A long time coming...
This has been a difficult piece to write. When I finished my playthrough of Final Fantasy XIII in December 2010, I hated it. "Final Fantasy XIII is the single greatest waste of time that I've ever subjected myself to..." proclaimed my Twitter and I responded to any dissention with scathing, in-depth criticisms of the game. As time passed, I mellowed out and tried to be more optimistic, considering some of the good potential qualities that FFXIII had. But then Square-Enix would go and do something like announce Final Fantasy XIII-2, encouraging a bout of cold indifference in me. Then I'd go and revisit this half-written article, the rage would return, and the cycle would start anew.
There isn't much that I could say about Final Fantasy XIII that hasn't already been said. The game is almost two years old, and there isn't much I could say that isn't old news. It's tempting to try and forget about this article, letting it collect dust on various flash drives alongside the novel I've been "working on" for several years and my series of articles comparing/contrasting Final Fantasy VI to Final Fantasy VII. But even after all this time, I have a compelling need to get this out of my system. So for better or for worse it's time for me to bring together these pieces of long-digested thought and push them out into the world.
So, here we go... As my perspective has bounced around between fan rage, mild optimism, and dismissive indifference in varying amounts, this piece has been rewritten, edited, and ignored to follow suit. Even now, after so many edits, this piece is bound to be at least a little inconsistent. You've been warned.Initial Thoughts
Anyone who knows me will tell you that it is difficult to earn my ire. When it comes to tastes in food, drinks, TV shows, movies, or games, there are few things in this world that I actively hate and even fewer things for which I will go out of my way to make a case for why they are bad. If I try something and don't like it, I'll generally be diplomatic and consider who else might like it.
Also, I'm a long-time fan of the Final Fantasy series. The first real RPG I'd ever played was Chrono Trigger, but my second was Final Fantasy VII. Since my introduction at age 16, I've played all of the (non-MMO) games in the main series from start to finish. While the series has its definite high and low points, I'd never felt that any one of them was definitively bad
. (I should probably note here that I played the GBA port of Final Fantasy II.)
While my taste in video games has changed since I was a teenager and I recognize that the JRPG genre may be stuck in developmental rut, I can still enjoy a good JRPG. All a JRPG has to do to win me over is give me a fun battle system and an engaging story.
In spite of all this, Final Fantasy XIII is the single most disappointing video game I have ever played. It may be the first game I've ever actually hated. Though most of the hatred has since subsided, thinking about this game still leaves me scratching my head asking "why?!"Presentation
Let's get this out of the way first: the game looks great. The environments, character models, monsters, and battle animations are all great, and I don't have anything else to say about them. The graphics aren't an integral part of my overall opinion of the game, so let's leave it at "they're great" and move on.
I wish I could say the same thing about the audio. Overall it's not bad, but it's not great either. The voice acting was well-done, the sound effects were fine, and the music was always appropriate to the situation. The overall score, however, was really bland. It wasn't bad; it was just completely forgettable. None of the musical pieces stand out in my memory except the battle music, and that's only because I heard it over and over again as I played through the game.
Let's consider for a moment that the series' past has featured some of the most beloved musical pieces in video gaming. Final Fantasy VI, a game that was released three console generations ago on a cartridge-based system, has much
more memorable music than Final Fantasy XIII.
That's just sad.Gameplay
FFXIII has a reputation for being ridiculously linear, and that reputation is deserved. The majority of the game consists of running down a series of linear maps (that I've heard multiple people refer to as "The Tube"), fighting unavoidable battles until a cut-scene or boss fight happens.
Let me say that I'm not against linearity in video games. There are some stories that can't be told as effectively in a non-linear fashion. Characterization and plot pacing can be much more effective when a designer doesn't have to account for player choice in terms of how the plot is presented. Consider Half-Life, Portal and Bioshock, three games that are held up as great examples of video game storytelling. Give and take some ability to backtrack, they are linear experiences. Despite western gaming's love affair with "sandbox" games, I say that linearity in and of itself is not a bad thing; it all comes down to how that linearity is used. Despite all the legitimate complaints that are brought against Final Fantasy X (most of which I completely agree with), it's still my third favorite game in the series and one of my favorite JRPGs of all time. When I heard about how linear FFXIII was, I went in unfazed. "FFX was really linear but I really liked the battle system and the story," I thought. My assumption was that FFXIII would offer those two things as well.
FFXIII uses a modified version of the ATB system that was introduced in Final Fantasy IV. Each of your characters builds up multiple ATB gauges instead of just one and then sets up multiple actions in queue. The actions are then fluidly executed in a chain. The actions can be queued up manually or you can select the Auto-Battle command, prompting the AI to decide which actions are ideal and chain them up for you.
After a moderate amount of time into the game, we're introduced to the Paradigm system, which is a heavy modification of the Job system of past Final Fantasy games. You assign each character in your party one of six roles: Commando (melee attacker), Ravager (magic attacker), Medic (casts healing magic), Sentinel (draws enemy attention and prevents damage), Synergist (casts positive status effects on allies), or Saboteur (casts negative status effects on enemies). A certain party setup you create is saved as a Paradigm. For example, a setup with one Commando, one Ravager, and one Medic is called the "Diversity" Paradigm. You can create and save up to six Paradigms at a time in the menu. During battle you can perform a Paradigm Shift, changing your Paradigm mid-fight. Switching between Paradigms quickly and strategically is the first key to battling successfully.
The other key to success is inducing Stagger. By melee attacking, magic attacking, and casting negative status effects on an enemy, you can build up chain bonuses on that enemy that increase overall damage dealt to that enemy by each attack. If you build up enough bonuses, you can push the enemy into a Stagger. While in a Stagger, the amount of damage an enemy receives skyrockets. Additionally, most Staggered enemies can be thrown into the air with a command called "Launch" and then juggled with attacks in such a way that they can't hurt your party. During boss battles (and as you go into the later parts of the game, the normal battles as well) the enemies have a ton of health, so inducing Stagger becomes essential to defeating them in any reasonable amount of time.
At the end of each battle, the game rates your battle performance on a scale of 0 to 5 stars. There may be other factors, but as far as I could tell your rating is based completely on how fast you finish the battle.
It's not an altogether bad system and it lends itself to some of the more interesting and challenging battles I've experienced in the series and the genre, but the system is doled out very slowly in small pieces over time, making the bulk of the game feel like a tutorial mode that is a chore to slog through.
You go through Chapters 1-2 (out of the total 13) with almost nothing but the ability to attack and use items. During these first hours you'll use the "Attack" command ad nauseam and occasionally employ elementary strategy regarding, "Who should I attack first?" in battles that have multiple targets.
Once you get to Chapter 3 the game gives you the ability to use the Paradigm system. However, during Chapters 3-8, certain characters only have access to three of the total six roles, you have no control over who is and isn't in your party, and the majority of the time you're limited to a two-member party. There's little room for customization, strategy, or challenge in the Paradigm system when you're not controlling a three-member party. The result is hours upon hours of fighting redundant battles where you'll spend most of your time going back-and-forth between these two basic strategies:
"My health is low, I need a Paradigm with a healer in it!"
"My health is fine, I need Paradigm that is all offense!"
It's boring, it's repetitive, and it's dumbed-down. Even RPG newbies will blow through most battles easily in Chapters 1-8, while RPG veterans will be asking, "When does this game get good?"
Whether or not it gets "good" is debatable, but once you get to Chapters 9-11 the gameplay does get "much better." From Chapter 9 forward, you consistently have the full three-member party and you gain the ability to choose the members of your party. At the start of Chapter 10, your characters gain access to all six roles. The battles, especially the boss battles, start to demand significantly more strategy. In Chapter 11, the party is let out of The Tube and thrown onto a series of open maps on the wild, untamed world of Pulse. While there is a specific way to go through this area to proceed to the next chapter, you're free to explore the areas and take on optional monster-hunting quests. Then you have to leave this reasonably fun Final Fantasy playground to go back into The Tube for Chapters 12 and 13 to fight boring, repetitive standard encounters and variably interesting boss battles until the game ends. Give or take a few good boss battles elsewhere, Chapter 11 was only part of the gameplay that I really had fun with.
Everything I've said about the gameplay up to this point may not sound definitively horrible. Assuming that the player doesn't mind the repetition, the linearity, or the fact that the system doesn't fully open up until dozens of hours into the game...it's not that
bad, right? Don't go there just yet. You see, there is a fatal flaw in this system that is often overlooked. In most RPGs, managing a resource pool that certain abilities require, especially in regards to how long your support characters are able to keep using their healing abilities, has long been an essential part of RPG strategy. Breaking both series and genre tradition, FFXIII dispenses with MP. With the exception of Summons and other specific commands, all abilities cost a certain number of ATB gauges. With one ATB gauge, a character can chain up a standard physical attack, a standard attack spell, a standard healing spell, etc. More powerful techniques or techniques that effect multiple targets cost multiple gauges. This doesn't seem like a problem at first, but under closer scrutiny this all but breaks the system.
Without a finite resource pool for magic casting, your party can keep up the healing power indefinitely. I realized this during a boss fight sometime around Chapter 8. I had a hard time inducing a Stagger, so I settled on the following strategy:
Step 1) stick to a Paradigm that had one healer and one attacker
Step 2) set the default command on Auto-Battle
Step 3) mindlessly hammer the confirm button, slowly chipping away at the boss's health with my attacker while my support character healed
And how did this work out? Well, I only needed one thumb to tap the "confirm" button, so I checked my e-mail with my free hand, and 8 minutes later the boss died without me even having to look at the TV screen.
I was kidding...
Once you gain a basic understanding of FFXIII's battle system, most of the battles are not actually a struggle between WIN/LOSE, they're a struggle between WIN/WIN FASTER; you're only in danger of dying when you put yourself there
by focusing too heavily on offense or by going after a foe on Pulse that is presently out of your league.
Notice I did say "most." This is not true of all battles. Several boss battles have a Doom counter, requiring you to finish the battle before a time limit runs out. Other enemies become really nasty at certain points in battle. For example, once taken down to a certain health level, many of the Behemoth monsters will begin to climb up on their hind legs. If they succeed, they will fully recover their health, start dealing out a lot more damage, and become nearly impossible to Stagger. When you encounter these creatures you'll want to Stagger them quickly, juggle them so that they can't act, and then finish them off while juggled, preventing them from shifting into that state.
The encounters that don't have any sort of time-sensitive mechanic (see: over 95% of them) are nothing but time sinks. For the majority of battles, it's possible to set up a medic/attacker Paradigm (in a 2-person party), or Healer/Attacker/Attacker Paradigm (in a 3-person party) and mash one button to victory. If it's a nastier encounter, you might need a Healer/Attacker/Sentinel Paradigm, but you can still mash one button and win.
Granted, in later chapters the battles would take a ridiculously long amount of time without good use of Paradigm Shift and Stagger, but it's still possible
to one-button your way to victory with no strategy whatsoever in most battles. I firmly believe that if you had a controller with a rapid-fire function, you could set your party to a Healer/Attacker or Healer/Attacker/Sentinel Paradigm, tape down the "confirm" button and go through the bulk of this game doing nothing but navigating the environments with one hand. In some of the areas where the map is really linear, you could probably tape the left analog stick in the "up" position and the game could literally play itself.
How is this good game design?
The game does award end-battle prizes based on your star rating. This is supposed
to be what motivates you to win efficiently and get the 5-star ratings, but Square-Enix managed to mess this up as well. Oftentimes the "pity prizes" for getting 0 out of 5 stars are better
than the 5-star prizes! Most of us who play Final Fantasy XIII will simply go through the main game and we will want more of the special potions that are used outside of battle that help you avoid enemies or allow you to go into battle with a full set of status buffs. These items are given out relatively often in early chapters as consolation prizes for getting 0 out of 5 stars. One could argue that, if you're going to do all the monster-hunting quests on Gran Pulse, 5-star wins are in your best interest because you'll want to get the best and most valuable upgrade components so that you can upgrade/buy your way to the best equipment. However, you could just play through the main game with no regard for star rankings, then turn around and grind 5-star win prizes from monsters on Pulse later on. In the end, going for 5 stars while progressing through the main game is done only for its own sake.
All this and I've barely mentioned the stats and equipment system. Really, there's not much to talk about. Characters only have three stats: HP, Strength, and Magic. HP determines health, Strength determines physical attack and defense, and Magic determines magical attack and defense. Equipment generally gives some sort stat boost to your HP, Strength, or Magic. Some weapons will add damage types or status effects to attacks. Some armors/accessories will grant resistance to damage types or status effects. Rare equipment will grant new abilities. You can then collect upgrade components and "feed" them to a piece of equipment to level it up and increase the bonuses that it gives. The system is very rudimentary compared to other RPGs (including its immediate predecessor, Final Fantasy XII), but it didn't really bother me... until I got to the end of the game, that is.
I should take this moment to bring up that you only directly control your party leader in battle and if your party leader dies, it's GAME OVER. While the AI is generally competent, it doesn't seem to give distinct preferential treatment to your party leader. This caused me to suffer a couple of annoying GAME OVERs. But all in all this aspect of the game, like the stats/equipment system, didn't really bother me...again, until I got to the end of the game.
I was fighting the first form of the final boss. I was about ten minutes into the battle and I was doing just fine. He then used an instant-death move on one of my secondary party members. I thought, "Well, that sucked, but it's nothing I can't bounce back from." I revived and rebuffed that member and kept going. A couple minutes later he used that same move on my other secondary party member. I recovered again and thought, "There's no way he's going to use that move on my party leader because that would mean an instant GAME OVER that I can't do anything about, and that would be ludicrous."
And. Then. It. Happened.
After staring at the screen in disbelief for at least a straight minute, I looked up a guide online. That's when I read that (unless you're power-leveled to the point where you can beat him really
fast) in order to have a chance against the final boss you have to fill your party leader's two accessory slots with two expensive accessories that each give 30% percent resistance to instant-death. Then, you have to level them up to the point where, between the two accessories, your party leader is 100% resistant. I had already used up my money and my upgrade components leveling up my stat-bonus weapons because I knew I was on the verge of the end of the game. With what little I had left, I could only get my party leader's instant-death resistance up to 54%. If I wanted to be able to beat the final boss, I'd have to backtrack all the way to the portal that could warp me to Pulse, then grind for money and items to level up the accessories, and then work my way back to the final save point again
. The whole process was sure to take me at least another 3-5 hours.
First thought upon this realization: Screw. That.
I threw the game back in its case, looked up the final fights and ending sequences on YouTube and let them buffer while I drove the game back to its owner, all the while being grateful that it was a borrowed copy and that I never spent my own money on it.
Square-Enix, why did you make a battle system where party leader death = GAME OVER and not design the AI to give a significant ally preference or enemy exception for the party leader? Why would you design an equipment system that is meant to minimize its presence throughout the entire game
only to force the player to need very
specific equipment in order to overcome the final boss? Why did you design a system geared toward flashy, exciting, fast-paced battles but force the player into so many repetitive, boring, standard encounters? Story
For many who enjoy RPGs, the story is the most important part of the game, so much so that a good story can redeem a game with bad gameplay. All of the major complaints that I've lodged against the game so far (repetitive/boring standard battle encounters, flawed battle system, dumbed-down equipment system, requiring me to do very specific and arbitrary things in order to reach the game's conclusion) could also be applied to another game, a game that is one of my all-time favorites: Chrono Cross.
I won't mince words. In terms of gameplay, Chrono Cross isn't very good. Its battle system gets points for attempting innovation, but it's slow and boring, and the difficulty curve is way off. In fact, despite the dozen or so paragraphs worth of grief I threw out above, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII's battle system more than Chrono Cross's. And as frustrating as the FFXIII ending scenario is, it isn't nearly as obtuse as the requirements for Chrono Cross's "good ending."
In spite of these things, Chrono Cross is one of my most treasured gaming experiences and Final Fantasy XIII is the most disappointing game I've ever played. This is because Chrono Cross has such an unusual and interesting story full of artful implications. It's easy for me to overlook the gameplay flaws because the story really drew me in (the beautiful soundtrack and pre-rendered backgrounds helped as well). If Final Fantasy XIII had a story that was interesting on any comparable level to those of FFVI, FFVII, or FFX (my top three favorite stories in the series), the flaws with the battle system would be completely forgivable.
Final Fantasy XIII's story starts out strong. In punctuated bits during the first few hours we get a basic idea of the setting. There's the wild, untamed surface world of the planet, which is called "Pulse." There's also a floating techno-magical continent inside a titanic metal sphere floating above Pulse called "Cocoon." Cocoon and Pulse each have their own Fal'cie, which are strange techno-magical god-like beings. The Fal'Cie of Cocoon take care of all the needs of Cocoon's populace while the Sanctum (humans working directly for the Cocoon Fal'Cie) scare Cocoon's populace by telling them that the lower world of Pulse is hell even though there's no way for the populace to know what Pulse is really like. They also propagate that the "enemies of Cocoon" will attack any day, even though Cocoon and Pulse haven't had any sort of conflict for centuries.
Occasionally, a Fal'Cie will mark a human as a L'Cie, which gives them incredible power and assigns them a secret task called a Focus. If a L'Cie discovers and succeeds in their Focus, they turn into a crystal statue, gaining a sort of immortality. If a L'Cie fails in their Focus, they turn into a zombie-like monster called a C'ieth. After the frantic opening scenes, the story's pacing slows down until a few hours in when the Cocoon-native characters are marked as L'Cie by a Pulse Fal'Cie. Influenced by Sanctum's teachings, they assume that, as Pulse L'Cie, they are now enemies of Cocoon and their Focus revolves around attacking their home.
Even though it takes a bit too long to establish this main plot element, the overall setup is golden. The world and characters are ripe with potential to tell a story built on strong themes of "blind acceptance vs. discovering the truth for yourself" and "self-interest vs. sacrifice for the greater good," which are both themes that the series adeptly explored in Final Fantasy X. There's also potential for relevant social commentary about the role of propaganda in a society where one entity holds all the power. We saw interesting social commentary in Final Fantasy VII, and while the theme of propaganda was touched on in that game, it's a theme that begs to be further explored. Final Fantasy XIII was primed to do just that.
What exactly went wrong?
Well, let's look at my condensed (free-of-major-spoilers) summary of the story, (time approximations are purely based on my loose memories of how long each part took me to complete):
Chapters 1-2 = Characters are introduced, the setting is minimally established, and the characters are marked as Pulse L'Cie. (3-5 hours)
Chapters 3-8 = The characters are on the run from the authorities with no particular goal in mind and no idea what their Focus is, so they just sort of muck around. We shift between character groups and we're given character development in small punctuated bits. Almost nothing progresses in regards to the main plot; the questions surrounding Cocoon vs. Pulse and what the characters are going to do about being L'Cie are put in near-complete stasis. There are lots of character-centric flashbacks, interpersonal drama, and flashy fights with the Sanctum authorities. All of this develops the core plot very, very little and doesn't develop the characters as much as you'd think that it would, considering just how much of the game is devoted to this. (18-22 hours!!!)
Chapter 9 = The main villain of the game finally reveals himself and the heroes discover what their Focus is. It can be a little confusing, but at least something is actually happening with the plot now, and the characters now have a vague idea of what they need to do... (1-2 hours)
Chapter 10 = ...but we still have no idea what they're actually going to do. Fortunately for the indecisive numbskulls, a plot device gives them another chapter that amounts to "story-based level-grinding" so that they can be as indecisive as they like while the plot development is put in stasis...again! (This ridiculously padded and pointless chapter takes 1-2 hours.)
Chapter 11 = The characters finally have a clear goal, but then they'll probably put the story in stasis even more to run around doing monster-hunting side-quests. (3-5 hours if you go straight through to the goal; sticking around to do as many monster hunts as is possible at this point in the game means being here for a long while)
Chapter 12-13 = The characters finally decide what they're going to do and resolve that they will do it even if it means defying their Focus, so they race back to the heart of Cocoon to make it happen. An ancillary plot regarding Cocoon politics is presented, but it doesn't make much sense because so little screen time has been spent developing it. (5-7 hours assuming you don't go through the portal back to Pulse for more monster-hunting and leveling-up before moving on to the end of the game.)
Conclusion = The characters beat the main villain and then another boss that doesn't make much sense appears out of nowhere. Fighting this boss seems to be the complete opposite of what they said they were going to earlier...but they fight him anyway! And what we understand about the plot so far tells us that this is bad idea! But hey, that's alright because afterward some crazy stuff that is never explained pulls a dues ex machina to save the day and most everyone lives happily ever after.
The basic premise of the story is excellent, but the way the story is told is so padded out and unfocused. Worst of all, the final pay-off is all but doomed be unsatisfying. I get the distinct impression that Final Fantasy XIII was designed to pull elements from the most beloved main-series Final Fantasy games of the past. But just like the heroes in this story, this game doesn't seem to know what its focus is.
Like Final Fantasy X, it takes a very linear approach to story progression and pushes to make the traditional small-band-of-heroes-against-the-empire Final Fantasy story have a certain religious bent.
Like Final Fantasy VII, it starts out with the main character (who was intentionally designed as a "female version of Cloud") and the token black guy riding a train and throwing down with the forces of a totalitarian political entity. Like VII, the story sets itself up for socially relevant concepts.
Like Final Fantasy VIII, it tries to focus on the inner lives and relationships of the characters more so than the development of the plot.
Like Final Fantasy VI, it tries to avoid having a main character. While Lightning is definitely the title character, the game cuts back and forth between all the characters and tries to flesh them out more evenly, as opposed to games like VII or VIII, which have distinct main characters.
The problem is that in combining all of these storytelling approaches, it doesn't perform well in any of them
Does anyone know what the hell is going on here?!
It fails at trying to be like FFX because so much of the game is consumed by interpersonal drama and a lack of interaction with anything but the player characters. We don't get a strong feel for the culture, history, or society of the world we're in. The "man vs. society" conflict model can hardly be effective if you don't have a strong understanding of the society that the characters are operating in.
It fails at trying to be like FFVII because without a properly developed understanding of the world and the characters' relationship with it, we can't explore socially relevant concepts or moral ambiguity. And, unlike FFVII, there's a lack of context when it comes to the bigger character-centric plot reveals.
It fails at trying to be like FFVIII because whereas FFVIII had a story that made plot allowances for characters to sit around and talk about their feelings every once in a while, FFXIII's characters spend most of their time on the run from the law and in a race against time because of their L'Cie brands. This "let's sit around and discuss our feelings" character-centric approach doesn't really make sense in the frame of XIII's narrative. Also, whether you like him, hate him, or (like me) are ambivalent towards him, Squall was quite well-developed for a video game character in the context of the time when VIII was released. This was due in no small part to the fact that the game pretty much revolved around him. On the other hand...
...because XIII was trying to be like VI, no one character was developed as well as past main characters in games like VII and VIII. VI made this work by employing the "less is more" approach to characterization. On the other hand, FFXIII constantly exposes us to these characters and their interpersonal drama without first establishing a strong context of their back-stories or of the world that they are operating in. As a result, it can be very difficult to understand or relate to them, and this often makes the story's dramatic moments feel overwrought and forced.
What a mess...
I've been told that there is a way to "play" the game to where you do
have a good understanding of the history and culture of the world, you do
have a deep understanding of the characters, and the ending totally
makes sense. How is this possible? The answer is the absolute worst part of this game's story...
FFXIII features a "Datalog," a collected in-game database for plot summaries, character bios, background info, detailed lore, etc. You may have seen something similar to this in the form of the "Clan Primer" in FFXII, the "Codex" in Mass Effect/Dragon Age, or the "Jiminy Journal" in Kingdom Hearts. The usual purpose of a database like this to create a beneficial encyclopedia that will further enrich the story of the game. It's not required reading in order to understanding the plot, but if you're really into the lore of the game's world, reading a database like this can give you new insights.
In FFXIII however, the developers decided to take this aspect of the game to another level. Rather than giving us all the necesary exposition through the natural progression of the story (you know, like most RPGs and every other Final Fantasy game that came before it), Square-Enix decided to take bits that are important for contextualizing the story and making sense of the outlandish plot developments and relegate them to the Datalog.
Here is the apparent design philosophy of Square-Enix regarding this feature:
"Is the story not adding up? That's okay, just read the Datalog!"
"Not sure what a character is talking about when they refer to some event from their past? The game doesn't have to present that information to you, that's what the Datalog is for!"
"Are you a little hazy on the nature and the origin of the Fal'Cie? Why should we devote cutscene time to that? You have the Datalog!"
"Are you expecting the game's ending to make any sense at all? Then I'm afraid you have no choice but to read the Datalog! Even though this game took us five years to make, we didn't have time to create an independently coherent ending sequence for you to watch..."
There's no way I can say this next thing without sounding like a posturing self-important blowhard, but I don't really care. "Posturing self-important blowhard" often seems like an apt description for Square-Enix nowadays, so I'm going to fight fire with fire.
I have an English degree with a concentration in Creative Writing, so I have at least a basic understanding of what constitutes good storytelling. In good storytelling, plot development and character development are intertwined and paced throughout the telling of the story. While some areas of the story may focus on one over the other, and while some stories are more plot-centric and others are more character-centric, the storyteller should strive to make plot and characterization as cohesive and well-paced as possible.
Final Fantasy XIII throws this basic principle of competent storytelling out the window. We get a lot of plot and action in the beginning. Then the plot is on hold for nearly two dozen hours for interpersonal character development that is stilted because we don't have a strong sense of the setting. Then the plot is back at the forefront just long enough to make us think that this story is going somewhere we can follow. Then it's on hold again. Then we're back into the plot neck-deep all the way to a conclusion that makes little to no sense unless you read the electronic in-game Cliff Notes.
...*eye twitch*...THIS IS NOT GOOD STORYTELLING!
Imagine a movie that was 20 minutes of action and plot, then 1 hour of characters meandering about while almost nothing happens in regard to the overall conflict, and then another 20 minutes of action...and then the ending made almost no sense. To top it all off, the only way you can understand the setting or make sense of the ending is to read a supplement in the DVD Extras menu. That would be a BAD movie, no matter how potentially interesting the underlying concepts were. Yet FFXIII uses this approach, and its defenders say "the story makes sense if you read the Datalog!" as if this is a perfectly acceptable way to present the fiction. I know that video games aren't films, but considered the type of game that Final Fantasy XIII is, I think my point holds up.
I didn't read the Datalog while playing the game, and after I finished I didn't care enough about the story I'd seen to go back and use the Datalog to fill in the plot holes. As a result, I can't really make a judgment on the game's fiction as a whole. Maybe the game has an interesting story buried in the Datalog. Regardless, I can confidently claim that this is a story that is told
I honestly have no idea. I had hoped that finishing this could bring me to a more conclusive place, but I'm just right back where I started, shuffling between these three perspectives:
1) Most commonly, I am a die-hard "Final Fantasy XIII hater" and live in the assumption that Square-Enix is henceforth incapable of producing a great Final Fantasy game until it proves otherwise, and I am anxious to see them prove otherwise.
2) Other times, a strange surge of optimism compels me to look at Final Fantasy XIII and see that it did have a lot of potential. When the game put me in intense battles that challenged me to be proficient with the system in order to survive (rather than just "win fast") or when I had the freedom to explore Pulse, the battle system was my favorite application of the ATB system in the series. In terms of storytelling, the story
had plenty of interesting potential; it was the telling
that squandered that potential. This part of me wants to give Final Fantasy XIII a consolation as a case of "great ideas, lousy execution."
3) And still other times, I find myself completely indifferent to anything Square-Enix does with the Final Fantasy name. The last Final Fantasy that really impressed me was Final Fantasy X, which was released 10 years ago, back when Square-Enix was Squaresoft and Final Fantasy patriarch Hironobu Sakaguchi wore the mantle of Executive Producer. Since the merger into Sqaure-Enix and the departure of Sakaguchi, what has Square-Enix done with Final Fantasy? The exploitative Final Fantasy X-2, the uneven Final Fantasy XII, and the lousily-executed Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy and I have a history and we've had some good times, but we've both changed throughout the years, and sometimes a relationship can't survive certain changes. It's a sad thing for me to accept, but it's not like I don't have other options. In the JRPG world, companies like Mistwalker, Atlus, Monolith Soft, and HAL Laboratory are all doing things that I find interesting. In the broader RPG world, western RPGs like Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls have me enthralled. And in the broader gaming world, there are plenty of other companies and indie developers consistently doing things that peak my interest and challenge what video games can do as a medium. I don't want to be cynical about Final Fantasy, but when I really sit down and think about it, why shouldn't I be? Square-Enix's track record seems to get worse all the time, and my experiences with Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon tell me that Sakaguchi took the Final Fantasy magic with him to Mistwalker. What reason do I have to hold out hope that Square-Enix is capable of creating a Final Fantasy title that will match the quality of Squaresoft's heyday? What is stopping me from saying "So long, and thanks for all the chocobos," bidding farewell, and then never looking back?Final Word
Assuming that the third perspective doesn't become all-encompassing in the near-future, I'm willing to give Final Fantasy Versus XIII and the inevitable Final Fantasy XV a shot, but my hope that either of those will provide me with a great game experience is wavering at best.
And since I hate the thought of ending this thing on a depressing note, did anyone catch my implied fecal metaphor at the end of the second paragraph?