Review by BloodGod65

"If This Is the Future, They Can Keep It"

This is it. The coming of role-playing's long awaited messiah. At least, that's what legions of fans seem to believe. Less rabid gamers know it simply as Final Fantasy XIII. This long awaited arrival of a next generation Final Fantasy (one appearing on the Xbox 360, no less) has become one of the most talked about titles in recent memory. Square was unusually stingy with pre-release info, teasing fans with unbelievable pre-rendered footage and scraps of info, which only served to fuel the fires of enthusiasm for the game. Somewhere along the way, the enthusiasm grew so intense that the game itself seemed to be imbued with mystical qualities. This was it, the hype seemed to be saying, the game that will rewrite the playbook for all RPGs to follow, the one that will finally make gamers forget about the bygone glory days of the Super Nintendo and Playstation, the one that will make the Japanese RPG great again.

Final Fantasy XIII is nothing of the sort. This is not the epic blockbuster fans were expecting, nor is it a modern classic. This is not a renaissance for the series, and it certainly isn't going to reignite the fires of JRPG love that burned in the souls of gamers during the first Playstation era. Final Fantasy XIII is just another iteration in the series. But if the matter were as simple as failing to live up to the hype, there would be no problem. After all, most triple-A titles these days see so much pre-release hype that the finished product pales in comparison to the fanfare that preceded it. No, the issue with Final Fantasy XIII goes much deeper. At its most basic, it can be boiled down to this. Final Fantasy XIII is just a bad game. Shocking, I know.

It seems like an unlikely proposition; after all, how many bad Final Fantasy games have there been? As far as the core numbered entries go, not many. I am, of course, ignoring a veritable cornucopia of franchise spinoffs that easily qualify - Dissidia, Dirge of Cerberus, everything that appeared on Nintendo consoles past 1995, and so on – because, let's face it, they were never real Final Fantasy games to begin with. But, alas, Final Fantasy XIII will not be joining the rest of its brethren as a standout RPG. Perhaps it's unlucky number thirteen. Perhaps it was the monumental pressure Square-Enix was under during development. And there seems to be no end to the people who believe that Enix is somehow responsible for both the failure of this game and everything else that's gone wrong since their merger with Squaresoft. But that's all idle speculation and irrelevant to the matter at hand. Instead, let's examine what makes Final Fantasy XIII, in and of itself, so bad.

During the first ten minutes of the game, you'd be forgiven for thinking XIII was going to be the most intense and exciting entry into the series so far. A lengthy and gorgeous cinematic kicks off the game with a bang, as protagonist Lightning goes on a rampage inside a train and proceeds to dish out beatings like they're going out of style. Once you get to the game itself, the gratuitous action sequences and jaw-dropping CG becomes less important and gives the player the chance to learn a bit more about the world of Final Fantasy XIII.

This "world" is actually an inside out sphere called Cocoon, which shelters humans from the harsh land of Pulse below. Both Cocoon and Pulse are governed by strange entities known as Fal'Cie. The Fal'Cie of the two worlds are perpetually at war, however, and fear the influence of the other. So when a hibernating Pulse Fal'Cie is found in one of Cocoon's districts, a purge is initiated to remove any trace of the lower world's corrupting influence. Among the purged are Lightning's sister, for whom Lightning sacrifices her freedom in an attempt to save, as well as the rest of the game's cast. After they escape the purge train, they become outlaws, wanted by the Cocoon government and feared by its people.

On paper, it sounds like an interesting story. Don't be fooled. This is one of the most incomprehensible train wrecks of a plot Square has ever come up with (and for the record, I remember all that time-compression craziness from Final Fantasy VIII). The whole story is unnecessarily convoluted, tossing out terms and concepts without ever explaining what's really going on. The chronology is also jumbled, often jumping back and forth between the present and the events leading up to the purge.

A lousy plot is bad news for any RPG, but lousy characters will effectively kill a story. And boy, does Final Fantasy XIII have lousy characters. Longtime Final Fantasy fans know each game has its own loser that everybody hates – Cait Sith, Quina Quinn, Penelo, Tidus - but the cast of this game is entirely made up by those characters. Lightning - the main character - comes off as brain-damaged half the time. The others - which include a goofy, trench coat wearing Seifer wannabe, a whiny dork with a boomerang, and an unbearably upbeat pink haired girl - are horrible. The only character I even remotely liked was Sazh, a black gunslinger who carries a baby chocobo in his afro. Sazh, who reminds me of Eddie Murphy for some reason, is undoubtedly the coolest character in the game. And friends, when the coolest character in the game resembles Eddie Murphy, you have some serious problems.

As is the norm for Japanese RPGs, the voice acting is awful. Sure, half the characters in the game are portrayed as whiny and over emotional, but having to listen to it just makes matters worse. All the voice actors are pretty bad – except for Sazh, who speaks and acts like a normal human being, hence the reason I didn't immediately groan whenever he appeared onscreen. Hope and Vanille, the aforementioned boomerang kid and pink haired girl, are the worst offenders. Hope constantly whines about his dead mother and plans to claim his revenge, while Vanille's high pitched, relentlessly upbeat delivery is worse than nails on a chalkboard.

So the story and characters are terrible. As far as I'm concerned, that already makes Final Fantasy a bad RPG, but it gets so much worse. There have been many alterations of normal Final Fantasy conventions, so many in fact that at a glance this isn't even recognizable as a Final Fantasy game. But while most of the changes caused a stir, some of them really don't make much difference. For instance, the summons, which can be controlled much like a character in a fighting game by pressing different button combinations, can also transform into huge vehicles. Frankly, I don't care. You'll spend the vast majority of the game without the ability to summon and I only used it in a few instances during the whole game. Other changes, such as the elimination of shops in favor of one centralized terminal, I'm all for. Being forced to traipse around town looking for shops while comparing items was always a pain in the butt in previous games.

However, beyond the minor changes and tweaks, Square goes too far in their drive to reinvent the franchise. The most common complaint about the game has been its utter linearity, and it is a major issue. Apologists will tell you every Final Fantasy is linear. What they won't tell you is that in Final Fantasy XIII, the critics are describing another type of linearity altogether. We aren't talking about having to perform actions or visit locations in a certain sequence. We're talking about literally being confined to a straight path from which there is no opportunity to deviate. Your time in this game is bound to a path approximately five feet wide, which twists and turns occasionally. You will run into enemies at specific intervals, and although you can see them on screen, it doesn't matter because there's no opportunity to avoid them. You will also encounter everything you need along the way; save points and shopping terminals are right in the path, as are occasional containers that give you new weapons and accessories. You won't do side quests (not until the tail end of the game at least) and you won't ever have the opportunity to get off the beaten path and just explore. Forget a world map; there isn't one. In fact, player choice is so restricted that for the vast majority of the game, you don't even get to decide which party members to use – they are automatically assigned to you. That sort of puts a wrench in the argument that this Final Fantasy XIII is no more linear than its brethren, doesn't it?

Combat has also received major changes. Unlike the rest of the game, which is flat out bad, the new combat system manages to be merely boring and tedious. Although you can have up to three characters in your party at a time (which, as I mentioned, is entirely up to the game's discretion. More often than not, you'll just have two), you can only control the lead character. And no, you don't get to decide who the lead character is either. And because you can't give orders to other characters, if the party leader dies you'll be making a quick trip to the game over screen.

Things don't get any better when you dig into the details of the combat system. The game uses a sort of job system, where you can create a job load out by assigning each character a role. At the press of a button, you can change this job load out to something new, meaning you can go from a party of offensive spell casters to one made up of a melee fighter, a healer, and a support specialist. You cannot, however, change a single job at a time. When you make the switch, all characters change their role.

It's not too much of an issue, given the frantic pace of combat. Since the fights are in real time, you don't have much opportunity to sit around and puzzle out your next move. And you don't even have to think at all if you don't want to. While the additional two characters automatically use whatever moves they have at their disposal (for instance, a healer will only heal. They can't attack at all.) you are free to queue up moves for the party leader. Each character has a sort of AP bar that governs how many attacks they can perform. The AP bar initially has three slots, meaning a character can perform three basic attacks. However, some attacks have higher AP requirements, so a melee attack infused with magic might take two AP, leaving one for a standard attack.

But if you don't want to, you don't even have to bother with selecting your own attacks. There's an auto-battle option and the game highly encourages players to use it. By pressing a single button, your lead character automatically chooses the best attacks. Granted, if they don't know an enemy's weakness, they won't initially use specific magic. For instance, if you come across a mechanical enemy, your spell casters will initially bombard it with every available magic – fire, ice, and lightning – but once they realize lightning does more damage, they'll stick to that exclusively. In the end though, it doesn't make much difference. The frantic pace of battle almost necessitates using the autobattle option, at least if you want your character to attack before the others have finished the enemy off. Or vice versa.

One final nuance of combat is the stagger gauge. Every enemy has a point at which they'll absorb so much damage that they stagger, leaving them especially vulnerable to attack. To stagger an enemy, you basically have to chain attacks together to build the gauge before it empties. Using a mix of melee and spell casters builds the gauge quickly and ensures it doesn't fall, but other job classes have special effects on the stagger gauge.

Naturally, combat results in experience. You can put these experience points to use in the Crystarium, a throwback to Final Fantasy X's sphere grid system. Each character has three jobs to choose from, and by using the experience points from battle, they can advance along each linear job path to unlock new abilities and passive bonuses, such as increased health or magic power. Since there are no character levels to speak of, this is the only way to make sure your allies are strong enough to survive. But since combat is unavoidable and higher levels of the Crystarium are locked until reaching specific story points, it is impossible to screw up. I typically found I had enough experience in any given area to get all the abilities I needed. Early in the game, I usually maxed out all three job paths before reaching the end of the Crystarium path. This, combined with the corridor-like environments, makes it feel as though the entire game is on rails. You don't have any say where you go, what you do, where you fight, or how your characters level up. There is no choice – not even the illusory feeling of choice that previous games give the player.

One final note about the Crystarium. The system is a bit strange in that abilities are scattered out at random. Two characters with identical jobs always have their abilities scattered across the Crystarium in nonsensical ways. For instance, one character might have a low level spell such as fire, while the other can't access it until reaching the next Crystarium tier. It doesn't make much sense, but then, not much about this game does.

Final Fantasy has always been praised when it comes to its technical achievements, and for all that Square has changed, that's one thing that remains as expected for Final Fantasy XIII. This is, by far, the best looking series game to date, and I'm fully prepared to call it the best looking console game ever made. The amount of detail and polish you'll find in the environments alone is stunning and the character and enemy models are simply breathtaking. Combine that with the various lighting and spell effects that appear in combat and the effect is mesmerizing. I am forced to wonder if Square didn't build the game from the ground up with the sole purpose of showing off the game's graphical prowess. This would certainly explain why you spend more time watching the game and combat than actually playing it.

I've already mentioned the detestable voice acting, but the music is still pretty good. I'm not going to call this a series high point, but it is good enough. It's often used poorly though, as in one scene that had a character vowing solemn revenge while perky upbeat music played in the background. Talk about a mood killer.

This is not the RPG to end all RPGs, and this is not the genre resurrection everyone was expecting. Heck, it isn't even good. While the game is absolutely beautiful, its plethora of wildly altered gameplay tenets, linear design, terrible story and nauseating characters all make those claims about Final Fantasy XII being "all style and no substance" positively ludicrous.

In the end, Final Fantasy XIII is simply a bad game. By throwing away everything that made the series so great in the first place – deep, engrossing stories, interesting characters, and entertaining combat – Square-Enix has shown it has completely lost touch. This entry will be forever remembered as a stain on the otherwise impeccable history of the franchise proper. I suggest Final Fantasy lovers do what Star Wars fans do every time George Lucas issues another of his heinous remakes; close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and pretend it never happened.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 08/01/12

Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)

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