It's only fair, right?
While my list of ten things I loved about the import version of Final Fantasy XIII was quite easy to make, this counterpoint was a bit more difficult. I didn't want to nitpick, but I did want to have an even ten to match up. To tell the truth, I could have gone on for a lot more than ten entries on the "loved" list, while this one was more of a stretch.
I want to be clear: I hope this list of negatives adds no weight to some of the unnecessarily negative and cynical write-ups of the game that are out there. No, Final Fantasy XIII was not all puppies and roses, but it was a fun game that I would recommend to series fans. I think that too many spoiled late-20s and early to mid 30-something gamers are just set in their cynical ways, and are too hardened and internet-ruined to enjoy games anymore. These are not the people you should be listening to for game recommendations. Heh, that's funny coming from a Destructoid writer.
It's just wanted to be fair and point out some of the not-so-great things about the title, but those reading this list first should definitely refer back to our other more positive list. If you've ever liked a Final Fantasy, you'll dig this one.
That said, on with the gripes.
I don't get why Square Enix felt the need for so much hand holding in Final Fantasy XIII. I get that the battle system is a bit different, and I agree to some extent with how they ease players into it with tutorials and gradual opening of options, but they spent far too long doing so. It was enough so that it might discourage some of the less patient gamers out there. Depending on your play style, it could take a good ten hours before you're playing the game comfortably, without the feeling of training wheels holding you back from going full speed.
That said, there is a lot to take in. I think Square Enix was thinking too much about accessibility and not enough about seasoned gamers.
Early Lack of Freedom
While the whole game isn't locked down to narrow corridors that you can only move forward in, the earliest parts of the game definintely are. In some ways you can see how Square Enix wanted to control the pacing of the story, letting little bits of narrative come out after sections of game play, but some of the early stages were examples of strikingly inelegant ways of easing you in. You can only walk forward in a narrow path so long before you start feeling like a test rat. Thankfully, multiple passageways, mazes, hidden paths and items, and eventually open-to-explore worlds eventually open up. But, just like the hand holding mentioned earlier, the game takes a bit too long to move on.
This isn't a full-on negative point or a deal breaker, and it really does get better. Even when it is locked down, there's an exceptionally polished and well told narrative for you to follow, and it's honestly good enough that it keeps you keeping on.
Visual Chaos in Battle
If there's one part of the game they just flat-out messed up on, it's the camera and hit point display in battle. Part of a RPG's strategy is knowing how effective your attacks are. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII's battle camera, while excellent on zooming in on the action, is really bad about clipping your view of the hit point damage counts. In multiple cases, the camera would spin to one side, giving me a cool view of my character beating away at a boss. It was too bad that I couldn't see how hard I was hitting said boss, though. Granted, using the left analog stick adjusts the camera in-battle, but sometimes the action is so hectic that you can't afford to take your thumb off the d-pad.
And then there's the hit point counts themselves. They look really cool with their futuristic fonts and their large size, but there will come a time when the enemy count and the number of attacks coming from every direction is so chaotic that you have no idea what's going on. There were times when there were so many hit point counts on screen that it looked like a cloud of jumbled numbers, and I was confused and annoyed.
In both cases, an effort more toward practicality and less toward the cinematic feel would have helped.
Seeing as how this is a "didn't love" list, the difficulty has to be mentioned. I can already see the replies to this point in my mind, but hear me out first. Final Fantasy XIII stands out as the most difficult of any in the series for me. Granted, there were some others that were too easy, but this one gets exceptionally difficult at times. There are key boss battles in any game that will make you pull your hair out, but in this game there are so many that you begin to feel like you're doing something wrong at points. I was doing nothing wrong, mind you. It's just, at times, totally unforgiving. Even beyond boss battles, there are regular enemy encounters that are so punishing that I found that i had to take a "calm down" break. In one area that I feel was ill-placed, you find yourself excited from amazing cinematics and story developments that just happened, only to be dropped into a corridor where you're forced to fight sub-bosses so punishing that you'll find yourself wondering if there's an alternate route you're supposed to take. There isn't.
That said, I did beat the game, so it is possible. My advice? Save often, and in separate slots. You'll often get stuck in an area where you can't grind to level up to beat your way out. There are times that you'll find yourself ill-prepared. You'll be glad you saved at an earlier spot so that you can better prepare for what's coming.
Lack of NPC Conversation
You heard right. There are no towns or villages or cities other than ones that serve as a backdrop to the action. You'll never find yourself talking to a town's elder to find out what danger lurks in the mountains. While I'm grateful for that, there is a kind of cold feeling you get after realizing that none of the story advancement or enrichment takes place through interactions that you choose to have. In other words, there are no NPCs you can walk up to to get those optional little story bites that make your typical role-playing game that much richer and deeper.
Yes, there are a few NPCs scattered about, but they're the worst kind of all. They're basically one-line spouting zombies that auto-speak aloud when you walk in their talk zone. Regardless of what they have to say, you'll find the presentation so cold and lifeless that you end up avoiding them. All of them are fully voiced, so I wonder how much storage space could have been saved with the omission of voice acting, opting only for text. Seriously, they would have gone over better with text only.
Shut Up Back There!
Have you ever had to play a videogame with your kid brother watching on, commenting the whole time? Final Fantasy XIII has that crap built in. I suppose they wanted to try something new, but it didn't work out. Outside the forced cutscenes where your party interacts, the only other time you'll hear from them is when they speak freely on the battlefield. You'll be walking along, making you way down a path, and Vanille or Sazh or any of the others will strike up a random conversation behind you. At first, it's pretty novel. But as the game goes on, you'll find yourself wanting to look over your shoulder to yell "shut up back there!" The feeling is even more annoying if you have your Dolby Digital rig going. If they're running behind you in exploration, their voices come out of the rear surround speakers.
What sucks is that they never say anything key or important. "Ooh, how pretty!" They rarely enhance the story. They're usually either bitching about something or commenting on the scenery, which is the exact same thing that kid brother would do.
What a Lonely World
I'd imagine some of the choices behind this next point were intentional, as the story works your character into a place where the world is against him/her, but the combined effect has the player feeling a bit lonely. I've already touched on the lack of NPC conversation. When people do talk at you, they usually talk about how they hate you and hate what you are. And again, your party chattering in the background gets old, and it doesn't feel like they're talking to you specifically anyway.
The loneliness even extends into some of the RPG conventions that you'd normally expect to see. They're not here. There's no warm and safe inn to rest up in and save your game. You walk up to a floating panel that does it all digitally. There's no busty shopkeeper there to sell her wares. Again, its the same floating panel that you also save at. You purchase things at a menu, like a futuristic all-in-one vending machine. Again, I suppose that this ties into the story line (you'll see), but sometimes it felt a bit discouraging and less involving.
Later in the game things evolve into a real living and breathing world. Granted, you're still alone, but at least then you can see other people running around doing things, and it's then that you won't feel as alone.
I Bought an RPG But Got a Dungeon Crawler
False advertising? I guess the box never said that this was a dungeon crawler, but it totally is. While it technically isn't your full-fledged dungeon crawler, several of the "lands" you'll visit are actually a series of corridors of mindless enemies that seem to be stationed at posts that you can't pass without fighting them. The crawl does evolve into a walk later, with things opening up, but you'll first have to do time down in the dungeons.
Look, I love dungeon crawlers. Always have. No skin off my back. I wouldn't "take points off" for this. But this was definitely a change from the traditional Final Fantasy formula, and one that I totally did not expect. I wouldn't call this a warning. That's too strong. But it should be known that those looking for open exploration should know that there's no Veldt here, and that you're on the straight and narrow for a long time.
Millions of HP
God! When is this son of a bitch going to die? I'll cast Libra and check with the... [pause] What in the hell?
If you've seen screenshots of the game, you'll notice the hit point damage numbers are typically in the thousands, save for the early ones. What they're not showing you is that that battle has been going on for forever. The hit point counts in Final Fantasy XIII are in the millions. I'm not kidding in the slightest, and this isn't a rare boss thing, either. Your common enemies can have millions of hit points. Bosses can have ten million. The last boss? Oh my God. My gripe isn't so much that the bosses are strong (though some are). It's more that there's simply too many numbers coming up, and that this could have been easily avoided.
I'm not sure of the reason why they went with the millions. Maybe they wanted you to be impressed with yourself when you were doing damage in the hundreds starting out early. But when a game has situations where multiple hits of 10,000 damage are a "meh" run, then it feels kind of ridiculous. They could have easily dropped a zero, starting out with single digits for damage.
And once more: back to the bosses. Even beyond the number thing, some of these guys have way too many hit points. When the battles go beyond strategy and just have you doing a tedious number of attacks, it stops being fun. Thankfully there's only a couple of situations. Dying after 40 minutes of battle and then reloading to try again is only fun a few times.
I suppose it's a good thing that one of my biggest gripes about this game has to do with how stupid the summons look when they turn into vehicles. That said, these are the summons, or the Eidolon in this game, which are typically the "cool" part of Final Fantasy. They're like a reward for hard work, and that special something you pull out when you want to finish a battle in style. They've always been classy, exaggerated, and totally epic. They are still exaggerated in Final Fantasy XIII, and they're totally epic up to a point, but when they change into vehicles you can ride, things start going south.
Don't get me wrong: summoning a fantastical beast out of the heavens has never looked or sounded better than it does in this game. Some of the mythical gods are breathtaking the first time you see it. While they're fighting alongside you -- well, that's pretty cool too. But as soon as you hit the square button and initiate Driving Mode, the cool usually stops. Lighting, with her summon Odin turning into a robotic-looking horse, isn't that bad. But surely you've seen Snow, with his ice-spouting motorcycle formed from two interlocking women. I...I still don't know what to say to that. I'm embarrassed for the game every time I see that. I'm embarrassed every time someone watches me play while summoning. And the ones past this? I won't spoil them, but there are some that are worse. One in particular had me cringing when I first saw it. You'll too either laugh or cringe. Thankfully you won't need your summons once you become strong enough.
Final Fantasy XIII will be released in the US on March 9th, 2010.