The citizens of the floating world Cocoon live an idyllic life, sheltered from harm by the mighty beings known as Fal’Cie. But the hostile surface world of Pulse has Fal’Cie of its own, and they are not averse to invading Cocoon and binding unsuspecting citizens to their will. Marked by the Pulse, an eclectic group of strangers are thrown together on a quest that will decide the fate of both worlds, and threaten all that they hold dear.
There was a time when Final Fantasy was a franchise that made you sit up and take notice. Each new entry in series was an epic journey in its own right, a hotly anticipated guarantee of tens if not hundreds of hours of satisfaction. But over time, the cracks began to show. Endless FFVII spin-offs of variable quality appeared left, right and centre. Final Fantaxy X-2 was a door opener for the cheap cash-in sequels, and by the time Final Fantasy XII finally appeared on the market, no one really cared any more. But FFXIII was to be the first time the franchise made the jump to the PS3 – surely it couldn’t be all bad?
Unfortunately, while FFXIII certainly looks gorgeous, there’s little else to recommend it. A game now infamously likened to running down a long, endless corridor, FFXIII pretty much takes everything that makes RPGs in general and previous FF games in particular fun to play, and throws it away. In its place, you’re left with a painfully linear experience, filled with tedious battles, uninspiring characters and a story so poorly executed you’ll cease to care about it moments after the game begins.
A long and winding road
Remember the days when the worlds of Final Fantasy games were vast and expansive, filled with secrets and hidden areas just waiting to be ferreted out by the dedicated player? Yes, those were the good old days, with special emphasis on the old – because things just aren’t like that any more. Final Fantasy XIII is the epitome of linearity, less a game and more a 50 hour run through a long and winding corridor. There are no towns (supposedly too difficult to code), no side roads, no free roaming – just one long straight path punctuated by overly frequent cut scenes. Shopping is relegated to save points, whilst NPC interaction only occurs when you overhear them speaking as you run past. You go where the game wants you to go and nowhere else. Free will is an illusion.
Battle like a boss…your work boss
Along the way, of course, you’ll encounter monsters too, but don’t expect battle to be any less painful than exploration. You know how, in the workplace, your manager tells you to do something, and then you go and do it? The battle system in FFXIII is a lot like that – you issue general directives to your party, and then you can basically go off and do something else whilst they get on with the specifics.
To be more specific, FFXIII uses its own take on the ATB system, one seemingly designed to be neither true turn-based or true real-time. In battle, you control one of your 2-3 party members (the choice of who this is is not left to you until quite late in the game), with the computer taking command of the others. Each character has a number of different roles they can take, roughly corresponding to warrior (Commando), mage (Ravager), healer (Medic), status buffer (Synergist), status debuffer (Saboteur) and damage magnet (Sentinel)– eventually, all characters can learn all of these roles, but they all have innate roles that are easier for them to learn. Every role confers a number of abilities on a character, and the combination of roles assigned to your party is known, in the language of the game, as a Paradigm. At any one time, you can have up to six Paradigms available to your party, corresponding to various combinations of your choice, such as an all-out attack Paradigm, a balanced offensive and defensive Paradigm, two attackers plus a healer, and so forth.
So, roles decided, you’re ready to fight – but here’s where the dullness really kicks in. Each character has an ATB gauge made up of 2-5 segments (the exact number depends on how far you are through the game). Individual commands take up 1-3 segments; you pick a sequence of commands of the appropriate cost, and when the ATB bar has filled, those commands will be executed. For even less interaction with the game, select the ‘Auto Battle’ command to let the computer pick the best combination of commands – this is actually less painful than trying to navigate through menus choosing commands yourself. The net result is the same, however; your characters jump and flip around and it all looks very fast-paced and exciting to the outside observer, but all you’re doing is pressing X every few seconds with the occasional change of Paradigm to break the monotony.
Worse yet, battle isn’t even a quick affair. Instead, there are two difficulty levels – trivially easy, or drawn out and tedious, with the latter applying to regular enemies as much as bosses. The key to dealing big damage in FFXIII is to ‘Stagger’ the enemy by building up a chain of continuous attacks against them; once Staggered, an enemy is much more vulnerable to attack and easier to take down, but often times the average party will be overwhelmed before they can manage to pull off this feat. And if you’re not Staggering the enemy quickly enough, you’ll spend forever performing attacks that do little to no damage. It is possible to Stagger the enemy almost instantly by sneaking up on them for a Pre-Emptive strike, but this can be quite hard to achieve.
If, like me, you tend to defeat bosses through a war of attrition than brute force, then there’s yet another unpleasant surprise for you – even if you’re slowly chipping away at the boss’s health with a sound healing strategy for your party, if you take too long, the boss will cast Doom on you, and you’ll have to either step up the pace or die. In other words, the game doesn’t even want you to defeat bosses in your own way – if it thinks you’re taking too long, then you’ll get a very unpleasant reminder to hurry it up.
Worst of all for timed battles, however, are those in which the main characters acquire their summon monsters, Eidolons. In this battle, you have Doom cast on you from the start, and if you can’t build up a decent chain of attacks on the Eidolon before the timer runs out, then it’s game over. There’s not much leeway here, either – the right Paradigm (and only the right Paradigm) can make most Eidolon battles straightforward, but try to use your own strategy, and you’ll most likely just die before you can make a dent in your opponent’s defences.
Once you manage to subdue an Eidolon, however, they do become powerful allies who can be summoned through the use of battle-assisting skills called Techniques. In battle, the party leader has a limited number of Technique Points that can be used on a limited selection of special skills – non-elemental damage, resurrecting a fallen ally, or summoning an Eidolon, the latter of which can only be done a maximum of once per battle. Once the Eidolon is called, they’ll replace your AI-controlled party members for a limited time to attack the enemy alongside the party leader. You can also put them into ‘Gestalt Mode’, at which point they transform into a vehicle for your party leader to ride. If the enemy is Staggered, Eidolon attacks and Gestalt Mode will do massive damage whilst keeping you safe from harm, but bring them in whilst the enemy’s defence is still high, and the whole exercise will just be a waste of time.
So, if battle is so tedious, is there any flip side to the situation? Fortunately, given how often you’re likely to die in combat, Game Over isn’t a true game over that forces you to reload an old save, but rather just a menu that lets you restart from just before the point where you entered the battle – so you can either put together some new Paradigms to help you out, or just run away altogether. It is also possible to apply a number of aerosol sprays in the field that will either strengthen your party pre-battle, or let you slip past the enemy incognito. This can hardly make up for the general tediousness of the battle system, however.
When combat is finally over and the dust settles, what exactly do you gain? Well, not gil, for one thing – that has to be obtained from treasure chests or selling goods. What you do is get is a pointless score, a slightly less pointless star rating (the latter can actually affect the spoils), items and Crystarium Points (CP), the game’s equivalent of EXP.
There is no conventional levelling up in FFXIII – instead characters proceed along a fixed route in their Crystarium, using up CP to master nodes that either increase their stats or give them new abilities for their roles. It’s basically a more restrictive version of the Sphere Grid from FFX, but even so, the very act of holding down the X button and watching a white line proceed from one crystal to the next is the most fun part of this game.
The spoils of war, meanwhile, can be poured into weapons to upgrade them, with various monster parts all adding EXP to a given weapon or item. This rather tedious process slowly strengthens your weapon to a point where it can be transformed into a new one, but it does make buying new weapons somewhat pointless, since they all start at Level 1 and will usually be much weaker than the weapon you’ve been working on since the start of the game.
Story, or lack thereof
Unfortunately, all FFXIII’s many gameplay faults are matched by an equally lacklustre and generally nonsensical story. Although cutscenes are annoyingly frequent, the story manages to spend all of them saying not much at all, with all of it dressed in needless terminology that you can only fully understand by reading the in-game Datalog. Those who understandably didn’t buy a game to read an in-game encyclopaedia about its world will instead have to struggle on through endless cutscenes about l’Cie, Fal’Cie and various named characters pontificating about the meaning of free will and so forth. At best, it’s extremely tedious, but at worst, it’s an incoherent mess that defies rational explanation.
As for the characters, as a whole, they are as underdeveloped as the story. While on a personal level, I like Lightning a lot just for the air of awesomeness she projects, I have to admit that all the characters of FFXIII are shallow, underdeveloped and often downright annoying. By the time you’ve spent several hours in the company of Hope as he whines about how much he hates everything and how it’s all everyone else’s fault, or put up with Snow’s irritating combination of egotism and stupidity, you’ll be hoping that they’ll all turn to crystal sooner rather than later.
If story and gameplay are so bad, where exactly did all the effort that went into making FFXIII go? The answer, of course, is in the looks – for all its flaws in terms of actual playability, the game does at least look gorgeous, although this is small comfort when working your way through it is so tedious. No expense has been spared in making character models, locations and effects look good, which is probably why everything else has to be so limited.
As far as music goes, the complete lack of Nobuo Uematsu sees FFXIII stray far from the fold of the usual FF style, with even the prelude music and victory fanfare absent – only the chocobo theme remains, and even that has been given lyrics. Although the music is by no means bad, with some tracks such as the battle theme even being quite catchy, it all conspires to make FFXIII feel even less like a Final Fantasy game than it already does.
Final Fantasy XIII is not a game that wants to let you play it the way you want to play it. It is a game that has determined that the human element is the most unpredictable aspect of gaming, and has thus concluded that the best thing to do is to minimise player participation as much as possible. You don’t go where you want to go, you run along a preset corridor that never allows for more than the tiniest ounce of exploration. You don’t fight the way you want to fight – you figure out which Paradigm will get you through the battle before the opponent casts Doom on you, and you let the characters take care of the specifics.