Hi everyone. My name is Piccolo Sky, and I preferred the good-old-days of the fourth and fifth generation when it came to the “Final Fantasy” series.
Yeah, yeah…I know what you’re thinking. Take a number and get in line. But you have to understand that this is a personal tragedy for me. See my categories? My first ever was “Final Fantasy Ramblissidia”. I used to be the biggest fan of Final Fantasy you ever saw. I tried making my own Wikipedia for it on pencil and paper before the Internet came out. I used to have a plaque in my room that read: “World’s Greatest Final Fantasy Fan – 1998”. That’s all I’d pretend play on the playground, all I’d game play at home… I was a nut. I was a fanatic.
Well, times have sure changed. Some days I think Square Enix is intentionally going out of its way to tick people like me off…but enough about that. The fact of the matter is as the games changed, my interest sharply waned. I was originally “that guy” when it came to the series (see earlier post). I’m pretty much the only one I know who thought “Final Fantasy X” wasn’t that good of a game. Even if my opinion has improved somewhat nowadays, the fact is it has low replay value due to the frustrating minigames and length of time it takes to get going playing the main game. Some of the challenges are so insane you never want to try them again.
“Final Fantasy XII”, however, was an all-around fail. Not only was the battle system frustrating and eventually could be overcome by simply chaining limits in every situation, while it had put a lot of effort and detail into world-building…it was just plain dull. The characters were uninteresting, the scale was small, and the bits of lore and backstory you find uncovering the bestiary is honestly more interesting than the actual plot. On top of all that, not one single memorable song, which is pathetic considering how awesome the soundtracks used to be.
So…one can imagine that by the time “Final Fantasy XIII” came out and I started hearing everything about it, I was more than reluctant to start playing. As I kept hearing more bad things when the months wore on, I was even more reluctant to play, until eventually I bought it in case it went out of print but I shelved it. For five long years, “Final Fantasy XIII” gathered dust on my console. Every time I got the slightest inclination to play it, I heard something else I hated that made me put it down.
Yet finally, last year, after lots of agony and personal arm twisting, I forced myself to pop the game in and start playing it. Initially I was so disgusted I literally let the first enemy kill me, and I gave up after an hour. The next day I put in another. And another after that. Then I stopped for a couple weeks. I played a little more afterward, then I stopped for a month. This went on for a while, but finally, at long last, I got through the whole thing.
This is it. This is the so-called “future of Final Fantasy”. Something that Square Enix apparently clings too very fondly, because their only response to criticism is that more things need to be eliminated of the “old style”.
Since this came out, two more far-less-well-received sequels have come out that eventually killed the entire overarching “Fabula Nova Crystallis” plan the developers had for the series, so eventually they realized they did something wrong. I don’t plan on ever touching those two. My focus is this one. (See what I did there? :P) So…old school gamer that I am…years of delaying and putting it off…the question now is what did I think of it? Was it as good as many people said it was? Was it as bad as many people said it was? Was it thoroughly “meh” which is why it usually appears on the middle or bottom of Final Fantasy ranking lists?
Here’s my take. Let’s start with the elephant in the room…
The biggest complaint this game had, and which I had going into it, was the gameplay. You’ve heard it a million times by now…linearity. And that’s true, the game is indeed linear. Claims that the bulk of the game is just a chain of events or even “the world’s longest tutorial”…those are all pretty much justified. You don’t even get all of your capabilities until the game is half over. It’s a lot like watching an extended FMV, and it’s almost pointless to have items to find along the way other than…”oh hey, there’s an item”.
What really drives the linear situation home is the battling. The battles are pretty much timing-based and AI-programmed now. And that is, pretty much, a contradiction. When you want to do something that needs quick timing, you want more control, and yet this game does the opposite and gives you less. It’s hardly even an RPG anymore. It’s a more elegant form of the battling they went for, and largely failed at, in “Final Fantasy XII”, and, on paper, vastly more sophisticated and confusing. Crystariums, roles, paradigm shifts, abilities, techniques, auto-battle, eidolons…it makes your head spin when you try to take it all in at once. And not only is everything automatic, it needs to be automatic, because everything happens in real-time. Not the old ATB system, but actually all happening at once with no opportunity for turns. Try picking out abilities of your own and you’ll get crushed in an instant.
But aside from that? I actually kind of like it.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still an old-schooler and prefer the old style. I will go so far as to say that “Final Fantasy XIII” isn’t even an RPG. It’s an RTS. You issue directives to your characters and then you pretty much hope they act accordingly, and change strategies as necessary. Yet really, it’s kind of fun. It’s a unique flavor, no doubts there, but it’s not bad by any means. It takes a bit of getting used to is all. And the one good side about having a “game-long tutorial” is that you’ll have fully mastered one thing by the time it throws something new at you.
As far as the linearity is concerned, I want to rage against that a lot more, but… Part of me reminds myself that my favorite RPG in recent history is “Undertale”. Uh-huh…and what exactly do you do in that game? Travel in a straight line. There’s no exploration at all in that one. At the bare minimum you’re free to roam around Gran Pulse…after you’ve beaten the bulk of the game, that is. And older entries that were well-received, like “Final Fantasy X”, have very little exploration too.
Yet that, in turn, makes me more upset about the linearity.
Gameplay-wise, Chapter Eleven is easily my favorite chapter. It’s at that point where the game actually feels like an RPG and where I have some control. As you could tell from my earlier statements, it took me forever to get into the game. Once I hit Chapter Eleven, though, that was actually the first time I couldn’t put the controller down. Yet that makes the situation worse. It shows that the game could have done just fine without the linearity, maybe even eliminated most criticism, but they put it in anyway. Why? Laziness? Not enough development time?
I’ll also give some credit where credit is due. As an old-school gamer, the last thing that impresses me about a game is graphics. Especially in newer games. With more and more CGI-like art, everyone wants to make something that’s more artistic and not very functional or practical. Rather than focusing on producing a plausible view of a fantastic world, they’re interested just in making a bright and detailed world…even if only someone like Dr. Seuss could live there. But that said, many of the FMVs were well done. And unlike the PS2 entries in the series, the characters in the bulk of the scenes were fairly animated and not just bad motion-capture puppets. (To this day I think the motion-capture actor for Brother in “Final Fantasy X-2” was either drunk or had scoliosis…)
I may not be as grabbed by visuals as most people, but in the right situation I like them. And I have to admit a lot of the FMVs were rather nice too, especially the ones with battling. While the “Attack on Cocoon” kind of resembled something from one of the “Transformers” movies…the “Transformers” movies were new at the time so I’ll go ahead and give it a thumbs up. That scene was honestly pretty awesome and well-choreographed.
However, moving on…
The Crystarium is rather frustrating. Early-on, it’s not so bad; but, just as the gameplay gets better, it gets worse with time. It comes off as a bit of a streamlined version of “Final Fantasy X”‘s Sphere Grid. But whereas the battling in this game is an improvement on FFXII’s own system, this is a detriment.
The fact is the game developers once again looked like they didn’t know what to do with the new battle system. In order to artificially make it a challenge for the player, they purposely capped the Crystarium to where it’s impossible to keep getting stronger until you get to a new chapter. That kind of stinks. If the game has been less linear, we could have had a situation like in Gran Pulse. Sure, you’re strong enough to take on the story-based enemies and small fry, but there’s other challenges out there to put the grinders to the test.
Yet that gets much worse toward the end. As the grid gets exponentially harder to move around, what eventually happens is you reach the point where you’re having to battle the hardest enemies numerous times just to get enough points to advance something on a sub-optimum role. What that means is that you end up being torn up by Chapter Thirteen enemies multiple times and your reward is…increasing HP by 25 late in the game.
By the end of the game, the Crystarium is a failure. If you’re like me and you like to grind, you’re out of luck because you get capped. If you’re not like me and you want to push through, you’re also out of luck because the end-chapter bosses are designed to be hard enough to where you have to almost have the current Crystarium maxed out before you have a chance against them. Failure on two fronts. 😛
On another front: gear, items, and money. One…two…three strikes, you’re out. All three are fails. You get as much variety of gear as you do in the other games, but now the whole element of needing to level-up your gear is introduced. You can only level up by getting components, which are common-to-rare in nature. But even if you get them, you usually need a ton of them just to get one level let alone multiple. And not too long in the game you’ll find you spent so much time leveling one piece of gear that a better one came along you now can’t upgrade. It would be easier if you could smash through easy enemies and gain lots of items that way, but…once again…Crystarium blocks you so you can never be “overwhelming”, and linearity keeps you from re-fighting small fry.
Money is a joke. It’s almost impossible to get; meaning that all of the various shops and all of their inventories are pretty much there as a tease. The only time you can really get money is by spamming PSICOM or Cavalry guys and taking their money, or running around on a chocobo on Gran Pulse looking for loot. Again…something that could have very easily been avoided by simply having enemies drop gil like in every single other Final Fantasy game in the franchise…except FFVIII, but even then you got paid.
Another bad side effect of the linearity is that you can literally spend 70 hours playing this game and at the end still feel like it was “short”. Because there’s so little chance to go around, explore, interact with anyone, or see anything of the world other than cutscenes and backstory, the end result is that all you really did was watch some sort of odd movie. I noticed that’s a big trend in video games lately. Increase amount of time watching nice cinematics…decrease potential for gameplay. That’s probably the biggest reason I’m biased against nice graphics; they’re used as a substitute. Whereas older gamers used their imaginations more, now it looks like developers are wanting to “distract you with shiny objects” for cheap entertainment.
Finally, the characters.
Boy…do they suck. Lightning is a shameless attempt to emulate the same cold, brooding, super-soldier type that Cloud and Squall were…and it’s supposed to be edgy and new because she’s a girl. It’s cheap right down to the ultimately dumb reason she doesn’t call herself Claire…which is really in the plot “just because” rather than for any meaningful or important reason. You know what? I’m going to start calling her Claire. 😛
Snow is…not hate-worthy, but not very likable either. He’s the generic determined JRPG protagonist. He’s a likable and determined guy, and…that’s it. The bad part with him is that the game seems to be trying hard to give a reason for characters to hate him to manufacture some tension, and…there’s really no reason to hate him either as he actually did more than what most others would have done in the same situation.
Vanille and Hope…or Whine and Whinier. I honestly can’t tell whether or not Vanille’s grating blithering about hopes and dreams for most of the game is annoying or if Hope’s constant moaning and whining is the problem. The sad part is neither of them have much reason for either. The fact is Vanille is supposed to be masking a great deal of depression over everything that happened with her, but most of the time she’s the grating nails-on-chalkboard voice of perkiness and optimism. Hope…well, his mom did die and that’s pretty bad, but a lot of people died and the truth of the matter is he still has a dad and even a home to go to, at least briefly. Yet even if he’s full of anger at Snow, is it too much to ask for him to do something with it other than whine and moan everywhere he goes for several chapters?
Fang is somewhat likable, but ever notice how she’s an Australian stereotype? Seriously…notice how she always talks about the big deadly monsters on Gran Pulse as if they’re “beauties”. Give me a break.
And all of these characters keep doing the same thing: spouting cliches about hope, determination, dreams, feelings, and heroic, bold, and determined speeches. Every single anime/manga/JRPG cliche in the book. And rather than have these moments happen in a variety of situations, they always happen at the same time…in convenient little open areas they keep stopping in so that the motion-capture actors don’t have to spend a large budget interacting with things. Then they always pace around, emote, get all angsty, and then move on to the next cliche performance.
As a result, the best character in the game is Sazh. Why? Because he’s the only character not trying to be a cliche. He’s the only one of the group who really is “just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Because of that, the audience can actually identify with him a little. Claire is supposed to be the brooding, cold, f***-the-world super soldier trope. Snow is that “gang leader” who always talks about justice and determination and blah-blah-blah. Fang and Vanille are just out there. Hope is a mopey little whiner, but even if he wasn’t spends most of the game wanting to kill someone; which is something most people don’t have experience doing. Sazh is the only guy who seems “real”.
And that brings up my last points…
To be honest, I sat myself down recently and asked myself: “Why hate this game? What’s so different about it that you shouldn’t like it? Why do you not like it better?”
And truth be told, with all of its flaws, the gameplay is still fun and entertaining. If you can get past the fact it’s not an RPG you’re used to, you can still have some good times with it. While it takes forever to get to Gran Pulse, once there it becomes more fun. Even the systems I mentioned that are frustrating aren’t unfair or terrible, even if it makes a couple bosses royal pains. Visually it’s fine too.
True, I don’t care much for the characters, but why don’t I? I’ve been invested in characters who had pretty much the same personalities before. Heck, I like Locke from “Final Fantasy VI” a lot and he’s pretty much Snow. I’ve gotten into other characters who were tropes before. And I’ve hated and loved characters who had about as much backstory as the ones in this game too. So what’s the big deal? Why does it seem to fall flat in this game versus other JRPGs in terms of plot?
Finally, I arrived at the answer.
The irony is, quite honestly, the game wasn’t paying attention to its own message.
First off, the plot was clearly tacked-on. Between the holes, the random “Deus ex Machinas”, the over-elaborate plans, and the total villain failures (between everything he could do it’s clear “Bart” could have destroyed Cocoon easily without needing to go to this elaborate Ragnarok plan or rely on l’Cie…not to mention he loses more or less simply because the game told him he had to rather than any action on your part), it’s an absolute mess. Characters rant about one thing in one scene only to reverse in the next cutscene and spin back in the one after that. They keep emoting about the same things even when no action has taken place on them. Fang pretty much despairs out of the blue simply so she can get the Bahamut Eidolon. Snow and Lightning keep making it look as if Serah was someone precious and valuable whose very nature should motivate them (and the player) to keep going when the fact is we have no idea who she is or reason to care for her more than anyone else.
[We could have, but the series stuck to its whole tradition of “drop the player into the middle of things; explain why they’re there later”. And for once, that shouldn’t have been done. If they had started with the 13 Days rather than revealed them more or less at random, then maybe the player would have had a chance to connect with these people. Instead, you take them over halfway through the game before you even fully know why they’re there.]
Probably the biggest fail plot-wise is that, to be honest…I really don’t care if Cocoon dies. Why should I care about that planet? The game goes out of its way to show that the people there are mindless sheep and, truth be told, most of them spend the game wanting to kill me, but even that gets confusing because, for all the talk about how unfair and unjust the treatment of the l’Cie is and the notions of prejudice and fear…all of it is pretty much justified. The l’Cie are out to destroy Cocoon. The l’Cie will turn into monsters or crystal. They are nothing more than tools of the fal’Cie. You can’t get around completing your Focus. (Note that for all of the bold speeches and determination…you do exactly what “Bart” wanted at the end of the game: you destroy Orphan exactly as he planned.)
The fact is the plot of this game is, oddly enough, the plot to the “Matrix” sequels. You have most people living in bliss under the dominions of their god machines; a few people have their eyes opened and are hated by everyone for it; they discover the machines see the idea of choice as a problem and so developed the l’Cie concept in order to direct humans into the illusion of choice; and the whole point and resolution is supposed to be that human capability to choose, even if the choice is terrible, sets them apart from gods.
Well…the fact that after all that the characters still do exactly what the villains wanted and the day is saved pretty much because, for no reason whatsoever, two of the characters spontaneously get the ability to pretty much “do anything” temporarily and are suddenly for no reason no longer accountable to the rules of l’Cie, because literally everyone else in history that ever defied their Focus just plain turned into a C’ieth rather than had the Plot Fairy save them, just makes everything one big colossal unjustifiable mess.
The fact is that the “rage against organized religion” plot has been done. This is the fourth time it’s happened in the series and the worst yet. We get it, Square Enix. You hate organized religion, promote atheism, and you ignore the fact that the majority of people on Earth are members of organized religion. But truth be told…it’s actually getting worse than that. It would be one thing if the situation was like in “Final Fantasy X”. There we have a religion that serves itself rather than others, corrupts understanding of “gods”, and ultimately advocates a false diety. Alright, that’s fine. But “Final Fantasy XIII” does much worse. It says that there are gods, but that they are to be rebelled against. Rather than saying religion is a tool made by man to control others, they say religion is perfectly real…yet mankind should defy the will of God and reject any authority that establishes law and chaos, good and evil.
To me, that’s not anti-religion or even pro-atheism. That’s pro-satanic.
A bit of a sidetrack, but I wanted to touch on that. Moving back to the idea of choice…
The problem with the game is that for a plot that tries to emphasize the ability to choose between options…it has the audacity to be such a linear game it’s only about two steps removed from “Dragon’s Lair”. And that’s a problem, because the more a game designer tries to make characters real through cutscenes, the more they try to make the acting look like real people, the more voices that they try to make authentic, and the more of a face they try to give to everything…the less real, more fake, and more obviously “just a game” the entire thing becomes. They were so obsessed with trying to make an engaging and real story that they came out with a bland and utterly fake story.
Why do people still like old RPGs? Why do people think the plotlines of things like “Earthbound” and “Undertale” have so much heart in them when they’re so simplistic, crude, and basic? Why do I get more emotive about Locke and Celes in “Final Fantasy VI” than Tidus and Yuna in “Final Fantasy X”? Why do I care more about Edge losing his parents in “Final Fantasy IV” than Hope losing his mom in “Final Fantasy XIII”?
The answer is because when the gameplay is simpler, more direct, and more under player control, it becomes more real because the player feels like they’re part of it. It’s exactly what the game claims to profess: choice. I can choose to do this or that in battle. I can choose to try and help that one NPC character rather than continue the main quest. I can choose to resolve that conflict that this character in my party has from their past failure. I can choose to find the truth about this situation or explore that village. Heck, I can even choose to talk to that random NPC or keep walking. And I can do it without constantly arguing with the other characters, bantering to myself, or going on auto-battles. I am in control. And when I am in control, when I can choose, I gradually begin to put myself in the game. People call the “Voiceless JRPG Protagonist” an annoying throwback to older RPGs, and they are completely, 100% wrong. A crude, silent sprite is the best RPG, or game, protagonist because now you can put yourself into them.
And once I’ve put myself in the game, the graphics and “missing pieces” don’t matter. I fill those in myself. I can stare at a landscape or a ruin and wonder the story behind it. I can imagine what that NPC’s family did after I parted from them. I can brood about what’s coming or what’s behind. “Final Fantasy XIII” is a game where we see six people thrown into a desperate, unbelievable situation…and that’s why it falls flat. It’s supposed to be a game where I am thrown into a desperate, unbelievable situation. At the bare minimum, I have to feel like I’m one of those six. That I’m right there through all the heartache and toil and strain. Instead, I’m just watching them auto-battle and banter. I’m watching a movie. And since all of the characters are stereotypes and cliches, I can’t invest myself in them. I can’t see them as real. By eliminating choice and connection, this is hardly even a game anymore.
The developers were fully aware of that. I know because of the Datalogs. The game is literally writing out how you should feel about every scene that goes by. If you’re to the point where you actually have to tell your audience how to feel…that there’s no way they can feel anything for themselves…you’ve totally failed at storytelling.
That is why I break down in tears on seeing Frisk hug Asriel and I’m indifferent when I see Vanille and Hope say goodbye.
And that is, by far, the ugliest part of “Final Fantasy XIII”.
In conclusion, I won’t say it’s the worst in the series. That “honor” goes to “Final Fantasy XII”, even if it did some things better than “Final Fantasy XIII”. But with unappealing characters, annoying and limited upgrading, and, most of all, a lack of being investing, you can bet it will be another six years before I think of plugging it in again.