So…Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful game. The art-style is a bit too overly sci-fi for it’s own good at times but between the general look of the false-utopia of Cocoon (a floating ecumenopolis) and the otherworldly natural expanse of Gran Pulse there are a range of stunning locations and jaw-droppingly pretty pre rendered cutscenes. While the recent PC-re release shows it’s Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 heritage in character models and the like, whether you downsample or not, it is generally a beautiful game with incredibly detailed environments. Of course some detractors would say that the cost for those beautiful environments are a good 20+ hours of oft narrow, corridor locations. While Final Fantasy as a series has never been completely open world and nearly always gated your progress in some way, Final Fantasy XIII is a new lesson in linearity for the series and that is not a good thing. The game spends the first 9 chapters of a 13 Chapter game with a mix of tutorials, overly long and numerous cutscenes and melodrama, while being funnelled down straight paths through massive and beautiful environments. While the developers of the game may well want the player to see the story and experience it (a problem developers like Valve have talked about with their largely cutscene-free Half Life series), FF13 constantly tempts the player with a huge town or beautiful forest, or even a crystallized lake that seems to stretch on to the horizon…only for the mini-map to remind you that the traversable area is narrow and branching paths tend to extend for a few feet to a treasure chest that is hardly ever worth the effort. After a five year development time (including moving development from Playstation 2 to the then next-gen consoles) you do get the feeling that at one point they wanted you to be able to explore these areas but simply ran out of time and the considerable budget Square Enix must have thrown at the game. There is one sequence in Chapter 4, 5 or so hours into the game, where Lightning, the cover star, remarks that you must use the illuminating lights on a walkway high above the forest floor to guide your way. The mini-map then reminds you that you can’t get lost because you are running along a straight path.
Before the game truly opens up, you have traversed through an ancient temple, a junkyard, a futuristic forest, a sun-drenched coast, a crystal lake, an amusement park, a beautiful seaside town and what is essentially the equivalent of the Pope’s version of Air Force One. The feeling you get from the game is that of lost opportunity as through even those locations there is so much opportunity for the developers to let loose and allow you to truly explore, but instead you’re relegated to going “Oh, that looks nice!” while trudging along and fighting a group of enemies. When the game does open up it feels like a different beast altogether and while, if you follow the story, it quickly becomes relatively linear for the final stretch, including a jaw-dropping pre rendered cutscene of the party gatecrashing a Grand Prix, you are largely left with a feeling of what might have been.
The core gameplay of Final Fantasy XIII is quite good, but is also fairly linear. While in past games you have typically gained experience, levelled up and bought new gear, there was always a way to put your own spin on things, be it through the Materia system of Final Fantasy VII, the Sphere Grid of Final Fantasy X or the License Board of Final Fantasy XII. In FF13, you gain Crystarium Points (CP) from battles and use this to progress through each character’s individual Crystarium (Yeah, it does get quite self-indulgent at times) and while this sounds like a good idea in theory, with the promise of customization to maybe tailor one character towards being a spell slinging Ravager while another mitigates all damage as a Sentinel, the paths through the Crystarium are linear with one or two nodes off the normal path, but no actual customization if you hope to reasonably beat the game. Some people have beaten the game without using the Crystarium at all although that’s not really customization, it’s just a challenge run, like “No Guns” in Mass Effect or a Nuzlocke challenge in Pokemon. Before battle you can customize the job roles available to your battle team, which you can only pick yourself in the latter half of Chapter 9, and each of the three members of your team can perform one of six roles in a variety of combinations. There is a degree of customization here but a setup of
Commando – Commando – Commando
Commando – Ravager – Ravager
Ravager – Ravager – Ravager
Sentinel – Medic – Medic
Sentinel – Medic – Synergist
Saboteur- Ravager – Saboteur
tends to get you through almost any challenge the game throws at you. You can change these roles on the fly in battle and it’s a good feature although actually changing roles is rarely required in most normal battles and only becomes a necessity in boss fights. The game is suitably challenging, the gated progress of the crystarium ensures the developers can balance the game towards a certain level (although unlocking the crystarium fully is available through tweaks on the PC version), but it is not challenging in the same way something like a Souls or Shin Megami Tensei game is, as you are fully healed after every battle and, if you so choose, during battle you can pick auto-battle where the game picks the best options for you, depending on if you know the enemy weaknesses or not. To be honest apart from situations in boss fights, I found myself using this option quite often and the battles still managed to be largely enjoyable as a visual spectacle and while Final Fantasy’s core series has never been an absolute bastion of laser-precise strategy in fights, the fact you can quite easily beat so much of the game through auto-battle exposes the general lack of challenge. Some storyline bosses and most of the optional bosses require manual control, and the two superbosses require planning and preparation unlike anything else in the game and are worthy challenges for those who want to seek them out.
The fights feel more like that of someone setting up a row of dominoes, as you have set something up to happen and then watch it unfold, and I would have liked something more involving and active. At certain points throughout the story a character will undergo a moment of great anime-esque melodrama and inner conflict and summon forth their Eidolon, a super-powerful mech that is there to test their resolve for their mission. These fights are less about dealing damage and more about adapting to the battle system as you are forced to stay alive and deal damage to fill up a Gestalt bar, which when full, wins you the battle. You can then summon the Eidolons in battle to perform a special attack or just fight alongside you and while they largely look spectacular they are almost never needed in the story mode. If these fights are meant to see if you understand the battle system then it’s perplexing that the only other fights that also test you to this degree are a smattering of late-game boss fights and the two superbosses, Long Gui and Vercingetorix. However to deal huge damage to the enemy you can also fill up a break bar (in the top right of the image below) that basically disables the enemies defenses for a period of time and allows you to go all in. It’s a mechanic that works wells (if repeated a bit too often) for the more mechanical and less fleshy enemies, but for some fights that take minutes to fill the bar up, it simply grates on you after time.
The fights are something of a visual spectacle though, with enemies and environments which tend to show a high level of detail and spell effects that light up the screen but the visual spectacle doesn’t distract for too long that the battle system is never as tactical as the game likes to think it is, as the difficulty simply isn’t there beyond a few normal enemies with far too much HP or defense to be an engrossing fight, and several storyline bosses + optional bosses who are best defeated with one specific strategy, repeated ad nauseum for ten or fifteen minutes.
The story and world of FF13 are built on the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology, announced by Square Enix as the anchor point for a trilogy of titles, sometime before FF13’s actual release. The other two titles in question where Final Fantasy Agito, which became Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy Versus XIII which became Final Fantasy XV. The core idea of the mythology is that the world is divided into two planes, the Mortal World and Valhalla, the land of the dead. Bhunivelze, the son of one of the progenitor gods, killed Mwynn in order to become ruler of the Mortal World but when she departed for Valhalla he became paranoid that she had cursed him and his new lands with her final breath. He sought to open the door to Valhalla and destroy it and Mwynn to end the “curse” although it later became apparent that to open the door to Valhalla in the Mortal World required immeasurable sacrifice and dead souls. To this end, Bhunivelze created a hierarchy of fal’Cie, or machine-gods, who would foster the human race on a land called Gran Pulse while Bhunivelze slept and gathered his strength for the final battle in Valhalla. The fal’Cie Etro birthed humanity, who came to revere factions of the fal’Cie as gods, while living in fear of others. Barthandelus, the lord-sovereign of the fal’Cie left by Bhunivelze, set in motion a plan that would take thousands of years to come to fruition but would open a door to Valhalla. The fal’Cie split themselves into two factions and propagated a war between humanity that lead to a near-cataclysmic final confrontation, but did not result in the annihilation of the human race. Barthandelus build Cocoon, a colossal floating ecumenopolis, and evacuated millions of humans there to live in fear over that land below them, that of Gran Pulse. Over the next several thousand years, Barthandelus as his legion of fal’Cie would propagate fear of Gran Pulse and the monsters that roamed the land below, while giving the human civilization on Cocoon everything they wanted to grow with his ultimate plan being to let Cocoon fall when humanity was at it’s apex and the resulting deaths of millions would surely open the door to Valhalla and reawaken Bhunivelze…
So it’s a relatively extensive creation myth and I actually quite like it as a set up. Everything beyond Bhunivelze killing his mother is unique to FF13 though, as while the trilogy of titles share this creation myth, they are their own games and do not follow the exact same story. For instance in FF15 it seems fal’Cie do not exist. FF13’s main problem is its story telling which is far too in love with itself and self-serving for it’s own good as the details get mired in characters who are one-note for several hours only to have a dramatic revelation and have a personality 180. There is an occasion very early on in which one of the characters, Hope, loses someone near and dear to him and spends the next dozen hours going through a state of grief and then anger as he plots to kill the person he holds responsible…the only problem is that in the cutscene in question, we saw that the person Hope deems responsible is not to blame, Hope saw it too, Hope has had at least twelve hours to talk to him about it, and all the other characters know what we know but decline to mention it to Hope at all and it culminates with Hope almost getting everyone killed in a moment of relative “What, now!?” stupidity. It might seem a bit cold or callous but it’s not a case of telling Hope how to act but how FF13 could have dealt with these things more gracefully and quickly but claims that a dozen hours of Hope grieving and the other characters refusing to state what the player is shouting at the screen is “character development”. That would be acceptable if it wasn’t for the fact that after Hope talks to the accused about it, he confesses he just wanted someone to take his anger out on, and spends the next ten hours or so convinced he’s useless and holding back the part until he gets his Eidolon moment.
There is a good story, if classically about the struggle to do what’s right and anime tropes of gods and the power of friendship, but it’s hidden under a mountain of needless melodrama, a relative lack of character development, and dozens of hours of characters doing f***-all about it. The end of the game was fairly definitive and straightforward, until the (financial) need for a sequel came along and Square Enix decided to retcon the ending to allow for a sequel. Oh well. In the end, FF13 is a rough diamond. Diamond quality in terms of visuals but rough almost everywhere else. It will last you anywhere from 40 to 80 hours to do everything, and could rise to over 100 if you want to explore and try out a myriad of combinations in battle but ultimately it’s a game that promised JRPG fangs the heavens and in the end just delivered a (really nice looking) piece of the Earth. A disappointment, but a beautiful one.