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Death by a thousand cuts: an analysis of combat in Final Fantasy 13

A quick summary of my feelings and observations on FF13's combat

Note: a disclaimer must be made that I typically don't read game reviews and haven't read anything on FF13. I also just arrived at Chapter 11 of 17.  So, with that going forward:

I’m going to be talking about Final Fantasy 13’s combat; if you don’t know what it is, look it up.  I’m going to be using some of the jargon and won’t stop to explain it.

After finally having time to sit down with FF13 this past weekend I have come to loathe the combat system.  In contemplation of why I found that it was not one thing in particular, indeed, many of the individual components of combat are interesting mechanics in themselves, but the combination of the different mechanics makes combat feel like a stress inducing chore that leaves me feel emotionally and physically drained.  

There are three main components I am focusing on as being problems:

  1. Immediate player feedback and ratings
  2. Combat speed
  3. Visual clutter

Player ratings (a.k.a. you need to go faster):

With a marked difference from previous Final Fantasies, FF13 has a new combat system whereby they mark your performance with a 5 star rating system.  This system directly controls how much of your “TP” gauge (used for summoning) is filled and the quality and rate of items you will get.  This rating is based solely on the speed at which you complete the battle.

I found that in giving a rating based solely on my speed it caused me to want to complete battles faster, leading to a sense of urgency in every battle I gained.  As a result I began to see every battle as a test of my abilities and feel very annoyed when I don’t get five stars.

Other people have talked feedback based on ratings alone; one from Gamasutra can be found here:

This alone is not a reason why the combat is painful, feedback can be very informative and over time with enough feedback I can learn what I should be doing right and what I shouldn’t be doing.  This takes us to our next point.

Combat Speed (a.k.a. no time for strategy): 

As this section is titled the combat in FF13 is markedly different from many of its predecessors by building on the truly real time system that FF12 pioneered.  As a result enemies can attack at any point on anyone.  Combine this with the paradigm system and the limited roles your party members can have and many times I found myself swapping to the wrong paradigm at the wrong time, or simply not having the right one for a given enemy.  Combine that with an enemy’s ability to do a decent amount of damage at once (or having 3-6 enemies that do a lot of damage at once) and what you get is a combat system whereby the ability to “win” feels much more like luck than player controlled. 

This gets even worse when combined with the player feedback.  The game is constantly giving feedback with no hints on improvement, and the battles are too hectic to learn what works and what doesn’t.  It’s particularly bad when in a boss battle and the battle team I’m playing doesn’t have the paradigm to survive the battle, or I’m one hit killed by them. 

Visual Clutter (a.k.a. what should I look at):

The last piece I am going to talk about is the amount of visual noise that exists in the battles.  This website has the best definition for this term.

Here is a screenshot of battle in FF13: 

Here is a tame video:

The combat in FF13 has several things going on screen at the same time:

  1. Player action bar
  2. Player health bar
  3. Enemy health bar
  4. Player movement/attack animations
  5. Enemy movement/attack animations
  6. Player damage numbers
  7. Enemy damage numbers
  8. The camera is moving around to show off the flashiest part of the battle

Note: the damage numbers are also animated in that they scroll up to the actual number. 

These elements have existed in JRPGs and other games for many years, even Chrono Trigger published in 1995 had many of these elements.  It is the combination of these elements plus the speed of the battle and the stress that is felt due to the rating system that makes it a problem.

Considering that the battles take anywhere from 15 to 57 seconds there can be a lot of animations going on at the same time, when all 7 items are changing at the same time it is difficult to figure out what is important and what isn’t.  Is the big flashing bang important?  Or the damage numbers? Or the player health rapidly dropping? Or how long it is until your next attack?  All the while the camera is spinning around focusing on different enemies like an ADHD toddler on sugar.

I am aware that the argument can be made for making the UI of a video game difficult; in fact dealing with the controller is a major part of any game.  But I wonder if the clutter that exists in battles in FF13 is by design like in Geometry Wars, or if the focus in the battle is on the challenge of defeating the enemy? 

This reminds me of a quote I heard from someone working on Real Time Strategies; they said that RTSes became so complex that the games were economically infeasible to develop; only a handful of people in the world can multitask on the level needed to really do well at them.  


I feel that it is not one single component of the battle system that can be seen as a problem; all of these components independently could be an interesting experience; it’s the combination of them together that leads to a frantic, visually distracting, stress filled mess. 

I wonder how many people had problems in user testing for FF13?  Was there any long term testing of more than 30 minutes conducted?  Chrono Trigger got around this problem by having two different modes: one that paused the game each time it was your turn to select an action, and one that was full on automatic.  

People might mention that you can slow down the battle timer in FF13 thus making them slower but I’ll also mention that the aerosol sprays that benefit your party don’t last as long as they’re on a separate internal timer.

Andre Gagne

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