13 proves again to not be so lucky.
Few game franchises have been as successful over the years as Final Fantasy. It's impressive in its own right that we have now arrived at number 13, but does the now antiquated formula still hold up? Hold on to your hats, I'll be as fair and nice as I can be. I promise.
The premise of Final Fantasy 13 is exactly what you would expect it to be. A mixed bag of characters, mostly dangling around their late teen years and into their early adult lives, has stumbled upon an unfortunate fate that sees them bound to destroy the world. Seeing as how actually living out that fate would be FAR to interesting they instead decide to rebel against their situation and save the world instead. This oft-used shell for all JRPGs is backed by some interesting situations and circumstances that I won't outline save someone not having played it yet reading this. The premise of course still works because we all have an unending desire to save the world and be a hero of some kind. If you're into JRPGs (as I am) you won't be shocked or awed by it, but you'll also feel right at home.
The universe that all this happens within is actually surprisingly well crafted and thought out which instantly places it ahead of most current JRPGs and even some other Final Fantasy games of old. The characters are also decently crafted, although not incredibly fleshed out and little is done to make you feel like you know any of them over the course of the game. It's hard to feel emotionally attached to any of the characters for any length of time based on their behaviour alone. Lightning is perhaps the most unlikeable leading character in Final Fantasy history, and although she becomes somewhat relatable towards the very end of the game she still remains a misnomer. Then there are the ultra annoying Vanille and Hope that lay on extreme opposite ends of cheerful and angst-ridden. If Vanille's horrible, fake Australian accent doesn't make your ears bleed then Hope's consistent emo behaviour might tip you over the edge. It does not help in the slightest either that Vanille just so happens to be the game's narrator. Most likeable of all the cast is most likely going to be Sazh or Fang depending on who you talk to. Sazh is by far the most believable character due to his better-than-the-rest voice acting although that's not setting the bar very high. Snow...well, Snow is a hero – we'll leave it at that. Characters aside, the most striking of all of the story problems is the awful pacing and poor explanation.
The problem is that the story (or more specifically the parts of the story that are told) simply isn't long enough or engaging enough to last throughout the game's lengthy play time. The story is delivered in spurts where every few hours you get to put down your controller and watch a cut scene or five. They really did go all in with the idea of making this more of an interactive movie. This wouldn't be so horrible if the voice acting was at least batting five hundred, but for the majority of the time you'll find yourself cringing as you absorb cheesy moment after cheesy moment. The writing is sadly poor for spoken parts, although what's kept on record is nicely done. To be fair there are a small handful of scenes in the game that are well done and do a spectacular job but they are simply outweighed by too much of the bad to save anything. As a general warning, be prepared to hear the exact same thing come out of character's mouths over and over again – sometimes in the same scene. Also, towards the latter half of the game there was such a monstrous gap between any narratives that I had actually forgotten everything that had happened before and had to go back and read up on some things to jog my memory.
Yes, Final Fantasy 13 has gone the ways of other RPGs like Mass Effect where there is a codex of sorts that is automatically updated as the game progresses. It's full of back story and does a far better job than the actual in-game narrative at explaining things. You can check up on enemies you've fought as well which can help with some strategy during sticky situations although it won't ever be truly necessary. Nevertheless it remains a great little feature that you'll want to keep tabs on should you feel you'd like to actually know what's going on. The bottom line is that the story portrayed is fitting of a 20 or 30 hour game, not a 45-70+ hour game. If your loading screens are driving your plot – you're doing something wrong.
It's become obvious, and it has indeed been a stated fact, that Final Fantasy games are being dumbed down more and more and becoming more and more linear to make for a more interactive movie than a game. Final Fantasy 13 takes a giant leap toward that goal, and while some people will jump for joy, a lot more will probably cringe and be frustrated by the constraints that come with it.
"I LOVE what you did with the new maps, Bob!"
Draw a semi-straight line, remove all towns and over-world map exploration, secret bosses, mini-games, and anything else that fleshed out older Final Fantasy games and you have the core of Final Fantasy 13's game play. You will run along a super-defined path, fight some dudes, kill a super-bad dude, rinse and repeat. Granted, aside from removing random battles (monsters are seen and encountered on the field), that describes many of the most popular games in the series. However, as mentioned above there isn't a town to be explored, no people to interact with, and no side quests in the usual sense. It makes the world feel vacant and makes it nigh on impossible to feel like you're part of it. The absence of anything to allow you to take a break from the main story line doesn't help anything either as it can become a bit tiring constantly drudging forward in that straight line.
Nearly at the end of the game you will reach an area that allows you to finally spread your wings a bit and explore a little. It's a reasonably large area full of baddies that serves as a sort of grind-time deal before moving on toward the end of the game. This is where you'll make most of your money, gain most of your experience, and earn some of your most valuable items and weapons. It's so compact and deliberate however, that it sort of feels like they just threw it in there to quell possible rage that comes from the fact that towns and quests don't exist anywhere else. It's a bit ironic then that grinding for levels and health seems largely useless for all intents and purposes. A friend of mine beat the game in around 45 hours, and told me he struggled at the end. I took it upon myself to grind out some experience and gil to upgrade my weapons and accessories before moving on which set me back about 20 hours. As it turns out this was all in vain because I had equally as much trouble due to what I can only describe as seemingly proportional damage done by many bosses. Although increased stats may help you do some more damage, health might as well stay constant. People may argue my skill is just poor, but that's highly unlikely due to the game's horribly simplified battle system.
Final Fantasy 13's battle system drastically overhauls the formula native to the series. You get three people at a time which isn't anything new but you only control one of them in battle – the team leader. The skill unlocking operates much like that in Final Fantasy 10. Levels don't necessarily exist; you simply earn experience in the form of CP which you can use to unlock abilities, health, strength, magic, etc in the crystarium for each character. The battle system itself operates on paradigms. Paradigms are simply the combination of chosen c1ases that your battle team may jump between in a battle. Once in a given battle, you may at any time switch your paradigm that suits the situation you are in. The important thing to keep tabs on is your enemy's stagger gauge. If you successfully drive up the gauge to the breaking point your damage will be greatly increased. This is absolutely vital and how well you do in the game will be decided by how quickly and effectively you can drive an opponent's gauge up to break. It works very well, but there is a fatal flaw in the system – little to no involvement.
Yes, now you can ride your Summons.
I started to get concerned about my controller's A button about half way through the game. Because of how they crafted the system, they have you rely largely on an auto-battle button. Yes! You too can perform the most effective combination of attacks by simply clicking auto-battle over and over again! Gone are the days of quick thinking and strategy, just keep clicking A! Low on health? Just switch to a healing paradigm and keep smashing that A button! In all seriousness, while the system makes for a flashy one that can be more exciting to watch, it doesn't exactly make you feel like you're mastering anything but the ability to press a button really fast. For a system so simple, you'd think that you would have full access to everything from the start. Apparently we are far too stupid for such a task.
Just like the pacing of the story, the pacing of unlocking battle abilities and commands is at a snail's pace. You will quite literally be a few short hours from beating the game when your finally ability becomes available to you. Every few hours you'll be able to do some extra little thing in battle. To be honest it's a bit frustrating and insulting.
Backing up the core battle system is the accessory and weapon upgrading system. There's no real crafting involved, instead you can upgrade weapons and the like by using materials found in the field or bought in a store. There's a semi-neat multiplier system that makes it more of a game to figure out the right combination of materials to gain the most experience, but it's easily figured out and exploited which ruins much of what it could have been. This is how you'll eventually obtain the best items and even the final weapons in the game albeit with an insane amount of grinding for cash.
Maybe it'll be Final Fantasy 21 before it happens, but damnit I refuse to die before I see a game in the series make summons useful. They make an effort here, and although I'm sure I could have made some of my situations easier by whipping one out, I never used one the entire game save when I was forced to. My characters simply did as much damage or more and so although it's nice to have a meat shield and your health restored it's not so great to waste your time and TP on not staggering your opponent. As a super subjective side note: when it comes to summons -- more monster, less transformer. Years of development and nobody could figure out how to make summons useful.
That seems to be what plagues Final Fantasy 13 throughout. Although the game has had years and years of development time and an insane budget, everything feels not properly thought out. In their hell-bent quest to make Final Fantasy an interactive movie experience, they've stripped out much of what makes Final Fantasy what it is. While the graphical prowess is no doubt impressive, it feels like they've stripped too much away from the core experience. For a series that relies on the deliverance of a story and character progression in a world you can imagine yourself in, Final Fantasy 13 takes a massive step backwards in staying true to form and in turn being a game worth experiencing.
Final Fantasy 13 is by no means a bad game. It's a competent JRPG that will satisfy many people for what it provides. Many hardcore fans may find themselves frustrated throughout the game, however. If you want a crazy show of cut scenes and simplified game play then this is your Final Fantasy. If you want something more true to the series' roots then you may want to look elsewhere for your fix.