becoming of a game bearing the Final Fantasy moniker. 
 
Where it all falls apart for Final Fantasy XIII is the way in which this story is told. Most notably, there's the way in which the game's lore is handled. Previous Final Fantasies have done a great job of integrating story exposition into the games' scripts, working it into the dialogue of characters and often making parts of it available to only the most diligent of players in the form of secret events (Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X are two great examples of this at work). Instead of taking this approach, Final Fantasy XIII decides to lump all of its exposition into a journal-like menu entry dubbed the Datalog. This means that in order to read up on the game's lore, it's necessary to actually remove yourself from the game world, completely shattering any sense of immersion that's built up. It also makes the game's story itself seem rather hollow, given that it leaves all the explanations to the Datalog. The other thing that really lets the game's story down is its script, which fluctuates wildly between 'ok' and 'downright terrible' throughout most of the game. There were a lot of moments where the awful script translation, coupled with the inconsistent quality of the voice acting, left me cringing at what I was watching. A lot of moments. In conclusion, Final Fantasy XIII has a pretty good story that suffers heavily through being told poorly. I found a lot to like beneath the surface, but in doing so I did a lot of unnecessary research through the Datalog that I really shouldn't have had to do.

The Characters

Presenting Sazh Katzroy, Final Fantasy XIII's saving grace
In moving on to the cast of Final Fantasy XIII, I move on to one of the biggest problems I had with the game. For pretty much the entire duration of the game, I thought that the characters of Final Fantasy XIII came off as decidedly bland and poorly-written. While pretty much every character in the game's extensive cast exhibits their own unique personality traits, I didn't find any of them to be particularly likeable (with one exception, which I'll get on to in a minute). They could also be said to noticeably develop over the course of their adventure, but rather than illustrating this development subtly through gradual changes in attitude and manner, character developments are dealt with clumsily, through sprawling melodrama and monologues that spell everything out in a way that's almost insulting to watch. This combination of a lack of likeability and awkward character development made it very difficult for me to come around to caring about any of the characters' plights. By the time I'd seen the game's final scene and closing credits I was no more attached to any of the characters than I had been after the first couple of hours, which is a first for me as far as Final Fantasies go.
 
Let's start with the game's six playable characters. To say that they adhere rigidly to archetypes of the series would be putting it lightly. There's Lightning, the moody soldier who keeps to herself, much like Cloud and Squall before her. Snow is the self-proclaimed hero and all-round good guy, somewhat reminiscent of Zell, Tidus and even Zidane to some extent. Vanille is a chirpy, happy-go-lucky girl in the vein of Selphie and Rikku. Fang's a tough one to place, but with her down-to-earth, tough-girl attitude and Pulsian wisdom, she seems closest suited to the "elder" role previously adopted by characters like Cid Highwind and Auron. Hope is possibly the sole exception to this rule - a whiny, down-on-his-luck teenager who, in avoiding conforming to Final Fantasy archetypes, instead manages to go one step even further in the wrong direction by conforming to more generic JRPG archetypes. They all stick to their pre-determined natures consistently, and there is some character development (Lightning lightens up a little, Hope moans a little less), but ultimately there just wasn't anything unique enough about the cast to get me interested in their plight. I'm not saying I expected characters as great as Final Fantasy IX's existentialist black mage Vivi, or Final Fantasy XII's smooth-talking sky pirate Balthier, but a little originality would have been nice. The aforementioned exception, as some of you might have guessed from his omission, is Sazh. I was very worried about Sazh going in, given that the last time a Final Fantasy game featured a playable black character, he was essentially Mr. T, but I was proved very wrong and by the end of the game, despite not particularly caring for him, I did find him to be a pretty likeable guy compared to the rest of the cast. I think it's because he never came across as overly dramatic - he simply decided to grin and bear the situation, against insurmountable odds, and got on with things. When his emotions did come into play, it was always for valid reasons. I think that anybody who dismisses Sazh as a comic relief character does so at the risk of completely missing the game's best personality.
 
I don't have an awful lot to say about the game's supporting cast, which probably goes some way towards expressing how unmemorable most of them are. Bit-part characters like the other members of Snow's Team NORA, Hope's parents, and PSICOM members Jihl and Yaag all serve their purposes in terms of propelling the story forward without taking up too much time in the limelight. The NPC focus in Final Fantasy XIII is on Lightning's sister Serah, Sazh's son Dajh, and the leader of the Guardian Corps, Cid Raines. All three characters were tolerable, but they suffered from the same issue as the protagonists - they managed to evoke nothing but apathy from me. This fault even extends to the game's villain, the fal'Cie Barthandelus, who in spite of the power at his disposal, never really feels like a threat. Maybe it's because he takes so long to make himself known, but by the time he surfaced, even his plans for world destruction seemed uninteresting. Seeing as all the other fal'Cie don't possess any kind of personality, I don't even feel the need to address them in this section. For me, the cast of characters was one of Final Fantasy XIII's weakest components. Between the lack of originality displayed by the protagonists and the poor way in which their development was handled, I simply found myself unable to care about them at all. If I can walk away from almost sixty hours of gameplay without caring about the characters I've spent that time with, then something is pretty wrong.
 

The Exploration

 Final Fantasy XIII's narrow corridors don't allow for much exploration
I was debating whether or not to address Final Fantasy XIII's approach to exploration in this breakdown, mainly because it doesn't really have one, but I figured that given the discussion surrounding this aspect of the game it's something that I should at least mention. In the run-up to its release and in the weeks since, Final Fantasy XIII has come under fire for the linear nature of its environments. People have claimed that the game's linearity is its downfall, stating that the game lacks any sense of openness without a huge world map to explore. Having played through the game now and witnessed well over 90% of the gameworld, it's true that Final Fantasy XIII is a very linear game. As far as obligatorily following a set path goes, it sits just below the God of War games and your average FPS campaign. Much like vidiot has already articulated in a much better way than I ever could, I don't think that linearity is Final Fantasy XIII's problem. It certainly didn't bother me any more or less than it did in Final Fantasy X, that's for certain. Nor is it the lack of an explorable overworld - that much was proven by Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII, both of which abandoned the world map concept, and in the case of XII delivered what is arguably the most open Final Fantasy game to date. What Final Fantasy XIII really suffers from is a lack of opportunities for exploration of the world as a whole. With the exception of Gran Pulse, it's impossible to revisit any of the game's environments once you leave them - something that no other Final Fantasy has done to this extent before. As much as I don't want to say it for fear of sounding like I'm jumping on the critical bandwagon, the lack of towns is also a major hindrance, because it reduces the out-of-combat gameplay to exclusively running forward looking for the next battle. No NPC interactions, and no downtime either. Without dwelling on side-quests too much, there are no motorcycle mini-games here, no card-battling, no sphere-based puzzles to solve. It's the fact that there's nothing to break up the flow of Final Fantasy XIII's exploration except for the combat that really holds it back in this department, and not its linearity as so many people seem so eager to profess.
 

The Combat

Fast, frenetic and fun - exactly how I like my JRPG combat systems 
JRPGs have long been accused of going stale, and one of the prime targets for this criticism is the games' combat systems. Final Fantasy XIII's combat system attempts to address some of this criticism with its innovations, and I think on the whole it's a resounding success. Right from the outset with Final Fantasy XIII it's obvious that the primary focus of the development team was to streamline and speed up JRPG combat, while retaining the strategic aspect of conflicts. Perhaps the best way in which they've approached this is through the notion of battle 'roles', combined with the Paradigm system. At first the roles seemed like little more than a glorified Job system, but the more time I spent with the game the more I came to realise that the true strength of the role system is the way it trims all the unnecessary fat off of battle menus. Commandos are the only role with a traditional JRPG 'Attack' command, but that's because they're the only ones that really need it. Would you really want a Medic or Synergist to be able to attack? No, you'd want them to focus on healing and buffing. Similarly, the Paradigm system ensures that you have the relevant abilities on hand when you need them, and only for as long as you need them - there's no point in fielding a Medic if the team is at full health, so the option to change roles on the fly is a welcome one. In tandem, these two systems make for a combat system that is incredibly fast-paced and also extremely unforgiving. The closest comparison I can draw is the supercharged, dressphere-focused battle system of Final Fantasy X-2 (which, on-record, I think is the strongest Final Fantasy battle system prior to that of XIII). There's seldom such a thing as an easy battle in Final Fantasy XIII, and Paradigm strategy is often just as important as understanding your opponents' elemental weaknesses. The result is that even standard encounters can end up feeling like boss battles because of the level of strategy involved. Even when I was farming for CP in Final Fantasy XIII, I never felt like I was grinding in the traditional sense of the word, because each individual battle was its own entity. I guess that's not only a compliment, but confirmation that the developers achieved what they set out to do.
 
People have complained about only being able to control one character at a time. Personally, I didn't mind it in Final Fantasy XII, and I don't mind it here. Granting the player full control over all three combatants would mean slowing the whole battle system right down, which would kill the sense of urgency that makes battles so exhilirating. My one complaint related to this comes from the fact that every character has access to their own individual Eidolon, but only the party leader is able to use the Summon command in battle. Video_Game_King brought this up in his Final Fantasy XIII blog, and pointed out that there are two unused shoulder buttons on the controller during battle that could very easily have been used to cycle player control between the three party members. It also would have really helped to make early-fight preparations a little bit faster - being able to switch to Hope at the start of a battle to cast all the relevant buffs before switching back to Lightning to focus on dealing damage would have made a few boss battles a lot easier. Final Fantasy XII boasted this feature, so why Final Fantasy XIII doesn't is beyond me. This complaint aside, though, I really can't find much fault with the Final Fantasy XIII battle system. It's a brave and exciting attempt to breathe new life into old mechanics, and it's arguably the most successful attempt to do so since way back when Final Fantasy IV first introduced us all to the Active Time Battle system in 1991.
 

The Statistical Stuff

 The Crystarium - one of the more disappointing aspects of Final Fantasy XIII
Compared to older iterations of the franchise, Final Fantasy XIII doesn't seem to have a lot of statistical stuff going on under the hood. If the changes made to the battle system were a case of streamlining, then the dumbing-down of Final Fantasy XIII's statistical aspect could best be described as a six-lane motorway being funnelled into a one-way street. Instead of overloading the player with stats pertaining to characters' strength, speed, and physical and magical resilience, Final Fantasy XIII simply has two stats to worry about - Strength and Magic. While this no doubt upset a lot of series purists, I didn't find it too bothersome. To me the influence of stats in JRPGs has often seemed somewhat artibrary, particularly with regards to extraneous stats like Vitality or Luck, so this simplification was somewhat reassuring in a way - I felt like I could keep track of the ways in which my characters were progressing, and notice tangible improvement in battle situations as a result. Similarly, the removal of MP didn't phase me either. Given the nature of the role-based battle system, MP would have been a colossal waste of time, and the slot-based ATB gauge works like a treat. 
 
My complaint with the statistical side of Final Fantasy XIII comes in the form of the Crystarium levelling system. Having heard the comparisons to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid and (to a lesser extent) Final Fantasy XII's Licence Board, I was quite excited to see for myself how character development was going to be handled. This excitement turned quite rapidly to disappointment as I realised that the Crystarium was actually as linear as the game's environments, with set paths and set nodes for each character. This meant I had only one way to develop each character in each role, giving me no room to experiment with character development whatsoever. Given the streamlined statistical aspect of the game, this also means that a lot of Crystarium roles seem pretty much identical and it's difficult to know which roles offer the best statistical pay-off. With the pre-defined roles turning out to be as important in combat as they are, I suppose flexibility was never really going to be a viable option, but in that case, why tout the Crystarium as a flexible character development tool? I don't think the Crystarium would have disappointed me had I not had expectations for it, but it was precisely the way the developers talked about the Crystarium that got me hyped up for it. In conclusion, the cutting down of the statistical aspect is fine by me, especially if it makes the franchise more accessible to newcomers, but the rigidity of the Crystarium left me feeling disappointed and lied to by the developers.

The Side Quests

In fairness, trying to race on this little fella would be pretty cruel 
Final Fantasy XIII isn't big on side quests. That's a mighty unusual set of circumstances for a Final Fantasy title, especially after every Final Fantasy from VII through to XII offered so much in the way of side activities to engage in. This wouldn't be a problem if the few side quests on offer were compelling, or at least made for an interesting distraction, but they don't, and that's their biggest downfall. From what I experienced, Final Fantasy XIII has one true side quest - Mark Hunting. Despite getting involved in the first few Mark Hunts, I soon left off them and pushed on with the story. The reason for this is simple - side quests are supposed to be distractions from the main game. Whether they be centred on item collection, puzzle-solving, rhythm-based mini-games, whatever, they're supposed to offer something a little bit different from the gameplay that makes up the bulk of the experience. Final Fantasy XIII is, at its core, built on the gameplay theory "run, fight, repeat". This exact same gameplay theory is recycled for the Mark Hunting side quest, and the result is that it doesn't really feel like you're taking time out from the game's main quest. There are other things that might be considered side quests, like weapon development for example, but even these are focused on the player fighting in order to harvest components, and as great as the combat system feels, I don't want to be doing that all the time. Without something non-combat-related to get lost in, like a card game or chocobo racing, Final Fantasy XIII really suffers in terms of its side quests. 
 

The Verdict

With its prolonged development cycle and the immense level of hype surrounding its release, Final Fantasy XIII was always going to leave some kind of lasting legacy. For me personally, it will be remembered as an aesthetically magnificent adventure through an incredible world, telling a compelling story. Admittedly, it doesn't do the best job of telling that story, and its poor script-writing and voice acting often left me feeling apathetic towards the events and the characters. In terms of its gameplay, its strongest suit is by far its overhauled combat system and its attempts to streamline character development. It falls short of the mark with regards to exploration and side quests, simply because it doesn't offer much to do outside of running and fighting. It's a real shame, because Cocoon and Pulse are worlds that I would have loved to spend more time in, but the game gives me no real incentive to do so. It's not the best Final Fantasy ever made, but nor is it by any means the worst. If anything, it's an interesting experiment - a development team's tentative first step into the current generation, and hopefully one that they can learn from with a view to making bigger strides in the near future. With Final Fantasy XIV announced as the series' second foray into the MMORPG genre, I'll be holding out for news on Final Fantasy XV, as and when it comes, and hoping that Square Enix play to their strengths in the development of the next title in one of my favourite game franchises of all time.

 

 
Whoa. Long blog. No word of a lie, this thing is genuinely longer than any single essay I've written since I started University almost two years ago. Then again, it has taken me well over a week to work my way from the top of this page to the bottom. I guess at this stage, all that's left for me to do is apologise about the wall of text above (as far as walls of text go, this must be the Great Wall-Of-Text Of China), and leave you all with some closing thoughts. I'm currently playing Red Dead Redemption, which in itself has proven to be a factor in this blog's incredibly late arrival. I've already managed to sink nearly thirty hours into it over the space of about two weeks, so I think it's pretty safe to say that I'm absolutely hooked. I've just unlocked the second landmass, Nuevo Paraiso, so I'm currently exploring the new territory and getting the lay of the land before I get stuck back into more story missions and stranger-helping. It's distracted me almost completely from Enduring Final Fantasy VII, but you have my word that a new episode of that will be coming before the month is out. Other than that, I really don't think there's much else to say. Probably just as well, because I think I've said more than enough. I hope you're all well, and hope to see you around Giant Bomb a little more over the coming summer months.
 
 
Dan
 
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Currently playing - Red Dead Redemption (X360)   
#2 Posted by C2C (860 posts) -

Nice review.  Not a lot of the reviews I read went into great detail about the quality of the music and sounds of the game.  I haven't played XIII yet but by the sound of it, once I get XIII I should expect a spiritual successor to X-2 (great graphics and battle system, lackluster story).  

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#3 Posted by Catolf (2653 posts) -

Nice review, and while I found the character's more engaging than you do I have to agree with this review 100%, it wasn't the best, but not the worst, but when I sit down and admit it all, I like XII better than XIII but over all they are my two favorite FF's can i can play them without too much hassle (sense I'm not good at much turnbase XP)

#4 Posted by ChristianCastillo (1162 posts) -

Nice review!

#5 Posted by Hailinel (25205 posts) -

That's a great read.  It's nice to see someone take time to explain their criticisms as well as you do instead of vomiting torrent of meaningless insults.  Thanks for putting the time you did into this; it really shows.
 
Personally, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII from a gameplay standpoint.  The battle system was well designed, and as slow as it is to open up, it's not the painfully long twenty hour tutorial that some paint it as.  It's rare that I've been able to play an RPG of any sort where the combat remained challenging from start to finish without becoming either aggravating or reliant on absurdities that break the game world like the enemy scaling in Oblivion.  Final Fantasy XIII manages to maintain a good balance, and like you, I never found the grinding I did felt like a grind.  The combat is really the game's high point.
 
And while the characters aren't my favorites of the series, I never felt that any of the characters were truly insufferable.  Not even Vanille or Hope.  The story could have definitely been told with more skill, but I never really felt the need to use the Datalog to understand what was going on.  The context of the game world became clear as the plot progressed, and I really just read some of the entries to get some extra flavor.  There are layers of depth to the narrative that don't really make themselves apparent at first glance, and it seems that some elements may be further explored in Versus and Agito, whenever they come out, but on the whole, the story itself was fairly good.  Better than most games, just not the best in terms of Final Fantasy.

#6 Edited by Tsukiyomi (77 posts) -

Awesome review, I agreed with pretty much everything you wrote though I'd swap your opinion on the battle system for your opinion on the characters. I thought the battle system was dumbed down wayyyy too much for newcomers and it really just boiled down to repeatedly tapping X (or A) and occassionally swapping Paradigms. I thought Lightning was a fresh break from most spunky JRPG protagonists and I thought most of the cast, with the exception of Snow, were pretty likeable by the end of the game.
 
Hope you enjoy playing though the rest of Red Dead Redemption, it's a great game! :)

#7 Posted by Oni (2110 posts) -

A really excellent write-up here Dan. Let me just put that out of the way, this is really well-written and well-articulated. I only have one remark. I'm at a loss as to why you think the story is good when you plainly state it is told poorly and that you didn't care more about any of the characters by the end of the game than you did early on. How can the story be compelling when the characters aren't? What was good about it? I haven't finished the game, I'm only like 8 hours in, but for me a story is already a failure if I don't care for the characters. Because then why should I care what happens to them? A bad script full of melodrama, exposition that's hidden in the effing menus, characters that don't develop in a good or interesting way... what's the success here?

#8 Posted by dankempster (2254 posts) -

Thanks for the comments, guys. I really appreciate the fact you've had the patience to persevere with this lengthy entry, so a big thank you for that. 
 
@Oni: I think the reason that the story was compellng for me was because of the world and lore that it was built upon. Like I said when talking about the world, I think it's unique and well-constructed enough to warrant being called a character in its own right, and for me it was the game's strongest character by a long way. Even though I wasn't as invested in the human drama subplots as I have been with previous Final Fantasies, I did find myself becoming very invested in the worlds and their histories, the lore surrounding the concepts of Cocoon and Pulse, of fal'Cie and l'Cie. A lot of this was actually down to the Datalog, I suppose, but my problem with the Datalog was the fact that it was the chosen method for exposition, rather than the quality of the content. I found myself caring about what was going to happen to the world in the context of this lore, and without going into too much detail for fear of spoiling things, I wasn't disappointed in that respect. 
 
I hope that goes some way towards clearing up the bulk of any confusion that this blog caused. Such is the curse of writing a staggered blog over a long period of time, I guess - it's bound to become a little disjointed and self-contradictory because of it.

#9 Posted by Tsukiyomi (77 posts) -
@Oni said:
I'm only like 8 hours in, but for me a story is already a failure if I don't care for the characters. Because then why should I care what happens to them? A bad script full of melodrama, exposition that's hidden in the effing menus, characters that don't develop in a good or interesting way... what's the success here? "
 You'll probably warm up to the characters more as you progress further into the game, though there are certainly some characters who only seem to get worse (*ahem* Snow and Hope).
#10 Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw (6395 posts) -

Holy shit, Dan.  That's an incredible read.  OK, let's dive in head-first. 
 
I agree with most of your points.  I think you said it perfectly when you stated "run, fight, repeat."  The alluring aspect of Final Fantasy IV through XII was the fact that it never felt like you absolutely had to go on with the story if you didn't want to.  It made the systems inherent to the games (combat, exploration, and leveling) feel a bit less forced, and when I'm going to spend dozens of hours playing a game, that's a huge factor.  As great as the combat mechanics are in the game (and they are a superb, smart approach to revamping the ATB system for a modern era), they're just not any fun if that's all there is to do. 
 
I've yet to actually finish the game, but I'm coming around to some of the characters.  Sazh is definitely my favorite.  His story is incredibly well developed, and the father-son storyline is one of the best I've seen in any game.  Snow was a bit of a surprise.  He's the typical Wakka-type, but they do give him a certain degree of depth I've not seen in their previous "goofball sidekick" types.  I'm generally liking his character.  Hope and Lightning aren't ever going to be my favorites, as I hate their general archetype (if a game goes into depth about a dark and brooding hero, my mind just immediately shuts off).  All in all, I think for this game to have worked on a deeper level, it needed stronger characters all around in order to draw in the player.  When the story is your main (and in this case, only) draw for a gamer to keep playing, you absolutely need more original characters.  That's FFXIII's ultimate failing in my opinion. 
 
I don't necessarily think this is a bad game.  There are lots of elements I enjoy, as I've written about, but with each chapter of the game, I keep finding myself wondering what will come in the future.  If FFV doesn't make me want to delve into its characters' stories and give me a reason to want to return to the world, I might not be buying it.  Square Enix missed the boat here, but not by so much that they can't recover.
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#11 Edited by valleyshrew (34 posts) -

 I liked your review, it's in many ways very well written, erudite and insightful (particularly music, story). Regrettably, I have huge qualms with some of your points, though hopefully you can have a reply to this criticising any of my points you deem inaccurate!
 
You really don't seem knowledgeable enough to talk about the games graphics so perhaps you should have left that part out. The amount of hyperbole you spout for the graphics of a title that doesn't even make use of bump mapping is astounding, and you're not even playing in HD. The cutscene graphics are fantastic, though no more so than advent children was, but the game graphics are nowhere close and far from a benchmark. Particularly in environments, they used up all the polygon count on character models and were left with blocky environments straight from the ps2 era albeit with some higher resolution textures and effects. Pulse is the worst looking area in the game, yet it's by far the largest and with most time spent in. Compare it in cutscenes with thick blowing grass fields and forests, flowing rivers, herds of monsters, etc. In game though you're left with completely flat and low quality grass, static ponds, close range monster pop in, ugly pure black abyss drops and high cliff edges. Other games have managed to put grass and plants in environments so why can't SE? (see far cry 2, uncharted, just cause 2 etc. for good environment graphics). The level design on cocoon is more fitting for a platformer, but that's not what FF is. They could have easily put jumping into the game with that level design. Instead they have little jump markers you walk into.

The whole game design philosophy is less control for the user is better. Sakaguchi doesn't agree, he said people want to be interactively involved in an rpg, and he took it to the extreme with FFVII. With over 40 interactive set pieces from the big minigames, to story segments like giving cpr to a little girl and simply kicking a ball at the beach to tens of dialogue options that moderately effect the story (like going on a date with barrett at the gold saucer). I have no idea why after that they replaced everything with cutscenes, I guess it's a lot easier to design that way. Slowly they've been chipping away at everything the games have to offer until we're left with a dungeon crawler and cutscenes, and it still sells really well so why bother with a more complex deep game eh? First went the world map and vehicles (x), then minigames (xii), and now towns and a hub and backtracking (xiii). Despite the cuts they're taking 5 years to release when on the ps1 they took only 2. The problem is PS1 games had $30-40m budgets, FFXII was $60m. So haven't even doubled the budget. Compare that to gran turismo or grand theft auto where the budgets have increased to 50 times what they were in their ps1 days...

You're far too lenient on the lack of towns. I would rather have a final fantasy that was just towns and no dungeons, than just dungeons and no towns. Every game series has combat and levels filled with enemies, but not many have towns and glimpses into alien culture. The story has always been told largely in towns and showing events, but with XIII it all gets told in exposition instead which is rather less memorable. One of the basic storytelling tenets is "show don't tell". It also results in the least number of characters ever, and no minigames, puzzles or exploring which is dreadful. These really are a big part of the game series and it should not be swept under the carpet. It would be like taking Grand Theft Auto and making it a linear vehicle combat game ala Twisted Metal. GTA is all about a fantastic city with cultural depth.  When I think of FFVII, first thing to pop into my head isn't cloud or sephiroth, it's the world map and all the great locations therein. FFVII is my 2nd favourite game, but if it was remade in the style of XIII, it wouldn't be in my top 100. FF's were never reliant on the battle system, there was more to them than that. You say the world is a character and a good part of FFXIII, but it's EASILY the worst developed world in a main FF game. You just don't get to experience any of the world, you don't get to look at the society at all. You get glimpses that there's a large world, but you're only seeing 6 characters on a single journey, the world is hidden. You don't get a glimpse at their life outside of their dull focus journey, with the exception of Team Nora's cafe and the beach scene though nothing really happened in that.  I couldn't remotely suspend disbelief to believe that people inhabited cocoon, while it was extremely easy to believe people lived in bhujerba, rabanastre and archades.

What you do get to see is not a likeable world to me, but that's personal taste. I much prefer the pseudo modern sci-fi cyberpunk world of VII than the pure fantasy futuristic world of XIII. I even prefer the medieval of VI and IX. They're getting complacent with their world design, X, XII and XIII all are extreme futuristic fantasy worlds. VII and VIII were more sci-fi, and IX was medieval in style, but those styles would require a more deep world. The stories are far more relatable in a slightly more realistic setting. Versus looks to be going back to a similar style as VII which is promising, but I doubt they'll be able to turn the degradation of the series backwards very far without a $200m budget and 10 years to develop it. They've become incredibly inefficient at game development. They should give the series to Level 5, they did a great job with Dragon Quest VIII, and created a moderately interesting world on a limited budget with White Knight Chronicles. Don't waste 2 years developing an engine, just use unreal engine or cell shaded graphics.

In VII you'd get to see a huge variety of cultures from wutai, costa del sol, cosmo canyon, midgar, etc. You got to see all their family and their home towns, and they are strongly linked to them. There was the illusion that you had a whole world to explore, XIII is merely a few paths and the world is in the background. Hope's house should be a nice change of pace, but instead it's a longwinded cutscene and then more battles inside his house. There's no exploring or control. You pay more attention to a story when you are interactively involved with it, games are just too long to have the attention span for long cutscenes for 5 hour periods. In the old games I would suffer through dungeons excited to get to the next town. In XIII I felt like I suffered through the whole game just because I'm a stubborn fan of the series.

And my final big complaint is your praise for the battle system. I have 2 platinums (ok I lie, I'm missing the treasure hunter trophy for the 2nd one, but I'm going to get it eventually), so I have explored the system fully. And XII was demonstrably better. "Oh but XII played itself!!" - XIII plays itself more than XII did, just because you have to tap x constantly to repeat autobattle doesn't make it interactive, XII streamlined it wonderfully letting you run around and enjoy the battles take over the boring automated attacking. XII allowed controlling multiple characters by both switching and programming them, there was far more skill in gambits than paradigms, it allowed you to enter every command yourself if you wanted (which you can't feasibly do in XIII as the menus don't pause). Allowing you to glitch the system was a fantastic idea (setting up gambits to do the battles for you automatically), and I've never felt more excited by a battle system than discovering that.

XII greatly got rid of battle transitions which was a HUGE step forward, XIII brings them back with a seperate battle screen, though enemies still appear in the field. This is incongruous because with random battles it was understood the map was a symbollic macrocosm of the world. The character model of course wasnt the same size as a city and it wouldn't have worked to have enemies in the field. But with XIII the enemies are in the field and you still get teleported to a seperate screen that doesn't match up exactly with where you were and is really boring and flat graphically. XII had 5 options for battle speed (XIII just has 2, normal and SLOW! Why would anyone want the soporific battles to go any slower?!). XIII on the other hand simplifies everything, you'll only ever need about 10 commands during battles (autobattle * 6, raise, haste, death...), equipment upgrading is ridiculously terrible. Weapons are unnecessary as it's easiest to get 5 stars in all battles if you never change the starting weapon. The crystarium is terrible (merging the interesting abilities and levelling systems into one linear waste of 3 hours).

Compare the equipment of XII and XIII, with XII you've got 16 types of weapons, and all characters can use them. With XIII you've got 6 types of weapon and each character only has one choice. XIII is lacking armour equipment for the first time in the series. The weapons all feel the same, it's just magic. XII's weapons had variety, like arrows could be used to lead enemies, and other weapons slowed you down balancing their increased strength etc. There's no battle formation setting, yet another thing they chopped off. The lack of choice of characters (not only in the forced pairings, but until you've got a full crystarium lightning/hope/fang is the only group with all paradigms available and 2 healers. Would have liked to use Sazh more but wasn't allowed to), all these things add up to a feeling of no control in the game. XII on the other hand had a very personalisable battle system and abilities system and equipment system.

People have said the battles are fast paced but it's nowhere close to XII, and many fights go on for 20 minutes. Having characters hit enemies fast and repetitively doesn't make the battle system fast when the enemies have far more health than usual. And having to make a quick decision makes it frantic, but followed by a long period of inaction means overall it's slow. Considering all the cuts they made to the world, the only way the game is still 50 hours long is because the battles are so slow and abundant. There are few times in the entire game when the battles are satisfying (mission 64 was good, attacus, jumbo cactuar, some of the summons, etc), the rest are just repetitive and mindless and obvious how to win. They needed to completely revamp it for the paradigm shift system to work, but instead they left large remnants of past evolutions that had been made redundant. Enemy weaknesses/elementals for example, auto libra means autobattle selects the best spells automatically nearly always so why have fire and water etc.? The entire spell library is simplified to the 6 paradigms for 99% of the game. So many bad things about the battle system I could go on for thousands of words on it, but I'm getting bored xD.

FFXIII feels like a spin off, it's less like a main series entry than tactics was, and it has more in common with Dissidia and crisis core (i.e. terrible world, just battles and cutscenes) than FFVII-IX. Just because it has a big budget doesn't make it a proper FF, and it does not deserve such high ratings simply because other game series are also linear and shallow. Thanks for the review and reading my (less eloquently written) reply, look forward to hearing back from you.

Edit - Sorry I didn't realise I was bumping a forum post, thought this was it's own review section.

#12 Posted by WatanabeKazuma (989 posts) -

 The main problem for me was the huge barrier of entry that this game had, the battle sytem is fast-paced and can take some time to fully get to grip's with but at the same time the various mechanics take too long to become fully available to the player. There's also the stumbling block of the erratic difficulty, Odin is easily one of the most challenging fight's in the entire game and he's encountered in the first 10 hours of gameplay, for the pace of all the tutorials up to that point this boss fight completely blindsides you.
 
For all their efforts to make this game more appealing to new players I feel various elements of the games are at odd's with this.

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