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
Final Fantasy XIII is a game about young people with perfect hair so amazing-looking you want to eat it progressing along a straight line fraught with unspeakable terrors. They frequently stop to have conversations about how hecked their situation is. During these conversations, usually, a piece of the ceiling collapses; when you are in control again, you find you can’t go backward anymore.
The level design in Final Fantasy XIII is about as deep or interesting as the mazes on the back of a Denny’s kids’ menu. All deviations from the main path can be immediately identified as such by glancing at the mini-map in the corner of the screen. Every deviation holds a monster, a treasure, or (later in the game) a switch to flip in order to open a door further down the main path.
You do two things while walking this long path: watch cut-scenes in which the characters can’t speak ten words without three of them being one of the four made-up elements of the plot, and fight monsters. The key to fighting monsters is killing them; the key to killing them is breaking them. This is different from other Final Fantasy games. You don’t just hit the enemies until they’re dead anymore. It’s more “sophisticated”. You have to build their “break” meter by hitting them with magic attacks, then slow the break meter’s rate of recovery by using a physical attack. You heal hopefully before you die. When you break the enemy, you can then hit him with physical attacks and do so much damage that he shoots a hundred feet into the air; all your guys, even the ones the plot explains are afraid of heights, do not hesitate to jump up there and lambaste the poor freakbastard until he’s dead. We wish the game had a “checkmate” function, because plugging in the commands and waiting for the last enemy in a group to die feels really empty, about as empty as keeping a Google Document full of pick-up lines you plan to use someday (“You might want to come over to my house; I have some towels in my bedroom“).
Our major concern with the battle system is the use of numbers: quite frankly, it’s jarring in a game where the visuals have obviously been afforded so much care. Numbers were, in the early days of the role-playing game, a placeholder for some more-effective future means of communicating the awesomeness of an attack. In Final Fantasy XIII, you will never see an enemy’s total hit points: you will, however, see the stuff out of the amount of HP being subtracted with each attack. The stronger the attack, the bigger the numbers. The bigger the numbers, the bigger the . . . numerals. The numerals themselves grow in size, turn gold, begin to glow and gleam. The growth, goldness, and gleam of the numerals indicates to us that the game designers might understand, on some subconscious level, that using the graphics is the key to enhancing the effectiveness of the game’s communication of damage to the player. God, helping these people clean up all the little inconsistencies in the game design would be about as much fun (and gum-destroying) as brushing your teeth eight hours a day.
You only control one member during battles; the rest, you apply loose overarching commands to by switching their “roles” via arrays known as “Optimas” (or “Paradigms”, in the English version). Roles define what a character is able to do, and thus prone to do. Attackers attack, Blasters use magic, Enhancers buff, Jammers debuff, Defenders defend, and Healers heal. You switch roles whenever necessary to defeat the enemies as quickly as possible. Every time you switch Optimas, there’s a little graphical celebration where your characters pose; this feels vaguely like getting a personal phone call from the President of the United States because you remembered to file your income taxes. Your only reward for actually winning battles more skillfully is a higher star ranking, which means nothing. Also, if a guy dies in battle, he is alive when the battle is over. He also gets experience. Even the people you didn’t use get experience. If the leader dies, everyone dies. If that happens, you have the option to just start right before the monster that killed you. That’s a little weird.
You level up your characters using some contrived concoction called a “Crystarium”. You spend points to obtain statistical upgrades housed in nodes. Nodes give you more maximum hit points, or they give you more physical attack, or magic attack. The Crystarium starts out quite small, and gets bigger as you beat specific bosses.
It feels disingenuous, because the game is only letting you level up a little bit at a time. It’s like it doesn’t want you to get “too strong” to beat a boss “too easily”. Then why is it letting you level up at all? Why doesn’t it just give you the numbers you need to make the fight fair, and then just force you to fight your way through a parade of monsters?
The answer is: the game is a sham. It is only including the veneer of “progress” because previous games in the series had it. All forms of entertainment are more or less sequences of lies. Final Fantasy XIII‘s lies are pretty thinly veiled ones. At one point in the game a tutorial literally tells you to kill the two enemies in front of you so the laser gate will open. The characters are always chattering while traveling. Why can’t they just mention, “Hey, maybe if we kill these two monsters, the gate will open?” This is because the level designers probably didn’t have brains, or — even worse — they didn’t exist. Or maybe it’s that the incidental dialogue writers had no idea what was going to happen in any of the levels. Aha: that’s probably it:
Final Fantasy XIII is most likely a game made entirely by artists. They drew characters and monsters and everyone on the team was pre-programmed to believe that these games are mostly popular because of their graphical presentations, and that if these artists made it through the hiring process, they must be geniuses. A producer admitted that “there is enough discarded Final Fantasy XIII to make an entire other game”. This is a bad thing to admit in an interview, because it indicates that the development team just didn’t know, from the very beginning, what the game was going to be about. They threw together lists (“Fire Level”, “Ice Level”) in planning meetings, and then set about requesting art and objects. They sifted through scores of incomprehensible enemy designs, and made big decisions like “This lopsided, gorilla-size self-driving seatless phantom motorcycle belongs in the red-skied hyper-dimension stage”. Then, when the script arrived, everyone was like, “Oh, guess we don’t need the dinosaur habitat on the moon stage”.
Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII is a game about enduring less-than-enthralling experiences (like battles: the game so deeply understands that the battles are not that great that it offers you items to let you avoid them; why can’t we avoid them by, say, jumping?) in the name of a chance to see pretty things. Most of the time, you have no idea what those pretty things are supposed to be, nor do you have the drug experience to describe them in a way that half-decently communicates their impressiveness. You walk a tightrope for thirty hours before the game groans, gives in, and says, “Okay, you can have fun now“. Waiting thirty hours before letting you choose your own party leader is like dating a girl for nine years before trusting her with a key to your apartment.
The story elects to talk over the audience’s head most of the time in hopes of being mistaken for art. We won’t make this mistake. The characters range from tolerable to terrible. Two of them are hot girls whose most admirable character traits are that they aren’t horrible people. One of them is a big dumb guy who’s annoyingly positive, and one is a negative guy who is our audience surrogate, right down to the baby bird living in his hair. There’s a girl who’s obnoxiously happy about everything, and a little kid who is simultaneously a child and a dirtbag, which is actually kind of unique. We don’t really care what happens to them, in the end, though when we finally do see the ending, we have to at least admit that it must have been exceptionally difficult to animate using a computer. Then we open MSPaint and stare at it for a couple of seconds, and then nod: yeah, we can’t do anything that pretty right here, off the top of our heads.
After you finish the game, you’re free to go to a designated Place Where Monsters Roam, and fight optional monsters for what the marketers say is a fifty-hour chunk of life-experience. If you can die against a near-impossible monster, you can piece together a strategy for how to not die. Actualizing that strategy only takes time, and self-punishment. Even if you are smart enough, at least, to recognize what soulless weapon upgrades you need to survive any given mega-monster battle, the amount of childish obsession needed to sink the time into it seldom exists in real children, much less huge ones. It takes genuine perversion, or genuine love of the physical appearances of the characters, to bother realizing the limits of these soulless optional conflicts in Final Fantasy XIII.
We close this review by mentioning that the battle music is pretty great: the lead must be like sixty different instruments overdubbed (really: listen with nice headphones). It sounds like a piece of music that a man worked on for literally three years. Probably because that’s what it is. Music by Masashi Hamauzu also previously made Unlimited SaGa, another game about straight lines and fighting battles with strategies that can’t be summed up in the “Use water Pokemon against rock Pokemon!” fashion (almost) tolerable. Some of the music, though, is some real Sonic Adventure bullstuff. Lots of female poppy vocals, and lyrics about finding rainbows and seizing dreams. It’s interesting to note that Hamauzu quit shortly after the release of this game. You know, they say something in the Japanese game industry: working on a Final Fantasy game will get you any work you want in the industry — even work on a Final Fantasy game. We wonder, without any hope in either direction, if this Final Fantasy game is something we will be able to look back at and laugh in a few years’ time, or if it’s the beginning of a sequence of similar heartbreakers. Right here, right now, this game isn’t quite hilarious.
We need a Final Fantasy game that deserves battle music like this: