Review by Darke_Xaver
"A game about the curtains and not the stage behind them"
Final Fantasy has come a long way. From poorly translated, 8-bit shenanigans to these amazing looking, HD rendered shenanigans. I'm not a longtime fan of the series at all, which doesn't mean I don't like or disrespect these games, it's just they've never enthralled as much as the internet says they do. So, this being the second FF game I've completed, I'm gonna go ahead and judge this game as a stand-alone, on its own merits.
I wanna get the visuals out of the way first. The game looks positively fantastic. I haven't been so wowed by a game's opening presentation since Soul Calibur 3. It just looks amazing. However, looking nice is not the same as the art direction. Final Fantasy has always favored drawing the ridiculous and imaginative over the practical, and as such you'll have your usual preposterously designed airships, buildings, machines, weapons, and yes, clothes. They love doing that thing of putting belts in places belts aren't supposed to be. This is all superficial stuff, and it's actually done well in some of the other games, but the problem is that this one takes it too far. Sometimes you'll be fighting monsters or machines that you just won't have a clue what they're supposed to be. They all got so many little details and knickknacks going on in them and it looks like a lot of effort (and money) went into it, but ultimately the result is pretty much like what Michael Bay's Transformers look like: a jumbled mess of little details with no clear big picture or memorable aspects other than their general ideas. There's nothing like say, the memorable look of the moogles or the chocobos from earlier final fantasies. Two simple creatures, very recognizable, not over flooded with details, to the point. One of the most crucial things about them is their silhouette, the way they look at a distance, or shadowed. Chocobos feel natural, they feel a part of the world. They just can't seem to pull it off in this one, not a single monster or particular object feels memorable. They seem too focused on the flair and the "wow" factor of the graphics that they seem to have abandoned simplicity and elegance in design.
The direction of the cutscenes is too, a little jarring. I don't know why they chose to go with the shaky cam style for their action sequences. It just makes one think that these devs would much rather be making movies instead. When the cutscenes aren't action oriented, they go for traditional camera work. It feels weird judging a game for stuff that feels should be reserved for movies, but that's what Square was shooting for apparently. Like all 3D FFs, the game has a pre-rendered graphics mode and an 'in-game' graphics mode. Important cutscenes will be pre-rendered, showing off what detailed hairlines and explosions look like on an 80 million dollar budget, while regular gameplay and regular cutscenes are shown in a lower resolution. I've never been a fan of this tradition, to be honest, it always seemed a little bit insincere. The PSX games get a pass at least, 'cause pre-rendered cutscenes were a big, new thing back then and the in-game graphics really couldn't do their visions justice. This time around, though, it's mostly just for show (like most things in this game).
So, visuals. Pretty to look at, but brought down by key design principles and shoddy practices. Still, let me reiterate that this game does look positively stunning, despite these glaring flaws.
Now, the story. This is a big topic for a Final Fantasy game, a franchise known for delivering fully fleshed out worlds and conflicts within them.
The overall plot of the game takes place in the world of Cocoon, which is, I think, some sort of planet hovering above another planet called Pulse, though they don't refer to them as planets, just 'lands' or 'places'. Overseeing these two worlds are strange entities called Fal'cie, whose purpose is never made too clear other than they being 'guardians' of humanity of some sort. By some method or way never made entirely clear, Fal'cie sometimes choose humans as their personal soldiers, granting them the power to wield magic and giving them a 'focus', or objective, to complete. The soldiers are called l'cie, and one can be either a l'cie from Cocoon or from Pulse, depending on which Fal'cie chooses you. Cocoon citizens fears l'cie from Pulse (and all of Pulse in general), as they believe their purpose is to exterminate them, so yeah, it's got prejudice and those sorts of things as themes. A l'cie's focus, when unfulfilled, will turn its bearer into a horrible monster, while actually succeeding in the focus turns the bearer into crystal, supposedly granting him eternal life. The catch is that l'cie aren't exactly told what their focus is, they're just given a brief glimpse of some vague event and they're supposed to work it out on their own. Kinda like suddenly being enlisted into the army, handed a picture of a house, and being told "Do this", but somehow even more vague, and you don't even get to keep the picture. Anyways, some Cocoon residents (Cocoonites?) get turned into Cocoon l'cies and given a vague focus that they must fulfill, but along the way they'll face many obstacles, like laser motorbikes and comically evil popes (not as good as it sounds).
Confused yet? Yeah, we haven't even touched the meat of it. For starters, all this information that I've laid on you already is never organically worked into the narrative, but rather explained in an in-game glossary or sloppily delivered in 'in medias-res' exposition (meaning, characters who already know about it, talking about it clunkily). And like I said, this is only a very small part of it. Yeah, this story has some problems alright. Never mind the specifics like the horribly ineffective system these Fal'cie have for their l'cie (I feel stupider every time I say those words), but just the way the story it conveyed is too jarring, and the way every character is in on it and expects the player to have either read or magically learned about it makes one feel uninvolved and lost. The way the game starts up right on the action makes one feel like this'll be bigger than all those flashy action sequences, that somehow this graphically impressive world they've created is only the introduction to a fantastic story. But it never gets beyond the flash. 40 hours into the game, you're still jarred, confused, and even tired.
Let's talk about the characters, what are sometimes referred to as the soul of an RPG. The main character is Lightning, a cloud-like character who uses an admittedly better designed gunblade than Squall ever did. She's introduced as a cold, serious, and angry person who doesn't really care about much except doing her job as a soldier and not asking questions. This is not an inherently bad thing. Sure, it's a two-dimensional premise, a character and a flaw, but the problem isn't the character's particular premise, it's with the development that it struggles.
Nothing about any of the character development feels 'human'. Let me explain. All of the characters follow Lightning's basic design: well-intentioned, would-be heroes with one flaw that they must overcome as part of their arc. Snow is hot-headed and foolish, Hope is frightful and has mommy issues, Sazh is insecure as a father, Vanille is running away from responsibility, and Fang is distant and prejudiced. These are two-dimensional flaws that are, like I said, not bad for this kind of story. The problem is the pacing of their development. The character arcs they hurdle over come way too soon into the narrative, and since all you do in the game is move forward, most of the dialogue is comprised of all-business talk like "We're getting close, let's hurry" or "We have to get to this place fast", very little time is spent giving humanity to the characters outside of their pre-defined 'shticks'. Once characters get their arcs over, you realize their flaws were the only thing that defined them. Every scene of Hope's, for example, focuses exclusively on his issues, never on another thing. Every single line just he says just buries him deeper into his issues. So once that's resolved, all that is left is a walking shell spouting the same "I won't run away anymore" sort of thing for the rest of the game, never showing any unique character traits beyond a generic resolve that everyone else has.
So, the characters are left with nothing but their premises to stand on. But once the problems in their premises get resolved (and it's rather early in the game too) they immediately have nothing else to them and only spout placeholder dialogue for the rest of the game. A lot of people tend to focus negatively on stuff like "Snow's a d-bag" or "Vanille is just an annoying kooky" but believe me, it goes beyond just that. These characters lack grit, they lack humanity. By the end they are all pretty much the same person in terms of their involvement with the plot. None of them are connected to the conflict in a special way (Snow and Lightning maybe, but it's a VERY loose connection), something to make them feel differently about what they're doing. 40 hours into being with these guys and it feels like you've barely just met them.
Now, gameplay. The game was become quite infamous for its absolute linearity, one that defines not just the battles and the progression, but every mechanic in itself.
Outside battles, you'll walk down corridors, admiring impressive vistas and environments but always separated by an invisible wall or object that makes interaction with it impossible. Nope, corridors only. It's a one way road with no exploration and no detours. Apologists like to point at chapter 11 as a defense for this, and while the game opens up a little in that part, 30 minutes later after you've done with that you go back to the corridors again. The game, despite this, feels the need to include a mini map and quest markers, just in case you get lost in the one-way roads. While you go forward, the game holds your hand all the way to make sure you make it to the next cutscene. Speaking of hand-holding, there's a save point every five minutes or so, which doesn't really matter because death is nothing in this game. Dying means you re-start right outside the battle you just left, with no penalty at all.
Oh but let's talk about the battle system. It's similar to Persona 3 in that you only control the main character, and if he/she dies, it's game over, regardless of the others. The game uses the normal ATB style that other FFs use, only it has a way of cutting the middle man, to the point where the 'Auto-Battle' function, which just determines and picks your actions for you, is the default option for playing the game. All you gotta do is press X, and you'll win 90% of the battles that way. Press X. All so you can get to the next cutscene.
The 10% of battles that take more than just pressing X require that you occasionally also press L1 to switch your paradigms. What are paradigms? They serve as this game's class system. The classes cover the basic archetypes of RPGs. You got Commandos, who get down and dirty and do the most damage. Ravagers, who stagger opponents and use magic. Medics, whose job requires no explanation. Synergists and Saboteurs, who are buffers and debuffers, respectively. And Sentinels, who are tanks for taking the damage. The way it works is you choose three of the six characters and choose what classes you wanna have them perform. Maybe you want two ravagers and a commando, maybe a sentinel, a synergist, and a ravager, or whatever you like. You can switch these classes in battle to suit your needs, and against most bosses (most of the times the only opponents you'll ever worry about switching paradigms) you'll always want a medic, a commando, and a ravager at least. The idea is neat but in practice it ends up being tedious. The bosses all have very simple patterns that you just switch your paradigms around, but since most of them have absurdly high HP numbers, they take an absurdly long time to beat, even if you've figured their entire strategy in the first five minutes. Your stats or weapons do very little to reflect any significant increase in your abilities against these bosses, and since most of take half an hour to beat, it's best to just stack a lot of HP and just wear them down slowly.
Speaking of stats, this game uses a sort of bastardized version of FFX's sphere grid, only with the illusion that you have choice in building the characters. The way the thing works is you're rewarded with Crystarium points (CP) after every battle, points that you can use in the Crystarium to purchase stat boosts and abilities much like FFX. However, the Crystarium follows an entirely linear path, with no choice involved other than in what class you want to put points in. Since upgrading for say, 10+ HP is the same whether you're a medic or a commando, it ends up feeling all the same and not very significative. You have no choice but to go up and gain all those points, so why even implement it like you have a choice? The Crystarium is also chapter-locked, which negates grinding and pretty much forces you to be on a certain power level for the entire game, never too above, never too below. You are the dev's puppet, doing as you're told, following a straight line and advancing your character in a straight line, playing automatic battles and looking at pretty things. It's all flash, no substance.
The music? Well it's nothing to write home about. The main theme will sort of drive you crazy by the end for its sheer repetition, but other than that, yeah. This is no Nobuo.
So, what have we got then? A game wearing a very pretty dress, but a pretty dress does nothing but look pretty. It doesn't engage, it doesn't involve, and it gets really, really boring. Give it a miss and play a better RPG.
Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 12/20/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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