Final Fantasy XIII: The World Is Square Tube
by Pitchfork

March 9, 2010.
I walked out of Blockbuster Video this afternoon with a rented copy of Final Fantasy XIII, feeling about as excited as a man leaving CVS with a box of suppositories.

I have deliberately done all I could for the last several months to learn as little about this game as possible. I have no idea what to expect from it. I'm really hoping to be pleasantly surprised, but Square Enix's track record from the last decade is a very unencouraging sign. Nevertheless, I am trying to keep as open a mind as possible and go in with no expectations.

Some preliminary notes: first of all, I'm not taking screenshots for this. Neither my graphic nor capture card is exactly top of the line, and if I'm playing a new Final Fantasy for the first time, I'd prefer to experience it on a thirtysomething inch television set instead of inside a 734 x 500 window on an old computer monitor. If I do end up using screens when it comes time to get this thing live, they'll probably be ganked from elsewhere. I apologize in advance.

Second, I'm playing the 360 version, because a 360 is all I have access to. Yes, I am aware of the gap between DVD and Blu-Ray, and yes, I am aware that the Playstation 3 version is the "definitive" Final Fantasy XIII. Please don't send me any griping emails about how I would feel differently about this thing if had I played it on the PS3 and was privy to the true experience. If you would like me to play through and review the PS3 version instead, I encourage you to mail me a check for $400 or let me borrow your PS3 for a week. Shoot me a message and we'll talk brass tacks.

I've stalled much too long. It's time to do this. Time to light a stick of incense, smoke a preliminary cigarette to calm myself down, and push Final Fantasy XIII up my ass begin playing Final Fantasy XIII.

April X, 2010.
So. Let's talk about Final Fantasy XIII.

It can't have eluded Square Enix's notice that Final Fantasy's mojo has been in perpetual decline since 1997. Final Fantasy VII is still widely regarded as Square's best game and the high point of the Final Fantasy series, and the undying rumors of a PS3 remake still tend to excite fans much more than any new games Square Enix might announce. It doesn't take much business savvy to figure out that it isn't a good sign for the health of your franchise when your fans are still more interested in what you were doing thirteen years ago than any of your current projects.

When Final Fantasy XIII entered development (presumably around 2004 or 2005), the basic mechanisms of Final Fantasy were nearly twenty years old. Despite the periodic tune-ups, augmentations, and parts swapping, the old machine was definitely showing its age. Games like Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, and Street Fighter II don't really require that much fixing and tweaking between installments, since they were never broken to begin with. But Final Fantasy was an idiosyncratic game from the very first installment, and its flaws were never ironed out as the series evolved. Instead, they carried on and compounded themselves from game to game. In developing Final Fantasy XIII, Kitase (producer) and Toriyama (writer and director; also wrote and directed X-2,) had to look both backward and forward -- they had to recapture whatever elusive magic made Final Fantasy VII so compelling and beloved (secret: its name was Masato Kato), while finally delivering on their repeated promises to give the fundamentals of the series a much belated overhaul.

Right from the beginning, Final Fantasy XIII does everything it can to remind players of 1997. The game opens with a train rolling through futuristic cityscape. A scrappy gang of insurgents clash with security forces. A young and stylish warrior with a gimmicky sword flips through the air and defeats a squad of armed guards. "You was a solider, weren't you?" quips her gun-toting black companion. And then the two of them fight a giant mechanical scorpion -- a giant mechanical scorpion with the word "warmech" in its name, since dropping references to old games has become as much a part of the tired twenty-year old Final Fantasy formula as crystals, chocobos, and people named Cid with penchants for aircraft and gadgets.

Here's the basic scenario: you have a spherical, hermetic continent called Cocoon, which floats above the much larger lower world of Pulse (a concept borrowed from Final Fantasy III). Cocoon is a highly advanced society whose culture is somewhat reminiscent of the real-life Democratic People's Republic of Korea (as in, The North). It is extremely insular and still considers itself in a state of war with Pulse, even though there hasn't been any aggression or even contact with the lower world in several centuries. From the capital city of Eden, Cocoon's leaders and media keep the populace in a constant state of alert and fear of a Pulse invasion, and a tremendous military force stands ever ready to ward of an invasion that might come at any time. Any Cocoon citizens suspected to have come in contact with Pulse are forced to undergo the "Purge" -- a term publicly assumed to refer to deportation, but the truth is closer to clandestine mass slaughter. The Purge is enthusiastically approved of by vast majority of the populace, which has been trained by its leaders and media to repeat the phrase "Enemies of Cocoon" like a mantra when referring to anything relating to Pulse.

The neat parallels with the good old DPRK end there. Unlike the Hermit Kingdom, Cocoon is a society of abundance and luxury. Everything the human populace requires -- food, energy, light, guidance, etc. -- is provided for by the fal'Cie, biomechanical demi-deities whose natures are said to be outside the reach of human understanding.

But Pulse has its own fal'Cie. And the plot kicks off when one of them is discovered waking up inside a derelict structure near the village of Bodhum after many years of dormancy. It would be redundant to summarize the whole spiel here, but Cocoon's higher-ups (the human government and the fal'Cie called Eden) decree that everyone from Bodhum must undergo the Purge along with the structure housing the Pulse fal'Cie. An uprising breaks out, and in the midst of the chaos, the main characters haphazardly convene in front of the Pulse fal'Cie, which brands them as l'Cie: human agents chosen and empowered by the fal'Cie to carry out a specific task called a Focus (which, conveniently, is always kept secret from whomever it is assigned to). Since the heroes have been marked by a fal'Cie from Pulse, the assumption is that their mission is to help Pulse destroy Cocoon. If they fail or refuse to carry out this secret task, they will be turned into mindless, shambling monsters (called cie'th) as punishment. If they do carry out their Focus, they are turned into crystal statues as a "reward" for contributing to the destruction of their home. Either way, they're boned. Meanwhile, the rest of Cocoon's populace wants them dead, the entire Cocoon military is on their heels, and they all have a ton of psychological baggage to deal with in the meantime.

Final Fantasy XIII starts off well, thanks in large part to the Shock and Awe tactics that Square has perfected over the years. The introduction and first chapter are excellent, as per usual: strange faces in a strange setting saying strange things and everyone's firing guns and everything's blowing up and OH WOW NEW BATTLE SYSTEM TO FIGURE OUT AWESOME. This, coupled with its stunning presentation, an English dub of such stellar quality that the phrase "language option" will probably never once cross players' minds, and the initial impression that Square Enix is finally ready to take its game seriously after years of just phoning it in and letting the graphics department do all the heavy lifting, makes it hard even for an older, more cynical Final Fantasy fan not to give XIII the benefit of the doubt and eagerly buckle himself in for the ride ahead.

His mistake, of course, would be his assumption that this ride is actually going somewhere. But before we get to that, let's talk about the...



Weapon: Gunblade
Eidolon: Odin
Main Roles: Commando, Ravager, Medic

A rogue Guardian Corps soldier who goes ballistic after her sister Serah is marked as a l'Cie by the Pulse fal'Cie Anima and set to be purged with the rest of Bodhum's population. Admittedly and unashamedly designed as a female Cloud, Lightning is a backflipping, sword brandishing, gravity defying one-woman army whose brusqueness towards her companions matches her ruthlessness towards her foes. Actually, her personality more resembles the standoffish Squall's than the taciturn Cloud's. For the first half of the story her interactions with people are restricted to telling them to fuck off, hitting them in the face, or putting a sword through them. And then, of course, her heart grows three sizes and she transforms into a bland background voice who occasionally speaks up to announce the group's next destination within The Tube.


Weapon: Pistols
Eidolon: Brynhildr
Main Roles: Commando, Ravager, Synergist

A civilian pilot and middle-aged family man who allows himself to be purged (under the assumption that he is only being deported to Pulse) to find a way of saving his son, who has been marked as a Cocoon l'Cie. Sazh (pronounced "zazz") is probably the single best part of Final Fantasy XIII. Kitase says Sazh will likely appeal to older players, which is true, inasmuch as his "I'm too old for this shit" attitude will resonate with them in particular. As the oldest and blackest member of the main cast, Sazh is doomed to spend the entire game acting as the party's clown. Oh, and he has a baby chocobo living in his afro because black mans hair like birds nest lol.


Weapon: Fists
Eidolon: Shiva
Main Roles: Commando, Sentinel, Ravager

When his fiancee Serah (again, Lightning's vestal schoolgirl sister) was branded as a Pulse l'Cie, the headstrong self-proclaimed hero Snow chose to propose to her and stay with through her trials rather than abandon or hand her over to PSICOM. But he loses her during PSICOM's roundup of the Bodhum populace, and then fails to rescue her from the Pulse Vestige before she turns to crystal. At first Snow is sort of interesting because all his optimism and swagger are a facade he uses to cover up his guilt and despair. And then he gets over it and all his optimism and swagger really are optimism and swagger, and makes a point reminds you how optimistic and blustery he his by announcing it every fifteen minutes.


Weapon: Boomerang
Eidonlon: Alexander
Main Roles: Ravager, Medic, Synergist

A teenager from the merchant city of Palumpolum (oh boy, a Final Fantasy IV reference!) who happened to be visiting Bodhum with his mother when its population was rounded up by PSICOM forces to be purged. After witnessing his mother dying to save Snow during the uprising, Hope is determined to kill Snow for revenge. Hope is the whiniest, most insufferable little bastard ever to appear in a video game. Imagine Squall as a despondent fourteen-year old milksop with mommy and daddy issues and you've got Hope nailed. To add insult to injury, the developers fixed it so that the party's most intolerable personality is also its most invaluable support character. (I think, for many people, the most lasting impact of Final Fantasy XIII will be bound up in the phrase "Operation Nora." Five years from now, hearing it spoken will probably make me want to punch myself in the balls just as much as it does today.)


Weapon: Rod
Eidolon: Hecatoncheir
Main Roles: Ravager, Medic, Saboteur

Vanille is another perky, exotic young woman with a big heart and a foggy past.



Weapon: Spear
Eidolon: Bahamut
Staring Roles: Commando, Sentinel, Saboteur

As the party's de-facto dragoon and resident amazonian sexpot, Fang's job is to show off her legs, ride dragons, flirt with everyone, have a ludicrously high attack stat, and lead players to suspect a surreptitious lesbian relationship between her and Vanille.


Snow's posse from Bodum serve as the Wedges, Biggses, and Jessies of Final Fantasy XIII. These are the male hero's loser bumpkin buddies who help out and participate in battles at the very beginning of the game, and then vanish as soon as said hero stumbles upon more capable allies.


Let's see here. There's Serah (Snow's fiancee and Lightning's sister), Dajh (Sazh's son), and Bartholomew (Hope's father). These are pretty much the only noteworthy goodguy NPCs in the game, and they really aren't even worth taking time to describe. You only see Dajh and Batholomew for a few minutes, and Serah mostly appears in long (very long) series of flashbacks. All three might as well have been cut from the backs of cereal boxes.

"BUT PAT!" you bray. "FINAL FANTASY'S CHARACTERS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN STEREOTYPES AND STOCK FIGURES! WHY YOU NO COMPLAIN BOUT THIS IN FINAL FANTASY V?" Because Final Fantasy V wasn't designed as a multimillion dollar thirty-hour CG sci-fi drama film with a battle system. It was designed as a damn Super Nintendo game. The standards are different. (Or at least they should be -- but Square Enix doesn't seem to think so.)


A high-ranking Guardian Corps officer who flies around in a giant airship called the Lindblum (oh boy, a Final Fantasy IX reference!). Final Fantasy XII, as you remember, had two Cids: a good Cid and a bad Cid. Final Fantasy XIII deftly condenses them both into a single personality. Too bad his appearances are as sparse and tacked-on as those of all the other NPCs.


Ah, yes. The summon monsters. Finally, a topic worth a little elaboration.

Final Fantasy XIII has six Eidolons, each of which is tied to a member of the main cast. The Eidolons' purpose is to push l'Cie towards completing their Focus by appearing to them during moments of despair and crisis and basically trying to kill them. If the l'Cie is able to bury his doubt, muster his resolve, and fight back, the Eidolon relents and offers itself to him as an ally. The alternative outcome is the Eidolon ripping the l'Cie to shreds.

What this translates into, as far as the game is concerned, is six trick boss fights that occur during cutscenes when one of the six characters has a panic attack for some reason or another. (It gets sort of ridiculous later on in the game; by the time you hit Chapter 11 and there are still party members without Eidolons, the party members' crisis scenes start making less and less sense for the sake of expediency.) The Eidolons cannot be defeated by normal means and must be overcome by way of using certain abilities in battle enough times before a time limit runs out or the Eidolon succeeds in killing the party leader. To Final Fantasy XIII's credit, the Eidolon battles are specially and cleverly crafted to fit the nature of each character's particular foibles. For instance, Lightning (the least nurturing heroine to ever appear in a Final Fantasy title) can only overcome Odin by keeping Hope alive during the Eidolon's supernatural assault. The remorseful, self-loathing Snow has to pick himself up and defend himself against the Shiva sisters, and Hope must stop being a worthless little daffodil in order to win over Alexander.

And after that, the Eidolons all turn into vehicles through sequences that look as if they were pulled straight from one of the Michael Bay Transformers films. Square Enix couldn't have deflated some of Final Fantasy XIII's most intense moments more effectively if they tried.

An example of an Eidolon cutscene and battle might go like:

Fang: Hey Vanille, I've been thinking. What about the stuff about those things?"

Vanille: What? No!! Fang! How can you say that?! Don't talk like that Fang, please! Fang, don't say things like AAAAAGHHH OH MY GOD LOOK IT'S A HIDEOUS TWENTY-ARMED DEMON THAT WE HAVE TO FIGHT NOW!

Before the battle begins, the game automatically changes your active party, chucks all your Paradigms, and generates three new ones without consulting you. Hopefully these Paradigms are the ones you need to discover the Eidolon's weakness and defeat it. If not, you'll have to hit "retry," wait for the game to load, walk back to where the cutscene is triggered, and skip the cutscene, before you are directed at last to the Status screen. Only during the second attempt and afterward does XIII give you a chance to customize your party's Paradigms for this very important battle. Why doesn't it give you the chance the first time? Nobody knows!

So then, following a very dramatic and very emotional cutscene (that Toriyama would really like for you to take seriously, please), and after an intense battle where you're fighting against a vicious demigod with a secret weakness that you have to discover and exploit before a timer runs out, the creature suddenly eases up, collapses, and folds itself into a ride-on lawnmower, which a grinning and winking Vanille straddles while flashing the peace sign at the camera.

I recall reading an interview with Kitase in which he said something to the effect of how much pride the Final Fantasy development team takes in allowing everyone to contribute something to the finished product, regardless of how silly their ideas might be or how incongruous they are with the rest of the content. This might help explain why Square hasn't put out a single god damned consistent game since Vagrant Story.


Bizarre supernatural intelligences who act as the reigning gods of Cocoon and Pulse. Most of them are named after old summon monsters, like Anima, Eden, Carbuncle, Kujata, Atomos, etc. The fal'Cie of Cocoon are dedicated to maintaining the comfort and care of its human inhabitants, while the behavior of the Pulse fal'Cie is much more inscrutable and wild. The aims and natures of the fal'Cie are said to be beyond human comprehension, until one of them (the one that looks like a souped-up Andross from Star Fox) spills the beans on their plans. Admittedly, "we miss our mommy so we're going to kill everyone on the planet until she comes back," may indeed be beyond human comprehension, but probably not for the reasons Kitase and Toriyama had in mind.


The Bad Guy Soldiers the heroes must outmaneuver and thwart. See also: the Palamecian army, the Imperial army, the Shinra army, the Galbadian army, the Alexandrian army, and the Archadian army. The operative gimmick this time around is that they got a Half-Life/Jin-Roh sort of thing going on.


Let's bring out the checklist.

  • The bookish, impossibly gorgeous female inquisitor whose physical beauty masks her cold heart and cruel personality!

    The ruthless, scowling silver-haired solider determined to bring down the heroes at any cost!

  • The sinister old pope figure who flies around on an airship called the Palamecia (oh boy, a Final Fantasy II reference!) and isn't quite what he seems!

  • The deranged god who pops out at the last moment to announce that he's the Final Boss and throw some nihilism at the heroes, whereupon the heroes spit back some noise about hope and friendship and solidarity like a bunch of Care Bears before murdering him with spears and guns and fire!

And there you have it. Final Fantasy XIII's developers probably put as much time and thought into coming up with these characters before having them shipped off to the Square Enix Fashion Labs and Fancy Graphics Development divisions for months of extended beautification and seven hundred glaze coats.

Final Fantasy XIII was engineered to revamp Square's time-worn Final Fantasy formula by streamlining it. In theory, this is a great plan: some of the later games (I'm thinking VIII and XII) are cluttered and disjointed experiences. Sitting down, figuring out which elements are essential for a good Final Fantasy game, and then focusing exclusively on those while trimming away the fat was something the franchise undeniably needed. The result is the most radical transformation of the Final Fantasy series since its inception. Kitase says it shouldn't even be considered an RPG anymore because it defies too many of the genre's conventions.

Interesting. So what is it, then?

It is impossible to talk about Final Fantasy XIII in any detail without describing its extreme linearity. Remember back when this particular criticism was most often directed towards Final Fantasy X? Nine years later, Final Fantasy XIII makes X look like Elder Scrolls by comparison. The most apt and frequently used comparison is that the whole experience of playing Final Fantasy XIII is like running through a very long tube. The Final Fantasy XIII experience and The Tube share a much deeper connection than a simple object/characteristic relationship. Final Fantasy XIII and The Tube are inextricable from and synonymous with each other.

Here's how it goes: you watch a cutscene, then take off down The Tube. You run through The Tube and fight monsters until you reach a point marked by an orange circle on your map. Most of the time the marker is superfluous, since The Tube generally follows a straight path. (Any deviation invariably leads to a dead end, a treasure chest sphere, and a group of monsters that must be defeated in order to open the chest sphere.) Then you watch a cutscene. Usually, these cutscenes say very, very little. It often seems as though the developers recorded the voice cast acting out a seven-minute conversation, then broke it up into several parts and and scattered them throughout The Tube. After the cutscene concludes, you continue on your way through The Tube towards the next cutscene marker, fighting inescapable two to five-minute battles against whichever monsters your character bumps into or gets jumped by. And then you watch another cutscene. And then you keep running through The Tube. And then you watch another cutscene. And then you keep running through The Tube.

And you do this for fifty hours.

The best part of The Tube is its wallpaper, which is very pretty. Square Enix spent millions of dollars designing The Tube's wallpaper. It is very detailed and shiny, but it is only wallpaper. The Tube is a blank and sterile place. Aside from monsters, treasure chests spheres, and Save Points, virtually everything in the Tube might as well be painted on because it doesn't do anything. There is occasionally a switch to activate an elevator or open a door, but that's usually the full extent of The Tube's interactivity. If you happen to pass by a human NPC that isn't trying to kill you, you are almost always restricted to listening to him/her mumble something as you walk by. There are a handful of sections where you are allowed to press the "interact" button to solicit scraps of dialogue from NPCs and examine certain objects in your surroundings, but these are rare and wondrous things within The Tube. Most of the time, all of The Tube's contents are beautiful, useless, hi-definition paper mache stage props.

As you progress through The Tube, you will frequently encounter obstructions on the path. Perhaps there will be a collapsed support beam, a ledge, or ravine. Never fear! Simply guide your character onto the small blue circle of light located just in front of the aforementioned obstruction, and he or she will automatically jump over it! You don't even have to press the interact button! It's like nothing was there at all -- because there might as well not be. ("Oh boy! Lightning is running! Oh boy! Now she is jumping! Oh boy! Now she is running again! What fun it is watching Lightning run and jump and run again!") All you're required to do as a player is remain conscious enough to hold the thumbstick in the "up" position until you collide with a monster or reach the next cutscene point.

It's hard to resist comparing Final Fantasy XIII's locations to those of BioShock and Half-Life 2, a pair of games that, like XIII, are the result of tremendous graphics budgets and very concerned with conveying a stories. Remember how the RPG used to be considered the thinking man's video game and the FPS was merely crass gore porn for the hoi polloi? Man, how times have changed.

BioShock's area graphics, like Final Fantasy XIII's, are intricate, stylish, and obviously took a great deal of time and resources to produce. But the difference is that Final Fantasy XIII has "backgrounds" while BioShock has "environments." Final Fantasy XIII's incredibly glossy, incredibly expensive backdrops only sit at the boundaries of The Tube and look nice. Nothing more. BioShock's environments are full of objects with which the player can interact, secrets he can uncover, items he can use, and so on. Even the non-interactive objects in BioShock's environments often serve a more important purpose than aesthetics: they help convey a story. Think of how much is revealed about the plot, setting, and one of the game's central characters just from stepping inside the lighthouse at the beginning of the game and examining what's around you. Or think about how much those small details -- the scattered picket signs on the floor, the stacks of Bibles in the smugglers' hideout, the WHO IS ATLAS? posters -- enrich the story and contributed to your understanding of Rapture and its history. And think of how much of Half-Life 2's story is revealed by actively exploring and paying attention to your surroundings rather than passively listening to Alyx and Dr. Kleiner flap their lips! Christ -- if Half-Life 2 had been designed by Kitase and Toriyama, it would take ten minutes of dialogue to establish that the Combine have been draining the Earth's oceans, and then an another eight minutes to tell you how terrible this is and how terrible you should feel about it. Kitase and Toriyama must be remarkably indifferent developers -- or they otherwise just have very little faith in your perspicacity as a player.

Progressing through The Tube soon becomes tedious and exhausting. You find yourself wishing all those motorcycles and sports cars and bulldozers and bumper cars the Eidolons Transform&trade into could be used for something practical (since they're useless in battle) -- that it were possible to have Lightning call down Odin, have him Michael Bay himself into a horse, and then ride him safely though The Tube, past all the wolves and goblins and blobs that make the Final Fantasy XIII experience such an unnecessary, unconscionable time sink. The game even taunts you with something like this early on!

Hope: Hey, look at this old mech. Maybe if I climb into the cockpit and hit some buttons...

[The giant mechanical juggernaut activates, and a mini-game tutorial and HUD appear onscreen]

Player: Oh boy! Now as I progress through The Tube, the robot automatically swats aside all these evil robots so I don't have to engage in the same five-minute long battle every dozen steps!

[The mech deactivates]

Lightning: Hmph. Well, I guess we're traveling on foot again.

FF13: Wasn't that fun! Hope you enjoyed it, because it will never happen again. Enjoy The Tube!

[The player spends half an hour fighting the same battle six times.]

Player: Boy, I sure did pay sixty bucks for this.

(This is even more upsetting when you calculate how much time went into earning the wages that bought you Final Fantasy XIII. If you earn ten bucks an hour, congratulations! You just wasted six irreplaceable hours of your life to purchase yourself the privilege of wasting fifty more hours of your life. How does that make you feel?)

After its apparent death in XI and burial in XII, the Final Fantasy battle screen is back, as is a heavily-altered version of the ATB system called the Command Synergy Battle System. XIII's battles are sort of like a mixture of X-2 and XII's. You only control one character at once, and it's game over if his or her HP ever hits zero. The other two are totally computer controlled and there is no way of switching whom you control in mid-battle or performing a manual override of the AI characters' commands like you could in XII. This means that your allies' actions are totally out of your hands. Most of the time they'll make fairly sensible choices (which isn't hard, given how limited XIII's ability sets are), but there are times when you'll shouting at the screen and wishing for a toggle option or missing the Gambit system -- such as when your idiot Synergist wastes time casting Brave on characters who will never be using any physical attacks, or casting Protect during battles with foes that only use magic. Or the times when your party is at 80% health and a couple characters are poisoned, and your healer will still be focusing exclusively on HP recovery instead of casting Esuna. If you don't like how they do things, then tough. They don't take orders from the likes of you.

Instead of classes, characters are assigned one of six Roles: Commando, Sentinel, Ravager, Medic, Synergist, and Saboteur. These are nothing more than zazzy euphemisms for melee, tank, nuker, healbot, buffer, and debuffer. A character's role determines everything they can do in battle. Medics can only heal. Ravagers can only cast. Sentinels can only voke and guard. Commandos can only bash. Syngergists can only buff, and Saboteurs can only debuff. But the battle system's variety and dynamism enter by way of the Paradigm system. While Final Fantasy X-2 allowed you to change a character's job in mid-battle, XIII's system involves changing everyone's Roles in mid-battle. "Paradigm" is really just a fancy term referring to party formations. For instance, the "Diversity" Paradigm refers to a Commando/Ravager/Medic team, the "Relentless Assault" Paradigm consists of a Commando/Ravager/Ravager team, the "Bully" Paradigm is a Commando/Synergist/Saboteur setup, etc. You can configure and store a deck of up to six Paradigms in the status menu and switch between them instantly during battle. Timing is very important in Final Fantasy XIII. Switching your Paradigm two seconds too late can very well kill you.

But this battle systems is way too dumbed down and bare to be an asset to the game. Say you go in to battle with a *COM/SYN/SAB team. For the first twenty seconds of the battle, all you will do is mash the "confirm" key to attack while your AI-controlled Synergists buffs and your AI-controlled Saboteur debuffs. Or say your setup is switched so as to be *SYN/COM/SAB; this just means you focus entirely on buffing while your AI-controlled Commando bashes away and your AI-controlled Saboteur chucks debuff spells. After twenty seconds or so of this, you're going to need to get a healer on the field. So you switch to your *COM/SYN/MED team. Now you're mashing the confirm button to attack while your Synergist is still casting buff spells and your Medic casts heal spells. Then when everyone's properly buffed, you switch to your *COM/RAV/MED team and just coast. Commando attacks. Ravager nukes. Medic heals. Perhaps you'll temporary switch to a *SEN/MED/SAB team when your foe's debuffs expire or back to your *COM/SYN/MED team when your debuffs run out, but for the most part, there isn't a whole lot of variety or strategy to most of Final Fantasy XIII's battles. It's a whole lot like Dragon's Lair -- the whole combat system is built on learning to press the correct button at the correct time to make everything work out in your favor. Though the party leader is also capable of throwing out healing items, using techniques (tactical and emergency spells requiring Tech Points, which cannot be replenished during battle), and summoning Eidolons (which costs TP and is almost never useful), combat in Final Fantasy XIII is still predominately:

Mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> Mash Button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> Mash Button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> Mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> Mash Button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> Mash button

Expect to be doing this two to five minutes for most garden-variety enemy encounters and ten to twenty minutes (maybe longer) for a boss fight. And the battles are never terribly complicated. Sometimes you'll hit roadblocks -- like when you start going up against bosses with upwards of 3,000,000 HP -- but it's hard to say there's much strategy involved when you have such little control over the action. Fights can sometimes still be challenging, but in my experience, the solutions rarely have anything to do with tactics. They are usually more along the lines of, "oh wait, Fang is a much stronger physical attacker than Lightning, so I'll use Fang instead." So you go into battle with Fang, use the same Paradigms as before, and presto! Victory ---> Cutscene ---> Tube.

Did I mention that you have to toggle an option in the config menu so that the default battle command isn't set to "choose what my character does for me?"

Some of you are probably grumbling, "well so what? In Final Fantasy I all you do is walk around lifeless, static maps and fight enemies every few steps. You're some kind of inconsistent nostalgiatard, praising I and berating XIII for the same thing!"

For one, doing things Final Fantasy doesn't take anything near as long as in Final Fantasy XIII. Running through an entire dungeon in Final Fantasy (and there are really only about eight of them in the whole game) takes thirty to forty minutes, tops. In Final Fantasy XIII, forty minutes is how long it takes you to watch the cutscene where Vanille asks Sazh a question and then trudge through The Tube far enough to reach the cutscene where Sazh finishes answering her. (And unlike Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy doesn't lock the player in tutorial mode for thirty fecking hours.)

But here's the biggest difference: after loading up your saved game in Final Fantasy, what you'll do is leave town, move around on the world map, and then dive into a dungeon. In order to progress in the game, you need to reach the bottom, defeat a boss, and usually retrieve some kind of item. The dungeons all have branching paths, and you are never given any maps. As you explore the dungeon, you'll want to find treasure chests (since the stuff you find in the dungeon isn't for sale in shops and is invaluable), and you'll want to win battles to earn experience points and money. The the more you explore, the more monsters you encounter. The more monsters you encounter, the more resources you'll have to expend in order to fend them off and keep your party alive. Your characters don't recover HP on their own, and you have a very limited number of healing items and spells. Final Fantasy is a game about resource management and taking calculated risks both in and outside of battle.

In Final Fantasy XIII, your team is automatically revitalized to full HP and status neutrality after every battle, nullifying the whole "resource management" angle of the game. And without that, there is absolutely no point in fighting the same battle ten times in a row between one cutscene trigger spot and the next. In a game set up like Final Fantasy XIII, once you figure out how to beat the "two wolves and a soldier" enemy group, that should be it. You've solved it. But Final Fantasy XIII forces you to push through The Tube and do it again. And again. And again. And you button mash your way through Final Fantasy XIII's redundant and unforgivably time consuming battle system again and again and again. All you can do is either try to avoid battles or pray that after the next cutscene you'll be taken to a section of The Tube with different wallpaper and different groups of enemies (that you will be forced to fight over and over and over again until you can no longer stand it). Final Fantasy XIII is like Halo translated into a console RPG.

So there's no exploration. There is nothing at stake and never any sense of risk, especially since you can simply hit the Retry button anytime you want. Battles overwhelmingly consist of mashing a single button and keeping an eye on numbers. Progressing through the maps overwhelmingly consists of moving in straight lines without backtracking. So what Final Fantasy XIII essentially boils down to is:

run through The Tube ---> mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> mash buttons ---> run through The Tube ---> mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> mash button ---> run through The Tube ---> mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> mash button ---> run through The Tube ---> watch cutscene ---> run through The Tube ---> mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> mash button ---> run through The Tube ---> mash button ---> Paradigm Shift ---> mash button ---> run through The Tube ---> watch cutscene

Fifty hours. At least the graphics are pretty.

But this is precisely what Kitase and Toriyama intended. After all, XIII was an effort to revitalize Final Fantasy by shaving away all the excess the series had accumulated over the years and focusing only on what was crucial. The problem is that all the stuff that was slashed for being extraneous was also what made Final Fantasy interesting. Final Fantasy XIII has no towns. There is no backtracking. There are no subplots or optional story quests. There are no minigames. There is no "who will ask Lightning on a date?" scenario governed by secret Love Points. There are no NPC you can revisit and follow throughout the game. There are no optional characters, hidden classes or secret abilities. There are no hidden maps. There are no alternate endings. There is only The Tube.

Final Fantasy XIII doesn't have towns because towns wouldn't fit inside The Tube. (Don't let Palumpolum fool you -- Palumpolum is just a section of Tube painted to resemble an RPG town.) But not to worry: the two basic functions of towns are intact and have been seamlessly integrated with some of the game's other devices. For example, the "cool off and talk to townsfolk for new information" aspect now belongs to the "Datalog" subcategory of the status screen. The Datalog works something like the Clan Primer in Final Fantasy XII, and is a repository for character bios, monsters data, Cocoon historica, and plot summaries. Every so often, when you proceed far enough through The Tube and watch enough cutscenes, you'll see a "Datalog Updated!" message flash on the screen. This is an opportunity for you to sit back, relax a few minutes, and read a convenient summary of the last six minutes of conversation that were just stretched out across the last sixty minutes of Tube crawling.

(Remember when Square's games placed you in strange settings with strange people and encouraged you to explore and engage with the environments and NPCs in order to understand the story instead of just pointing you towards a collection of automatically updated in-game Wikipedia articles? That was fun, wasn't it?)

The second and more obvious function of RPG towns is now performed by Final Fantasy XIII's save points, which additionally serve as equipment upgrading consoles and item vending machines. Not that it's terribly important, though. The game's weapon/armor advancement system is slow, boring and basically pointless. And excepting the usual Potion/Antidote/Phoenix Down trio, items are mostly useless. The only items you ever really want more of are the "sprays" that mask enemies' awareness of you or allow you to enter the next battle with full sets of status buffs; so naturally, you can only start buying these at the end of Chapter 12. (But apparently you can get them fairly often as consolation prizes for scoring zero out of five stars in battle, which means Final Fantasy XIII is a game that rewards players with its most prized items for sucking at Final Fantasy XIII. Brilliant.)

What about sidequests? Well, towards the end of the game, you reach Gran Pulse, which Square Enix (and XIII's positive reviews) like to think is a vast, unstructured expanse akin to the second half of Final Fantasy VI that compensates for trapping the player in The Tube for the previous forty hours. This is where XIII finally "opens up" and all the sidequest become available.

Yes -- sidequest. Singular. Final Fantasy XIII has only one sidequest: monster hunting. The whole system is lifted straight from Final Fantasy XII's Hunts: you discover cie'th stones, which are basically vending machines for missions. When you examine the cie'th stone, it says "go kill X monster over in Y place." So you run over to Y place and kill X monster. Then you get some sort of item as a reward, and the next vending machine is activated. The next vending machine says "go to P place and kill Q monster." So you do that, activating another vending machine, which tells you to go to A place and kill B monster.

This is all there is to Final Fantasy XIII's lone sidequest. You run around on Pulse and receive assignments to kill special monster recolors. Naturally, these monsters become increasingly nasty, so you'll have to do a great deal of farming and grinding before you're ready to challenge the tougher ones. Remember when doing sidequests used to take you to unexplored areas and reveal new information about the the plot and characters? (Because hasn't immersion in a story been the reason we've all been buying these games since 1994?)

What about minigames? There is a part in Chapter VII when Vanille and Sazh arrive at a place called Nautilus (oh boy, a Final Fantasy III reference!), which was designed to activate players' Final Fantasy VII Nostalgia Chips and inspire warm reminiscences of the Gold Saucer. These players will probably enter Nautilus expecting to do stuff like race chocobos for prizes, might battles in a monster arena sort of place, or play minigames for bonuses. Nope. You waste ten minutes in a silly "chocobo hide and seek!" mini-event, then fight some enemies and a boss. And you never return to Nautilus again. Unless it is for the purpose of visiting the vending machines and fighting monsters on Gran Pulse, Final Fantasy XIII forbids all backtracking through The Tube.

But that's not it for the chocobos. After completing a number of Missions on Gran Pulse, you are allowed access to a small, previously blocked-off cranny on the map where you can find a chocobo you can ride. After this you are able to ride chocobos across the massive Archylte Steppe map, which allows you to dig for buried treasure (a'la Final Fantasy IX's Chocobo Hot & Cold collect 'em all gamer meth) and access sections of the map where the more advanced vending machines and Missions are found. This is really just an extension of the monster hunting sidequest and not really a minigame, so I guess it doesn't count.

I get the impression that Toriyama heard someone criticizing Final Fantasy X-2's hyperabundance of pointless minigames, and it really got stuck in his craw. So when it came time to work on Final Fantasy XIII, he decided that the whole thing would be composed of running, fighting, cutscenes, and nothing else. XIII is a big, spiteful BET YOU MISS MY MINIGAMES NOW, DOUCHEFACE signed by Toriyama.

Remember how in Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, sidequests were a means of filling in gaps and expanding on the story? Yeah, don't expect much of that here -- although completing certain Missions allows you to read new entries in the "Analects" section of the Datalog, which is basically Kingdom Hearts's Ansem Reports transplanted into Final Fantasy XIII. There are thirteen in all (of course), and they help to elucidate some of the hazier points in XIII's plot, such as the origins of Cocoon, the nature of the fal'Cie, and the history of Pulse. Some of this is interesting stuff -- why Kitase and Toriyama would choose to marginalize those potentially fascinating story concepts and focus instead on having seventeen cutscenes where Snow pounds his fist into his palm and says "SERAH WANTS US TO SAVE COCOON. THAT'S OUR FOCUS! WE MUST SAVE COCOON BECAUSE SERAH WANTED US TO SAVE COCOON BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT HER FOCUS WAS, AND IT'S WHAT OUR FOCUS IS, WHICH IS TO SAVE COCOON. SO COME ON! LET'S COMPLETE OUR FOCUS AND SAVE COCOON BECAUSE SERAH'S FOCUS WAS TO GIVE US OUR FOCUS TO SAVE COCOON. SO NOW WE NEED TO SAVE COCOON" is beyond me.

And with that, I suppose it's time we touched on Final Fantasy XIII's story, which is very similar to that of the fairly recent .hack //G.U. series in how it is conveyed (run ---> button mash ---> run ---> button mash ---> run ---> button mash ----> cutscene ---> run ---> button mash ---> run ---> button mash ---> run ---> button mash ---> cutscene) and how it is such a terrible waste of potential. First of all -- and I know I keep saying this -- if you're intent on using a video game to convey a story, you are doing the player and the medium a disservice by reducing the story to something that the player has to earn by slogging through your miserable, repetitive, time-eating game. In a videogame like this, the player should be an active participant in the plot, not a spectator. Does Final Fantasy XIII do this? (Do you even need to ask? This is a game that just barely lets you control what happens during the parts that you're ostensibly supposed to be playing.) You'd think this would put the game's designers under an even greater obligation to ensure that the story they're forcing their players to spend thirty-five hours earning by running through The Tube and mashing buttons be at least one notch above "total fucking embarrassment," right?

There is much material in XIII's premise and setting that could have been used to tell a great story, but the whole thing is so badly written, poorly paced, and convoluted that all the interesting details and subtexts are buried beneath a hissing mound of personality-obsessed histrionics centered on fan-pandering stereotypes. The central theme of characters being forced to choose between saving the world or saving themselves could have been used to weave a powerful and provocative narrative, but Final Fantasy XIII opts for cliche, contrition, and melodrama over substance and competent storytelling. Take Cid Raines: he might have been a damn good character if he had any kind of palpable presence in the plot and wasn't just a means for the developers to kill two birds with one stone by inserting a particular plot device they required and naming it "Cid." And the concept of Cocoon -- a hikikomori kingdom whose every need and pleasure is provided for by the fal'Cie, who inculcate the populace with the belief that the outside world is hell -- could have been used to convey a very compelling and relevant message that might have even given the player something to keep thinking about after he puts the controller down (hey, remember how Final Fantasy VII sorta did that?), but Kitase and Toriyama couldn't be bothered to shoot for anything higher than autofellating, spectacle-driven tripe that feels like it was written by aliens who have taken a lot of notes on human emotion but never actually experienced it.

"But Pat!" some of you might be saying, "how is this at all inconsistent with what we've come to expect from Final Fantasy? Let me remind you how many paragraphs you spent bitching about plot in your VIII, IX, and XII articles!"

Yes. This is true. But Final Fantasy XIII is worse. Much worse. Even VIII and IX (which also have plots that make no sense and more than a few forays into sloppy melodrama) are both able to meet at least one of the following three basic requirements for effectively conveying a story by way of a video game: 1.) compelling the player to care about the characters 2.) compelling the player to take some interest in the world the characters inhabit 3.) providing the player with an odious, threatening villain whom he wants to fight for a more personal reason than "because The Tube leads to him." Final Fantasy XIII does none of these things. You can't relate to the characters because they act like Toontown residents trying to pass themselves off as human beings with very serious problems that they have very serious feelings about. It's hard to give a damn about what happens to Cocoon because it resembles a theme park monorail ride more than a fleshed-out fictional setting. And the villains? Two of them don't matter at all. The "main" villain, who waits until the ninth chapter to finally reveal himself, is a monodimensional living statue whose evil plan can't possibly elicit any response from the viewer other than irritated confusion. And the true villain just crawls onto the screen at the very end of the last chapter for no reason at all, just like he did twenty years ago when Final Fantasy was an 8-bit Famicom game with no deluded pretensions of being god's gift to the cinematic narrative. And Jesus -- that last cutscene before the final boss ("WE LIVE TO MAKE THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE! THAT...IS OUR FOCUS!!") is even more jejune, agonizing, lock-the-door-and-mute-the-TV-if-you-hear-footsteps-in-the-hall than the nine-minute speech Toriyama wrote for Yuna at the end of X-2. (And the less I think about Square Enix's decision to license a Leona Lewis track for use in the North American release during the generic, overdone ending sequence, the better it will be for my blood pressure.)

Fifty hours.

Final Conclusion

I didn't complete Final Fantasy XIII. Part of the reason for this was my misunderstanding of Blockbuster Video's overdue rentals policy. Some days into the game, when I was right at the end of Chapter 12, I took a look at my checking account balance and discovered that Blockbuster had charged me sixty dollars for the purchase of the game since I'd gone over the rental limit. I could only be refunded if I returned the game to the store immediately.

So I did. The hell with Final Fantasy XIII. I didn't want to be out sixty bones for a game that's going to sink down though the strata of my closet along with my collection of the .hack PS2 games (both series), which I also have no intention of ever playing again. So I took the game back and watched the last cutscenes, boss fights, and ending on YouTube, and didn't once feel like I was missing out. Were it not that I felt obligated to see this thing through as far as I could and do one last writeup on the main series, I probably would have stopped playing sometime during Chapter 9 anyway.

With its thirteenth installment, Final Fantasy has at last reached its nadir. This isn't a simple case of me outgrowing something I used to love -- Final Fantasy XIII is just exceptionally lousy. It's an exemplary guidebook on how not to make a video game. It's a bargain bin direct-to-DVD CG anime that Square Enix mashed up with a PS3 shovelware game with an astronomical graphics budget. When you're advancing through The Tube, you only want to get to the next cutscene already. When you're watching the cutscenes, all you want is for everyone to shut up so you can get back to moving forward through The Tube and wishing you were watching the next cutscene.

But what else could you expect? Final Fantasy XIII was the only possible destination for a franchise (and company) that has allowed itself to become so useless and morbidly bloated on its own self-importance. (Fitting for a series that takes so much of its inspiration from George Lucas.) But Square Enix doesn't care, and it doesn't need to care. It knows that its every release is going to sell millions of copies due to brand recognition, the thousands of desperate fans in their mid to late twenties still hoping for another shot of the soma they felt from being thirteen and playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time, and its ever-enduring cred with teenagers who can be counted on to make AMVs from Linkin Park tracks set to footage from its latest release. Square Enix also knows that the mainstream gaming press will always be inclined to treat its latest massive Final Fantasy production with kid gloves and do it some complimentary PR. Final Fantasy XIII received an 8.5 out of 10 score from GameSpot, an 8.9 out of 10 from IGN, an A- from 1UP/EGM, a 4.5 out of 5 from GamePro, a 5 out of 5 from Playstation Official Magazine, a 9 out of 10 from Official XBox Magazine, and an 8 out of 10 from Eurogamer. According to Game Rankings, XIII's average press ratings are 85% and 81% for the PS3 and 360 versions, respectively. There is no other video game franchise on the planet that could have gotten away with this.

So what now? Well, it's still too early to guess what lasting impact Final Fantasy XIII will have on the franchise and Square Enix (Toriyama is already talking about a Final Fantasy XIII-2), but what I can say is that I'm finished with Final Fantasy. It has finally, irrevocably, and beyond doubting turned into something I no longer find interesting or entertaining. Most of the talent that initially made it worth playing is long gone, and has been supplanted by hacks, yes-men, and corporatism. It's become a cliche of itself. It's become boring -- and Square Enix has become the veritable Flavor Flav of the videogame industry. Today's Final Fantasy is not something I would ever spend sixty dollars and fifty hours on again, and it's definitely not something I plan on spending a week writing about after this.

So I guess that means we're done here. Thanks for reading.

Hmm. You know, when I first starting playing Final Fantasy in first grade, those junior astronomy books and telescope I got for my birthday earlier that year got thrown into the closet real fast. Now that I'm at last finished with Final Fantasy, maybe it's time I gave stargazing another shot. Might be a fun change of pace to make a hobby of doing something real for a change.

See you around.

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