If you're a hardcore Final Fantasy XIII fan, prone to emotional outburts and so defensive of Square Enix's latest effort that you'll get upset by harsh criticism, then you're advised to not read this review. If you don't want to see somebody tear this game limb from limb, or are upset by videogame review in general, then you should definitely not read it.
Final Fantasy is a touchy subject for a great many gamers, and Square Enix has a huge following that earnestly believes the company can do no wrong. This review is not for them. This review might not be for anybody. Well, unless they hate Final Fantasy XIII.
Yes, this is going to be one of those reviews.
Final Fantasy XIII (Xbox 360, PS3 [Reviewed])
Final Fantasy XIII has perhaps one of the worst introductions a Japanese RPG has ever had. Square Enix thought it would be a good idea to not tell the player what is happening, and as a result, the first ten hours of the game feels like a conversation that the player has stumbled in on halfway through. All the characters know what's going on, and talk as if the player should know, leading to a very alienating narrative that ensures the player never truly connects with it. When you finally do work out who is who and what's going on, however, you'll wish the game had stayed so vague.
Story is crucial to any RPG, and let me tell you right off the bat that Final Fantasy XIII has perhaps the worst story of any main Final Fantasy game to date. Aside from being poorly delivered and only vaguely comprehensible, the characters have no personality or depth, the world is not immersive in the least, and the main villain's methods and motivations are so illogical and convoluted that it's impossible to take him seriously.
Even by Final Fantasy standards, the story is absolutely absurd. Let that sink in for a moment. The game is absurd by Final Fantasy standards!
The story is terrible, but the dialog is worse. An average conversation in Final Fantasy XIII goes like this: "Pulse, Cocoon, L'sie, Fal'sie, Focus, Focus, Focus." Over and over again, the same stupid words. If you can get to the end of this 30+ hour saga and not be sick of those words, you're a strong man indeed. I wanted to vomit after just an hour of it. That's not helped by Vannile, whose Australian warblings and high-pitched wailing manages to make an already ludicrous story sound even worse.
The worst crime committed by Final Fantasy XIII's narrative, however, is the total lack of impetus provided to care. There's no depth to anything or anyone, and as a result, the player has no reason to be involved. Why should the player care about saving Cocoon, when Cocoon isn't fleshed out in any way? With only the occasional glimpse at Cocoon's society and culture, we have no motivation for saving it. The characters talk about saving their world as if it's important, but to the player, Cocoon's just a series of random locations awkwardly mashed together. Their hatred of various characters, and their empathy toward others, mean nothing to the player. Villains and allies are introduced and then forgotten by the in the space of a few minutes. Characters go on huge emotional spiels that mean nothing because the game doesn't want to waste time making that emotion mean anything, and huge amounts of dramatic FMV are wasted because Square Enix didn't pace the game properly and build to the game's many climactic moments properly.
The game has plenty of promising ideas. The central theme of inescapable destiny, interspersed with hints of racial prejudice and propaganda, could have been something excellent. However, not enough time is devoted to the exploration of these themes. Instead, most of the game is given over to having the characters whine about how hopeless their situation is every thirty minutes. That's when the game isn't introducing epic FMV cutscenes that contain no narrative value whatsoever, just because Square Enix's art department felt like publicly masturbating.
The game constantly gives off a sense that it's having way more fun with itself than the player, and that theme is continued in the brand new battle system. Battles ostensibly play themselves for you, mostly because Square Enix's new Paradigm System is so contrived and complicated that the player would be confused if he had to control it himself. Instead of manually inputting commands for all your characters, everybody -- including the player's character -- can automatically fight of their own free will. The player's job is that of a mid-management office boss, occasionally green-lighting the game's decisions and letting it get on with it.
To its credit, the battle system does a few things right. The Paradigm System allows characters to change classes mid-battle, and each class works with the other one to create a variety of battle strategies. For instance, you can have a melee-focused Commando work with a magic-wielding Ravager, backed up by a healing Medic in order to provide a mixed offense and defense. You can use Saboteurs to weaken the enemy with surprisingly effective status ailments while drawing enemy fire with a defensive Sentinel. There is some fun to be had in discovering which classes work best against which enemies, and keeping a variety of Paradigms to hand to deal with each threat.
The game also throws in a "Stagger" system to keep the pressure up. The more players attack an enemy, the more their "Stagger" meter goes up. When the meter is full, the enemy becomes considerably weaker and their attacks can be halted almost entirely. This can be a very satisfying system indeed, although it eventually causes even the most random battles to last longer than they should, since staggering an enemy is usually the only way to deal any noteworthy damage to its HP.
Sometimes, the battle system can be entertaining, and a few of the boss fights in particular feel stunning in their scope and length. However, the new system also relies too heavily on trial-and-error, and players can expect to die a few times before nailing how certain enemies work. This is especially true of the Eidolon battles, that rank easily among some of the worst RPG boss fights in history. Players have a time limit in which to learn and then perform the various actions each Eidolon wants you to do. The first time you fight each Eidolon, you'll essentially be going through a practice run as you learn how to fight it before dying an irritating death. Square Enix even knows that its battle system is trial and error, since it gives you the option to retry fights at any point during combat, or after death.
Mostly though, the battles become tedious as the game sets about playing itself and concentrating more on looking impressive rather than feeling fun to play. Once you know when and where to switch Paradigms, your fingers start working on autopilot. Some of the later bosses, in fact, can take so long to beat that you'll be doing the same thing over and over again for upwards of twenty minutes, wondering why the game should even require your presence (the Proudclad boss stands as paramount proof of this).
The only truly interactive and intriguing part of the battle is Eidolon summoning, but wouldn't you know, they're all pretty much useless. Despite being able to perform a variety of visually stunning attacks, Eidolons do barely any damage to the enemy, and the Stagger meter empties as soon as they disappear, meaning they can come and go without contributing anything to the battle. Their only use is as a way to revive and heal the party, but it's a needlessly lengthy and pointless way to do it. Not to mention the fact that summoning costs Tech Points, and Tech Points are also spent on studying enemies to learn their weaknesses. Since that's considerably more important than wasting your time with Odin, there will barely even be any opportunity to summon. And the game forces you through six horrendous boss encounters for the privilege of obtaining these worthless wastes of time.
Despite the fact that the game is playing itself, the player is still forced to pay attention the whole time. It'll be your job to make sure the party's HP stays up, and with enemies always busting out hugely devastating attacks, it's a full-time job. Also, if the main player character dies, it's game over. Naturally, this leads to all sorts of fun once enemies bring one-hit kills to the table, or arrive in groups of six with a Haste spell and more attacks than you can deal with. Players can gain an advantage by sneaking up on enemies before a battle, but good luck with that. Most enemies have eyes in the back of their head and will see you coming long before you can initiate a battle. Some will even simply ignore the fact you snuck up on them and the preemptive strike won't be awarded, even though you started the fight without alerting anybody.
Player choice is stripped to a bare minimum as well. Most of the time, players can't even choose their own battle party until the end of the game, and are constantly having to re-organize their Paradigms after the game decided to wipe all the customization from the slate. Shops in the game are useless. There are no distractions from the main quest (and boy were distractions needed) until thirty hours into the game, and by that point it's a case of too little, too late. The only really deep area in which the player has any input is the weapon upgrade system, where raw materials can be used to level up weapons. Even then, however, it takes far too long to gather enough material and most players likely won't want to bother with it.
If one positive thing can be said for Final Fantasy XIII, it's that it looks gorgeous. Locations and characters alike are amazingly beautiful, and some hugely stunning vistas treat the eyes throughout the course of the adventure. Despite some rather intricate clothing on a number of characters, the total lack of clipping is amazingly impressive. Lightning's swaying cloak never once goes through her body, as cloaks in games most often do. Little details, like her sword holster bouncing off her legs while she runs, also add to the visual treat.
The music, unfortunately, is not as good. Everything sounds "nice" but nothing sounds memorable. FF XIII falls into the trap so many modern games do, focusing on sweeping orchestral music that provides an atmosphere, but no tune at all. For a series made famous by its classic melodies, it's sad that not even the music in XIII can provide some entertainment. While most people could remember every track from every previous Final Fantasy game, one will be hard pressed to recall a single one from XIII after a week. Even the famous Chocobo theme, brief though its appearance is, has been ruined with some ill-advised and embarrassing vocals.
But it's clear that the music, just like the story and the gameplay, took a back seat to the graphics. Final Fantasy XIII is visuals, visuals, visuals, with nothing of substance to back up the pretty colors. So many cutscenes are thrown in just to show off the landscapes, and FMVs are regularly thrown in just to be a glorified tech demo for the White Engine. XIII looks stunning, that much is true, but that's all it is. A looker. XIII is vapid, shallow, and intensely self-satisfied. All it cares about is displaying its peacock feathers and trying to distract us from the ludicrous plot with bright colors and audacious effects. Even the battle system is clearly putting graphics first, putting fast-paced visual acrobatics before substantial gameplay.
It takes more than graphics to make a game, and Final Fantasy XIII offers very little else other than eye candy. Ultimately, this latest addition to the Final Fantasy series is a pompous and masturbatory affair, created seemingly to promote the developer's ego first, and the player's enjoyment second. Every now and then its fights can approach satisfying, but mostly this is a dull, dreary affair that is too busy licking its own arse to look up and notice that everybody around it has fallen asleep. Written with all the skill of a three-year-old and paced with the eagerness of a virgin in heat, Final Fantasy XIII isn't just bad by Final Fantasy standards, it's pretty damn poor for the genre itself.
It's the worst main chapter in the Final Fantasy series to date, and if this is the future of the franchise, that future is incredibly bleak indeed.
Score: 4.0 -- Below Average (4s have some high points, but they soon give way to glaring faults. Not the worst games, but are difficult to recommend.)