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Final Fantasy XIII Review

Final Fantasy XIII is a divisive game; people either love it or they hate it.  What do I think of it?  Well… I guess I’m weird, because I don’t really like it, nor do I hate it outright either.  To put it simply, FF13 is equally brilliant and terrible. It’s a weird mishmash of incredibly high production values mixed with some surprisingly half-assed gameplay elements that create an overall mediocre final product.  It’s not the worst game ever made, but it’s certainly not anywhere close to being the best either.

Now I should preface this review by saying that I, unlike most people who hate on this game without having played it, don’t dislike Final Fantasy XIII because it’s a Japanese RPG; in fact, I’m rather fond of the genre as a whole, and while I agree with the critics who state that most recent J-RPG’s have become far too homogenized and bland, I’m not going to outright dismiss an RPG just because it’s from Japan and isn’t an open world, non-linear Western style RPG like Fallout or Oblivion.  In fact, I think comparing Japanese RPG’s to Western RPG’s is like comparing apples to oranges; I love games like Chrono Trigger and Persona 4 as much as I love Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3, and think each genre is completely distinct, with their own pro’s and cons, and wholly separate from one another.  It’s not a question of which style of game is intrinsically better than the other, but more a question of preference: sometimes I’m in the mood for a cinematic, character focused experience like Final Fantasy, and sometimes I’m in the mood for a sandbox style, open-world adventure like Oblivion.  To compare the two vastly different styles of games is a type of retardation that you’d only expect from message board fanboys and the ‘tards who post Youtube comments.

So with that said, I like to think I gave Final Fantasy XIII a fair chance, but as much as I tried to get into it, the game simply didn’t offer enough to keep me interested; while the visuals are beautiful (perhaps the best of any game this generation, in fact,) and the soundtrack contains some of the best compositions to ever grace a Final Fantasy game (and that’s saying a lot, given the series’s reputation for beautiful scores,) the gameplay itself feels incredibly unpolished and shallow, almost as if the game’s development team spent most of the resources on the game’s presentation and the actual gameplay was added in as an afterthought.

A lot has been made of FF13′s linearity, and yes the game is extremely linear, but that isn’t necessarily a fault; After all, most games, whether you realize it or not, are just as linear — every level in Call of Duty is basically a simple path filled with enemies, and even the much revered Final Fantasy 7 basically only ever gave you a choice of one destination to go to next in order to advance the storyline — but the linearity in FF13 is quite different from the acceptable type of linearity that you see in most games.  Whereas most games are only figuratively linear in that, yes, you only have one choice in what to do next, they at least give you the feeling of having a world to explore or, at the very least, these games give you alternate paths or multiple routes to your next destination.  Final Fantasy XIII makes no such pretence and doesn’t even give you the illusion of having any sort of freedom, as most of the game is literally linear in that most areas in the game are a literal straight line from beginning to end.

This lends the game an almost Final Fight or Streets of Rage like feeling as you simply walk from one end of each area to the next while fighting everything that walks in front of you.  Now, this could’ve been worse than it actually is, because Final Fantasy XIII’s battles are actually enjoyable… eventually.  While they start off shallow and boring (and stay that way for the first few hours of the game,) the game continually introduces new elements that gradually add depth and strategy to the battle system, and midway through the game, I was actually enjoying the game’s endless series of battles; unlike most modern J-RPG’s, FFXIII’s combat actually requires both quick reflexes and strategy, to the point where some of the faster paced battles feel more like an action game rather than a menu-driven, turn based RPG.

But as good as the battles in the game are, they weren’t enough to compensate for the rest of the game’s shortcomings.  Like I stated earlier, the game’s areas are basically straight lines filled with enemies, and there’s almost nothing else to do besides fight and walk forward:  While the game does have  rudimentary upgrade systems for improving your characters’ weapons and stats, both feel shallow and half-assed, and like the game’s levels, you really only have one choice in how you want to upgrade your characters, with little in the way of branching skill trees or customization.

The game pretty much offers nothing to do besides walk forward and get into more battles, and this formula wears thin as you get further into the game.  Near the end of the game you enter “Gran Pulse” a wide-open, gigantic world that abandons the rest of the game’s linear structure, but even this sudden shift in the game’s design feels like a missed opportunity. Despite it’s size and it’s open spaces, there is literally nothing to do in Gran Pulse besides get into more battles.  Yes, I liked the battle system, but FFXIII is clearly a case of too much a good thing, as after more than 40 hours of nothing but battle after battle, it all grew very repetitive and tiresome, and unlike other J-RPGs, there was never a reprieve from the constant monotony of combat.

The story wasn’t enough to hold my interest either; while I was initially surprised at how much I liked the characters, I was also surprised at how equally disinterested in the main storyline I was; while the cast is filled with likable, original characters who all have interesting back stories that lend them genuine pathos, the actual adventure that they go on was completely uninteresting and often didn’t make sense: the game drops confusing, in-universe terms like “L’Cie” and “fal’Cie” with little in the way of explanation, and I found myself referring to the loading screen synopsis to figure out what was going on.  It seems like the developers of FFXIII knew the main overall storyline didn’t make any sense either, because the final hours of the game are filled with tons of exposition as the developers seemingly tried to salvage the story together at the last minute and explain the game’s nonsensical first two-thirds before the ending.  Like everything else in FFXIII, the story elements are another missed opportunity: For the first time since Final Fantasy 6, Square has post together a cast of characters that are neither annoying nor boring, but then they drop the ball and put those characters into a storyline that is both bland and incredibly confusing at the same time.

In the end, I can understand why some people love this game while others revile it.  It’s a beautiful game with an awesome soundtrack, an interesting cast of characters, and a battle system that’s great (for a time.) Unfortunately, it’s also a game with a terrible overall main storyline that’s also completely broken gameplay-wise in terms of pacing (creating a second half that feels completely monotonous).  FFXIII is a game that offers occasional flashes of brilliance that are dulled by a myriad of flaws.  If you’re patient enough to overlook the game’s substantial problems, there’s a good amount of fun to be had with FFXIII’s battle system, but most people will likely tire of it (as I did,) long before you reach the game’s conclusion.

John Wilson