a review of Final Fantasy XIII
a videogame developed by square-enix
and published by square-enix
for the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
(~if you lack the patience to read 18,000 words about this game, feel free to read the 80% shorter “short version” of this review~)
The hero of Final Fantasy XIII is a woman who, out of desire to protect her little sister from the evils of the world, abandoned her given name to adopt the name “Lightning” — then she goes ahead and tells everyone she converses with for more than five minutes to just call her “Light”. At the end of the day, that’s all you really need to know about the story, and all we’ll bother telling you in too much detail. Final Fantasy XIII is a Eurobeat cover album of Final Fantasy VII. It isn’t about anything. It’s big and pretty and has more than enough giant incomprehensible monster-boss battles to satisfy fans who only crave portentous doom and heroic, vacuous soliloquies.
We wish the hero’s name was “Heavy”. That’d be hot. It’d suit her. She is hot. We want to eat her hair. It looks delicious. She is liquid-hotrogen. (We kind of wish her name was Nitrogen.) She is heavy as hell. It’d also invite a reference to “Back to the Future”, where Doc Brown confronts Marty McFly’s slang usage of the word “Heavy” to express disbelief and / or awe-ful disappointment by asking “Is there a gravity problem in the future?”
Final Fantasy XIII presents us a future that does have “a gravity problem”. Wow! What a perfect segue. We’re going to be direct with this review — open with a joke, segue into talking about the battle system — because we realize that a lot of first-time visitors have wandered into Action Button Dot Net thanks to this review, and we sincerely hope that you’ll stick around about as much as we hope they’ll you stay quiet and never make your presence known (that’s a joke (no it’s not (no, it is (no, it’s not (no, it is (no, it’s not)))))).
Final Fantasy XIII‘s battle system revolves around the core concepts of
1. Suppressing the Tango
2. Breaking the Tango
3. Elevating the Tango.
Enemies in Final Fantasy XIII have literally hundreds of thousands of “hit points”. For the uninitiated, “hit points” are a key element of role-playing games: they represent an enemy’s life force as a numerical value. When the number reaches zero, the enemy is dead (“terminated”, “neutralized”). In Final Fantasy XIII, you will never see the total number of an enemy’s hit points, though you sure as hell will see the shit out of the amounts being subtracted from that hidden number.
The best way to get the numbers flying out of a monster is simple: get him in the air. Just before launching an enemy in the air, we like to adopt a tone of voice like we’re chomping a cigar: “Commander, you have clearance to Elevate the Tango”. If you’ve experienced the bullet-pointed list just above the paragraph just above this one, you will know that you can’t Elevate the Tango until you Suppress and then Break the Tango.
It used to be, in these role-playing games, that you’d choose “fight” and then your dude would jump forward, swing his sword in a monster’s direction, and then mystifyingly jump back to his original position. You know, rather than continue swinging away at the deadly threat. Now, the science is too silky — the graphics are so nice, at this point, that someone would notice, and maybe throw up in their mouth a little bit, if characters behaved exactly the way they did in the old games. That doesn’t stop people from complaining! Final Fantasy fans (hereafter referred to as “These People”) could complain their way all the way up a fucking sequoia tree on the energy provided by a single sunflower seed. We don’t even know what the hell that means! You don’t, either! And why the shit would you care?
Final Fantasy XIII isn’t exactly like Final Fantasy VII in the “game play” department, though it is a lot more like it than Final Fantasy XII was. That game was so different. It played itself. You slapped together little artificial intelligence scripts to tell your guys what to do. It was really neat. We thought it was neat, and cute. It was neat-cute. “Nute”. (Yes, we’ve used that word before.) They called these little scripts “Gambits”. A “Gambit” consists of three elements: an action, a target, and a target specification. You then sort them by priority. The most important Gambit goes at the top. Say your top priority is staying alive: make your top Gambit “Cast heal –> ally –> less than 80% max HP”. With one slick menu, you can tell the game what you yourself would do if you had to press the buttons yourself. Then you watch the game play itself. You control the lead character, navigating dungeons or scenic outdoor environments. Every once in a while, there’s a tough enemy, and you have to rethink your Gambits, or pause the action to select commands yourself. The fun is in seeing how the game designers present (or don’t) situations that are immune to the average human’s ability to forethink.
Lots of people hated Final Fantasy XII! Or maybe they didn’t — maybe it was the same four Final Fantasy VII-remake-wanting jerks ballot-stuffing the Amazon.com reviews page. Some of them said some awful things, like how they play Final Fantasy games to unwind, or relax, and that this “Gambit system” made the game feel “unfinished”. “Why should I have to do the programming work?” These people failed to realize that, really, in an RPG, all you’re ever doing is “programming”. We think they were just sorely disappointed to find out that the game didn’t star their favorite X-man from Louisiana.
Many fans complained that Square-Enix didn’t reveal enough pertinent information about the Final Fantasy XII battle system before the game was released; many people claimed that they had been “cheated”, that they wouldn’t have been interested if they had known Final Fantasy XII was “that kind of game”. Somehow, having team members that acted on a set of rules of engagement that you decide yourself made the game resemble an “offline MMORPG”. It got called that a lot. Really, the Gambit system is a lot nicer than a massively multiplayer online RPG: you don’t have to chat with and be nice to people for several on-the-clock real-world months before they generally start to trust your ideas. You just open the menu and bark the orders.
Square-Enix fucked the hell up with Final Fantasy XII — not the game itself, of course. We loved the game. They fucked up the marketing. They drove the genius director away by generally being assholes (source: hearsay); they alienated the fans by feeding them tiny scraps of cut-scenes in which no one said anything deeper than “Let’s go!” No one knew what the story was about, and the nature of the playable part of the game was, like, G-14 classified. So up-fucked was the marketing that the first man in line to buy the game at the Tsutaya store in Shibuya, when offered a photo opportunity with Yoichi “President of Square-Enix” Wada, accepted Wada’s “Thank you for your years of service patronage, honorable consumer” with a breathless “Please remake Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation 3 as soon as possible thank you very much”. (Source: we were there.) The man hadn’t even played Final Fantasy XII; he knew nothing about it; he had already decided that he liked Final Fantasy VII better. This is a terrifying case of “Damned if you do / you can’t not do“. You’re walking right straight at being damned!
It’d be straight-up retarded if Square-Enix weren’t remaking Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation 3. The people have transcended wanting it and now officially want-need it. It’s sad; you know, they could just look at what made Final Fantasy VII popular, you know, really look at it, and they could come up with something.
Well, they must have been predicting that kid’s sentiment; they must have been tasting it in the drinking water for years, because Final Fantasy XIII was already in development for the PlayStation 3 megaconsole. The idea of the game is that the characters all look like people who someone would want to cosplay; they all act like characters who would be someone’s favorite character. Lately, in Japan, some comic fans have expressed genuine suicidal rage when female characters in their favorite comics are shown to, like, hold hands with a male character. This is serious: some guy, like, burned his house down because a little girl in a comic he read admitted to having liked some guy in the past. You know, that’s kind of sick. The characters in Final Fantasy XIII are all more afraid of fan outrage than they are probably afraid of the impending end of the world.
Anyway, we said we weren’t going to talk about the story. Our heads would all dry up and crack in half like dehydrated footballs, more sand pouring out than could possibly fit inside said football, if we started analyzing the story on any level deeper than “lol”. So let’s talk about the battle system.
No! Let’s talk about Dragon Quest IX. Just for a second: when Square-Enix announced Dragon Quest IX, they said it would be a multiplayer-action-based RPG-like-thing for the Nintendo DS. They said the game was done development and would be out by the end of the year. A group of human hemorrhoids flared up on Amazon.co.jp, squealing that they are no good at action games and that this announcement is the worst news they have ever received in their life. Some people — again, this is serious (maybe) — actually threatened suicide. This was right before Monster Hunter Portable 2nd was released and became certifiably more of a megahit than the first Monster Hunter Portable, causing all the number-grinding completionist jerks to go, “oh maybe we like action games too lol”. To summarize this paragraph, Square-Enix were so convinced that their risk would pay off in the long run that they developed a game in which they had confidence. Then a couple of jerks complained and they delayed the game for two fucking years so they could shoehorn the same old menu system back into it. To be perfectly honest, we like the menus in Dragon Quest. We like them a lot. They don’t fuck around. However — and this is crucial — we are open to something new. We would love to play a game the length and size of Dragon Quest, grinding and all, which played more or less just like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
While developing Final Fantasy XIII, Square-Enix had many point-blank decisions to make: do they announce the Final Fantasy VII remake before or after releasing Final Fantasy XIII? And do they make Final Fantasy XIII play exactly like Final Fantasy VII?
Square-Enix gets four silver effort stars (a unit of currency we just made up) for daring to recognize the philosophical implosion that would occur if they were to even seriously mention a Final Fantasy VII remake before Final Fantasy XIII had a release date listed. They get an additional two silver effort stars for retaining a few elements of Final Fantasy XII in their otherwise Classic Final Fantasy [VII]-pining battle system.
Anyway, The Gravity Problem:
To recap: Enemies have hundreds of thousands of hit points in Final Fantasy XIII. “Hit points” represent the enemies’ life force. When an enemy’s number of hit points reaches zero, it dies. It is terminated, neutralized, extinguished, exterminated, et cetera. You will never see the total number of an enemy’s hit points. You will, however, see the shit out of the number of hit points being subtracted by any given attack.
What you want to do is Suppress, Break, and then Elevate each individual Tango.
So let’s talk about how you do this. First of all, you can forget thinking “Oh, enemies have hit points. Let’s just hit them until they die.” That’s not going to work, jackass! If you believe that, you might as well believe Fable 2 when it tells you all you need to do to get a crowd of fifty women begging you to marry them is stand in town square flashing a thumbs-up for thirty minutes!
Hitting enemies isn’t going to accomplish jack shit in Final Fantasy XIII. If you want to kill enemies, you have to think with your Real World Brains. They’re located just behind your Fantasy World Brains. Locate them now, with the point of a #2 pencil. Yes, that’s them.
Enemies in Final Fantasy XIII have a much more important number attached to them than the mortal concept of “hit points”. The number is, uhh, well, there’s really no snappy little name for it. There’s a meter beneath an enemy’s name and life gauge (crucial: enemies have long, horizontal green life gauges; remember this (we are going to get back to it later)) with the word “BREAK” in big, shiny, italic capital letters. It starts out completely empty. Your goal is to fill it up. Whoa! That’s like the exact opposite of what you have to do to an enemy’s life gauge! Yeah, this game is really going to shift the hell out of your paradigm.
As you hit an enemy, his break meter fills. As your party concentrates on an enemy, his break meter detaches from his life meter and glides up to the upper-right corner of the screen. This shows you that it’s not just important, it’s more important than all of the other bullshit on the screen, even the enemy and character graphical models themselves. If you hit an enemy with physical attacks, the break meter doesn’t fill up so well. If you hit him with magic attacks, the break meter fills up quickly — and then recovers just as quickly! What you need to do is, you get one of your characters attacking the enemy with magic, and another one attacking it with physical attacks. Why? Well, because physical attacks slow the rate of break recovery. Duh! Don’t you know anything? (lol)
The fact that the break-meter-filling attacks are “magic” is irrelevant: they don’t even use magic points. There are no magic points in Final Fantasy XIII. Magic is free. Like regular physical attacks, they simply use one “ATB” (“Active Time Battle”) bar. Your characters all start out with three ATB bars, so you can perform three actions per turn. After completing a round of actions, the bars switch back into filling-back-up mode. You only control one character at a time (this is important enough to revisit later), so it’s most convenient if you plan your next set of actions while waiting for the bars to fill up. When the bars fill up, your character acts immediately — whether it’s a magic attack, a physical attack, or some support action.
They might as well call physical attacks and magic attacks “Column A Attacks” and “Column B Attacks”. You need a little from both columns to keep an enemy’s break meter from recovering. You sandblast the tango with magic and physical attacks until his break meter fills. Maybe, during the process of filling the enemy’s break meter, your dudes take heavy damage. Uh-oh! It’s time to heal!
What a perfect opportunity to explain the Optima Change system. It’s called the “Paradigm Shift” system in English, which is actually kind of cool. Well, we’re going to call it the Optima Change system, because it makes it look like we played the Japanese version (we did), which makes us look really cool (so lonely). An “Optima” is an array of “Roles”. A “Role” is a one-word descriptor of both what a character is Capable of Doing and (thus) what the character is Prone to Do.
Attackers [are able / prone to] attack physically.
Blasters [are able / prone to] attack with magic.
Defenders [are able / prone to] defend themselves or other party members.
Healers [are able / prone to] use healing magic.
Enhancers [are able / prone to] cast ally-enhancing magic.
Jammers [are able / prone to] cast enemy-weakening magic.
(In English, the roles are Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Medic, Synergist, and Saboteur. It’s like, they’re trying to make sure that the FPS-subsisting fratkids who somehow stumble past the twelve-year-old whiny little-boy hero-”more-like-QUEER-oh” ultimately go, “oh, hey, look, the arbitrary names for describing what a character’s AI is prone to do in a combat situation kinda resemble words people would use in Call of Duty, so this game must actually not be gay”. We’re going to use the Japanese names, both for the great reason we listed a few paragraphs up and because part of the appeal of the role names is that they all start with different letters, which makes it easier to pick your Optimas at a glance during battle. In English, three roles start with “S”! How dumb is that?)
We understand that, thanks to fucking World of Warcraft, you’re now supposed to use words like “Aggro”, “Tank”, “Buff” and “Debuff” to describe what, say, Attackers, Defenders, Enhancers, or Jammers (respectively) do. We also understand that you can’t say “grind” anymore — you have to say “farm” or “mine”, or something, or else it’s the Supreme Court: Your Ass v. the FCC. So we’ll try — really, really try — to use those words in the coming paragraphs.
Okay, so, you’ve got Attackers and Blasters attacking with Column A- and Column B-type attacks. All the other roles support the task of Suppressing, Breaking, and Elevating the Tango. Healers will heal your dudes. Enhancers will buff their physical or magical defense, or shield them from pertinent elements, buff their weapons with relevant elements so as to better drill an enemy’s weak point, or (our favorite) speed your dudes up so the battle goes faster (this assists the goal of finishing the game before all of your friends are able to walk into a store and buy it). Jammers will debuff enemies’ weak points, decrease their physical and magical defenses or even slow them down.
There are six roles, each with specific skill-sets explored and obtained in something called the Crystarium, which is, if nothing else, the world’s most advanced picking-through-the-neighbors’-garbage simulator yet devised. We’ll get to it later — and how.
Six roles — and six characters. Every cut scene, there your dudes are. All six of them, pumping their fists and talking about how “We can do it, guys!” “Let’s not give up!” “This is our fight!” “And we’re going to fight it!” “For everyone!” “Let’s do it!”
Then, in battle, you only control the three you like the most, and even then, you only control one of them directly (the other two react to combat situations entirely based on the role they’re playing at the time). Oh! Oh! We can’t wait for the comments about this part: why can you only control three characters, when all six characters are journeying (and earning experience points) together? Some will say, “That’s how Final Fantasy battle systems are!” People who say things like that should get a job, work their way up the corporate ladder until they live in a penthouse, and then jump, because if it’s not a penthouse, there wouldn’t be enough gravity for the pavement to crack their skull. These people are the Death of Everything. They can eat dirt and like it, for all we care (and god knows they would like it (after using the internet to make sure they’re liking it the same way everyone else likes it)).
Also: Final Fantasy IV let you use five characters at once. So there.
The simple answer to “Why can’t you just control everyone at once?” is because “Someone on the development team spent Brain Points by the dozens to devise the Optima Change battle system!” If you can have six characters, each one playing one role, you wouldn’t have much need of “changing” your “optimas”. Maybe you could just open a menu and change what one character was doing. Like, maybe your guys are significantly buffed, so you can change your enhancer to an attacker, or whatever.
So you walk into a Boss Room, and your six dudes are there, talking about how “You can’t do this to us!” “Let’s get him!” “Yeah, let’s do it!” And then the fight starts: and you’re just the three dudes you had picked previously on the menu. Then the battle ends, and there’s all six characters, some of them wounded, others just winded. “We did it!” Uh, okay. What were the other three characters doing during the fight? Were they fighting some other boss that the artists didn’t care to draw? (They were probably off in the corner smoking a bowl and talking about what it’d be like to get a blow job in space.)
Well, we’ve got three characters at a time. You’ve got six roles. You’ve got combat situations that involve three characters, and require all six roles working together. This is what you’re given. You need to set up Optimas. You configure them in the menu screen. You open the menu and you choose Optima and you choose “Make Optimas”. You see your three characters’ faces. The high-resolution character portraits take up literally three-quarters of the screen (crucial information). You tinker around, choosing who is going to do what in any given battle. So let’s say you have Lightning, Fang, and Sazh. You choose to make your default Optima so that Lightning is a Blaster, Fang is an Attacker, and Sazh is an Enhancer. Once you’ve gotten all your guys sped up and buffed against physical attacks, you can switch to an Optima where Lightning is an Attacker, Fang is a Jammer, and Sazh is a Blaster. The reason you don’t have someone else be a Jammer is because Fang is a better Jammer than other people. Like all modern RPGs, Final Fantasy XIII lets you make anyone able to do anything if you really want it that way, though they make the cost steep enough to discourage just mastering every role for everyone. So you have Fang Jam the dudes while Sazh and Lightning work on building up that Break meter.
You get far enough in the game, and, eventually, every battle is a contest to see if you can buff your dudes and debuff the enemies before the enemies kill all of your dudes. Sometimes, you have to stop buffing and start healing. Sometimes, you have to stop debuffing so that two guys can be healing. In the above example, we only have one character (Lightning) with an innate healing role, so we have to shove a square peg into a round hole to get Sazh able to cast “Cure” in battle. It’s easy enough to do. So you can have Sazh and Lightning healing while Fang attacks with her physical attacks, which nicely reset the break meter and keep it from decreasing to zero. They do not, however, push it toward the goal. You need Blasters to do that. This is where the enemies say, “Hope they don’t have Blasters!” (“Star Wars” reference (so lonely).)
Important: as you inch an enemy’s break meter up to full, a large numeral with a percentage sign on the end of it goes up. This is what you paid for: it usually starts at 100%, meaning that your attacks are doing 100% damage. 100% of what? Why, “100% of the normal“. We will spare you the “Which came first, the Dr Pepper or the Diet Dr Pepper, which tastes more like regular Dr Pepper”? debate. (Note: the exclusion of a period from the end of “Dr” is intentional: such is the Dr Pepper trademark.) As you push an enemy to break, the number goes up, and so does the amount of damage you’re dealing. Usually this means either precisely jack or approximately shit, though once you get close enough to the red line, you can possibly be doing like 300% damage, which isn’t anything to sneeze at. This is when you go “Hmmm”, and wonder if the game is ever going to introduce enemies that you don’t want to push all the way to break, so you lay off on the Blasting and switch to only Attacking. Spoiler: yes. This was only natural, of course: jerking off for the first time was probably the closest any of the jiggly-puffs developing Final Fantasy XIII came to feeling Real Danger in their entire lives, so the memory of that time when one realizes one can make the stroking good times last a whole lot longer is permanently slotted into the “Real World Experience” blank in the spreadsheet of the mind.
So you back and forth with the enemy freakbeast bastard motherfuckers long enough, and Oh Snap! You just totally broke that Behemoth, dude! With a flash of graphics, we zoom in, we twirl, we bloom: the big, gold, italicized word “BREAK!” appears in the middle of the screen. We can almost hear Gears of War‘s cheery chap Marcus Fenix exclaim “Noice!” The Damage Percentage Numerical Representation explodes in a flash of napalm and stardust: what was once 300% is now 400%. Holy fuck, dude! You just gained a whole hundred percents in like a microsecond! That’s, like, a whole one full thing of something!
Now the break meter starts to slide down to zero real slow. Nothing you do can slow it down, and nothing can speed it up. Commander, you are clear to Elevate the Tango. Hit the L1 button, open the Optima Change menu, and choose your Bastard Master Optima. Or whatever it’s called. In Japanese, they call Two Blasters and an Attacker “Furious”. Two Attackers and a Blaster is “Rush Assault”. Three attackers is “Cerberus”. Two Healers and a Defender is “Phoenix”. Et cetera. We bet the English names are hella dumb. We hope that two Attackers and a Blaster is “Bastard Blaster” and three Attackers is “Bastard Master”. So yeah, you break a dude and then you just put everyone onto Attacker, and here’s where THE GRAVITY PROBLEM occurs:
Maybe the first attack dealt on the typical enemy sends that enemy flying literally a hundred feet into the air. That’s the height of a decent condo building. Just like that, there he is, way up there in the sky. We hope you’re reading this part very carefully, because this is the most important part of the entire review, and the only part we actually thought about for more than seven seconds beforehand: All of your guys jump up into the air. They just rocket up there without a sound, a grunt, or a graphical effect. It’s like they’re in ballet class and the instructor is like “Now turn, and twirl, and jump a hundred feet in the air” and they’re like “Oh okay”. The story doesn’t explain this. We don’t really need the story to explain this, really, though when the cookie-cutter strategy for winning any given battle revolves around getting an enemy into the air, and when the only thing you ever do in the game aside from fighting (lots (and lots)) of monsters is walk for several hours at a time in a straight line, you start to feel the opposite of the “Whoa Cool Cut-scenes” sickness, you know, where you see Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 4 river-dance-duelling a gay vampire and go, “Man, they should make a video game about this!” In Final Fantasy XIII, it’s more like, if your guys can do that, and so effortlessly, and all the time, why can’t we just fly over all this boring terrain at a terrifying speed until we ram headfirst into the final boss?
It’s far more than that, though. It looks fucking ridiculous. Your three guys don’t just rocket off the ground without a sound: they rocket up and then proceed to perch in mid-air as though they’re still standing on solid terrain. They swing their weapons until the attacks they’ve selected have been expunged. Then, with the same grace they used to float instantly up, they flutter at sound-speed right back to the earth. Once their ATB bars charge again precious seconds later, they flit right back up into the sky. It looks weird, to say the least.
What looks weirder is the way the enemy twitches repeatedly between his “flying” animation and his “oh shit” animation. It brings up memories of Tekken. You remember Tekken? Maybe not. Maybe you played Tekken 6 — that’s okay. It’s the same game. (Burn!) Scamco-Bandbuy must have mistook “ropey animations” for a “reason people loved Tekken” because the evidence holds that “People loved Tekken” and “Tekken had ropey animations when a guy was being juggled in the air”. You thrust forward and punch a guy, gliding on air. A man who had been standing upright, fists raised, a sixth of an eye-blink earlier, is now perfectly horizontal, facing the moon, toes pointed just about level with your character’s eyes. You lunge forward, punch him one more time. He snaps back so he’s upright again, then snaps back to horizontal and elevated. They didn’t know that everyone loved this. They thought that someone did. That’s how an “element” becomes a “feature” in the world of Japanese game development.
So, since around Tekken 3, we’ve had games placing the whole “juggling” thing on a pedestal at the expense of ropey animation. In a fighting game like Tekken, however (all insults aside), juggling an opponent comes down to exhibiting your supreme skills over said opponent. You catch him off-guard and elevate him. More often than not, your opponent is a real human being with his own emotional involvement level, adding an extra edge to the accomplishment. In Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, juggling:
1. Leaves the enemy harmless in the air
Actually, that didn’t really work as a list. Let’s make another list, making sure not to precede it with a sentence-fragment that ends in a comma. Let’s not make promises we can’t keep!
1. Juggling leaves enemies harmless and helpless in the air
2. That means that juggled enemies cannot attack your party members while they are in the air
3. Enemies can only be juggled when they are broken
4. If juggled enemies are allowed to touch the ground again, they can attack
5. If juggled enemies are allowed to touch the ground, you should hope that one of your dudes inflicts some physical damage on him ASAP
6. It does something like ten or eleven damage whenever a juggled enemy falls back to the ground; in the grand scheme of things, this means pretty much nothing, because enemies tend to have at least 50,000 hit points each. They should give you a trophy if you manage to kill an enemy with that ten or eleven damage. Actually, a friend of ours claims to have killed an enemy with that ten damage once. We forgot to ask him if he got a trophy for it, though seeing as he wasn’t glowing like a radioactive schoolgirl and beaming with self-confidence when he made his claim, we’re guessing he didn’t get a trophy for it.
Many enemies in Final Fantasy XIII are so intensely powerful that fighting them without breaking them is like trying to climb the Empire State Building using neither an elevator nor suction-cup hands. So juggling the enemy is, in short:
1. Something you are more or less required to do more or less most of the time (more or less)
You’re meant to fist-pump, grit your teeth, and exclaim something like “Fuck yeah! Fuck you, you stupid monster!” every time you elevate a monster. We’re not going to lie. They got us a couple times. They really did get us.
It’s just, look, man. It’s just so fuckin’ weird, man. Final Fantasy X had a whole character whose specialty was hitting enemies who are in the air. He threw a ball at them. It was great. Final Fantasy XIII gives physical attacking characters a “magic” spell called “Ruin”, which can be used to inflict physical damage on an enemy from a distance. You don’t need it, though, because if an enemy is naturally flying, your dude can just jump straight up into the air and hover whenever. Still, man, what the hell is “Ruin”? Why is it sometimes automatically selected for our attackers? Why can’t we at least see our dudes hitting other dudes with their weapons? What the hell is this little generic magic-ball thing? Are weapons out of fashion? It looks about as threatening or exciting as emailing the enemy. You might as well give us a tutorial teaching us how to press buttons on the controller while holding q-tips with a pair of tweezers in each hand (Protip: set the controller on a soft carpet).
So anyway. This is the important part (maybe (maybe not)): The enemy is broken, and you’re up the air, and you’re lambasting the shit out of it this giant, defenseless, lopsided monster-thing. And man, there are numbers just fucking flying out of this thing. All editors and writers at Action Button Dot Net grew up as near-retarded idiot savants with regard to mathematics; as toddlers, our mothers used to have to blindfold us whenever we went “Bye-byes”, or else the information overload from rapidly memorizing license plate numbers would give us the gorilla equivalent of an ice-cream headache. So the following drove us considerably bonkers, made us slobber like cartoon coyotes: you’re in the air, and let’s say you’re blade-raping a King Behemoth, who has something like a million hit points. When an enemy is broken, while his break meter is sliding back to zero, the damage percent continues to climb. So you can get it up to like 999% if you’re fast enough. So these gradually increasing numbers are bursting out of the King Behemoth as your three guys execute six hits at a time. The visual impact of the battle system is thus rendered:
A blue sky
Three sick warriors standing in place a hundred feet from the ground, flailing out with their weapons
A giant, lopsided monster with spikes and teeth and claws, upside-down, glowing radioactive-like (because he’s broken), flinching like a dog carcass caught in an electric fence
. . . Why do we need all these numbers? We are asking this question with an honest motive. Why does it have to be numbers? Final Fantasy XIII already went so far as to give the enemies life meters — those horizontal green bars representing enemies’ health, which we mentioned earlier. Why can’t we ditch the numbers, and just use the Life Meter and the Break Meter? Why does it have to represent the degree of the damage with numbers? Why can’t it be something else? Hey, Capcom, who is occasionally ballless enough to do things like dig up every single fucking character from Street Fighter II and put them in a game and call it Street Fighter IV, after explaining that it’s set between Street Fighter II and Street Fighter IV, kind of got it right with Monster Hunter. When you’re hitting an enemy in the right place in Monster Hunter, blood comes out. If you’re hitting the enemy in the wrong place, no blood comes out. If you’re hitting them in the super-right place, lots of blood comes out. Of course, Capcom censored Monster Hunter in the USA because the monsters look kind of like someone might call them “animals”, and depicting animals that bleed would be kind of like cruelty to animals, even though they’ve got plenty of games the player can freely decapitate zombies, which are reanimated human beings, et cetera. Thanks to reasons like this, not enough people — Japanese or Western — sang the precise praises of Monster Hunter‘s sly exclusion of numbers from the moment-to-moment minutiae of the combat.
We remember Final Fantasy IV back when it was called Final Fantasy II in the US. God, we love telling this story: a friend who had been a huge fan of Final Fantasy on the NES saw a screenshot of the status menu of Final Fantasy II in Nintendo Power, and had the ten-year-old-boy equivalent of an orgasm: “Dude, Cecil [note: he was already using the character's name the first time he saw him] is only on level five and he has two hundred hit points!” In the first Final Fantasy, you had to work like a dog to get a character to have even one hundred hit points. We should have seen this coming, way back when: the whole “numbers go up” thing was going to apply to every single god damn aspect of the RPG experience; the Final Boss of Final Fantasy had 2,000 hit points: we should have known that Average Enemy Grunt in Final Fantasy XIII would have at least 100,000.
Listen: we’re not saying that all RPGs should just be action games already. That would be nice, though. Why can’t Square-Enix put this level of polish and, uhh, (must think of kind word for “obsessive fan-coddling”) care into, say, an action game? Why is this placeholder-ridden nonsense the “safe” game to develop? Isn’t Final Fantasy about radically changing every core element of the game every single time? It is! Then why aren’t they just nutting up and rolling with it already? Yasumi Matsuno tried to change everything in Final Fantasy XII, and the poor bastard got killed for it (maybe (*this is just a rumor (**pretty sure it’s true though )).
Okay, listen again: why can’t we represent damage in some way other than with numbers? Maybe there’s this hot, shimmery golden fluid that represents the Life Force of All Life on the Planet or whatever-the-fuck. Make big splashes of that fly out of the enemy. It’s like, we’ve already got it so that, if you’re healing a character, the number of “good points” is colored green; if you’re hurting the enemy, the numbers are white; if the enemy is hurting you, it’s red; if you’re hitting the enemy really hard, the numbers are bigger, yellow, or maybe gold and glowing. Eventually they’re so huge they can’t be ignored. What we have here is a confession on the part of the visual designers that Using Graphics is a tidy solution for conveying the effectiveness of an attack. We in the Game Development Business call that “Visual Language”! (winking smiley face) Why does Final Fantasy XIII presume we need to know the exact numbers? Is it violating the Chief Video Game Commandment? “Thou shalt not presume the player has nothing better to do than play your fucking game”.
Or hey: Final Fantasy XIII gives us the option to turn the mini-map off in the field screen. Why can’t we just turn the numbers off during the battles?
And then, a battle ends. The game displays the amount of time it took you to clean your plate. They show you the “average time” and then show you your time. “Time” seems to be the only criteria they judge you on. Maybe the “average time” is two minutes and forty seconds, and you beat the battle in thirty seconds. You get five big, shining, gold stars, which you can do all of five huge zero-sized nothings with. You also get a “score” of, say, 10,800 “points”. One scary thing: we consider ourselves pretty decently intelligent human beings, and we have no idea what the points are for. Just above the points is the “Battle Rate”, which is displayed in a very teeny font. It’s usually a two or three-digit number. What it means, who the hell knows? Battles also award you “Crystal Points”, which are how you level your dudes up. Then we flick over the “item” screen. Crucial info: even if you don’t get any items from a fight, you have to view the item acquisition screen. It stares you right there in the eye, the word “ITEMS” and then a big empty spreadsheet with a circle button icon and the word “Next” at the bottom of the screen. Even more crucial: your battle points / star ranking have no effect on the items you receive, if any, or the amount of Crystal Points (CP) you’re awarded. The numbers are there just to stroke you, softly.
We don’t really understand the rankings, sometimes: you can undercut the “target time” by over a minute and still get four out of five stars. If speed is so important, then what the hell? Sometimes, it seems like you’re awarded for not Optima Changing too much; sometimes, it feels like you’re rewarded for knowing your precise limits and actually letting one of your teammates die, so that you can coast right up to the end of the battle with one guy alive and in critical condition. Don’t worry: everyone comes back to life at the end of a battle, and if you lose, you have the choice to restart, immediately, right in front of the enemy that killed you. At the end of the day, it really does start to look like speed is the only goal. Lord knows, if you’re anything like us, you’ll want the battles over as soon as possible, because someone told you “the story gets really good later, dude” or “the game really opens up later on”. Good luck with that! The battles will sometimes envelop you in sometimes ten entire minutes of grueling uphill climbing, forcing you to know that you’re doing something wrong. You pray for a zero-star ranking, for there to be some obvious “right way” to do this. Then the game gives you a five-star ranking, and your heart sinks: oh god, you are doing it the right way.
Every regular encounter is so much like a boss that the bosses feel cheap or dumb or at least not challenging enough to live up to their (sometimes incredibly) fantastic appearances (not that you can tell what they are (or even what the hell they’re Supposed to Be) 99% of the time). So, more often than not, boss fights have a “trick”. Remember how in Shenmue 2 they give you an “RPG” with the “battle system” being “Virtua Fighter 4‘s fighting engine”, and then, because “some people find fighting games, like, kinda hard”, they made all the battles these tiny little puzzles? Like, in order to beat that one guy, you need to dodge him ten times? That’s some lame shit, man.
Well, here’s another sad fact: man, nothing in this game fuckin’ looks like anything. What the hell are any of the enemies supposed to be? We had a friend in sixth grade who would doodle real neat-looking stuff on his notebook in class. He was into fantasy novels. Hell if that kid didn’t say that everything he was drawing was a “sword”. We’d like to think he got a job as a monster designer on Final Fantasy XIII (however, he probably was arrested at age nineteen for cruelty to animals). Some of these things are just unbelievable — because you can’t even start to know what they are so that you can then tackle the question of whether or not you should believe them. If you, dear reader, decide to take it upon yourself to play Final Fantasy XIII from start to finish, expect to ask some permutation of the question “What the Christ are these things?” during a random battle no less than sixteen times an hour. The “that’s just the way [these games] are” crowd would likely reply to your rhetorical question by reading you the name of the monster from the enemy roster menu. As the game grinds on and the enemies get harder and harder, their misshapenness begins to nearly offend you. You get into the final dungeon, which is your typical twisted Hyper Dimension Satanic altar kind of place, and you’re fighting enemy parties consisting big, shapeless, hairless, faceless failed blown-glass sculptures and lopsided ghost motorcycles that float quizzically (or at least the faceless equivalent of quizzically) letting you hit them a couple of times until they decide to go “o btw i win” and just slam you so hard you shit teeth. Like so much about this slog of a game, it’s a penis-measuring contest (or the faceless, blown-glass-sculpture-equivalent-of-penis-measuring contest), the enemies simply serving as yardsticks: do you have enough HP? Have you ground enough? Do you really hate the game enough yet to want it over with? (All these statements apply in some way or another to the plot, as well.)
It took us maybe forty hours or so before, in one sleep-deprived instant, the blinders suddenly and viciously fell off: we noticed how utterly ridiculous it is that the words “OPTIMA CHANGE” appear on the screen literally and irremovably from start to finish, in every battle. Sitting next to the words “OPTIMA CHANGE” is a little L1 button logo. You can’t turn these off. We hate stuff like this. We’re not even going to begin to criticize it. Instead, we’re going to criticize this: every time you press L1, highlight an Optima, and then choose it, the action in the battle grinds to a quick halt while the words “OPTIMA CHANGE!” scream, silver, italicized, in the center of the screen. It’s like, “Yay! You just reconfigured your ally AI patterns and skill-sets!” We felt very weird at this precise moment, not quite like a Cub Scout who’d just been invited to a secret meeting with the scout leader in a truck stop restroom — more like a baby who just had his candy taken, and replaced with a less delicious type of candy which is also conveniently harder to accidentally swallow. In short, graphically celebrating the act of changing your characters’ AI patterns is pretty much the same thing as getting a personal phone call from the President of the United States because you were super-great enough to remember to file your income taxes.
People throw the word “chess” around whenever they play an RPG and like the battle system because it makes them feel smart. When will we ever see an RPG battle system that rewards, you know, something “real”, the way that a highly skilled chess player can beat a less-skilled player in as few as five moves? “Risk and Reward” are words thrown around often in game design meetings — which are something we’re sure didn’t occur during the development of Final Fantasy XIII (we’ll get to that in a minute). Why do you reward the player? For taking a risk? How do you reward them? By letting them continue to play the game? And what do they get for continuing the play the game? They get to See More Cool Stuff. Okay. Well, why does Final Fantasy XIII reward players? It rewards players for playing the battle system the way it’s meant to be played: blasting and attacking monsters, while enhancing and jamming, until the enemy reaches break, healing in the interim if necessary. Then, once the enemy is broken, you slam the shit out of him. Official Japanese marketing copy for the game makes liberal use of the words “Refreshing Feeling”, which is also plastered all over the place whenever a Dynasty Warriors game is released. What’s refreshing about lambasting a defenseless enemy? Well, for one thing, you get to see huge numbers flying out. The enemy, most of the time, doesn’t look like anything remotely related to anything in the real world, so it’s mostly like seeing numbers flying out of some well-lit piece of ornately detailed jet-plane wreckage which is somehow suspended in the sky. So, in short, the “refreshing feeling” arises out of the situation of dominating a defenseless thing. In Dynasty Warriors, the enemies all have weapons which they are decidedly choosing not to use. They want to die. In Final Fantasy XIII, you have to employ “strategy” (by which we mean you have to jump through the arbitrary hoops the game designers erected in the name of making you feel smart) to induce the enemy’s state of helplessness. You want to kill the enemy because you want to win. You know what, though? Actually killing the monsters is boring. And it’s not boring because you feel sorry for the monster, nor is it boring because you have no fucking clue what the monster is supposed to be (it’s hard to feel sorry for a lopsided phantom self-driven motorcycle which is large enough for King Kong to ride): it’s boring because the anticipation is everything: the struggle to break the enemy is infinitely — hell, maybe even quantifiably — more fun than plugging in the commands to kill it. We have, in the past, insinuated and even believed that seeing a girl naked for the first time is a feeling far more powerful even than having intercourse with her, though we would in no way push that belief on others. Some of our best friends are married, et cetera. However, in Final Fantasy XIII, where neither naked breasts nor the removal panties are ever involved, we can say that we kindly hope you’d feel the same way we do about breaking enemies being more fun than killing them.
Alfred Hitchcock said, about writing, that writing a movie screenplay was, to him, better than shooting a movie, because in his head, it’s already perfect, and that “in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 per cent of your original conception”. We feel the same way about games; when will a game be as fun for the average man as writing a screenplay was for Alfred Hitchcock?
Here’s the cosmos-sized rub, though: where would we have the battle stop? If we ask the battle to stop at “Break”, that’s basically like we’re pining for a game where you hit the enemies and it hurts them and kills them. Right?
Actually, that’s what a friend said yesterday, when we explained our theory that battles should stop at “Break”. We were confounded — dumbfounded, even, that he would say such a thing. Then we thought about it, and realized that most NGPs (Non-Genius Persons) think this way, so we’re going to step down to your level for a second, dear reader. Before we get there, no, we’re not hungry; you can keep that thing you call food for yourself: we just had some genius food a minute ago and it was delicious (and no, you can’t have any).
See, the Break meter recovers when you’re not hitting the enemy. You need to do physical attacks to slow the recovery of the Break meter just as surely as you need to do magic attacks to push it closer to the edge. You can heal to stay alive; you can jam to weaken the enemy; you can enhance to strengthen yourself. Your characters have Break meters, too, by the way, though they seldom break. When they break, all that happens is they, too, get juggled into the air, only when they do, the enemies don’t gang-rape them. The only thing is,
You cannot Optima Change in the air.
Breaking is an integral “strategy” to the game. We put “strategy” in quotes because the word strategy usually implies that it’s some kind of option, and that there are many more like it. In Final Fantasy XIII you’d have to have the brains of a chimpanzee not to Always Be Breaking (ABB) the enemy.
(There’s only one group of regular enemies we can think of in the story part of the game who are best beaten with a creative tactic: they’re things that look like robots, and might actually be robots, who become terribly paralyzed if you break them. They attack in groups of five, and are very powerful. Your best bet is to break them one at a time, until they’re all broken, then kill them. That particular enemy encounter felt fun, compared to all the others.)
Similar mechanics have existed in RPGs before. The easiest one to think of off-hand is the “Rolling HP” system of Mother 2 / 3 / Earthbound: when an enemy hits you, your HP display starts to roll down. It looks like a slot machine spinning slowly. Sometimes, enemies can deal more damage than you have hit points. If you heal before the damage finishes being counted off, you can cheat death. That’s kind of neat! Final Fantasy XIII could be elegant and streamlined like that, by making the enemies “always recovering HP” — instead of counting down, their HP is constantly counting up, so you just need to keep hitting them. We don’t even need to put those words into it. Just have that Break meter, let the player figure out what triggers it for any given monster, and then break the enemy to kill him.
In Final Fantasy XIII, you sometimes encounter an enemy who has to be lambasted in a state of Break more than once in order to be killed. If they were to implement the idea we presented above, wouldn’t that make these fights less fun? No, it wouldn’t. Not if the fights were planned better from the start. Suppressing is a key strategy that has served well in many, say, action games. It forces the player — even the female player — to be a man, get out there, be bold, and hit the enemy with everything you got.
Here, we remember another Mother battle system quirk: the instant-win battle. If you approach an party consisting of monsters well below your current level, you can kill them instantly, and receive their experience points. In Final Fantasy XIII, breaking a monster when he’s the Last Monster Standing always feels like checkmate; telling your guys to elevate and execute him is like taking the bishop that checkmated the king and batter-upping all of the chess pieces off the board with it. It’s overkill. Hey, why don’t we make at least this kind of “refreshing feeling”: when you break the last enemy standing and it’s possible for him to be elevated and executed, just put a command on the screen that says “checkmate”, and let us choose it and then be treated to an intense graphical display showing all three of our characters jumping up and beating the shit out of the dude. That would be great! That would be almost as good as our idea for a Super Mario Bros. mod that recognizes the Point of No Return — when you’ve attempted a jump that you are not going to make, as soon as Mario passes the point of plausible survival, the screen viciously blacks out and the words “YOU SUCK” appear hugely in the center of the screen.
Actually, maybe the “Checkmate” idea for an RPG is even better than the “YOU SUCK” idea. Hmm. If possible, it’d be neat to see a game that implemented both. In a perfect world, all games would implement both, and never feel cheap. Final Fantasy XIII almost could have been that game. Oh, well.
Instead, your “risk” is “die and you can start the battle over”. Your reward is “Yay, you get five stars.”
STILL TALKING ABOUT THE GAME
Why are we still talking about this game? Why aren’t we talking about some inane shit yet? Who knows! Maybe it’s because the battle system is interesting, or maybe it’s because we know people are going to be reading this and we love attention.
The battle system is clearly the most important part of Final Fantasy XIII, and clearly the one part that’s easiest to talk about without “spoiling” the “story”. What’s weird is how RPGs these days drip-feed battle system elements as though they were story developments. If you visit any internet forums about videogames, you’ll see lots of people discussing what’s “more important” in an RPG, the story or the battle system. We sigh a little bit whenever such questions are asked. Really, the “battle system” should be transparent, or else little more than an interface element. The “battle system” should be “what happens when you press which button”.
Square-Enix knows that these kinds of debates actually occur on the internet, as surely as they know that World of Warcraft is an ugly, clunky game which happens to generate more than a billion dollars yearly. “Battle systems” are, in addition to a placeholder in a form of entertainment whose children are being raised by substitute teachers, a hot commodity that earns at least enough money for everyone in the company to make a one-yen yearly profit. Square-Enix probably didn’t spend as much money on Final Fantasy XIII‘s battle system as they did on its fatuous, psychotic computer-animated cut-scenes, though they’re willing to be aw-shucks cute enough about acknowledging the people who might love the simple act of throwing numbers at the wall.
One of the ways they pander to the “no, the battle system is the best part” crowd is by dipping you very, very slowly into the battle system. Remember how, in Final Fantasy XII, you had to purchase the right to program a character to target an “Ally” with less than 20% of his total HP? Wasn’t that weird? Well, in Final Fantasy XIII, you start the game with just a bunch of dudes choosing “fight” and killing the enemies for a couple of hours before they endow the characters with Mystical Powers — which, in addition to making them Mystically Powerful, also rob them of the ability to just choose “fight” on the menu. You will spend many, many hours of Final Fantasy XIII using just two characters at a time, one of them unable to physically attack an enemy. The game feeds you the battle system in little astronaut-pellet-sized portions, until, two dozen hours in, it sighs and says, “Okay, you can have fun now”. And “have fun” means, for the most part, “engage in extracurricular conflicts proving that you have learned this unwieldy game-enjoying method better than your friends have”. “You have put in the time and paid the dues necessary to be able to brag about accomplishing something your friends might not have”. Since when is enjoying a game about paying your dues?
It is for the scruffiest of the kleptomaniacs in the audience that Final Fantasy XIII‘s game designers contrived The Grinding Place, a great, large, revisitable environment in which the player is free to wander about fighting monsters and taking up “missions”. The mission description is invariably a wall of text in which some person talks about being sad and needing to have some monster killed. The monster then shows up as a star on your radar. You go find it (translation: run for several minutes in the direction indicated on the mini-map), and kill it. The mission monsters range from hard as nails to sister-fucking ridiculous. (We almost typed “nun-fucking ridiculous”, though we didn’t want to condone the act of fucking a nun. That’d be like dripping Meat Juice into a vegetarian’s coffee. (Fucking someone’s sister is okay, of course, as long as she likes you about as much as you like her.))
Square-Enix says that the play-time of Final Fantasy XIII is “about 50 hours”. We can corroborate this. It took us exactly 52 hours to get to the end of the story, though we beat the final boss with a five-gold-star ranking, which means we might have ground a bit more than was necessary. We can also claim that most of the 52 hours was spent fighting. If we had to guess, we’d say you spend about 35 hours of the total “story” experience Optima Changing, et cetera.
Square-Enix goes on to say that Final Fantasy will take you “upward of 100 hours” if you complete all the missions. Okay — the missions would require literally solid fighting, with some walking back and forth to get to the monsters, and some menu-tweaking between fights, so that’s 48 hours of fighting. In total, we have a game that is approximately 83% fighting.
The thing about these mission monsters, though, is that if you can devise the strategy for killing them, what would possess you to actually do it? It used to be, we had enemies like Ruby Weapon in Final Fantasy VII, where the enemy was so incomprehensibly powerful that you might actually scream the first time he killed you. You have to kill Ruby Weapon with just one of your three party members, who can have a maximum of 9,999 hit points. Ruby Weapon has a million hit points. In order to beat Ruby Weapon, you need to be a detective of menus; you need to pore over the detailed facts of the game’s battle system and come up with some Rube-Goldberged solution: you need to level up your “Materia” so that you can revive yourself automatically every time you’re killed, so that you have 9,999 magic points instead of 999, so that you have the strongest summon on the highest level. Emerald Weapon poses a similar threat, except you can use all three party members, though must kill him in fifteen minutes. Once you devise a solution, actualizing it is only a matter of time: you need to pour so many hours into leveling up your materia before you can kill Ruby and Emerald Weapon that no save file in which the player has killed them ever has a playtime clock that isn’t stuck at “99:59″.
Final Fantasy XIII gives you monsters that gently escalate toward hit points represented by numbers typically only ever seen by astronomers. In order to beat these monsters, you need to apply the same tried-and-true strategy of breaking the enemy and then getting him in the air. Sometimes, the enemies have friends. Sometimes, it’s a real pain. However, solving the case never involves any actual detective work that makes you feel smart. The amount of strength needed to break an enemy directly correlates to how strong your weapons are. This is how they planned to keep people from selling the game back to used shops within a week of its release (it didn’t work: the new price was around $100, and it can now be had used for around $70). Your road from Here to Sidequest Heaven will be fraught with busywork, not challenge. Instead of menu-detective work, it’s more like, you open up the “weapon upgrade” menu and just start throwing a bunch of seemingly useless shit at your weapon until it levels up.
That’s how you level up weapons in Final Fantasy XIII — you throw useless shit at them. Remember Final Fantasy XII, how enemies gave you stuff, and you sold the stuff for money? People hated that, for some reason. We didn’t mind it. It seemed more plausible than getting money from the enemies outright. Why would the monsters be carrying human money? Because they killed an adventurer and found the money shiny and pretty? Okay, maybe. Anyway, in Final Fantasy XII, that Random Stuff was always for the selling. In Final Fantasy XIII, you have shops, and you have the Weapon Upgrade Menu. You go into the shop and see how much something sells for. Don’t sell it, though! Just wait a minute. Go into the Weapon Upgrade Menu, choose a weapon that you want to level up, and then choose the Seemingly Useless Item you just looked at in the shop. See how many experience points it offers your weapon. Now, divide the number of experience points by the number of Gil (Final Fantasy world currency) the item sells for. There are two or three items in the game that you can buy in the shops in unlimited quantities and which have pretty excellent experience points per gil, so you should just use those to level up your weapons and sell the rest of the shit. When a weapon is leveled up to its maximum level, you have to use a special item to evolve it into another weapon. Thankfully, these special items are all sold in one specific store, which sells nothing else.
All shops in Final Fantasy XIII are accessible from the save menu. Final Fantasy XIII presents us with a future where all shopping is online shopping — and online shopping is instantaneous.
Leveling up your weapons in Final Fantasy XIII is about as fun as looking for your car keys. Seriously, this is part of their grand scheme for making money on the game: put this busywork shit in there so that people waste more time with the game than they had planned to, until, oops! The local used shop’s buyback price has dipped below the amount of money you’d hoped to earn back. Might as well keep it, now! Man, why can’t they do something like, who knows, make downloadable content? Have some kind of online multiplayer mode, or something?
Leveling up the characters themselves is about as fun as picking through the neighbors’ garbage. Leveling up your characters requires use of a thing called the “Crystarium”, which is a terrifying thing to call anything. It looks like a big crystal flower studded with shrapnel from a board game that exploded. The background is something like you’d expect to be projected onto a bed sheet tacked to a wall in some accountant’s basement on a Friday night when he tries to host a party and no one shows up. (We might have used this description before.)
With the Crystarium, you choose which character you want to level up. Then you choose the particular role you want to level up. Say we want to level up Lightning’s Blaster role. You select it. Okay, now it’s like the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, except without as many choices. You are moving a cursor down a track. A line of white light represents your character’s progress. You hold down the circle button and press a direction on the D-pad to expand the line of white light in the direction of the next upgrade. Okay. Expanding the line uses “Crystal Points”, or “CP”, which you earn at the end of every battle. Even dead or inactive characters earn CP at the end of every battle (important). Let’s say Lightning’s next upgrade is +20 to her maximum HP, and it costs 200 CP. You purchase it. Now you can continue down the line (around the circle, as it were) toward more upgrades, such as +5 to physical attack or +5 to magic attack, and eventually to a new battle command: the Fire spell. However, you don’t feel like Lightning needs the Fire spell yet, because you don’t use her as much as you use other magic users, and the enemies in the area you’re in right now don’t seem all that particularly excited about Fire magic, anyway. You deem that the two more “+20 max HP” nodes down the offshoot path from the current +20 max HP node are more important at the moment. So you buy them instead.
It’s worth noting that the Crystarium for every role for every character consists mainly of max HP, physical attack and magic attack upgrades. Eventually, the game is going to let you use every role for every character. However, once it’s done this, you start to wonder about the whole thing. Sazh isn’t supposed to be a healer — he’s primarily an Enhancer, Blaster and Attacker. If you choose to level up his Healer Crystarium, you’ll notice that the first few upgrades are near-prohibitively expensive. Also, that there are very, very few of them — usually just two or three per level. You’ll need to learn at least one ability in a role before you can assign a character to that role. It’s obvious that the game wants you to use certain characters: you can be near the end of the game, and Hope will have literally double the magic power of Sazh. No two Crystariums are equal. At the end of the day, it’s like the “freedom” of “choice” is just a weird illusion: they’re just not going to let you make Sazh a better blaster than Hope.
What’s weirdest is that the Crystarium starts out quite small, and then expands as you defeat specific bosses. It starts at level 1, and ends up eventually at level 10. Each new level of the Crystarium contains numerous new nodes for you to access. You will notice, however, that the nodes on each new level of the Crystarium cost considerably more CP than the nodes on the previous level. It’s like, why are they keeping you from the upper levels of the Crystarium? If a player wants to spend 45 hours grinding at the very beginning of the game to access all the HP upgrades, why should you stop them? The way the game is officially set up, you can only grind so much before you’ve maxxed out everything in the Crystarium, then you have to beat the next boss so the Crystarium will expand. Why do they do it this way? The only answer to this riddle is that the game must not want you to win too easily. Well, then, why the fuck do you have a leveling-up mechanic in the first place?
Oh? What’s that? Because you have been doing the same fucking thing for twenty years and you have no fucking idea how to just, you know, design a game that’s compelling and rewarding to play, so you instead fall back on the “illusion of progress” thing?
Some might say, “People like seeing numbers go up”. Yeah, so do we — especially when those numbers are in our checking account. Enough about numbers. You know what else people like? Cupcakes. Why don’t games give people cupcakes, too, while they’re in the business of giving people what they like?
At best, that is, at the times when a character rejoins a party after a long absence and has stored up tens of thousands of Crystal Points for you to spend in a spree, the Crystarium is as satisfying as a half-decent bowel movement. At worst — like, say, when you backtrack to find the one little nodule you’d neglected earlier in favor of something more immediately useful, it resembles a picking-through-the-garbage simulator. Oh, so many times, we saved the game, ready to do something like sleep, or shower, and then decided to spend our Crystal Points. We spend them all, and then save the game again, because we wouldn’t want to go through the soulless, joyless spending process again. Like battling, after you’ve battled more than a hundred times in a day and just want to proverbially go home, it’s just another Undesirable Experience to Endure. Like everything else in that roadkill of a videogame, it’s busywork; it’s something to do while waiting for your funeral, and it has no shame about itself.
You know what this shit is? It’s disingenuous. (Our dads would be proud of us to see us using that word (maybe correctly).) This whole video-game operation is fuckin’ disingenuous, man. Sure, entertainment is all about lying to the experiencer in the name of amusing him, though there’s a fuckin’ ocean of difference in the lies Uncharted 2 tells and the lies Final Fantasy XIII tells. Uncharted 2 lies by telling us we have to climb a mountain so that we can get to the top and kill some dudes (“shh! the mountain isn’t real! this is just a game!”); Final Fantasy XIII tells us, “Hey, you got some fun experience points! Now you can level up your dudes! Oh, look! You leveled up to the max! You’re great! No, no, you can’t level up any further! Go fight that boss, and we’ll let you see a neat cut scene, then let you see a neat new area with neat new enemies, and we’ll also let you level up some more!” Bad entertainment makes all entertainment look bad; lies as abstractly depressing as those of Final Fantasy XIII make the more bizarre members of the audience once again consider life as a Zen monk, and you know, if you get a lot of people thinking like that, you might see decreased profits industry-wide.
Once you think about the Crystarium for a bit, once you’ve seen the graphical “OPTIMA CHANGE” celebration enough times, Final Fantasy XIII really begins to evolve as a farce with seemingly global implications. Getting past a certain point in this game requires a learning of the mental resolve required of a backstabbing politician. You will hate the public by the end of this game, and you will hate the politicians as well; you will have hired and fired a lawyer and a half by the end of this game.
What are we doing, again? You wonder. You only control one party member per battle. Wait, why? Because there’s Too Much Shit happening in any given battle. “That’s just what they want you to think, man”, your weed-smoking, bathrobe-clad roommate played by Brad Pitt drawls, before disappearing into smoke: oh fuck! Now you’re seeing things.
Skies of Arcadia did a thing where, when you’re making menu choices during battle, all of the characters not currently being controlled were standing around in the background with enemies in front of them, trading blows. Many reviews heralded this as something of a great innovation. Really, all it was was a neat graphical flourish. In Final Fantasy XIII, your other dudes are trading blows with enemies while you make choices, only they’re actually doing and taking damage. Okay, maybe that’s kind of cool. Then you consider that it’s only this way because the Fatuity Machine started from “graphical flourish” and worked backwards: “What is the thing?” begat “Why do you care about the thing?” which begat “What is the purpose of the thing?” Shouldn’t we be fielding problems before talking about how sparkly to make the solution? Who the hell knows, man.
Final Fantasy XIII‘s battles lack in self-discovery. Like, enemies have weak points, right? You can use a “TP ability” to scan an enemy and learn his weak point. “TP” are like magic points, only you earn them by winning battles. Well, fuck that. All you need to do is have a Blaster who knows all the element spells. Then, when the battle starts, he’ll automatically fill his ATB bars with one of each type of spell. Then he’ll let loose on the first enemy. If a spell is absorbed, or ineffective, the computer will note it. If your blaster hits on the enemy weak point, all you have to do is open the enemy info menu (R1 button) and there you have it: you can now see exactly what spell did enough damage to be registered as a “weak point”. Now, if the player-controlled character is a blaster, you can just choose the weak point spell yourself. Or, um, you can choose “auto” and the computer will pick it for you. That’s probably the best idea. This raises a couple of beautiful questions, one of which isn’t even a question:
1. Doesn’t the computer already know the weak points of every enemy, anyway?
2. Is it possible that the game lets you only “control” one character at a time because making all the menu choices is a chore and you’d hate the game if you had to control everyone in the party?
The poison seeps deeper into the brain. You have just obtained concrete evidence of a computer pretending. The computer is pretending to not know something that, of course, it does know. How does an AI blaster go about choosing the order of elemental spells to use against an enemy? Does it choose them in alphabetical order? (Yes. (Kind of. (Technically the stronger ice spell comes immediately after “blizzard”, though the AI won’t choose two ice spells, it’ll move on to the next element.))) Then there are situations, like, where you have a party of robots. Aren’t robots always weak to lightning? Why can’t the AI-controlled blasters just know that? If it’s a new type of robot, they are compelled to run through the list of potential weaknesses all over again. How weird.
We could try to be optimistic, and say that the computer-controlled characters “learn” the way we would learn, if we were playing the game ourselves for the first time, and didn’t realize that water magic killed fire slimes. If we even started to do this, we’d end up feeling horrible, and we’d probably ultimately remember The Secret, which our doctor says we must never commit to print.
So, in short, we have a game where the most exciting element is in swapping arrays of AI scripts which are linked directly to exclusive skill-sets, and the computer pretends to not know things. It’s a role-playing game where you play a role, and the computer plays one, too. How cute. You have a buddy, and he’s a robot.
Also, the summon monsters are all capable of transforming into motorcycles, fighter jets, or hot rods. You know, just because. Some guy on the development team, with a terrible hat, must have thought of that. He must have written it up in a spreadsheet (it’s always a spreadsheet) and submitted it to the section head maybe thirty-five times, each time making this puppy-dog expression, genuinely forgetting each time that he had submitted the idea before. Eventually, because Japanese law apparently prohibits any company ever firing anyone, they started developing the guy’s idea. What the fuck is going on in the summon vehicle segments, we have no idea. You have to fight all the summon monsters before you can use them, and each fight is of the “battle-puzzle” type, where you have to do one stupid thing over and over again, like use “defend” to withstand the enemy’s attack. Then, after a while, a square-button icon appears on the screen: “Press the Square Button for Driving Mode”. You press the square button, and the Shiva Twins latch their hands together, spin around, and turn into a motorcycle. Snow jumps on, thumbs-ups the camera, and “YOU WIN”. After this point, you can use that character’s summon in battle.
This feels more like a spoiler than anything else we’ve written in this review: there’s a scene where a character fights his summon battle, initiates Driving Mode, and wins, and then we’re immediately treated to a cut-scene where his summon-vehicle is completely absent, and he . . . dies. Wait, what? Of course he’s not dead. He wouldn’t actually be dead, after the game just introduced us to a summon monster that some graphic artist spent a hundred hours rendering. They wouldn’t lavish that kind of time on any one polygon model if they weren’t going to give you the option to use it whenever you want in the game. More often than not, this is how Final Fantasy XIII flows as a game — by presenting you with plot points that lead to flawless predictions of the next plot point based on your experience understanding how the game plays as a game.
AND NOW, THE GOOD PART
Eventually, as the game drones on and as pedestrian after pedestrian strolls through your living room, glances at the screen, and makes some sound like they’d just swallowed a golf ball that had been moving at the speed of sound, the battle system convinces you that you are the only person on earth who probably understands it in full. By this point, Final Fantasy XIII has got you, the way it is possible for a corporation to get somebody just by paying them and/or providing dental benefits; you were once a kid with dreams: now you are a man who sneers pridefully as he insinuates, silently, to himself, that he is better at inserting data into these here cells in this here spreadsheet right here than probably anyone else in this office. It is not uncommon for games which simulate seemingly maybe-real experiences to feel, occasionally, like work. It is often the case that games in which button presses (or wand waggles) equate immediately to on-screen actions will seldom feel like films; they feel like games. Final Fantasy XIII does feel like work. You feel as proud of yourself for remembering which role you were leveling up last in which character’s Crystarium as you feel proud of yourself when, post-barbecue party, you successfully pick all of the discarded beer bottles out of the garbage bin and deposit them in the recycling bin. You feel as proud of yourself when you finish a battle with a five-gold-star ranking as you might feel proud of yourself when you finish reorganizing that spreadsheet that was due tomorrow night by the end of the day today. At a job, we don’t mind the menial tasks because they all feel in service of a greater good: most of the time, that means a paycheck. Final Fantasy XIII asks you to work overtime every night for a month, and on day 29, it tells you the company is shutting down, and you’re all fired, so go find an adequate-sized broom closet in which to cry about your money while you fuck yourself.
Then again, don’t all the cool real-world jobs feel like work, anyway, to the people who are working them? Even rock-star helicopter pilots’ tasks concern point A and point B. Momentary conclusion: we really don’t need video games reminding us of these futile coincidences of living.
Our experience with Final Fantasy XIII was primarily one of fighting monsters and moving forward while pondering the most futile coincidences of living near-constantly. The experience of moving forward in this game is hardly ever fun. The game is a bad liar. Sometimes, you’ll be walking along, and there’ll be a cut-scene, and an explosion will cause a ceiling to cave in. Oops! Now you can’t go backwards! LOL! The game is about twenty-five straight hours of that, then a brief break, then twenty more hours of that. Sometimes, early in the game, a cut-scene might not show a ceiling cave in. Just try going backward in a situation like that. You might run into an absolutely brazen invisible wall. That’s what we call a bad liar.
It’s like Uncharted: The Universal Studios Ride. Your character runs and jumps and climbs automatically. Some scenes feature terrain as interesting as Uncharted, only your characters all jump so quickly and without gravity that you might as well be pointing a mouse and clicking on your destination. It’s jarring, especially, that the early hours of the game put such dramatic weight on Sazh being afraid of heights, then, once the game decides to make you climb a mountain, that dude is jumping twenty feet in the air like he don’t give a shit. It’s weird for a couple of reasons. The other reason is: if they’re going to put enemies on the map, and make avoiding battle a key game mechanic, complete with its own tutorial and a whole set of hard-to-find items exclusively intended to help you avoid battles, then why can’t they at least give us a jump button?
The game is also without towns — you find no friendly areas to kill time in. It’s all business, all the time, which isn’t bad in and of itself. It helps set a tone of immediacy for the story. Unfortunately, the story also blows, and you might actually wish so fiercely that some of the characters would die that you really can’t get behind the immediacy of survival. We could have done without towns, really. We wouldn’t mind a Final Fantasy game where you do all your shopping online. We just would have appreciated some more interesting areas. As in, you know, some areas that aren’t straight fucking lines. Seriously, the first twenty hours of the game are a geometry lesson. Every once in a while, you’ll be able to see offshoots from the path on your mini-map. You will always be able to recognize them as offshoots, because they are always short enough to terminate within range of the mini-map. The offshoots invariably contain a monster, a treasure, or (later in the game) a switch needed to open a gate further down the main path. This is real lazy level design; it makes the mazes on the back of Denny’s kids’ menus look sophisticated. Sometimes, the game sees fit to “show” you the path by having your other characters rush out ahead of the leader. They say something like “I think it’s this way”. Of course it’s that way, jackass — that’s the only way we can go; it’s also the way the arrow on the mini-map is pointing.
Later in the game, as the backgrounds outside each racetrack of level design become increasingly incomprehensible, as you find yourself sometimes walking in circles to avoid a battle, before opening the menu screen to level up your dudes, you might actually get lost. The levels also stop being straight lines and start being really bendy lines with no forks. The big yellow arrow might say your goal is due north, though the only route there might involve going west a lot, south a bit, and then some east, before you hit the road north. It’s funny and cute how you sometimes start to doubt you’re going the right way. It’s like watching a spider monkey pretend to read a mystery novel. One weird thing is how the area map, accessible from the status screen, rotates depending on the direction you’re facing in the field. That’s bizarre, especially because they go through the trouble of making the marker that represents your character an arrow, always pointing straight up. They’re probably afraid that, if the map didn’t rotate, the game’s level design would appear unsophisticated even to the untrained eye. In all seriousness (maybe not), the game would probably have no challenge at all if that map didn’t rotate.
Were it not for the whispered promise of “it gets better”, we really don’t know what we would have done with ourselves. Did the game get better? We can’t tell you — that’d be a spoiler. We did play it straight to the end, though, and even beyond. We fought optional monsters for twenty-five hours, obtained two (2) Ultimate Weapons, uttered such seemingly human expressions as “For God’s sake, keep Hope alive!”, exclaimed such neighbor-frightening sentences as “Don’t cast Haste on Fang! Cast Haste on Lightning, Sazh!” and muttered such self-confidence destroying schemes as “Bet we can surprise these robots!” Eventually, the ridiculous sight of a monster disintegrating into black smoke precisely as it begins to levitate into the air after a strong attack at the moment after a break became hilarious and triumphant enough to celebrate with a fist-pump and a scream, an animal sound like we’d just won the high-school football game.
“Crunch” occurs in a video game when you “feel like you’re doing something”. In Final Fantasy XIII, we didn’t always feel like we were doing something, though many times we felt like we knew what we would be doing if we were doing something. We guess we enjoyed ourselves, about as much as you can enjoy triumphing over an inanimate object that never did anything wrong (aside from being a boring videogame). Our final verdict was that the game is “God of War: The Collectible Trading Card Game: The Video Game” (which actually looks a whole lot meaner typed out). If you choose to participate in the post-endgame, you’ll find an experience about as interesting as pissing with an erection. We understand that women might not understand exactly how difficult this is. Here, watch us labor to produce an female-friendly equivalent: imagine you’re wearing an ankle-length, thin skirt and have to piss straight-legged, flat-footed, and with locked knees; your goal is to allow urine to touch neither leg nor fabric (nor ankle nor shoes). That’s about how much concentration it (and Final Fantasy XIII‘s battle system) involves.
We have an idea where Final Fantasy XIII came from. It came not from videogame designers; it came from businessmen and artists. We respect the inclusion of businessmen and artists into any videogame development team — usually. The “usually” means we respect businessmen and artists if they are included not at the expense of game designers and level designers. Without art, a game isn’t a game. With great art and no game design, a game is a lifeless husk. Final Fantasy XIII is, by virtue of the hard work of many businessmen, at least the most entertaining lifeless husk of the year. It is by no means a worthwhile entertainment experience for any real human person we can imagine.
The ensuing paragraph is best represented by the emoticon designated “colon, hyphen, numeral three”: we think that even the game design elements of Final Fantasy XIII are near-entirely the product of artists: it was they who concocted the Reasons To Fly: “Like, it would be . . . cool if the characters flew . . . like, all the time”. The enemies don’t look like anything that would strike a chord with any of the real-world-experience-having blue-collar game-playing peons in the audience. The “level design” is invariably “walk forward”, a goal nearly unmentionable in its plainness compared to the indecipherable spectacle of the background wallpapers. What is any of that shit out there? What is this road we are walking on made of? We imagine that, most of the time, an artist would draw a picture of a monster, and hand it to a planner, who would then decide which scenic acid-tripping racetrack stage this thing was doomed to wander. Every planner had been forced to sign a contract in the pre-development phase promising to “Always believe the artists: Tetsuya Nomura was once just a lowly sprite artist, and now he’s defining world fashion / hairstyle trends left and right; he’s the closest thing we have, for better or for worse, to a world-class talent; however, seeing as salaries are pretty level across the board over here, we are not legally permitted to assume that he’s actually any better than any of our other countless artists, because if we did that, we would face an ethical crisis that would probably implode our company”. The funny thing is, most of the artists working on Final Fantasy XIII seem to be of the awesome and correct variety of human being who much prefers Yoshitaka Amano to Tetsuya Nomura.
The characters are more or less all Nomura creations. As we mentioned earlier, they’re all virtually designed from the ground up to look exactly like Someone‘s Favorite Character. Lightning is what Cloud would look like if Cloud were a hot girl. Fang is what Cloud would look like if Cloud were a hot girl with a different hair color, and used spears instead of swords. Vanille is like what would happen if you based a video game character on one of the many real-world girls who uses the video game character Aeris as fashion inspiration. Sazh is like Barrett — he’s black, he has a beard, he attacks with guns, he has a child. Snow is a big, dumb, cheerful oaf who you’ll like if you loved Wakka and Tidus. And Hope is a kid, if you like, uhh, kids. He’s the Classic RPG protagonist: dumb kid with a “troubled past”.
Hope is particularly interesting because he’s both a child and a dirtbag, a combination we might have never actually seen in a game before. He whines and moans his way through the entire story, before turning on a dime and becoming The Optimistic One. Duh. Of course that was going to happen. We haven’t hated children this much since the last time we went to an American supermarket.
We’re ninety-percent certain that these characters all started as completely unsolicited sketches. Tetsuya Nomura drew up a character, and went, “Yeah, here’s a character”, and gave it to his assistant. His assistant took the sketch to the character modelers. “Who is this?” the 3D artist asked. “What’s his job? What’s his motivation? How tall is he, about? Do we have a drawing of what the back of his outfit looks like? Does he have a name?” The assistant delivered these questions to Mr. Nomura, who was in the middle of ironing his favorite (and only) T-shirt (the one with a gothic crucifix and maybe fourteen-thousand words of gibberish script all over it (oh god, someone make him a T-shirt out of the text of this review!)), and thus buck-naked from the waist up. Covering his man-boobies in shame, he heard the question and then promptly fired his assistant and hired another random member from his fan community on Mixi. Maybe a week later, he told his new assistant, “Oh, yeah, this guy isn’t one of the heroes; he’s just a guy; just, like, a guy”. “This guy, though”, the missive continued, four days later, “he might be a main character”.
A recent story on Kotaku.com supports our hypothesis. You don’t have to click: we’ll explain it. A producer of Final Fantasy XIII explains that there was “enough discarded content” from Final Fantasy XIII to make a whole other game. The “content” in question is mainly levels — game-play areas. That’s a real, huge red flag, right there. Seeing as the “levels” or “areas” in Final Fantasy XIII are first and foremost venues for monsters to appear, and seeing as how monsters are selected for how niftily they clash against the background graphics — seeing as how the majority of the minor in-game cut-scene dialogue consists of main characters discussing things no more detailed than “What are we going to do?” “We have to survive.” “We have to fight.” “We have to fight . . . them.” it’s quite pitifully obvious that none of the scripted dialogue or level events had anything to do with the player characters’ current location.
This is the kind of thing that we, as a marketing / PR person, always tell game companies to never, ever, ever say in interviews. Like, there’s enough levels to make another game? That means that they spent huge amounts of time making levels that they weren’t going to use. That’s because (believe us on this one) the overall arc / scope of the story wasn’t fixed early enough in the development: the areas that were eventually actualized as levels by artists (judging by our complete playthrough of the game, we’re going to say there weren’t actually any “level designers”) were originally conceived by checklists drawn up during regularly scheduled brainstorming meetings. “Fire level”, “Ice level”, et cetera.
Seeing as most of the levels in the finished game lack any kind of sense of common sense, or even one-word-summaryable background art gimmicks, we can surmise that the artists themselves were in charge of thinking of the “themes” for the backgrounds, and then actualizing them via a series of rough drafts and object asset requests.
In short: they had no idea what the game was about. Tetsuya Nomura designed characters, some other artists designed some other characters, some other artists still designed huge amounts of enemy-like robot-ish machine-things, some other artists flung together lavish architecture inspired by lifetimes of playing Final Fantasy VII and longing desperately to work on a Final Fantasy game — though, of course, if they did, they’d do something kind of different. Then someone came in and was like “btw dudes, the game is about this”. Then someone was like, “Oh, i guess we don’t need that dinosaur island part, or that part on the moon.” Owning up to “enough cut-out levels to make another game” is pretty much admitting “yeah, we lacked focus from the very start; we had close to no idea what we were doing.”
Our conclusion is that throwing artists at something doesn’t make a game. You need some actual honest-to-god directorial control. We’ve played all of this game, and then some, and we realize that it had no directorial control. The story makes no sense. The characters talk in nonsense nonsentences. They can’t speak ten words without three of them being some made up thing. You know how, when you say “Ballerina” over and over again the meaning of the word totally evaporates and you’re left giggling for a second, forgetting your age, your name, your birthday, your phone number? That’s what all of Final Fantasy XIII is like, as a narrative experience. It’s a euphoria compounded by the dread of, even for a second, having no identity.
It’s so obvious what they’re doing that it’s scary: they’re building an audience: they’re “hooking” the “kids”, while simultaneously making the adults “remember” what they liked in the past. That’s why we have a kid, an older gentleman, two hot girls (probably the two hottest girls in any RPG ever: DISCUSS (don’t, really (no, do))), the big dumb guy (is he “hot”? his name is “Snow”; that’s kinda dumb), and the “cute” girl (Vanille) with all the personality depth and texture of “Dora the Explorer”, for people who would rather fight the supreme court for the right to marry a body pillow than pay a real hot-blooded stripper for a lap dance. And you know what? Many such men will play Final Fantasy XIII and actually like Vanille, and actually wish they could find a “real” girl like her. And the scary thing is, so many girls in Japan are just like her — innocent, optimistic, perhaps hiding deep secrets (history of being raped, etc). And many of them aren’t like it by their nature alone. They’ve assembled their own selves from scraps pooped out by the Machine of New Literature, this speckled and fearsome, noisy thing we call an “entertainment industry”. We have a character like Hope in this game, a ten-year-old boy who hates everyone and is also very sad btw, because the game wants to speak straight to the ten-year-old boys in the audience. Who playing this game, really, is ten years old? What ten-year-old is strong enough to carry a PlayStation 3 home from the store (joke)? Sure, we first played Final Fantasy on the NES when we were ten, and we played and loved Final Fantasy IV when we were eleven, though you know what? Final Fantasy IV is a story about a man who is easily thirty years old. Being a child, in addition to being a despicable, self-loathing kind of existence, is also a period of looking up to adults, wanting to be one, and actually formulating dreams and plans for what we’re going to do when we’re adults. Why put a ten-year-old (don’t reply to this post with Hope’s real age plox) into Final Fantasy? Is it because the hero of Pokemon is always a kid, and those games sell loads? Did the marketers tell you that appealing directly to the young gamer bracket would make more people buy the game harder, and then get hooked on the games and buy them in the future?
Let’s cut through the bullshit, here. We like these games when they’re good. Final Fantasy IV was classy as hell; Final Fantasy VI was classy as fuck. Why don’t you just try to make an actual good game? We see what you’re doing here. You’re trying to be Disney. You’re going, oh, kids like these animated Disney films, and critics often sing the praises of the jokes that go over kids’ heads, so let’s just make something that appeals to kids and grown-ups and then talks over everyone‘s head with its flipping insane and psychotic nonsense. Why can’t you just make something for adults? As long as it is good and true and righteous and awesome, and as long as it’s not prohibitively sexual or violent or what-have-you, the best you can do is make something that eleven-year-olds will look up to, respect, and devour voraciously. People will accuse us of failing to admit that “this is what Final Fantasy games are about now, dude”. They will tell us that our generation is done, and that whiny bullshit is what the kids want. It’s not what they want! It’s what the Machine has determined will get their money. The kids don’t know what they want. We’re supposed to show them what’s good.
At the end of the day, we have a game with a cute little battle system that reminds us of the futility of existence. We have good ideas rooted in the most compelling trends of action games, executed in a way that makes us realize every little molecule of the world is a hideous lie. We have really neat art, full of objects imaginative enough to be scary, pretty and shiny and clean and flawless as they are. Its first twenty hours are a Circle-Button-Pressing Simulator — we say “simulator” because though you are, in the real world, pressing a button with a circle on it, the effects are mostly imaginary. You need only press the circle button ten times to win the average fight; nonetheless, you will press it maybe two hundred in the course of a typical fight. You will never press the circle button so many useless times anywhere else in your life.
(We just realized that the English version’s confirm button is X. We will not rewrite the above paragraph.)
You come so close to almost enjoying this game, only to have your brain yanked out and dangled in front of your eyes every time you notice something like how Sazh’s two pistols transform needlessly into one rifle for maybe one out of every four rapid-fire physical attacks. Why the hell does that happen? Like, who would make a gun that does something like that? Did the planner who threw that idea out on the white-board even think about how something like that would work in the real world?
You spend nearly thirty hours walking a tightrope littered with tutorials. At one point, the game literally tells you via a pop-up menu that “You have to kill both of the enemies in this enclosed area in order for the laser fence to be deactivated”. At one point, you come across some monsters; a tutorial window says, “These monsters are very powerful. You should avoid them.” The characters are constantly talking to another another in the field screen; they only ever say things like “Oh, this way” or “I’m getting tired” or “Let’s keep going!” Why can’t they say “These guys look tough! We’d better avoid them!” and “Yeah, I don’t think we should fight these guys”? It’s frustrating to see so many missed opportunities. Here is a game where the experience of playing it and the goals of its creators exist in two very different, obsessed compartments. We shudder to think of what actual game-design tweaking would have entailed. Cleaning the bullshit out of this game would have been as mindless, tedious, and exciting as brushing your teeth eight hours a day. (Without the bleeding gums. (Or maybe not. (You know, breathing the same air as Tetsuya Nomura, etc.)))
Eventually, the game gives you the world, and it looks nice, like a game you’d like to play, if only you had the time. Waiting 28 hours to finally let you choose your party / leader / job is like dating a girl for nine years before trusting her with the key to your apartment. During the time you spend with this game, you will utter sentences like “Hm. He has a pretty uncomplicated Blaster Crystarium.”
At the end of the day, all that this game is is us enjoying looking at the pretty things, even if we don’t know what the christ anything is at any given time. None of the cinematic sequences show us anything really incredible that can also be defined in human words, though in their own self-contained little kleptomaniac compartments, they are without a doubt spectacular feats of computer animation: they must have been very difficult to imagine. It’s almost as difficult to articulate the way these things make the player feel.
Every once in a while, you duck into your spam mail folder, just to see if anyone real has emailed you and it accidentally got sorted there. the best bits of Final Fantasy XIII recall the feeling of seeing a mail from someone long-forgotten in your spam folder, and then you click it, and all they’re doing is asking for money. The only lucky feeling that washes over you is years later, when you run into the friend at a party, and he is a multi-millionaire, and he says “To think, years ago, I asked you for money!” and you say, “Did you? Via email, was it?” and he says “Yeah”, and you can say “It must have gotten into my spam folder” and not exactly be a liar.
Or, let’s say this: the gloryful CG of Final Fantasy XIII, coupled with the experience of actually playing the “game” portion, gives us a stunning glimpse of a future where there is no food: only vitamin-injected cotton candy that comes in three flavors: Sweet, Spicy, and Not Sweet.
By putting numbers on the end of the titles of these games you are inviting people to go back and play them years after they’re sequeled. How is this one going to look? We’re pretty sure that it’s possible to make a game that looks as good as Final Fantasy XIII: the proof is that they made Final Fantasy XIII. Here it is. Here’s hoping that another game — maybe even a Final Fantasy — will come along that bests it the way Final Fantasy VI did Final Fantasy. It is with hope that we give this game the score we are giving it: hope that, someday, we’ll be able to look back and laugh at it. Right now, today, however, it’s not quite hilarious.
The music, by the way, is nice, if sparse. The battle theme is great, in all its variations. It definitely sounds like a piece of music that one man worked on for literally three years. The lead is a blend of guitar, viola, synth, and maybe sixty other instruments, just warbling and squealing on the verge of dissonance. Some of the music is real Sonic Adventure-style bullshit, though. One “song” literally features a girl singing “take me to the rainbow / find another future”. God, that’s lame. That’s the chief problem in the music in this game, and in the everything in the rest of the game: just too much shit. Too much facade, like all they’re concerned with is appearing complicated, which is simple-people-speak for “sophisticated”. We need a Final Fantasy game with a battle system more suited to simple, hard, slamming, drum-heavy stoner rock fight themes (see “alternate review”, below). Japanese Internet People near-universally blasted the soundtrack for featuring not a single one of Nobuo Uematsu trademark themes, not even the battle victory fanfare. Like much of the rest of the game, we chalk this up to stylistic risk. Composer Masashi Hamauzu quit Square-Enix not a month after the release of this game. It made the usual game news outlets. We presume many of the art staff have departed as well. This isn’t because the game is terrible or a failure (we liked it enough to play it for over 70 hours, which we wouldn’t have done out of sense of “duty” to the “readers” of our “website” alone), or because the experience of developing it was terrible or awful. See, there’s this little oft-whispered idiom in the Japanese games industry: if you work on a Final Fantasy game, you can get any job you want in the industry — even work on a Final Fantasy game. So Final Fantasy XIII might be a game made by people with grander career goals, or it might be the first in a miraculous long series of equally heartbreaking failures.
We need a Final Fantasy game that deserves battle music like this: