Review by ReloadPsi
"Ever felt left out when someone else played a game? Well have you ever felt left out BY a game?"
By the time this game came out, it was no secret that various entries in this franchise had annoyed and alienated many fans, many of whom had given up on Final Fantasy as a good franchise, and Square-Enix as a good developer. With that in mind, Final Fantasy XIII could've been considered to have some obligation to absolutely wow its target audience, both those who still followed Square-Enix in earnest, and those who were perhaps alienated by any given period's worth of work.
If alienation was indeed a sentiment felt by the camp of upset fans of the comparatively earlier days of the franchise, before the fanbase came to be so divided, then this game seems to deliver more of that: alienation of the player from the game seems to constantly occur in Final Fantasy XIII, though it is hard to tell if it is deliberate or a by-product of a radical change of form in storytelling and gameplay.
Final Fantasy XIII's story begins with a very pretty, very flashy and very frantic opening scene that is quite hard to get emotionally invested in due to characters, un-named at this point without having read a lot of promotional material at least, spit cryptic and alien plot points for ten minutes. With that, the first battle abruptly begins and gives you a tutorial on how to control a battle... one that consists of "select the Autobattle command. Well done! Two attack commands were placed in your queue! You can now select a target, but you only face one target this time, so your choice is simple." This apparently deliberate estrangement through its opening, and subsequent patronisation of the player by teaching them how to let the game do it all for them, very much sets the scene for the game. After letting the game teach you how to control a battle by teaching you to let the game do it for you, these two characters, Lightning and Sazh, whose names have not been mentioned in any way, but have been the focus of the as-yet context-lacking action up till this point, finally reveal their names to the player by entering a battle so that one may read their names next to their HP meters, rather than using any of the character's interactions with one-another to accomplish this.
After this battle, which due to it being a tutorial is quite easily won, the Datalog is introduced, which further adds to this sense of alienation. Some games have had a dictionary or enclosed history of sorts, usually to inform the player of plot points from a past entry in a series that they may not have played, or to enrich the game world by providing backstory that is not actually necessary to understand the game, such as action games where the plot is a minor part of the experience as a whole. FFXIII's Datalog, however, comes across as an excuse to not put as much exposition into the cutscenes but then pad the game out anyway, and seems to indicate that Square-Enix did not know why these games had background info presented separate to the events of the game itself. There didn't seem to be a protagonist to project yourself onto; a very important aspect in storytelling in any kind of entirely fictional or alien setting is a character who is as clueless as the reader/viewer/player so that they may eke the plot and setting out of the other characters through their interactions with them. Even Sazh, who starts out seeming like he may be the intended protagonist, in that he is following Lightning and seems to be less aware of what she is up to, soon shows that he is just as savvy about what was going on in the game world as everyone else, and within minutes he too will be saying things that make the player feel excluded from the characters. Every so often, after the characters are done having a conversation about events and settings they clearly understand perfectly, the Datalog will be updated with information that explains some of the terms they just mentioned, putting the scene into context all too late, and ironically adding a "tell, don't show" feel to the game despite it actually trying to show you a great deal of things that make little sense. The Datalog is also constantly updated with a summary of the events of the game in real time, but there are even times where the Datalog contradicts what has just been seen. A little further into the game, a character named Hope follows Vanille somewhat reluctantly to chase after someone named Snow, umming and ahhing all the way, which the Datalog calls a "blind rage." If the background to the story (and, as it would seem, lots of character motivation as well) is going to be mostly told in the glossary instead of characters elaborating on it during cutscenes, then the cutscenes themselves become pointless, and ironically drag down the game in favour of allowing the player to do some required reading. For all there's a lot of flashy, distracting action, it's difficult to get emotionally invested as there is no context from the outset, and said context is often established after the fact. Unless the player is expected to read the Datalog afterwards, reminisce on the action they just saw and realise how profound and striking it was in hindsight of course, but this seems like a very backwards way to tell a story, and really keeps the player out of the action and acting more as an outside observer to the game they themselves are supposed to be taking part in.
Also of note is the sheer volume of cutscenes in the earlier stages of the game, and with them again lacking a good deal of context thanks to the game's approach of waiting for something's name to be dropped before allowing it to be explained by the Datalog, many of these cutscenes seem to serve no purpose other than to pad the game. One that sticks out, though, is a scene in which Hope and Vanille commandeer some sort of futuristic hoverbike and crash it. Said crash sequence occurs off-screen, however, with the player only hearing sound effects and distressed screams, which feels weird considering the game was more than happy up to this point to display intense action scenes with no context presented. It also seems to speak volumes about the resources squandered on the game's development as well. To put this in perspective, this game took a Guinness World Record for the most staff ever to work on a single game at roughly three hundred people, but for some reason a hoverbike crash isn't worth their time. It accidentally adds to the game's alienation of the player; the scene was set up by the characters getting in the hoverbike, but then the resolution was hidden and only the aftermath was seen. It just seemed lazy and quite annoying considering the work that went into many of the more contextless scenes that preceded it.
One of the other things that sticks out about this game's ways of alienating the player is the inability to control anyone but the present designated leader in combat. Usually it will be obvious who this is, but it means that allied characters will act on their own whim. This seems perfectly tolerable at the beginning until the characters' strengths and weaknesses start coming into play, and Lightning, fighting with a sword, will struggle to hit flying enemies, whereas Sazh, armed with guns, and Snow, who fights with his fists but can also throw hand-grenades as a secondary skill (at the start anyway) have an advantage due to using projectiles or spread-damage. However, unless you're in direct control of that character, you cannot instruct or even so much as suggest to them that they take the more logical moves in combat, and it becomes extremely frustrating waiting for them to, for want of a better way to put it, see sense and attack the enemies your present designated leader cannot hit. This causes many fights to last longer than they need to, and will also be especially frustrating to players who like being allowed to micromanage their party, as veterans of the franchise will be used to doing. A particularly notorious specific example comes in the fight against the boss Anima. Snow, who had been established as being able to infinitely throw hand grenades to damage multiple enemies for respectable damage whenever he was the designated leader, would instead stand in the middle of the fray, punching the enemy's body while its two appendages, separate entities that could be attacked and eliminated, wailed on him, repeatedly forcing the player to take time out of fighting to heal him, especially when one considers how, during his time as designated leader, the player will have learned that Snow has considerably more effective strategies available to him than this. All of this happens before the Paradigm Shift mechanic is even introduced, and sets a grim picture for the rest of the game to come.
The in-battle gameplay itself strongly resembles that of Final Fantasy X-2, in that the battle system allowed characters to move around somewhat freely, though they will still pace around automatically without the player's direct movement input, and there is a constant flow of time with all actions being capable of taking place simultaneously if it comes to it. All attacks are, however, still turn-based. Due to the increased amount of movement though the character's attacks now look awkward because they are trying to square up to one-another, strafe and sneak around, so the way they still only take turns to attack ironically makes the intended more realistic movement appear less realistic. Adding to this feeling of taking aspects from another game is when the player is introduced to the paradigm system, which resembles FFX-2's ability to change a character's skill set in the middle of battle. In this game, however, there are only six total skill sets to actually choose from, so it isn't even a very thorough imitation, pinning the player down in terms of my options by just being the bare bones. It is also only possible to change the entire party's paradigms at once, making this the closest thing to having any form of input into your allies' actions, ultimately making the game play very much like one giant escort mission. Adding a feeling of constriction to this is that the ability to advance is always deliberately limited until certain points in the game are reached, at which point more of the Crystarium, an abstract series of pathways that unlock abilities and attribute boosts, essentially a carbon copy of the character advancement system from series predecessor Final Fantasy X, will be unlocked. This comes across as a blatant ploy to make the player unable to get too strong so as to give them less say in the flow of the game, which adds even further to the game's feeling of alienation.
In closing, this game seems to want to shut you out constantly. You're always an outside observer of story events with no idea what is going on. Battles seem to do the same thing; ignoring the fact that there is an AutoBattle option, which I tried to never use, your party will run around doing their own thing, very often their own thing will be exactly the opposite of what you would like them to do, but logic be darned they will do as they please to the point of it being quite annoying. I had never imagined I would play a video game that seemed to simulate that feeling of being deliberately left out of the loop on a situation, with those who are in on it seeing and stopping your attempts to get in on it, building your frustration because you wish to know what is going on but your curiosity is always shunned until it's too late to matter and you are constantly kept in the dark. Being one of those more alienated fans, after playing this experience of pure player alienation I am never going to play this game again. I am not going to play any of its sequels, and I consider myself done with Square-Enix, especially if making a game about alienating a player is papa's brand new bag.
Bit o' scoring:
Graphics: 9/10 - Everything looks fantastic, but you'll miss a lot of it as the game gives little opportunity to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.
Story: 1/10 - You're made to feel like an outside observer and it isn't immersive at all. The poor storytelling methods really kill it; there's a reason this approach hadn't been taken before.
Gameplay: 1/10 - The game plays like a huge escort mission and doesn't want to involve you at all if it can help it.
Sound: 5/10 - There are some satisfying sound effects and the battle theme is amazing, but the background music the rest of the time is unusually forgettable for a Final Fantasy game. The voice acting is not up to the standard set by some of Square-Enix' other titles, either.
Arbitrary overall score: 1/10. The fact that the game looks pretty can't save it from the fact it's ultimately very un-fun, constrictive, uninvolving and frustrating to play.
Reviewer's Rating: 0.5 - Unplayable
Originally Posted: 07/10/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (EU, 03/09/10)
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