Okay, that's it. I've wasted enough time hemming and hawing, enjoying games that are actually enjoyable and that actually respect the intelligence of their audience. I'm going to do it. I'm going to review Final Fantasy XIII.
That's right, Baal himself, the great deceiver, stealer of nostalgic adolescent dreams and scourer of mighty videogame legacies. The game that plays itself, furiously masturbating while you watch in shame and loathing. The game that...
Alright, maybe I'm overstating my case a bit here. But the thing is – I'm really not. Really. I'm not. It's actually that bad. And before I submit myself to the assuredly torturous revisitation of this horrible, mean, bad, despicable game, I would like you, dear reader, to understand exactly how much I hurt myself for you, and for the future of all gamekind.
Yeah, the history lessons are boring. I understand. This one will be brief.
Anyway, let's just say I was a Nintendo die-hard, bought the Final Fantasy VII guide before I even knew the game existed, and was flabbergasted at the game detailed therein. Up until this point, my only experiences with RPGs had been a surfeit of Pokemon with a side of Quest 64. Seriously, take a moment to watch the combat in that game. I smacked those rabbits for over a hundred hours. You even smack-attack the final boss to death, pausing every three or four rounds to recast your “invincible-to-everything-no-damage-ever” spell. Cool game bro. So basically, I was an ideal candidate for what Sony and Square were attempting with Final Fantasy VII – the large-scale conversion of the Western market to RPG-hungry drones. I was the cliche demographic that extraordinarily self-satisfied old-school RPG fans point to when explaining the success of Final Fantasy VII in spite of the fact that Final Fantasy VI is, like, so many times better, god.
Okay, let's get this out of the way right here, right now. I never went back to those earlier Final Fantasies. I cannot comment on the relative worth or perfection of those Final Fantasies. My vitriol here will at no point be fueled by inflated expectations instilled on me by those Final Fantasies. I am here and forever after for the purposes of this article declaring that when I say “clearly the best” or “the most shame-inducing” or whatnot in regards to some quality relevant to Final Fantasy games, I am A. acknowledging the relative qualities of Final Fantasy games I've never played may indeed be superior/inferior/wittier/sexier/smellier than those I'm currently describing, never mind B. possibly exaggerating or even (gasp) C. using humor to excuse a shoddy memory of decade-old experiences garnished with nostalgia. Because of this, I am preemptively accepting that you are probably right, my face is indeed probably stupid, and I should most likely just take your advice and kill myself for expressing an imperfect opinion, saving all of you the trouble of writing me thoughtful replies to that effect. So please. We're all friends here. Let's just calm down, regulate our breathing, and dip back in to my story in progress.
So there I am, pupils dilating, eyes shifting from saucers to dinner plates as I skim the strategy guide of this game which, in a brief thirty or forty seconds, has clearly become my life. Could games like this really exist? It's so epic, so endless, filled with beautifully designed characters, endless pages of stats and customization, meanderings and minor arcs and major twists and characters that actually question their own motives, values, and reasons for being. Really? A videogame with relevant human themes and character growth? And the combat is that fun? And the game is that huge? That pretty?
I couldn't believe it.
Then I realized it was for the Playstation. NOOOOoooOoooo. Then I learned it had been released for computers. YeeeeeEEEEESSSS. Then I remembered my computer had the computational power of an Aibo. NOOOOOOOooooooOOOOOooooooo.
But this game was in my blood. My lust could not be contained. I remember days when I'd be driven to my mother's office after school just so I could play this game on a spare computer. And it was awesome. The day when we actually bought a computer that could run FFVII was the happiest of my life. I played the hell out of that game. I loved, and lost. I probably cried a little. I spent hours customizing my characters, exploring every minor side-area, raising chocobos to run like golden gods. I filled all four Enemy Skill Materias you find in the course of the game, snatching Trine off of Yuffie's father, being careful to equip all four in preparation for my only chance at Pandora's Box. I abused the side cave in the crater to master EVERY CONCIEVABLE MATERIA, literally filling characters with Counterattack Materia, creating a team capable of being so offended by a single strike against them they would beat the final boss without me actually hitting a button.
I probably played that game in every way possible – first as an RPG noob, knowing only what my guide told me, paying attention mainly to the story and absurd visuals. Then as a veteran, maximizing my potential and carefully nurturing my most important Materia. Finally I played it as someone who has played it way too much, equipping Morph Materia to maximize my characters' stats a single digit at a time. I loved that game. I loved the combat system, fast-paced and reactive yet utterly defined by your own preparation, your roster and Materia decisions. I loved the music, because the music in that game is just ridiculous – alternately badass and beautiful, so strongly tied to the flavor of that world that listening to it now feels just like playing it again. I can hear the airship music in my head right now, urging me to run, escape, explore – every song was a mirror of its moment in that game.
I loved the characters, big dopy cliches that they were, because starting with a cliche is the best way to destroy a convention. Each character is utterly fucked with throughout the course of that game, and each character rises above their own personal darkness. Even the villains in FFVII receive far more development than most modern characters, and I really mean development – not just camaraderie, not just self-improvement, but actual character growth, which could lead them to self-respect or self-disgust, which could give them new purpose or rob them of what purpose they had. Actual human responses to the circumstances of life. They weren't heroes – they were people forced into heroism against their will. Deep in the earth's core, preparing to enter a scar in the world itself, prepped for a mission that surely not all of them will survive - and what is Cloud's call to battle? "Let's mosey." Man, was he ever a reluctant hero. Sure, the dialogue wasn't as sharp as it could be, but it fit with the overblown, iconic, blackened-heart-on-its-sleeve nature of the world. I loved that game, and I won't ever stop loving it.
Final Fantasy VIII was okay. Squall was a petulant dick, and his character growth was far too stop-start to realistically simulate anything but the broken egos of ten thousand emo teenagers, and in a very early example of the Sasuke Uchiha effect everyone else in the game loved him despite him offering them nothing but scorn. But hey – the world was interesting, characters like Quistis and Laguna were actually intriguing and somewhat tough to fit into cliched molds, the music was still breathtaking, and the magic system lent itself well to my obsessive-compulsive collector instinct. It still had that broad Final Fantasy magic, the implication that this was a breathing world with far more stories to tell than the confines of one game could explore. It still seemed like a grand idea, fractured and flawed, teeming with other only-partially-implemented smaller ideas, but too ambitious to be held down. It was also still fun, which, although it seems almost an afterthought within these descriptions, is pretty damn critical to any RPG.
I skipped Final Fantasy IX entirely – apparently I was busy growing hair in strange and exotic places. So sue me. And so it was that Final Fantasy X was the point where either the series' flaws began to outnumber its' virtues, or I was simply too old to unreservedly embrace a Final Fantasy game. I know my own personal standards for storytelling have clearly only gone up, and I know Square's have only gone down, so perhaps this game was just the point where these two sadly converging lines first became mutually aware.
Regardless of the reasoning, my experience with this Fantasy was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was beautiful, and combat was still fun, and the music was still pretty good. On the other, all that sense of exploration, of a world beyond the story, of untapped potential and thousands of separate lives and the freedom to embark on whatever journey you wished, explore whichever island or cave or peninsula caught your fancy? Gone. Entirely. Swept away in lieu of a completely linear world, one you explored one static screen at a time, with a bullet-point chart of potential locations replacing the cohesion of a world you could actually fly straight across. There was a moment in every Final Fantasy game prior to this one where a mission ended, your characters made a daring escape out of a (most likely exploding) tower or fortress or what have you, and suddenly the world was yours. You had conquered all limitations, and now only your own sense of adventure limited the places you'd go. I liked this feeling. I missed this feeling.
Also among the forms of self-expression thrown on the chopping block was your ability to truly define your combat style. Although characters in VII and VIII certainly had some unique abilities, these powers were far from gameplay-defining, since you could style your squad around the Limit Breaks you desired and still tailor your character's magical and physical prowess to the way you wanted to play. Although VII was clearly the most open-ended in your ability to define each character's combat style (how I miss Materia), VIII's junction system still held room for self-expression and wacky variant group makeups. You chose the personalities you wanted to define your experience, and could almost build your warriors irrespective of your character choices (I know I'm glossing, I know not all limit breaks are created equal, but seriously, if you're playing to optimize damage it's not like this paragraph means anything to you anyway (not that there's anything wrong with playing to optimize damage (you soulless machine))).
In Final Fantasy X, your characters were your choices, and the degree to which you could “define your play style” was in choosing between Spiky-Haired Idiot Who is Inexplicably The Best Fighter In All Situations, Long-Range Melee Guy with Silly Hair and Personality, Impractically Dressed Gothic Attack Mage, Demure and Naïve Defensive Mage, Mysterious Father-Figure-ish Fan Favorite Bruiser, Strong Silent Native American Animal Lancer Thing, and Jailbait Thief Genki Girl. None of these characters will ever evolve to anything more than these descriptions in regards to either their personality or in-combat powers. But hey, the leveling system is kind of fun – you get to choose which stats you get when, and even have the choice to veer off the beaten path of gradual accumulated strength for a crazy power now and then.
Still, all the stats you “choose” between further sink each character into their predefined role, meaning it's basically just the illusion of agency – but whatever. That's fine. Combat's fun, the characters don't open their mouths all the time, and the world is quirky and cohesive, most areas fitting into the “humanity pushed to the brink of survival by nature” theme (or I guess technically, “the dream of a ghost of a dead civilization being propagated by a man from another world that didn't actually ever exist being manifested in a way that fits surprisingly well into themes regarding the carelessness of humanity in regards to the natural world” theme – I mean, c'mon, Square. The story has to actually relate to somebody, somewhere, before you start adding the heavy-handed symbolism). All is good.
Final Fantasy XI successfully ensnared the "MMO players who hate everyone less hardcore than them but hate themselves most of all" demographic, so I can't really rag on that (I don't know why I include sentences like that and actually expect people to offer comments related to my main points - oh right, I hate myself most of all too ( :-( )).
I won't mention Final Fantasy XII here, because sadly the countless gameplay innovations and unique characterization of that game directly contradict my point, and also because it seems that XIII was not in the slightest informed by the progress of XII, but was in fact the direct sequel to X. I didn't even really enjoy XII, actually – but I respected it. That game had vision and reach, and if it had to give up the tired tropes of JRPGs (as well as my personal interest in the series (somewhat attached to those tired tropes)) to attain that, so be it. So, finally, here we are at Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy XIII, let's talk. I know you're angry and bitter and still desperately eager to please. I know you want me to like you. I agree that you are in fact very pretty. But I'm worried about you, Final Fantasy. I'm worried because I care, and because I'm partially at fault too – I saw the warning signs, but I figured you'd cleaned up your act. I thought XII meant that, even if you were no longer the series for me, you were still a good series, trying your hardest, striving and expanding and maturing and making new friends while keeping your most trustworthy companions, good friends you can trust, friends like Realistic Characterization, Innovative Combat, Coherent Storytelling and Themes Relevant to People Who Aren't Nine. Where did those friends go, Final Fantasy? Did they abandon you, leave you on your own? Tell the truth, Final Fantasy – I know when you're lying. I know what you did. You drove them away. You thought you were better than them. You thought they were uncool, that people would like you less for associating with them. You thought wrong.
I can't really tell if Final Fantasy XIII is the bravest or most cowardly Final Fantasy yet released. It is brave in that it disposes of many classic Final Fantasy conventions, including towns, side quests, non-linear progression through a world map, and a highly controllable battle system. It is cowardly in that it replaces these things with the safest and most heavily-sanitized possible characters, narrative arc, “world” (if you can call a series of empty corridors a world), and battle system imaginable. I can tell you one thing – this game is really, really damn stupid, and it is fairly certain the player is too.
So I've already touched on what Final Fantasy XIII removed from Final Fantasy. To review; sidequests, a customizable combat system, any semblance of control over your destination, control over two-thirds of your team in combat, and anything resembling an open world, or, for that matter, any location that is not a straight corridor or (at one point) a big empty field. The counterargument here is that removing all the extraneous, distracting “bells and whistles” allowed Square to tell a more compelling and direct story, since clearly their purpose was to move the game far, far left on the storytelling-versus-agency scale of videogames. As director Motomu Toriyama stated in reaction to Western criticism of XIII compared to prior Final Fantasy games, it “becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story when you're given that much freedom.” So. Compelling story, eh? That's the focus of this game? You really shouldn't have made this so easy, Toriyama.
The problem with removing all the garnish from a Final Fantasy game and focusing entirely on the story, is that if that story is a flaming shitwreck there ends up being very little else to distract you from how terrible it is. The “plot,” as it were, is that the city of Cocoon is ruled by Fal'cie – giant, crystal... things. Objects. To those of you who play World of Warcraft, picture the crystal geometric shape-people of Shattrath and you've got it. Big diamonds with mighty powers, like the “provide-electricity-to-Cocoon” power and the “turn-raw-elements-into-happy-meals” power. So basically these people who live in a complex, twenty-somethingth century society are totally at the mercy of these giant crystals that provide them a comfortable life for who knows what reason. Unfortunately, these giant art deco organisms have a habit of branding people with stylish tattoos (making them “L'Cie”) which compel them to either complete some arbitrary and ill-explained quest (their “focus”) or suffer the consequences. The consequences of failing are being turned into a zombie – the consequences of success are being turned into a giant crystal, but unlike the Fal'Cie themselves, these crystals are not sentient, and are in fact just rocks. So, basically, sucks for you. Of course, the people of Cocoon (yes, almost every single thing in this game is named as a metaphor relevant to the main plot, and yes, they will take the time to spell out each and every one of these metaphors) are totally fine with this, since everyone loves cool shit like electricity and flying motorcycles, and in fact the general attitude on Cocoon is that L'Cie are the ones at fault, and should be shipped off to some... place. Apparently Cocoon is actually one of those super-sweet sky-bubble cities, and so for the safety of his own people Lando has decided all L'Cie must go down to the surface, known as Gran Pulse, where evil Pulse Fal'Cie plot to overthrow the benevolent, all-knowing Cocoon Fal'Cie.
Cue Final Fantasy XIII – a couple main characters are being shipped off to Camp Not a Forced Labor Camp, a couple main characters are trying to save a loved one from turning into crystal, and a couple main characters are there to be black and funny or young and oversexed. Then they all get smacked around by the Fal'Cie and become L'Cie, tasked with the burden of saving (or maybe destroying, they pretty much play this one by ear) Cocoon from... itself? I think. Then an ocean turns to crystal for some reason and we discover that as annoying as these characters are separately, they're even worse together (well, except when one of them is punching the twenty-something dude with the mind of a twelve year old shonen hero, that's always great). Plot: established. And... that's it. It takes them about twenty hours to “explain” this fairly simplistic conceit, merely because they spend the first fifteen hours using made-up nonsense words like “L'Cie” without giving them any context or explanation whatsoever. This doesn't build suspense, it just kills interest, because even the plot they're hinting at (which is all up there, so it's spoiled now, haha) doesn't sound very interesting. And it isn't. And by the way, that's all the plot you get, give or take a couple side characters who have ultimately no bearing on the course of the main plot, for the next thirty-something hours. Every plot-related conversation amounts to... wait, let me actually pull a couple quotes here. I really can't outdo the game's own dialogue.
To them, we are just pets. I've been so blind! I was born into a Fal'Cie world, raised on a Fal'Cie leash, without a master to follow - my life had no purpose,” - Lightning, upon realizing omniscient crystal beings haven't been spending all their energy babysitting humanity just for the hell of it.
“You think you just die and everything'll be sugar and rainbows?!” - Sazh, responding to every third thought of any of the other characters (and actually, he has his own suicidal moments too – I mean, these characters have been given a quest where their lives are forfeit even if they succeed . In a better game, this might have led to some actually heavy points about the worth of a human life – here they mainly just pout about it).
“Fighting without hope is no way to live. It's just a way to die. I want you to find the hope you were named for,” - Lightning, urging Hope to find the hope his extraordinarily subtle creators named him for.
Along with essentially every single thing Snow says. Man, I could write a thesis on the degree of cynicism required to create a character as monochromatic, over-the-top, and frankly creepy as Snow. First off, to give this character some very necessary context, he's apparently around twenty-four years old. Great. He's fluent in surfer bro (and not even an endearingly surreal surfer bro dialect like Kamina's ) and his pep talks provide any moment involving his youth terrorism club all the gravitas of an ultimate frisbee game. He is engaged to a prepubescent girl, who he stars next to in a number of extremely uncomfortable cutscenes (this one here is a pretty choice one, although the one where they ruin her sister's birthday party by telling her about the engagement is also fairly priceless ). And his only personality trait (aside from a predilection for girls half his size and age) is his absolute faith, extolled at length, and at length, and at length, and at length again, that he is, like, the biggest hero ever. He doesn't even describe what makes him uniquely heroic, or how his heroic stature will conquer all foes (which would be pretty entertaining, actually) – he just repeatedly refers to himself as a hero. Again and again. And again. I'm sure he states this between ten and fifteen times within the first few hours of the game (well, what would be the first few hours, in a game with pacing as opposed to empty filler), although the internet could only find me, “Don't worry, Serah. Your hero is on his way,” “Here comes the hero!” and “Heroes don't run from fights.” So yes, he basically uses this quirk only to congratulate himself or commit people who trust him to unnecessarily dangerous situations. So what is this character supposed to represent? Is he a jaded attempt to relate to some narcissistic, nigh-pedophilic minority portion of the anime community? Were the writers just totally high when they designed his character? It's ridiculous, and the creators seem to at least understand this, because he gets decked by a girl like four times in this game. Of course, given the rest of his characterization, now I'm starting to realize that might be an attempt to appeal to some other, masochistic fetish community and gyeah what is wrong with this game.
And then there's a revelation about Sazh's son to change his motivation from “meh” to “family,” tying in nicely with the “it's easy to develop characters when everyone is thinking about and motivated by the same thing all the time” theme.
Actually, there's a pretty good segue to be had there. So, I've described the main “conflict” of the game – the main characters are trying to save the xenophobic society that spurned them in order to be turned into crystal, because they know they are in a Final Fantasy game and some sort of contrived deus ex machina will surely grant them an inappropriately happy ending as long as they stick to the script. “So what?” scream the strawman naysayers from beneath their Naruto headbands “The plot is just a vehicle for character development anyway! It's the characters we care about?”
To this, I slowly but firmly raise a single eyebrow.
Let's try comparing the characterization and growth from XIII with an appropriate parallel from, say, Final Fantasy VII. Let's go with the token black guys – Barret and Sazh. Actually, first let's do the names, because you don't really need characterization when your name describes your entire personality. Hope. Lightning. Fang. Really? (Really really. As I demonstrated with Hope above, they even each get a little speech explaining how wonderfully appropriate their terrible names are). Alright, back to Barret vs Sazh. Barret is motivated to fight first because of his alleged environmentalist respect for the planet, which is more likely just covering personal resentment towards the Shinra corporation sparked by the destruction of his hometown (a coal mining town, burned in retaliation for terrorist attacks against their energy-monopolizing Mako reactors), resulting in the loss of his family and closest friend (this is revealed over the course of many hours, and isn't explored at length until you actually visit his near-destitute home).
When President Shinra is murdered, and again when his friend reappears, he is forced to reconsider his motivations, realizing his struggle against Shinra is larger than himself, and ultimately finds a more positive motivation in his desire to create a better world for Marlene, the adopted daughter of his best friend, both a symbol of his own humanity and the last connection to his old life, somewhat complicated by the fact that he is forced to continuously leave Marlene in the care of others, as his best friend did, in order to secure that future. Sazh is first motivated (as far as the player knows) by a healthy curiosity and an unhealthy lack of any self-preservation instinct. Later on, he is motivated by the fact that his son was turned into a solid crystal by the bad guys, and he wants to turn him back. So technically, these motivations are more or less the same – there's just no subtlety, subtext, room for plot development/side conflicts/world-building, or character growth required in XIII's case. These motivations don't grow out of the storytelling – it's basically taunting the rules of “show, don't tell,” by giving people the most basic and obvious possible motivations, thus allowing more room for – what? Character growth outside of their quest? Except that doesn't happen, these characters merely restate their simplistic quest over and over and over again.
Hell, while we're ruthlessly comparing a game made twelve years ago to one released last spring, why not also compare the realities of the resistance group in each game – the stakes, the perspective on their conflict, their views of their own power and worth, the characterization of secondary characters... All right, this one is so heinous it warrants another digression. Putting this paragraph on pause. Bear with me.
I still remember a speech by the extremely minor character Jessie in Final Fantasy VII where, after escaping from a sabotaged power plant, she idealistically explains the train system of Midgar, seemingly attempting to draw Cloud's attention to the gravity and personal nature of their mission, as well as to her personally. This conversation: A. Helps establish Jessie's personality, and creates intrigue in her relationship with the protagonist. B. Further solidifies Jessie's place in the world, as we also know she constructs the bombs for the group, and now we know she has a general affinity for and appreciation of technology. C. Explains more about the actual mechanics of the city and world in an organic, non-pure exposition way, which also allows for personal romanticizing of this world. D. Creates an emotional connection both to this character and to the setting. E. Is also a fairly well-written and compelling speech (while Jessie's clearly interested more purely in the science and impressing Cloud, Barret and Cloud's responses both give the scene weight and further define their characters), well-placed on the verge of a destructive act, which results in a more compelling narrative rise and fall of intensity, letting the player experience the panic of being nearly discovered as terrorists more vividly by virtue of the prior lull in intensity. By the way, aside from this single scene, Jessie has roughly fifteen lines for the rest of the entire game. Now let's compare this character to her closest parallel in Final Fantasy XIII: Hope's mother.
Hope's mother is on screen for about ten minutes of FFXIII, and provides the sum total motivation for Hope in the first third of this game. Since she never gets a real speech of any kind, I'll have to draw her characterization out of the few actions and words provided for her. According to Final Fantasy XIII, Hope's Mom is A. Tough (because she says “moms are tough”, like, five times in an hour – you can check to see if I'm exaggerating, but you'll probably just hate yourself for watching that). B. A mom (see previous aside). C. More concerned with the success of a spontaneous revolution against her entire way of life, that she had no way of knowing existed prior to her moment of camaraderie, than the safety of her son (as displayed in her willingness to go gallivanting with Snow and leave her son behind) and D. Dead. Woops. Spoiler alert.
Her FIRST and LAST lines on-screen are “moms are tough”. She performs ONE INDEPENDENT ACTION in her ENTIRE LIFESPAN in the game, and all it does is ESTABLISH HER AS A BAD MOTHER. This is writing? This is writing? There were people HIRED and paid in MONEY to WRITE THIS? THIS MADE IT INTO THE FINAL GAME?!?!?! I PAID TO WATCH IMAGINARY CHARACTERS SPOUT THESE LINES?!?!?! GYEAAAAAAAAAH.
Returning to my paragraph on pause: the practicality of their battle and the way they go about it, the allusions to larger conflicts and problems (Shinra blaming their own destruction of the slums on Avalanche, destroying their popular support), and of course the context (“we are going to fight our way down this bridge we apparently live on until the war is over” versus “in our spare time we run a trashy bar, we're financed by tips, we gripe and can't afford a mercenary.”) Even the name, Avalanche, makes sense – they can't beat Shinra, but they could start a chain reaction of public support – versus NORA (No Obligations, Rules, or Authority), a creed as childish and meaningless as their conflict – apparently later bedtimes and no vegetables didn't make for a compelling acronym.
It's like this game was designed by freaking Labrador retrievers, only capable of noticing and describing human reactions to various events, completely unaware of context, emotion, or motivation. There's a subtext of racial discrimination in this game (well, you can't really call it subtext when it's actually kinda the whole point of the game, but never properly addressed, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt here) that never goes anywhere. There's the potential for some theme regarding the apathy of people when their immediate needs are addressed, the selfish callousness of a satisfied public – that certainly never goes anywhere. Occasionally this game contains a scene stolen from the much better theoretical Final Fantasy XIII, such as when, in order to avoid a needless public genocide, Snow fires his rifle in public and declares that he is one of the hated, disrespected minorities, saving hundreds of people who flee in xenophobic terror. This could have led to some cynical point about accepting your status, or at least led to some emotion (aside from true wuv, of course) being expressed by one of the characters – clearly if Snow is clever and cynical enough to know the public are more scared of the harmless minority than their fascist government, he's also earned the right to be angry towards that public, or, or something. That (I hope you're getting the idea) never goes anywhere. Well, that's not strictly true – it does lead to riding a motorcycle down an ice water slide. Why? Because heroes don't need plans, that's why.
Any real-world themes or actual common experience-based empathy the player could feel towards these characters is rendered pointless by the vacuousness and imaginary focus of their conflict. They are not fighting to win hearts and minds, or to prove anything to themselves, or to change the world – they are fighting to Save The Princess from Bad Guys, Bad Guys who Do Bad Things because they are Mean and Not Good Guys. Their conflict is an amalgamation of the worst, most self-indulgent and meaningless impulses of anime and videogame storytelling. In fact, anime might have a lot to answer for regarding this game – is the current trend in anime responsible for characters as simplistic and terrible as Lightning, Serah, and “Heroes don't need plans” Snow? Do we need anime to provide thought-provoking character deconstructions like Evangelion just so Final Fantasy games can steal from less rancid source material?
That's actually unfair of me to say, since this game shamelessly steals from FFVII as well as modern anime. You thought Cloud was cool!? Well, try Lightning! ZAP! Twice the angst, and this time with boobs! Except Cloud had well-established reasons for his emotional distance – the loss of his mentor and confidante, the ambiguity of his past, his mixed feelings towards Shinra, his inferiority complex towards Zack, his thoughts on his own worth and purpose in life, his brainwashing – all that was critical to the game. In fact, it was the main narrative struggle of the game. Lightning simply acts that way “because Cloud was popular”. She needs to be angtsy? Uh, kill her parents. She needs to stay angsty? Uh, turn her sister into jewelry.
Seriously, I could kill everyone for this.
Well, at least there's still a game in there too, right?
No. No there isn't. No there is not. One does not play Final Fantasy XIII. The “player” is more Cheerleader than General, hypothetically pumping their fist whenever the characters on screen back-flip some indefinable angry-looking object into oblivion (by the way, the majority of monsters in this game look like the works of an insane potter brought to life). As I mentioned earlier, aside from a few rare points at the center and end of the game, the entirety of Final Fantasy XIII is spent running down a long, straight hallway, occasionally veering off into another short hallway to fight a monster and grab an item. Enemies drop useless crap, which you sell to pump up the weapons the game wants you to have. Thankfully, the Final Fantasy tradition of not properly explaining progression and punishing the player for their natural instincts is alive and well, leaving the internet to explain how all the weapons you get until the end of the game will be utterly outclassed, but because you spent all your knickknacks leveling the early, crappy weapons, you'll sigh and use them anyway. But of course they made a conscious choice not to focus on stat-tending, and of course they've already explained the game is a long corridor to further the “narrative.” We're here to talk about the combat itself, one of the self-proclaimed “focuses” of the game.
Okay, I will be the first to admit that the combat system for XIII is a pretty interesting idea. In fact, with less despicably condescending execution, it could have even led to a great strategy-action game. Not a JRPG, of course, but an interesting take on fast-paced strategic combat, where the focus is more on tactical decision making than actually executing specific attacks. The idea behind combat in XIII is that instead of having a mass of selectable abilities, each character has a few specific roles they can play in battle, and your job is to continuously switch your three characters' “jobs” as a set to adapt to battle circumstances. So yeah, bringing back the job system, but with a real-time fast-paced twist. Iiiiinteresting.
The six roles are physical attacker, magic attacker, healer, tank, buffer, and debuffer. When a character is assigned to one of these roles, they will perform no duties that fall outside that role's “theme,” so constantly switching roles is a must, and accounts for the player's primary task in battle. On top of this, the game incorporates a “break” system, where each enemy has a bar that you fill by attacking it, and and filling this bar stuns the enemy for a short while, allowing you to do critical damage. However, the bar is constantly emptying, so you must use a combination of magic attacks (which fill the bar quickly) and melee attacks (which reduce the rate at which the bar empties itself) in order to achieve critical hit nirvana. Occasionally, you can also use a summon, which replaces your three characters with a single avatar capable of a series of large direct-damage attacks while conveniently healing your main team.
Sounds pretty fun, right? Fast-paced, original, harkening back to classic Final Fantasy flavor, emphasizing teamwork over micromanaging? Well let me tell you something.
It is kind of fun.
It's fast, and colorful, and unique, while still feeling kinda sorta like Final Fantasy. It makes you feel a bit more like an active tactician, less concerned with the specifics of thwacking enemies than your motivation for thwacking them. In a game not developed by cretins, it might actually have shined.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII is not that game. In order to drain this system of any potential enjoyment forever, the developers manage to pile on basically every bad idea their fiendish minds can conjure. First, to make sure this combat system isn't incongruous with the story and characterization, they assume the player has suffered massive brain damage, and can only handle one novel concept per five hours. They start you off gently, with the “attack” command. For the first several hours (well, it felt like several hours, considering I was walking in a straight line down an elevated highway while characters talked about events that had no context or relevance to anything – wait, I just realized this section lasts all the way until something actually happens in the story, so yeah, at least several hours) you can either hit the attack button to attack enemies or, when your health drops very low, you can eat a potion. Literally. Combat is a one-button affair for the first act of the game, and when you're not in combat you are walking forward. Literally. I cannot stress this enough. In writing, this is merely a few sentences you breeze through. Out there, in the wild, that is enough time to watch three movies. That is enough time to read a novella. That is enough time to learn a few songs on guitar, even if you've never touched a guitar before. That is enough time to write a thoughtful letter to every close friend you've ever lost touch with. That is enough time to write this goddamn entire essay, if I didn't procrastinate so much. That is enough time for every single person who has never played a Final Fantasy game before to let some weeaboo friend convince them this one is worth it, drive thirty minutes to a store, purchase the game, drive thirty minutes home, put dinner in the oven, put the disc in the tray, and successfully lose interest in ever playing another RPG. No game in years has ever wasted the player's time in a more monumental way – no game I have ever played has done this. For at least five hours, your only actions are pushing forward, hitting the attack button, and using a potion when you need to. This incredible streak is only interrupted by cutscenes filled with characters so grating, I actually preferred just hitting the attack button. It's an incredible accomplishment, to be sure – only a series as polarizing and with such an imbedded fan base as Final Fantasy could pull something so clearly indicative of horrible game design and not have every reviewer and player in the known universe call bullshit. These first hours made me lose faith in Final Fantasy – the fact that a significant portion of the gaming community somehow didn't seem to notice made me lose faith in everything. So basically, within its first five hours, Final Fantasy XIII successfully proves there is no god.
Once your characters have successfully been cursed with MacGuffin, combat becomes a bit more interesting. Now that enemy stun-bar thing you've been looking at with passing interest is actually relevant – magic attacks fill it, physical attacks maintain its level of fullness. Sweet. You could almost call that strategy. The game now helpfully points out that caster-caster-physical attacker will serve you well to fill these bars, and so you do that. Then someone gets hurt, and the game notes that caster-healer-physical attacker can probably handle this situation. Sweet. You do that. Then you switch back. Then you notice you're only actually responsible for one of your three characters' actions, and these actions are generally limited to “attack” or “attack harder.” Then you note the cleverly-designed “just do whatever you've been doing” button seems to speed up this process a great deal. Then you realize you're doing the same goddamn thing you were doing for the first five hours, just with flashy spells thrown in to distract you - “caster-caster-attacker” is the new version of “attack,” and “caster-healer-attacker” is the new version of “potion.” Awesome. By the way, the game won't let you design your own group makeups or add other, more interesting classes for a while, so you'd better start enjoying the pretty colors now.
But hey, at least your numbers go up, right? Your feats of heroism in battle do indeed gain you precious experience points, points you can spend in a system much like Final Fantasy X's sphere grid, if instead of a “grid” it were more like a straight liii-GODDAMNIT. WON'T THIS GAME LET ME MAKE ONE FUCKING DECISION?! IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK? ARE THE ACTUAL FANS OF THIS GAME REALLY THAT STUPID? Apparently this game has fans, so I guess the problem's on my end – clearly humanity doesn't even need the illusion of choice to feel like they're playing a game, as opposed to paying in massive hunks of free time for the most poorly scripted anime yet written. Gah.
The problem is most likely that I'm just some kind of combat system savant, though, because it seems even the creators of Final Fantasy XIII themselves had trouble figuring out this brilliant “magic makes line go up, physical attacks make line stay up” system. As proof of their own lack of understanding of their game's ridiculously simplistic combat system, in the mid-early stages of the game you will be regularly saddled with teams that simply do not work. Two mages with no other classes can kill enemies, sure – it just takes them five times as long, because the combat system was not designed for this team to work. Sure, a team without any healers could technically survive a fight off of potions alone – but why would the game make you jump through poorly-designed hoops like that?
Because this game hates you. It hates you so hard. It hates you so deeply that it not only condescendingly devises endless methods of pissing all over a theoretically interesting combat system, but it also goes a step further by intentionally failing to understand its own combat system in order to make life more tedious and frustrating. That's how much this game thinks you suck.
You spend the second act of the game, a portion significantly longer than the first, power-less portion, controlling teams of only one or two members, teams critically lacking in the balance of roles necessary to make combat roughly as interesting as one of the minigames from a real Final Fantasy game. You will question why a game focused around the interactions of three unique fighters would force you to fight with two characters who are each only good at one role, that being the same role. You will know pain.
Eventually the characters will reunite, as characters are wont to do, and the game will be forced to disappoint you in new and interesting ways. You will learn the “tank” role is to be used against enemies that destroy you in one hit (haha gg noob) when you don't use the “tank” role. You will learn that the game will never, ever, ever actually let you control all three characters' active actions – no no no, clearly such a thing would be far too taxing on the mental and physical limits of any player. And so you will have backup characters who need to fill roles like “casting haste on all characters” or “casting slow on enemies with quick attacks” who really feel their purpose in life is to actually caste haste on allies who are already dead, or cast protection against a type of magic this enemy doesn't even use, or use frikking poison even though poison has been useful maybe twice in the history of Final Fantasy and apparently this character happened to miss the “Slow wins fights, Poison fucking bites” memo. And through it all you will be pressing a whole goddamn lot of “repeat last action.”
There are times when the system rises above itself, where it shows what it's actually maybe capable of – there will be desperate battles, where only your last-ditch “healer-healer-tank” setup saves you, where you feel righteously powerful as you switch to a magic barrage to send an enemy's stun bar flying and then flip to double physical attacker to crush them. You will, occasionally, feel like you are doing something. And when it works, it's awesome – obviously the game is beautiful, and the idea of combat is sweet, and sometimes it feels almost like a Final Fantasy game, moreso than XII's mobile combat ever did, the epic standoff between three puny heroes and all the forces of the apocalypse.
I guess even a lobotomized clock is right twice a day.
You'd think some of these ideas, such as the stun-bar system, would lead to new complexities in combat – but of course, this just replaces old complexities with new, less complex ones. Once your casters have figured out an enemy's elemental weakness they'll always auto-strike it, so as long as you keep casting your “scan enemy vitals” ability, you've no need to choose specific powers. And unless they're your single active character, characters will also choose their own buffs and debuffs, so nothing to do there. Essentially, the decision-making comes down to which enemy do you hit first, and how do you micro-manage its stun bar. Once your characters have all learned the “physical attack that looks suspiciously like a beam of magic” ability, the game truly becomes the first interactive version of a beam-spam anime, with colorful shit flying everywhere and signifying nothing. Of course, Final Fantasy games have never been terribly complicated, but by completely removing the preparatory aspect of combat (as previously represented through Materia combinations, junctioning of magic to actual statistics, setting up interesting gambit combinations, etc,) the “strategic core” of the game is revealed to be kind of like solving a 1x1 Rubik's cube. Because connecting the dots of the stun system is the only way the game will let you do relevant amounts of damage later on, you'll quickly discover the One Best Group for killing virtually all enemies (maybe you'll have separate plans for single big enemies and weak enemy groups, but eh), and the system will show itself to be a simplistic simulation of strategy designed to make people feel much more clever than they actually are.
And seriously, do they even care about flavor anymore? If you're going to make physical attacks ACTUALLY RELEVANT, don't create a BEAM WEAPON PHYSICAL ATTACK. Just DON'T. Trust me on this one. And speaking of flavor, you probably also shouldn't have your underdog protagonists be able to LEAP FIFTY FEET and then just FREAKING FLOAT THERE while smacking at a stunned, helpless enemy. A. It makes your character seem godly. B. Because of this, it trivializes their conflict. C. It makes your enemy seem helpless and absurd. D. This destroys any tension inspired by that enemy. E. It means that you can never really have your protagonists put in physical danger during a cutscene by, say, falling rocks, or being on an aircraft as it's falling, or pretty much any real physical danger whatsoever, because the player will always be thinking, “gee, why doesn't she use those kangaroo thighs to just leap fifty feet away, you know, like she did six times when I was climbing up this stupid mountain of rainbows/clocks/whatever the art department farted out for this scene?”
And speaking of the art department – what the fuck? I mentioned earlier that all the enemies in this game look like cubist versions of themselves, but I didn't even touch on the environments you go through. That's because they are not environments. Theyare nonsense. No area you go through until the halfway point could ever contribute to a coherent world – you spend a few hours traveling through a lake made of diamonds, followed by an ancient temple (just because, no explanation for it), and yes, you do ultimately leave an arc of discarded mega-weapons by way of a rainbow bridge. Look, Final Fantasy, if you want me to care about your world, you have to make it a world – not just a series of absurd visual set pieces. By removing all towns and nearly all hints of human influence from the environments of Final Fantasy XIII, the game is rendered sterile, and any potential for emotional attachment is lost. You can't care about the fate of a sea of crystals, or a rainbow bridge – these things have no attachment to the real world. You need to personalize these places, imbue them with humanity. I don't even know what I'm saying here – I feel like an abused spouse, still convinced I can convince my alcoholic husband to be a little kinder. I think that sentence there contained more emotional resonance than this entire game.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned summons yet, a hallmark of Final Fantasy games. That is because in this game, summons are stupid and I hate them. You earn them through battles marked by clever conceits like “block the whole time and you win.” They can't abuse the same stun system as your normal characters, so their use in combat is generally limited to acting as a time-consuming “heal all,” since, as I've said before, the game has made it so that anything you do that is unrelated to the stun-bar system will only tickle your enemies. The summons in this game take the form of things like babes of ice that transform into motorcycles. I wish this game hadn't forced me to write that last sentence. I am done talking about summons.
As the game goes on, the fights become a great deal longer than they were at the beginning. You're still performing the same basic switches, still abusing the stun system to get critical hits, still healing when you need to heal – it just takes longer. That's it. Because the system is so simple, and you never actually gain control of all three characters, it never actually becomes more “difficult,” as long as difficulty is not correlated with “speed at which you must perform basic, obvious role changes.” It just takes longer, and requires more luck in enemy attack patterns, and more specific timing on healing and tank switches – it essentially becomes a very pretty, very simple, and very monotonous minigame. Oh wait. That's what it freaking started out as. So where are we now?
We are done. We are done explaining why this game is bad. We know this game is bad, bad in just about every way it possibly could be, bad at doing things other Final Fantasy games did well and bad at doing things they did poorly. We must now ask ourselves deeper, more soul-searching questions, such as – why does this game exist? Well, that's simple enough – Squaresoft are simply going through the motions. The story in this game is about nothing – anyone could have written it, and the incredibly low quality of the writing is probably just a testament to Square's diagnosis of their own fanbase's taste. The main creative directive for this game seemed to be “make it pretty” - and in that, they certainly succeeded. XIII is maybe the most polished turd I've ever witnessed. You can't really blame them for making a bad game. Many people make bad games. It's not terribly difficult. Can you blame them for not doing much internal testing, or for underestimating their audience? You could, if they were wrong. But they weren't. Many people love this game, somehow. But surely someone must be punished for allowing this thing to exist, right? Who can we possibly point the finger at, if not the festering spider-womb from which this atrocity emerged?
How about the people who said this game was good – and were paid to do it?
The Playstation 3 version of Final Fantasy XIII is currently sitting pretty at an 85% on Gamerankings.com. That's a fairly decent score for a game that, while very pretty, more or less lacks a single redeeming characteristic in the design department. Well, okay, the combat system was an interesting idea. And alright, the battle music is pretty kickass. Still, when you consider this game's writing and actual gameplay suck on basically every conceivable level, 85% is not too shabby at all. Normally I do not grade games that literally feel like punishment in the “B” range. Could this be accounted for by a simple difference of opinion between me and the general gaming press? Am I just completely overestimating my own worth as a judge of videogame quality? Do I ask too much of current videogames, and assume a level of “standard quality” that the medium just isn't yet capable of achieving? Might I be about to admit, on my own blog, the potential fallibility of my opinions regarding any topic anywhere ever?
The complaints I have with Final Fantasy XIII seem to have very little to do with my personal taste – all you have to do is compare XIII to other games of its type to see glaring inadequacies in every direction. Compared on purely objective points, XIII has a far inferior story to other modern RPGs, such as Oblivion or Mass Effect. Sure, those aren't JRPGs, but even games like Valkyria Chronicles or previous Final Fantasy games have stories with more organically developed characters, more well-realized and coherent worlds, and more interesting and well-explored plot developments. Stating these things are “better” than XIII would be subjective – but saying they are done in a way more resembling well-respected fiction, or that they are more complex, or that they involve more showing and a lot less telling – that is objective. It's the same with the gameplay – sure, you can't say it's “worse” than other RPGs, but you can truthfully say it's incredibly simplistic, handed to you at an extraordinarily slow pace, and tied to an inventory system that has no connection to the physical world of XIII and is styled like a series of Excel spreadsheets.
And yet, the reviews are generally, if not glowing, strongly positive – even heaping praise on those aspects of the game that most define it as pandering and crippled. UGO, in their review, give the game an A- and state that “FFXIII's cast of six primary characters is by far the best-defined group of protagonists the series has ever seen, and their growth (both as individuals and as a group) is what truly propels FFXIII”. Yeah, I guess the characters are pretty well-defined, when I really think about it. There's Somber Action Girl 1, Cocky Action Girl 2, Chipper Jail Bait Girl, Confident Hero Guy, the Funny Minority, and the Whiny Kid. Try to match them up with these narrative arc “big reveals,” and we'll see how how easy it is to define them: 1. Ultimately breaks out of defensive shell. 2. Ultimately must learn humility and own limitations. 3. Is secretly covering huge insecurities. 4. Finds confidence and “maturity”. 5. Has tragic past. 6. Is secretly a horse disguised as a human. I guess there's nothing quite as well-defined as the most cliched hero squad of all time, so I can't really fault them for that description.
At a later point, they admit that “the game's script is hardly world-class writing” and then go on to praise the “genre-savviness” of the writing. “Hardly world-class writing”? GENRE SAVVINESS? The only thing savvy about this game is the creators' savviness of their core audience's infantile expectations regarding storytelling and character. The only thing savvy about this review is its savviness towards the intellectual entitlement of their audience, an audience that wants to be told their media preferences don't automatically define them as idiots with poor taste. This game is marked by writing so bad (Start this at 2:30) I felt embarrassed playing this game in my apartment, in case any of my housemates came by to ask what I was playing. I am normally proud of my gaming hobby, and eager to explain what I find compelling about any game – this game made me question the validity of the “videogame community” as worthwhile arbiters of quality and taste, purely on the basis of reviews like this one. Many other reviews seem similar to this one, praising or at least brushing over writing that would sound hackneyed and absurd in games with virtually no narrative focus, describing as “kinetic” and “strategic” a combat system no more kinetic or strategic than playing bass guitar on easy in Guitar Hero.
Is it because this is a Final Fantasy game, and reviewers know their words won't reach the unwashed masses of diehard fans? Are they worried about people saying mean things about them in a forum somewhere? Have reviewers decided their reputation depends not on the quality of their criticism, but on the number of already-formed opinions they give back massages to (actually, considering the amount of shame and self-selling involved, these are more like Turkish massages) with their reviews? Will they never, ever pan a highly anticipated AAA title, just to prevent the loss of potential ad revenue?
Are videogame reviewers under some obligation to lie to us, or are they just that bad at their jobs? Are they spineless shills, or idiots? I don't mean to heap the blame on videogame critics alone here – in fact, this article wasn't even supposed to be strictly about FFXIII, but the game just made me so angry I had to keep writing. Reviewers in all mass-market mediums clearly seem to lack any journalistic integrity whatsoever. A quick example – Twilight: Eclipse has a 51% positive rating on Rottentomatoes.com – that means slightly over half of the movie critics who saw it, people whose primary vocation is to critically assess film, told their audiences that was a movie with merit. It's the same goddamn thing with politics – people in the news media blithely accept politicians' attempts to create competing and largely imaginary narratives of “what the public really cares about,” they themselves knowing full well that the electorate is not well-informed enough to have coherent complaints – this one particularly stings because it is the news media itself which is obligated to inform people, but instead entertains them with useless political and celebrity gossip nonsense seven days a week.
Are we supposed to not blame critics for pandering entirely to their audience, telling them they're already right, and not trying to imbue the public with some ability to discern good from awful? Just because this is normal and economically sound, does that make it excusable? Should we blame the public for rewarding people who pander to them? Should we blame the schools, for not giving people the tools to think critically? The government, for not funding education? The parents, for passing on their own terrible taste?
But back to videogames. I wouldn't be talking about Final Fantasy XIII at all, if not for two things – the brand “Final Fantasy” and the absurdly lacking response to this game exhibited by the gaming press. And that is why this whole situation makes me frustrated – journalism, even videogame journalism, is important. Critical reviewers beholden to no one but themselves keep game developers honest. Obviously, developers want their games to be purchased, and the most sure way to guarantee sales is to create a quality game, but producers do not have to see it that way if we don't force them to. Just look at what Activision did to the Guitar Hero brand name as soon as they realized it was the name, not the product quality, that was getting games sold. Creating rave reviews of terrible or middling games isn't just dishonest, it sets a dangerous precedent, and weakens the power of those who care about the medium to ask for some degree of refinement and evolution in game design. Without a critical gaming press, there is much less urgent need to innovate, to be bold, to take the huge risks that move the medium forward. I believe Final Fantasy XIII is one brave, bold risk cushioned by a million small, nagging concessions. The idea of cutting a Final Fantasy game to its core, of making it focused solely on a highly refined combat system and a richly compelling story, is bold – sure, it's reductive, but it's a big shift, and it seems like it could be a logical turn for the series if it works. But to then take every single safest and most well-trod path available in pursuit of that goal – by making the characters and story the biggest, blandest cliches available, by holding your hand so tightly you lose circulation in your fingers, by making each combat encounter a visually spectacular version of connect the dots – that drains all the potential from the first risk, and makes that risk itself seem like a lazy concession to our attention span-deprived times. Reviewers can acknowledge the boldness and worth of that first risk while still dismissing the game for its subsequent cowardly concessions. Reviewers, unlike certain game developers, have the ability to employ subtlety in the pursuit of finer points. I know it's hard. I know the market only wants to be entertained, not informed. But this is important. Really, really, really important. Super important. If nothing else, reviewers should take heed that participating in a system that destroys the credibility of criticism will eventually lead to the destruction of criticism itself. And personally, I don't want to live in a world where Final Fantasy XIII is widely considered anything short of a disgraceful joke on the trust of gamers new and old, told poorly, by a clown.
If you still want to consider this a review, here is my conclusion. As a reviewer, this game disappoints me because prior Final Fantasy games show Square is capable of better. As a player, this game disappoints me because Final Fantasy games have always been close to my heart, and this game seems to exist only to profit off that trust. On a larger scale, this game's bald-faced poor design reveals the safety nets most mainstream reviewers have placed beneath all blockbuster releases, ensuring continued patronage by both advertisers and ill-informed readers. On a smaller scale, this game reveals I will never, ever be allowed to review games for a major website. On a personal scale, I would like to say that if my opinions here seem unfairly biased, it is because I am actually passionate about what I'm writing – a quality that seems to have been drained entirely from most modern reviews. The future of gaming in the mainstream may indeed be “Call of Duty: More Shooting People in the Face” and “Wii Waggle the Remote Around Volume 12”. But we can still carve out space for games that offer emotional connection, one unvarnished opinion at a time. For causing me to question my very worth and integrity as a human being, Final Fantasy XIII receives my first ever Is God Just Mocking Us At This Point award. Congratulations.