The finalest of fantasies.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Available on: Steam
Oh boy, where to I begin? I wasn’t even sure if I really wanted to play this game again. I played it back when it came out on PS3. I think this was one of the last games I bought on physical media as a new copy instead of used. And at the time I was really into the Final Fantasy games, even though I could never actually manage to get through an entire one since I just lost interest at some point. This was actually the way I tended to play most of the games I bought. I rarely finished them and had no qualms with dropping them before doing so after I felt that I had seen enough (not unlike what I did with Borderlands a few weeks back). But since I’m in the mood of catching up on old games that I’ve missed the first time around and since this game has been gathering dust in my Steam library for over two years now, I decided on a whim to just go ahead and play it. And even during the first chapter of the game I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to continue with the game, since back in the day I remember getting bored with it eventually, although that took until reaching the part of the game where you no longer follow a linear path.
But somehow, it’s not that part that really bothered me this time around. I mean sure, I can totally see how people would get turned off by the aggressively linear level progression of the first 20 hours. It’s not exactly thrilling roleplaying when you’re merely walking along a set path. But I also have to contest that this was the first game in the series that did it like this, because X was also pretty damn linear and even the more open games like VIII and XII were only open in the sense that you could deviate somewhat from the path for a few sidequests, and even then, the progression as a whole was extremely linear, so it really isn’t that big of a deal to me.
What bored me about this game later on was, ironically, the part where the linearity stops, where you get to Gran Pulse and the game opens up and gets more MMO-like. So this time, I just headed for the main quest marker on Gran Pulse and discovered that you can entirely bypass that section of the game that people usually call the point where Final Fantasy XIII gets good. Because I really have to disagree on the fact that Final Fantasy XIII gets good when you leave the “hallway” and get to explore an open map. And if you fear that you won’t be able to withstand the later parts of the game because you didn’t do any grinding, don’t worry. You’ll get a chance to go back to Cocoon right before the final stretch of the game, because the dev’s anticipated that you’d be underpowered. At that point, I simply said “fuck it” and knocked down the difficulty to easy, because I didn’t want to grind and beat the rest of the game without breaking a sweat.
But what made me finally get through this game on my second attempt was something I rediscovered about this game that I initially forgot. And that’s that I really like the character interactions in this game as well as the group dynamics. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to claim that any of these characters are brilliantly written, not by a long shot. They also weren’t in prior games. But I still have a soft spot for these types of characters and how they interact with the people around them and there’s a silly but endearing quality to them. The only disservice the game does to this is the fact that it repeats so many conversations almost verbatim for way to long stretches of the game. The initial conversation about the group turning into “cursed” beings and their need to figure out how to break that curse is rattled off a dozen times and it never really seems to progress anywhere. That, and Hope can just die in a tire fire.
This is also one of the problems the early game has. It takes way too long for the story to make any meaningful progress. You’ll be traversing any given landscape for hours with very little to actually do while you’re in there, outside of combat. And the combat encounters that are put in here feel a little to gamey. Let me explain: Since your path is so linear, there’s basically no point in having random battles anymore, so you can actually see all the upcoming combat encounters on the world map itself. And how these encounters are designed shows very clear patterns. In every area, the designers introduce new enemy types (read: Palette swaps with different elemental stats), so you’ll typically be fighting a single one of those new enemies the first time around, then a group of the same type of enemies and after that they’ll usually introduce another new enemy type, have you fight against a group of those and then finally they’ll just mix them all together, once you’ve learned how to best deal with any given enemy. It just feels like a lazy way of progressing these levels, because during large parts, the story basically grinds to a halt and you’re forced to do this entire enemy encounter rigmarole over and over again.
This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the group often splits up. And I feel that this isn’t done out of some desire to tell an epic story, but more because it represents an easy way of stretching the story to make room for more content. The entire escape from Cocoon is terribly paced with way too many detours to finally get the ball rolling. But then again, this is a JRPG. I would’ve respected the game more if it didn’t drag out its runtime with endless amounts of identical fights and just clocked in at 20 hours or so.
Because as much as people have railed against the Paradigm system, I think it was actually a neat idea with some potential. I don’t mind not having to manually input all the commands and let the game do that stuff, because this system isn’t designed for micromanagement. It’s meant to give the player strategic options to deal with the variety of challenges that it presents to them. In that regard, it’s not entirely dissimilar to old CRPGs, where combat wasn’t so much you giving individual characters specific attack orders and more giving them roles to play in any given fight without much input from the player. It’s a classic job system really. The unfortunate thing about FFXIII is that as the game progresses, it ceases to be challenging because you end up using the same strategies over and over again and fights only get longer because enemies tend to get way more health and status immunities. Way too large groups of enemies can be defeated by a general arrangement of characters without needing to switch them or the job combinations you give them out for anything else. The bosses on the other hand tend to be on the exact other side of this approach, giving you an incredibly hard time until you figure out the precise combination of characters and jobs that make their fights piss-easy. What would’ve actually made this system way more interesting would be an option to actually switch out characters mid-fight or change the job combinations during fights, since if you lack the specific combination you can just hit the retry button. Or, you know, they could always get away from that nonsensical tradition and have every character you have in your party also take part during the battle.
The story is hot garbage and really not worth further elaborating on. It’s nonsensical, since you end up doing exactly what the villain wants (and yet he somehow still hinders you at every turn) and the final catastrophe is merely averted thanks to a deus ex machina.
One criticism I’ve heard a lot against this game was the fact that there aren’t any towns or stores and that you tend to have very little interaction with NPCs in this game. Now for the first half, this certainly makes sense, since you’re fugitives and nobody on Cocoon would want to deal with you in any way. What I personally found to be a missed opportunity is the fact that Gran Pulse is also just a desolate wasteland. Now I get that the implication here is that the people who did inhabit Gran Pulse died out centuries ago, but it just felt weird to not see any human settlements on this planet. It reeks of laziness, since they designed the systems for Cocoon in a way that didn’t mesh well with those on Gran Pulse and as such they just decided to make everything the same.
And that’s really the biggest criticism that I can lob against this game: It’s samey. To the point where it feels no different playing the game 4 hours in to playing it 40 hours in. In older Final Fantasy games, shit tended to happen, but here everything stays the same. The situation never changes, the battles never change and unfortunately it just drags on and on. This game just feels like an empty vacuum to me, it’s indistinct and featureless. Which explains why I haven’t mentioned the Crystarium (upgrade tree) or weapon and item crafting, because they’re just there. Upgrades are incremental stat increases and every so often you get a new ability and the same thing is true for the weapons. You’ll end up collecting tons of shit off of monsters and from chests that doesn’t really matter, because upgrading weapons just requires that you just have items. Some of them have more worth than others, but it’s all arbitrary without no real explanation given. And hell, even during writing this review, I completely forgot about the Eidolons during my first draft. You know, the monsters you can summon to help you during battles that were part of every game in the series since III? Yeah, they’re completely useless and I ended up never really summoning them.
In the end, this game is just terribly insubstantial and the things I liked about it are both in a clear minority and at the end also don’t survive the entire runtime of the game.