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Final Fantasy XIII Review

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Too longwinded and singleminded for its own good, Final Fantasy XIII still delivers a grand, gorgeous adventure...eventually.


 These are in fact both women.     
There was a moment late in my time with Final Fantasy XIII, somewhere around the 30 hour mark, when I crested the top of a tall cliff, looked out over the great verdant expanse below, and was forced to stop and consider what this game isn't. Most notably, it's not the sort of broad, sprawling, go-anywhere adventure you used to expect from Final Fantasy. This was the very first time I'd been allowed to veer slightly left or right of the storyline's stiflingly constrained central path, and even the handful of optional side activities that became available at this late stage of the game weren't nearly enough to offset the thudding need to progress that preceded them.

The old Final Fantasy games gave you at least a convincing illusion of freedom. Even when the beats of the storyline were plotted out in a straight line, when there was only one location you could realistically visit to advance the game, you still had a sense of a larger world out there waiting to be explored. Not in XIII. Here the designers know exactly which way they want you to go, and that way is always "forward." There's nary a significant detour or side quest to distract you from your singular goal of running from here to there, reaching the yellow icon on the map, and triggering the next cutscene. Would it have killed them to at least connect all these confined locations with a basic overworld? How about an airship to fly around? This is still Final Fantasy, right?

 The fast-paced battles are the best thing in the game. It just takes too long before they get interesting.     
It's true that Western and Eastern RPG design sensibilities have diverged dramatically over time; where the Fallouts and Dragon Ages focus on nameless create-a-characters roaming big open worlds and plotting the paths of their own storylines, the Japanese version of the genre casts you in the roles of iconic characters with their own agendas, with every major decision and crossroads already determined before you start. But Final Fantasy XIII takes this focus to a dangerously reductive extreme, almost losing itself in its relentless devotion to straight-ahead storytelling and nonstop combat. You're either in a battle or watching a cutscene or running to one or the other for most of the game. There just isn't much else to do, and what there is to do isn't always as exciting as it should be.

The tragedy, or maybe it's the saving grace, of Final Fantasy XIII is that it's eventually a great game if you give it enough time to become one. But it takes longer to pick up momentum and become engaging, mechanically and nararatively, than anyone should have to invest in a game they paid a lot of money for. I stuck it out because I needed to review the game and because I loved Final Fantasy once, and ultimately I'm glad I did. But if it weren't for those two drivers I'd have probably never made it through the first 15 or so hours it takes to see the good part, where the fighting becomes fun and you start to understand the story and care about what happens to its characters.

 Ditto the storyline.
At this point, you can't possibly be surprised to hear that the story of FFXIII revolves around a ragtag band of rebels brought together by chance to challenge their fate and save the world from certain doom. At least the writers have layered an elaborate fiction on top of this tried-and-true framework, where humans are subject to the whims of a race of enigmatic god-machines called fal'Cie that rule over both a large, dangerous lower world called Pulse and a hovering, idyllic shelter, Cocoon. The citizens of each world harbor such deep-seated, irrational fear and resentment for the other that the government of Cocoon at one point practices what amounts to ethnic cleansing, "purging" a peaceful group of its own citizens for the crime of haplessly coming into contact with one of the Pulse fal'Cie and maybe, possibly carrying the taint of its evil magic. Naturally, our heroes get tangled up in the machinations of these powerful beings early on, before resolving to take control of their destinies and affect the course of events for the common good.

Since Square Enix is already working on two more games (Agito and Versus) set in this universe, it's a good thing it's a unique and interesting one, and the story of this game does become quite intriguing as you go along and put together more of the pieces. But the game does a pretty lousy job of communicating all the necessary information to you upfront, leaving you largely in the dark about not just the characters' immediate motivations, but even the basic metaphysical nuts and bolts of how the fal'Cie operate and what it means to be cursed by them. You can't chalk this lack of information up to a reserved style of storytelling, either, since all the necessary pieces are there for you to...sit there and read in the game's massive repository of information about characters, places, events, and everything else that exists in the menu. If the writers had managed to contextualize the essentials of this complex world within the early exposition, it would have made the story a lot more engaging upfront.

 XIII is nothing if not beautiful.
The best part of Final Fantasy XIII is the combat, which is successful at reducing unnecessary complexity in favor of broader strategic decisions. Your characters each fit into three of six roles that aren't too different from the classes you'd see in an MMO, with damage-dealers, tanks, healers, and buffers all represented. You can assemble a list of "paradigms," mixes of these classes geared toward different combat scenarios, and then instantly switch from one paradigm to another as often as you want mid-battle. Two of your three characters are controlled entirely by the computer, and even your leader has an optional auto-battle function that lets the AI decide the best course of action for the next few turns. Believe it or not, this automation is actually a good thing; why should you have to manually use ice-specific spells on monsters you already know are weak to ice, every time? The battles are incredibly fast-paced, so once they start to get difficult you need that automated control, anyway; at some point, it's all you can do to swap your paradigms fast enough to keep yourself healed and efficiently deal damage at the same time.

 The character-development systems are powerful, but too damn complicated.          
In fact, as the game gets harder and the battles demand more and more of you, you'd be amazed at the elaborate sorts of strategies you can pull off by creatively setting up and switching between paradigms; it's immensely satisfying to start shredding through enemies that previously seemed impossible just because you're getting a better handle on how to exploit the battle system. But just like the storyline, the game takes far too long to roll out all of this complexity, and until it does, it's too easy to be interesting. You don't even earn experience points for the first three or so hours, and you can expect to grind through another dozen at least before it lets you start playing with three characters at once with all the roles available. There's such a great combat engine here, I can't understand why the designers don't let you access all of its potential sooner. The same goes for an incredibly arcane system that lets you upgrade your equipment and apply hidden bonus abilities to your characters. You can achieve some incredibly powerful results with these systems, but their specifics are so obscure and poorly explained, you'd have to hit the Internet and find a FAQ to do so efficiently.

Final Fantasy XIII just needed to be about half as long as it is, with tighter pacing and a faster ramp up to entertaining combat in its first half. But at least whether it's entertaining or boring you, it's unflinchingly gorgeous from one end to the other. The artists tackle environments as diverse as natural outdoor vistas, high-tech ancient ruins, futuristic space cathedrals, and the gyrating innards of an interdimensonal clock, all with the same zeal for vibrant, saturated colors and inventive architecture. Likewise, the quality of the prerendered video sequences this series has become known for is at a new bar of quality this time around; it's the best-looking CG you'll see this side of a Pixar flick. The soundtrack is also quite good, though it didn't reach the poignant highs and lows for me that some of Nobuo Uematsu's work in the older games did (though this game may have the most invigorating boss music of any in the series). And while some of the characters' voiceover can be grating at first, they all settle into their roles as the game trundles along and eventually contribute important pieces to the ongoing drama. In that vein, it's worth mentioning that I thought the quality of the localized English text was uniformly excellent.

 Guy named Cid, check.
The game looks sharp and splendid on the PlayStation 3, and...slightly less splendid on the Xbox 360, where it runs in lower resolution that isn't all that noticeable unless you put the games side by side, when it does become an issue. The prerendered video sequences are fraught with ugly compression artifacts on the Xbox, though, in comparison to the beautifully clean, smooth versions on the PS3 disc. Consider that the PS3 version fits on a single disc while the 360 version requires you to put in new discs periodically, and there is no excuse for playing the Xbox game if you own both consoles. I don't care how much you love achievement points. The side-by-side differences were stark enough that I yanked out the 360 disc at about nine hours in and started over on the PS3. Having finished the game now I'm quite confident that was the right decision.

I was ready to fall in love with Final Fantasy XIII. My history with the series stretches back over two decades to the NES original and I'd count a couple of those games among my favorite of all time, so if any game could have brought a lapsed fan of Japanese-style RPGs back around again, it was this one. And you know, after that first dozen hours, it kind of did. There are a lot of great things going on in this game--I genuinely loved something about every aspect, from the combat to the story to the visual design. These elements just weren't brought together and exposed as well as they should have been, to do a game of this magnitude the justice it deserves. But if nothing else, the glimmers of excellence in Final Fantasy XIII have at least convinced me that Japanese RPGs, and specifically Final Fantasy itself, haven't quite gasped their last breath just yet.     Brad Shoemaker on Google+
199 Comments
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Posted by The_Laughing_Man

I accept that. It is a bit long to get into the game. 

Posted by rjayb89

Oh no, how many dudes will be up in arms about this.

Posted by Scooper

I don't wish to be rude but what good is a review of this game this long after it's released. Who does this review serve?

Posted by RedSox8933

I'm a little surprised at this score, from the last Bombcast it sounded like you were going to give it 4 stars. Still, I understand your reasoning and I think that it's a better score than 4.

Posted by JJWeatherman

Horay Brad! You finally can move on with your life!  :P

Posted by berva

Brad, great review.  All those day one reviews where rubbish generalizations.  The fact of the matter is this game is a pain in the ass and you will need to invest a lot of hours to drain what fun is to be had.

Posted by MAN_FLANNEL

In B4 all the people with anime avatars.

Posted by Slax
@Scooper: At least a few people on the forums have been waiting to hear this review to help decide whether to get it or not. And, although most people who really wanted this game already got it, some people might still be on the fence, and this review may help them reach a decision. But I understand where you are coming from.
Posted by ArclightBorealis

Well, better late then never. Score's what I thought it would be. Oh well, atleast you made it through, Brad. Congradulations.

Posted by Kombat

It should have at least gotten a 3.2, this isn't a fair score at all.  Obviously you're biased and hate JRPGs.

Posted by Babble
@Scooper said:
" I don't wish to be rude but what good is a review of this game this long after it's released. Who does this review serve? "
No one is making you read it, some people don't buy games on day one, it serves plenty of people.
Posted by Ratfoot

Great review Brad confirms the suspicions I've had about this game, maybe I'll check it out once it hits the bargain bin.

Posted by Animasta

you could make a case for 4 stars I feel (that's how I feel about it anyway) but I agree with your sentiment.

Posted by CHIEFMEGADETH666
@Scooper said:
" I don't wish to be rude but what good is a review of this game this long after it's released. Who does this review serve? "
WTF is that really your comment lol
Posted by Delta_Ass

Very cool, very cool.

Posted by Yummylee

Expected as much.
Online
Posted by Jiggah

Excellent review.  The score is exactly the what it should be.  The game is good, just not great.  It's a competent JRPG, but that's really about it.

Posted by Trilogy

Awesome review as always. It seems like a game you need a lot of patience to enjoy. Maybe I'll gamefly it one day.

Posted by samcotts
@Scooper: Yeah, because no one buys games a couple of weeks after it's been released. It's about time retailers started taking down any remaining copies of FFXIII, cos' if they haven't sold by now, chances are they're never going to be bought.
Posted by Cetra

Great review. Pretty much everything Brad touched on are my gripes with the game too. Although, I didn't think the writing was very good.

Posted by zombie2011

Not to be an ass but it seems this game was released months ago.  
 
Oh well, i was kinda interested in this game until i read all the negative reviews about it. Maybe FF15 will be my first FF game.

Posted by RobotHamster

What will Brad do with his life now?

Posted by Ratcabbage

"Final Fantasy XIII just needed to be about half as long as it is, with tighter pacing and a faster ramp up to entertaining combat in its first half." 
 
That pretty much sums up my feelings about the game. Great review.   

Posted by metalsnakezero

Brad, I solute you for completing this review. I can see all the good point in this game but to much bad bogs down the game. I may get it but that'll come when it has a lower price.

Posted by JJOR64

I think I will check it out when the price drops.  Great review.

Edited by eznark
@Scooper: You do realize that games continue to be sold after their initial release date, right? 
 
Solid review.  Just hit Hope's summon battle about 30 hours in.  My God it is taking forever to get to the point....
Posted by NoXious

The game took too long to drag me in. Stopped at Chapter 9 for now, goddamn game is too slow for it's own good.
3 stars is pretty positive from my experience with the game.

Posted by kagekage
@zombie2011: If anything, play FFV7 or FF10, those were my two most favorite. 
You can buy FF7 on the PSN store for a relatively cheap price, and I bet you can find a used copy of FF10 on amazon or ebay.
Posted by calum_s_gunn

Good review, conveyed exactly how I feel about the game.

Posted by asian_pride

Great review Brad. If the pacing is so slow in the beginning, then it might take me a while to warm up to it. But I wouldn't know until I actually get it and play the game. Still planning to get it for the PS3, reduced price or not.

Posted by Cazamalos

one of the things i loved of old FF's was the crazy cut scenes every time i enter/discover a new town, and of curse the awesome airships and boats they gave to explore an entire imaginary world, but if they take away that, and put me some characters and plot with lack of personality , i think i going to be supa disappointment when i finally start playing this, well...at least the game have a descent battle system and OST...

Posted by obcdexter

 
I give this review 5 stars. Why? Because coming in just after I finished the game myself I can honestly
agree to a full with Brad on every single point. Spot on, if you ask me.
Posted by Meteora
@zombie2011:  It was released in March. Today is April 2. I wouldn't consider that "months".
 
Overall I think I'm with Brad's opinion. I still haven't beaten the game thanks to my god awful schedules, but I'll get to finishing it at some point.
Posted by Zaph

It's awesome to see a review illustrate that sometimes the pay-off isn't worth the journey to get there.
 
So many reviewers have gushed over this game with only small caveats regarding the time it takes to ramp up, but surely isn't it a game's responsibility to be entertaining and engaging start to finish?
 
If a game has a mind-blowing final 2 hours, but has been boring as hell for the previous 10, the author should review the entire 12 hours as a whole - and not just brush it aside so they can praise the final 2.

Posted by Spiritof

I think it only right that Brad go back to the 360 version and finish his play thru.
 
For the integrity of the review process.

Posted by Soap

I'm still enjoying it ( I use that term loosely) but it's probably the worst main final fantasy game to date.
 
Nice review brad

Posted by Hitchenson

I totally fucking knew this would get 3/5!  
 
I can't wait to see people bitchin' all over that score and not even reading the review. Which is great as ever. 

Posted by Curufinwe

I don't think Brad makes a good argument that the games needs to be half as long, but he does make a good argument that the first half needs to be much more exciting and interesting.

Posted by Scooper
@samcotts: Yeah I know people buy games after day one but come on. At least get the review up in a timely mannor.
Edited by KaosAngel

Yeah, got it in December and beat it in a week or two.  
 
It has a 3 star average on the Japanese Amazon too, meaning it's the lowest scoring main Final Fantasy title in Japan.  Just wait for the International Version whenever it comes out to fix the problems...or just buy Resonance of Fate if you want a solid JRPG.

Posted by Cornman89
@RobotHamster said:
" What will Brad do with his life now? "
Just Cause 2?
Posted by Lambert

Sad to see the Final Fantasy series die out like this. It was all Square's fault for not trying to adapt to the changing marketplace of better games and game design. At one point, this series was the best of the best, and now it is just average POS like 90% of the games out there.  No one will even remember this game by the end of the year.
 
Good riddance I say. And can we get rid of the whole JRPG classification? They should be rated and reviewed at the same high standard that all other, superior RPGs are rated on. 
 
Good review, although it seemed like you gave the game mercy points (stars?).

Edited by ricetopher

@Hitchenson: I don't think that'll be the case. Most people who enjoyed the game (myself included) are probably well aware and able to admit it's flaws. I agree for the most part on what Brad wrote. Any bitching will just be because Final Fantasy is such a divisive series that it almost seems like FF fans hate the series more than people who aren't fans.

 

Edit: Or people who have been ravaging the FF13 boards with their hate in every topic to the point where I moved to GameFaqs boards.


Edit2: Or not. Sad to see the comments turn into a shitstorm, I would hope GB would be better than this.

Posted by Terry_Bogard
@Lambert said:
" Sad to see the Final Fantasy series die out like this. It was all Square's fault for not trying to adapt to the changing marketplace of better games and game design. At one point, this series was the best of the best, and now it is just average POS like 90% of the games out there.  No one will even remember this game by the end of the year.  Good riddance I say. And can we get rid of the whole JRPG classification? They should be rated and reviewed at the same high standard that all other, superior RPGs are rated on.   Good review, although it seemed like you gave the game mercy points (stars?). "
Yup.. the Giantbomb FFXIII review decides the fate of the whole Final Fantasy series...  They gave it a 3 so the series must be doomed! =0
Posted by ZenaxPure
@Curufinwe said:
" I don't think Brad makes a good argument that the games needs to be half as long, but he does make a good argument that the first half needs to be much more exciting and interesting. "
Indeed I feel the same way, sort of. The first half of the game is great and most of my favorite moments from the story come from it. If the game was half as long it would strip away a lot of the best parts. Obviously that said I don't really agree at all that the start of the game needed to be more exciting and interesting, I already found it to be. For example figuring out the optimal way to do battles for the first half speeds things up and gets you more prepared for the later half where the difficulty gradually gets harder. I can only imagine most people playing through the game tried to brute force their way to Pulse. Even with only 2 characters there was still a lot of fast class changing and strategy required to get those 5 star ratings.
Posted by Warskull
@Hitchenson said:
" I totally fucking knew this would get 3/5!   I can't wait to see people bitchin' all over that score and not even reading the review. Which is great as ever.  "
I think all but the most insane fanboys recognize this game has some issues.  The biggest thing has to be the corridors, which Brad is dead on about.  It just doesn't feel much like a Final Fantasy game until you hit disc 3.  Until then you are basically walking along a rather narrow predetermined path with zero room for exploration and cannot set your own party.  It feels like disc 1-2 are an extremely long and dull tutorial to the game.  I have a feeling that if this game was released under any other name it would have flopped.
Posted by Willy105

A bold, but yet great, review.
 
Bravo!

Posted by CL60

I still don't see why everybody is complaining about it being linear...it's just as linear as every other Final Fantasy. It just doesn't throw an illusion that it's not in our face.

Posted by Fei

Brad should've addressed the plot more. For one the narrative is poor. Plot points are eluded to and obscured leaving you in the dark until someone wants to monologue every last little detail in the most melodramatic way. And not just plot points or bad guys, the main characters do this everytime. They announce what they're feeling, what they thought, and how they were wrong to do so in the same kind of over revealing, melodramatic way. If this was a book it would be committing literary brain hemorrhaging. There are like a thousand ways to develop characters, reveal mysteries, hint at plot points, and expand story without the same dumb use of in your face monologuing.

I mean, seriously, think about it. It happens like 3 times a chapter and it does not provoke anything. The characters are so easy to read as well, so when they spill their guts and melodrama out like some teenage girl its like literary vomit. There is also problems with a clear badguy. Every great save the world story has a great villain. Darth Vader, Sephiroth, Kefka, whoever. 
 
The gameplay is good, the graphics beautiful. The game is a slow burn, has serious pacing issues, and didn't captivate nor capture me in anyway. 

Posted by ZenaxPure
@CL60 said:
" I still don't see why everybody is complaining about it being linear...it's just as linear as every other Final Fantasy. It just doesn't throw an illusion that it's not in our face. "
Indeed, it is structured very much like X which no one had a problem with then. It just became overblown on the internet, it really isn't that different and hell the story justifies it and the game opens up when the story goes in that direction where you would expect it to open up, course that is completely overlooked by most people, this review too.
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