Part 1: First Impressions Are Everything
Society would like us to believe "first impressions are everything," but Square-Enix never got this memo. Final Fantasy XIII's first three hours are a lethargic affair. Snow wants to save the love of his life, Sazh has a son, Hope's mother is dead, Lightning is a tsundere, and Vanille exists. It's a bland exercise of storytelling contrivance. Final Fantasy XIII is the apotheosis of lazy writing. Beautiful window-dressing cannot hide an incoherent story populated by soulless automatons.
The fine people of Square-Enix continue to believe long-standing narrative traditions are beneath them. Serah's crystallization acts as an inciting action, but it exists in a contextless world. The scene would mean something if we knew who she was, or how she relates to the story. Instead of engaging in character building, Final Fantasy XIII meanders. It copies and pastes levels and discourages exploration. It expects you to do the legwork when it spews a bevy of technobabble. Worse, it belches shitty lines of dialogue and expects you to maintain your composure.
Undeniably, the game lacks tonal consistency. In one scene, Lightning and Sazh lament an act of genocide. In the next, Snow cracks jokes with his buddies. In its first three hours, Final Fantasy XIII acts like an aberration. The characters are inherently meaningless because the game never builds upon their actions. Nothing achieved in the first two chapters signifies anything genuine or abstract.
I ask you, what's the purpose of the first two chapters? I need to know the answer. Mechanically speaking, the game is barren. The game can play itself. The story lacks a visible antagonist. Nothing makes sense. Locations exist without context. Characters use proper nouns wantonly. Party pairings feel forced. Nothing feels memorable, but maybe that's just me.
Part 2: Square-Enix Are Trolls
There are undeniable parallels between Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy VII. Both games quickly transition to action-sequences after a cinematic. Both delay introducing their primary cast members. Both initially limit the player's gameplay choices. Both take place on exploding train tracks. BUT there's one big difference. Final Fantasy VII's bombing scene is a tightly paced showcase of technical excellence; Final Fantasy XIII's introduction is a LONG three-hour slog.
Final Fantasy VII has some of the best world building in video game history. The city of Midgar is a dystopian slum. You understand that as the camera pans away from Aerith. As we tour Midgar, Shinra towers ominously in the background. In one seamless shot, the game establishes the story's two driving forces. Even more impressive is how the game frames its story without spoken dialogue.
Final Fantasy XIII's introduction is an incoherent mess. The opening narration, provided by someone we have never met, details a yet unseen apocalyptic event. We then jump cut to a train filled with unknown hooded passengers. Where are they going, and why are they on the train? We will not know for another hour. The game transitions to an unnamed female character slashing away at faceless soldiers. Who is she? Why is she fighting these soldiers? Why do I care?
Immediately, Square-Enix exploits nostalgia for Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy XIII's first environment, though beautiful, looks shockingly similar to a high-resolution Midgar. Our train even explodes in a similar fashion to Final Fantasy VII's reactor scene. It's hard to take Final Fantasy XIII's characters seriously when its introduction feels like a high-poly re-enactment of Final Fantasy VII. Snow's group is shockingly similar to Barret's AVALANCHE. Lightning's aloof and standoffish nature frames her as a female Cloud. Vanille jokes around like Cait Sith. FUCK HELL, the list of similarities is endless!
Around the time of Final Fantasy XIII's release, Square-Enix was full of itself. Fans were clamoring for a proper Final Fantasy VII remake, and Square was having none of it. During the promotion of Final Fantasy XIII, executives said, "Her name is Lightning because she came from a cloud." I guess that's why the first chapter attempts to placate die-hard fans, but the end result is dizzying. None of the characters have enough time to breathe and the game juxtaposes between parties at a breakneck speed. If anything, Final Fantasy XIII is an indictment against Square-Enix's worst habit.
Part 3: Nothing Makes Sense
Before we continue, there are positive takeaways I want to mention. Final Fantasy XIII has amazing production values. Despite its advancing age, the character models are spectacular, and the environments are equally impressive. Its CGI cutscenes are stunning, barring a few instances of the "Uncanny Valley." Finally, the musical score is incredible. While it lacks the staying power of its predecessors, the music perfectly blends with the game's visuals.
Let's address why chapter one is a horrible introduction. First, what the fuck is "Cocoon?" I have finished the story, and I still don't know. Is it a city? Is it a planet? Is it a continent? Every character says "Cocoon" flippantly, as if it is of little consequence. Characters compound this problem by speaking a mile a minute and using it with other yet defined terms like "PSICOM," "I'Cie," "Pulse," and "Sanctum." Without any context, it's IMPOSSIBLE to make sense of what's being said.
There's an overwhelming amount of proper nouns in Final Fantasy XIII. At this point in the game, I understand fal'Cie are important, but what are they? Are they robots? Are they a pantheon of gods? Are they monsters that live alongside humanity? Don't even get me started about l'Cie! Everyone important to the story is either a robot or a crystallized monster! At no point do the characters stop and clue us into basic terminology. Instead, they say "fal'Cie" and "Pulse fal'Cie" as two distinct terms without explanation.
I know what a lot of you are about to say as a counter to my bellyaching. "But ZombiePie, these questions are answered in the game's codex!" This rebuttal is WEAK! The whole game doesn't make sense unless you interact with the codex. If there was ever a time to include a "fish out of water" character, now would have been it. Before any of you complain such characters are contrived tropes, I want to remind you not all tropes are bad. While many complain about Tidus, his questions immersed us in an alien world.
Because the writers rely on the codex for world-building, very little of the character dialogue feels grounded in the story. It's critical for characters to interact in a role-playing game. Interplay helps to establish the characters and their pre-existing relationships. Final Fantasy XIII doesn't do that and expects you to flip through a book.
I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but I need to get this issue off of my chest. The codex sucks. It uses dense technical language without scaffolding and supports. Furthermore, using the codex is a pain in the ass. Codex entries are divided into nebulously defined categories. For example, the entry about PSICOM is found in "COCOON SOCIETY," but named individuals who work for PSICOM are in "PEOPLE."
Part 4: Nothing Is Fun To Play!
I have been dancing around Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay because there's nothing to pick apart. The game doesn't mechanically open up for a solid ten hours. When the game's first battle commences, there are only three choosable options. The player can run a simulation, manually pick commands, or use an item. Even if you independently input attacks, there are only two selectable options.
To add insult to injury, . Levels feature an entrance and exit. The sum total of your interaction with the environment is moving from these two points. Exploring your surroundings is dubious. Most optional corridors result in dead ends with treasure chests. The limited gameplay is especially insulting when the game is apt to show cinematic sequences where Lightning flies incredible distances. Per contra, when I control Lightning she's powerless to jump over knee-high walls.
Final Fantasy XIII's "Auto Battle" feature is an emblem of what modern Square-Enix thinks of its audience. Throughout the game, . Every gameplay feature is introduced incrementally and in painstaking detail. This sentiment especially applies to mechanics that have been franchise hallmarks for decades. Did we honestly need an independent tutorial about using items?
The tutorials in the first two chapters aren't groundbreaking. The ATB Meter, datalog, stagger meter, items, and shrouds all get handcrafted moments. Be that as it may, mechanics of consequence aren't available. Don't believe me? Experience points, leveling, character classes, paradigms, and magical abilities don't open up until chapter three. The end result is the introduction lacks a sense of progression. It's hard to feel invested when every character controls the same.
It goes without saying Final Fantasy XIII is an incredibly limited experience. For HOURS Final Fantasy XIII blocks any attempts to act out its roles. Even its defenders are apt to point out the lack of side-quests until its eleventh chapter. This limitation applies to every mechanic. The character's third class isn't usable until chapter seven; the final character summon unlocks in chapter eleven; the last level of the Crystarium opens up AFTER you beat the game. Square's design decisions are especially heinous when you realize this is a role-playing game!
Part 5: Dear Square, Your Fave Is Problematic - Let's Talk About Lightning
When all things are said and done, I think Lightning is unfairly maligned. Despite a reasonable recovery, she's often used as a demagogue for Final Fantasy XIII's many shortcomings. Admittedly, the first two chapters provide her a piss poor introduction. Lightning's shortage of character traits causes her actions to feel flat. Her aloof and cold personality is another example of Square-Enix copying and pasting from their company-wide design document.
A lot of my initial displeasure with Lightning can be blamed on Final Fantasy XIII's design. There are no genuine decisions to make until chapter three. For now, the only decision is whether the player wants to attack or use a potion. It also doesn't help there aren't side quests or dialogue choices. This lack of interactivity hampers any attempt to frame Lightning as a character deserving the player's attention. If I can't buy into a game's mechanics, my willingness to buy into its story is reduced.
The game's juxtapositions present another problem with Lightning's introduction. Spliced in-between her interactions with Sazh are multiple cutaways to Snow, Hope, and Vanille. These transitions are poorly paced and do the characters a disservice, Lightning especially. Allowing characters to digest events has created some of the best moments in the Final Fantasy franchise. Do I need to cite Final Fantasy VII or X as examples of this concept in action? Worse, the cutaways place Final Fantasy XIII's linear design under a massive spotlight. Transitional sequences boil down to walking through corridors, fighting trash mobs, and flipping switches.
We haven't even talked about the pacing issues with Lightning! The game delays explaining why Lightning wants to rescue her sister until chapter five! It isn't until chapter four we understand the full extent of Lightning's relationship to Snow. For fuck's sake, we wait HOURS before knowing why Lightning and Sazh were on the same train!
All we know about Lightning is she's trying to save her sister. That's her character arc for a solid ten hours. After a few verbal quips with Sazh, we learn she left the "Guardian Forces." WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT? Why isn't the game explaining anything? We don't understand why Sazh and Lightning are working together. We don't know what's wrong with Serah. We have no idea what the military plans to do with Serah. Nor do we know if any of the casts' end goals are complimentary. What kind of storytelling is this shit?
Part 6: Snow Almost "Works."
What I am about to say may come as a surprise. I don't hate Snow. I especially don't hate Troy Baker's performance. The man worked his ass off to make his goofy ass lines of dialogue believable. At no point does Baker "phone it in" like some of the other performances. The man pours every ounce of his acting skill into selling Snow's abhorrently written lines, and HOT DAMN is his script atrocious.
Beyond my respect for Troy Baker, Snow's one of the few characters with an easy to follow character arc. He leads a ragtag group of rebels and intends to save the love of his life. A Final Fantasy character arc cannot get any simpler. I will concede there are undeniable gaps in Snow's characterization. We don't understand how he relates to Lightning. Nor do we understand what Snow's alliance stands for in comparison to Sanctum. On top of that, Snow's friends are trash.
The tone of Snow's introduction is beyond problematic. He continually shouts "I'm the hero." He exclaims saving Sarah is his destiny. He treats war like a fun adventure. He casually jokes with his friends while bullets whiz past his head. Need I remind you, a few minutes ago Lightning and Sazh lamented a massacre. Yeah, this game has a problem with tone.
But again, there's something to Snow's simplistic character arc I couldn't help but enjoy. He's driven by a desire to fulfill a relationship, and we can reasonably assume this is the source of his irrational behavior. It's boiler point, but it fits Snow as a character. He's not someone who thinks his plans through before acting them out. By the time the second chapter ended, I felt like I knew Snow the best. I understood his relationship with Serah meant the world to him.
Other issues with Snow are not his fault. The game has a terrible sense of spatial awareness. We start the game on top of a set of train tracks. Eventually, the characters find themselves in what looks like an ancient Mayan ruin. The game spends none of its time establishing where the characters are going. Even more lamentable, just as you get comfortable with a pair of characters, the game jump cuts to a different group.
Part 7: Hope Is Dead On Arrival
I feel anger directed at Lightning is misplaced because there are worse characters in Final Fantasy XIII. Case and point, He's just a terrible character. The only reason Hope exists is to fulfill Square's teenage protagonist quota. Why else does his characterization oscillate between brooding rage and newfound confidence? Hope's an amalgamation of everything wrong with modern Square-Enix. He plays up well-established anime tropes and is defined by narrative convenience rather than believability.
Hope's character-defining moment occurs in the first hour, and he grinds it into your eye until the bitter end. We watch Snow save a train full of civilians in the first chapter. After freeing them, Snow recruits some of the civilians to fight PSICOM. Hope's mother ends up joining Snow, one thing leads to another, and she dies. What the audience is meant to believe is Hope blames Snow for the death of his mother. Likewise, Hope's angst, if we can call it that, is haphazardly used throughout the story.
Hope's mother willingly joins Snow. There's a scene where Hope's mother turns to assure him everything will be fine. We saw that shit! Hope saw that shit! Why doesn't he remember? Likewise, it is clear PSICOM, not Snow, is responsible for her death. After an explosion caused by PSICOM, Snow is hanging from a ledge with Hope's mother in tow. Snow loses his grip, and she falls to her death. Maybe it's me, but I don't see the justification for a Tarantino-esque revenge feud.
I have no idea what to think of Hope. Do I view him as a victim of tragedy? Then why doesn't the game spend more time surfacing his grief? Does the game want me to treat him as a potential powder keg? Then why does Hope have several sections where he acts like a well-adjusted adult? Sometimes Hope handles situations well-enough, and other times he behaves like a brooding troll. Hope only suffers from trauma when the script allows him, and this impairs the believability of his character arc.
It doesn't help Hope is the character most willing to use the game's proper nouns. A large portion of Hope's dialogue serves as exposition, and it's always difficult to process. What frustrates me is Final Fantasy XIII doesn't "earn" its proper nouns. It creates a lexicon of never before used terms and expects the player to do the legwork in finding out what they mean. There's nothing more frustrating than hearing Hope abbreviate some part of Cocoon society, and having to flip through the menu and locate definitions in the codex.
Part 8: I Feel Sorry For Whoever Voiced Vanille.
Before I talk about Vanille, I want to discuss Snow's conduct after the death of Hope's mother. The game uses a long CG cutscene to show Snow in turmoil as he watches her die. When Hope's mother asks Snow to "Get him home," there's an additional scene where Snow tries to decipher what she meant. The game makes the case Snow honoring her last wishes is crucially important. So why the fuck is Snow's next scene him smiling as he flies away on a bike?
For me, Vanille falls into the same category as Snow. She's a simple but flawed character that almost works. I appreciate Vanille asking for clarification on terminology. Her attempts to cheer up Hope, while cringeworthy, feel honest and genuine. My reservations stem from her narrative purpose. I was able to predict she was from Gran Pulse within an hour, and that's because there isn't a lot of nuance to her character.
Admittedly, there's something charming to how Vanille acts. She's nothing like the rest of the characters and is a breath of fresh air. Nonetheless, the novelty of Vanille is a double-edged sword. Her bubbly personality is in constant conflict with the game's tone and content. Why she gravitates to the other characters is left a mystery until the game's midpoint. Finally,
Even by 2009's standards, Vanille's character design is inexcusable, and how the game exploits her design is equally contemptible. Occasionally the camera is angled during cutscenes in a voyeuristic manner. On top of her questionable design, Vanille behaves as if she is in a situational comedy. Even when there are dead bodies or horrible monsters in the background, Vanille greets everything with a smile. Remember Tidus? Remember how Tidus eventually grew on you? Square wants a similar effect to apply to Vanille, and it doesn't work. In fact, it's painful to watch.
I should also mention Vanille's voice acting. Vanille's voice actor is terrible. Before you ask, it's not because of her voice actor's Austrailian accent. I looked up Vanille's voice actor and discovered she was Australian. It's the inconsistency of her accent that bothers me. Sometimes she's trying to tone down her accent, and other times she's hamming it up. Finally, why does Vanille speak French?
Part 9: A Game Without Stakes
A major gameplay annoyance is enemy dodging. Like its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII displays enemies in real-time. Players avoid battles by not bumping into wandering foes. Because Final Fantasy XIII takes place in narrow corridors, avoiding trash mobs is impossible. It doesn't help enemies come in packs of two or three. Even if you serpentine around one, the others are likely to pounce on you.
This problem is untenable for a reason. There's no point to the battles because they don't provide experience points. The leveling system is not available until chapter three. Enemies exist to pad out the game's length. That's all they do. Additionally, defeating foes does nothing for the characters. With everyone controlling the same, scenes start to blur.
Another halfbaked gameplay concept is the staggering mechanic. I eventually came around to the feature, but it's needlessly frustrating. Sometimes I was able to defeat enemies before filling up their stagger meter. Other times, the system allows you to stun lock enemies into oblivion. There's no rhyme or reason to what the mechanic provides. It also requires an immense amount of patience.
Let's return to the story. Lightning and Sazh are murdering soldiers; Snow is leading a rebellion; Hope and Vanille are flipping platform switches. See what I'm talking about? Despite the spectacular visuals, there's no grounding in the world. At some point, a sinister pillar appears and spews a villainous speech. It's a decent scene, but there's no point of reference for who is speaking and why.
What really sticks in my craw is the game's lack of context. You spend as much time controlling Vanille as you do Lightning. But I'll be damned if I told you what I accomplished during my time with Vanille. I know I fought several trash mobs and flipped dozens of platform switches. At least with Lightning and Snow, I understand they are trying to rescue Serah. Why the fuck do I spend HOURS playing "patty cake" with Hope and Vanille?
Serah's situation is where Final Fantasy XIII's story falls apart. She's cursed by an unseen "pie in the sky" diety and something bad is going to happen to her. All the game provides in terms of her storytelling is she needs to be rescued. She's a damsel in distress, but we don't know what put her in distress. There are attempts to frame the forces of Sanctum as the story's "villains" but there's no clear sense of who commands them.
Part 10: Nothing About The Ending Of Chapter Two Makes Sense
While controlling Vanille and Hope, the game reveals its version of zombies. Monsterous "Cie'th" swarm our two unlucky companions. The Cie'th are l'Cie who have failed their foci. While the game makes the case only a few humans are selected to become l'Cie, the supply of Cie'th seems endless. There's a message to be drawn here, but the game takes FOREVER to follow through.
Lightning reveals to Sazh that Serah is a l'Cie. We also discover Snow is arranged to marry Serah. Another one of my frustrations is the story's unwillingness to explain what the fal'Cie are all about. Based on the conversations of the characters, the fal'Cie act like Gods and are treated as such, but this frame of reference isn't consistent. Sometimes we see fal'Cie interfering in the story, and other times they passively perform tasks. Some fal'Cie are towering monsters, whereas others are idols worshiped by people.
Eventually, Hope and Vanille reconnect with Snow. Snow is a moron and doesn't notice Hope's visible anxiety. He also appears disinterested in investigating the dying words of Hope's mother. In the next scene, everyone conveniently finds Serah on the floor of the temple. Lightning and Snow have a verbal tiff and Serah asks the two to "save Cocoon." Serah then rises into the air and becomes a crystal. Hope, being an expert on everything important to the story, explains when a fal'Cie completes their focus they are granted eternal life.
Frustrated with his present circumstances, Snow walks up to a nearby fal'Cie. While accompanied by Sazh and Lightning, Snow encounters Anima. I've been meaning to bring this issue up, but I think Final Fantasy XIII's boss design sucks shit! The futuristic and metallic design of the fal'Cie feels uninspired and sterile. Everything looks the same and nothing feels "distinct." Worse, when the game starts pitting fal'Cie and Eidolons into quickly edited battles, it is impossible to know who's fighting who.
After defeating Anima, the game subjects us to a bizarre cinematic. A massive fal'Cie makes our party l'Cie. Chapter two ends when the branding cinematic is done. I found this cinematic, like the rest of Final Fantasy XIII, optically impressive but confusing. A recurring issue the characters have is not knowing their focus. My problem is every other l'Cie knows their focus. Even the goddamned Cieth Stones tell you their focus!
The character's completing their focus is only pertinent to the story when the script allows it. You would think knowing how to stop oneself from becoming a zombie is a pressing issue, but apparently, it isn't! Within the next chapter, everyone treats the issue as a secondary objective. Snow wants to save Serah. Sazh wants to be with his son. Hope wants to murder Snow. Vanille wants to have a picnic. In the coming chapters, we watch each of these characters futz around FOR HOURS! Sazh and Vanille even go to a fucking amusement park! FUCK THIS GAME! With that in mind, I'm calling it a day.