Games People Hate: Final Fantasy XIII

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(Originally posted as part of the Games People Hate series of reviews at readingforwriters.tumblr.com)

With Lightning set to Return for one last adventure in just a few months, I thought this would be an appropriate time to review Final Fantasy XIII, the most divisive and reviled entry in a franchise that, over the years, has managed to alienate as many existing fans as draw in new ones. But that’s half the fun! Every numbered Final Fantasy game is a surprise. Every numbered Final Fantasy game is an event.

Before I get to my review, though, let’s get something out of the way so there is no confusion: I am an unabashed Final Fantasy superfan. I remember when Final Fantasy came out on the original NES, and one of my friends and I rented it one Friday night only to discover there was no way in hell we would be able to finish it over the weekend. I have played every numbered FF game and finished many of them two times or more. I’ve tackled Ruby and Emerald Weapon, Omega Weapon, Ozma, Penance, and Yiazmat. I own original boxed copies of all Japanese FF releases from I-XII, including all “International” editions. Wanna see my checklist? No? Here it is anyway. Behold!

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I tell you these things so you will understand that I came to XIII as a longtime series fan. I knew what IV, VI, VII and X had brought to the table when I booted up XIII for the first time. But I did NOT know how much the internet hated the game because I had gone on media blackout for anything FFXIII related between the Japanese and US release. I wanted to come to the game fresh and form my own opinions.

Characters

Every FF game seems to go out of its way to create characters who are bound to be disliked. For example, many people on the internet seem to hate FFX’s Wakka. I, on the other hand, despise FFVIII’s Irvine with the blazing intensity of a thousand exploding suns. The playable cast of XIII is only six people, and the internet seems to hate three of them evenly. There is Snow, who wears a bandanna and talks endlessly about being a hero despite his striking inability to do anything at all heroic. There is Hope, a fretful tween who whines and mopes more than FFVIII’s Squall. And there is Vanille, whose chirpy Australian accent sort of makes you wonder what it would feel like to puncture your own ear drums. In her defense, Vanille turns out to be the most sympathetic of the three by the end.

The other three are Lightning, a compelling, though slightly one-note lead character; Fang, another Australian who is as wise and wry and likeable as Vanille is insipid; and Sazh, the second black character in Final Fantasy history, and easily the most likable member of the cast. Sazh is about twice as old as the rest of the adult characters, and settles quickly into a benign if exasperated role as the group’s father figure.

One complaint raised against Final Fantasy XIII as a whole was the English voice acting, with Vanille being the favorite target of criticism. But now that I’ve played the game in English and Japanese, I have to say it’s a wash between the two. Ali Hillis’s version of Lightning is great, but she can’t quite compete with Maaya Sakamoto, who just knocks it out of the park in the Japanese version. However, Reno Wilson, the English voice of Sazh, makes the English version. Wilson’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game, full-stop.

One legitimate complaint is that there is no memorable villain. No Golbez, no Kefka, no Sephiroth. Heck, I’d even take a Kuja over what’s on offer in FFXIII. Instead we get this crusty old white guy whose name I can’t remember. Then again, old white guys have been ruining the real world for generations, so why shouldn’t they ruin this game’s world too?

Battle System

Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is like a streamlined version of the one in FFX-2, which itself took cues from FFV’s Job System. But now Jobs are called Roles, because why not. Understanding Roles is the key to success in FFXIII’s fast and hectic fights. Battles are mercilessly difficult, but the game steadily and skillfully gives you all the tools to master it. Even after 25 hours, you may still see a tutorial screen pop up at the start of a battle. You can turn off tutorials, but that would be a huge mistake; strategies and abilities are rarely self-evident, and there’s no reason not to let the game teach you how to use them.

At any time you will have one to three members in your battle party. As mentioned above, the game chooses the party for you until Chapter 11, but you are still responsible for creating Paradigms to control their behavior. A Paradigm is a combination of Roles. For example, one possible Paradigm for three characters could be: Commando, Medic, Saboteur. You control the Commando directly, and the game’s excellent artificial intelligence tells the other characters what to do, depending on the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, which your party learns and remembers as you fight more monsters.

At the end of a battle, you are awarded both points and anywhere from 0-5 stars based on the length of the battle. These “prizes” are meaningless outside of a couple of trophies that require five-star victories. However, giving 0-2 stars is the game’s way of telling you that you could be winning a lot faster if you improve your strategy.

Sidequests

There are about 60 optional sidequests in FFXIII, most of which become available in Chapter 11. They take the form of unique monster battles similar to the Clan Hunts in FFXII. Some of them are groin-punchingly difficult, but you at least get to try them again if you don’t do as well as you like the first time.

And that’s it. For better or worse, there are no fetch quests, no weird Celestial Weapon Olympics like in FFX. It’s Final Fantasy meets Monster Hunter, and it’s great if you enjoy that sort of thing. (I do.)

Production Values

Before I even get to the graphics, I have to single out Masashi Hamauzu for the FFXIII soundtrack. This is the first fully orchestrated FF soundtrack—previous games employed a combination of orchestral and electronically produced tracks—and it is the best.

*Ducks to avoid bricks and chalkboard erasers thrown by Nobuo Uematsu fans.*

Uematsu writes more memorable melodies and tracks, no question. But the FFXIII soundtrack is one monstrous, cohesive and fantastic piece of music.

And then there are the graphics. This is Final Fantasy we’re talking about here. Go back and boot it up. Look at the variety of locations and the way the characters all appear against and interact with the backgrounds. Your Uncharteds and Halos might be more technically impressive, but this game simply looks magnificent. There was at least one point in every single chapter where I had to stop moving and just look around for awhile. And that’s only the game engine I’m talking about. The CG cinematics are the best in the industry. Only Blizzard even comes close.

Story

It’s completely bonkers, as you’d expect. Something about big old God machines enslaving humans to do their bidding, giving them magical abilities in the process. If the humans fail or refuse to obey, they turn into big weird monsters. If they succeed, they turn into crystal and “live” eternally as statues.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the story starts from a scenario of government-orchestrated genocide. At first I was kind of shocked at such heavy subject matter, but once I thought about other FF games, genocide actually isn’t too far out of character. You’ve got Golbez razing whole kingdoms and destroying families in FFIV, Kefka poisoning people and abandoning his own soldiers to die in FFVI, Cloud & Co. killing civilians with acts of terrorism in VII, different countries using “schools” to breed merciless armies of teenagers in VIII, sacrificial religion and heresy in X…quite a list, isn’t it?

Pacing

The dumbest complaint raised against FFXIII—parroted almost exclusively by people who only played a couple hours and then quit—is that the game takes 25 hours to get good. No, it doesn’t. It takes TWO hours to get good, which is admittedly still kind of rough. But then you hit Chapter 3 and BAM, the game takes off and just keeps getting better until, about 25 hours in, when it gets amazing.

My first playthrough lasted 96 hours, and I was kind of sad when I realized I’d done everything there was to do in the game at that point. Which is probably why I’m currently on my third playthrough in the last three years. Final Fantasy XIII starts off with a slow burn, to be sure, but even the fastest train in the world must ease its way out of the station at a crawl, right? And if you’re still on the train when those engines cycle up, baby, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

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