Final Fantasy XIII
For me, this is a difficult game to review. This is the closest thing I have to a guilty pleasure as the open world is repetitive and dull, the combat is one-sided and stacked against you and the story makes little sense. And here I am with over 80 hours in it and another 20-30 likely to come soon.
I’ll start by stating that I have never played a Final Fantasy game that isn’t 13, so if that changes the context of this review, so be it. That said, this game makes me want to and I have already bought 13-2.
Why I Like It
Before I talk about the problems with this game, I’ll try to explain why I’ve sunk so much time into it. It is stunningly pretty; just ordinary gameplay is beautiful with a nice variety of colours, tones and eye-catching set pieces. While a lot of the enemies are over-designed so you have no idea if what you’re looking at is a head or an arm, the lead characters each have their own aesthetics that speak of the fashion of the FFXIII world. As bizarre as JRPG clothing usually is, I really like the design choices that went into the protagonists.
But where the game comes alive is in the pre-rendered cutscenes. Holy crap, they are stunning. I took 701 screenshots over the course of the main story (admittedly that’s kinda par for the course for me), but the majority of them were in cutscenes. I cannot really convey how nice to watch these cutscenes are, so go check out the opening cinematic for the game.
The only downside of the cutscenes is that a couple have SO MUCH going on that it’s hard to follow; these were the ones where my screenshots caught only blur and semi-obscured characters. They were so desperate to show activity and movement that they don’t linger on anything and that’s a shame.
The gameplay of FFXIII is split between ‘open world’ running and the combat. Neither is perfect. By which I mean that both kinda suck. Aside from the rather petty complaint of all the characters having really loud footfalls (actually, the whole sound balancing was off on this port), the main problem with the ‘open world’ is how linear it is. You have to run down long corridors formed of walkways, tunnels or just convenient debris. You meet enemies who just stand there and wait for you, staring right at you under six feet away and doing nothing until you take that step too close. And you drift.
I assume it’s a problem with the port as I don’t recall it on the PS3 version (I played the first 15 hours or so on PS3 before getting bored), but if you press forward you drift to the left or right. Running in a straight line, even down straight corridors, is impossible. You can alter whether you drift left or right, but the little dotted line on the minimap showing where you’ve been will always be a zigzag. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s bloody annoying.
I’ve heard it said that “it gets good 20 hours in”; this is when the tight corridors open up into a large area with side quests, but for me that was 40 hours in. By then I knew I was hooked, but the opening doesn’t make as big a change as I thought. It’s just one big area with a load of corridors coming off it to any other area. The final 2 chapters just go right back to narrow and confined.
The combat also has a lot to answer for. God, I could write a whole essay on why the FFXIII combat is bad, but I’ll give you the brief version. It’s real time combat with time-based elements. This means that if you sit there and do nothing, the enemy will keep attacking you. The time-based elements are that it takes time to charge up your attacks; any attacks. Each attack is worth a different quantity of ‘attack bars’ with more powerful attacks requiring more bars and thus more idle time to use.
The problem with this is that you have no time. A massive focus of the combat is winning as quickly as possible; the combat scoring system that affects item drops requires you to win quicker than a set time. This on its own wouldn’t be too bad but, given the range of abilities available, the daunting weakness/strength system and the terrible menu-based combat (the kind that fits perfectly in turn-based combat), it’s impossible to fight most enemies with anything other than auto-choose attacks. Luckily the auto-choose AI is pretty good; it always calculates the most effective moves and uses them, taking into account damage, weakness, buffs etc.
But there are other elements to the combat…random elements that you have absolutely no way to control. A number of attacks (both yours and the enemies’) are proximity-based; some heal the characters near the medic, some deal massive damage to targets directly in front etc. But you have no way to affect where your characters or the enemies stand. Depending on where the mindless AI decides to let your team charge their attacks, you may be excluded from healing, clumped up to receive a powerful AoE attack or simply ignored.
On top of this is the decision to make your party leader all-important. If either of your two companions are killed, drop a revive on them and boom, right back into the fray. If your leader is killed, sorry that’s it. Game Over. Retry?
Who thought that was logical? Yeah, I’ve heard of FF characters forgetting to revive outside of combat (Sorry, Aeris), but not being able to do it in combat, just because the arbitrary leader was downed? Rubbish.
Oh. And having an unskippable animation for switching character roles mid-battle – WHEN THE ENEMY WILL STILL ATTACK DURING IT – is moronic. I’ve lost more than once because my leader was killed while the medic was posing.
Story Of Two Sequels
I’ve already said that the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. That’s an understatement. You find out nothing until a good ten hours into the game and then it spoon feeds you a tiny bit at a time and gives you the equivalent of a book to read in the ‘Datalog’; a menu with paragraphs of information about the characters, places, concepts and…stuff you encounter. This system is poor storytelling because anyone without the patience to read it all will be lost.
Character motivations are rarely fully explained and this may be because of some translation thing, but most likely it’s supposed to make everyone seem that little bit mysterious. It’s more annoying than anything. Most motivations come through by the end, but vast portions of the plot are driven by characters doing the exact things they said they wouldn’t…so…maybe I just didn’t understand.
All that said, I couldn’t stop playing until I found out how it all ended. Sometimes it’s the lure of 100% completion that keeps me going, sometimes it’s gripping gameplay. In this case it was the mysteries of the story and a growing wonder about how the characters’ stupid actions would somehow save the day.
From everything I’ve written, you’re probably wondering why this is a positive review. Simply because I still want to play more. Yeah, the open world is a lie and the combat is stacked; I didn’t even go into how most of the boss fights are just puzzles on unusual ways to use your combination of character roles. But after all of that I want to return to the bits I missed and finish them.
Some part of me really enjoys this game and, while I’m unlikely to replay it any time soon, I still have a full 24 hours’ worth of entertainment to get out of it.