Final Fantasy is one of those franchises that as technology advanced into the HD era, the games would buckle under the weight of expectations. Huge immersive worlds with cool weapons and intricate battle systems, with a varied cast of weird and interesting characters, was the foundation of Final Fantasy.
The venerable RPG series would find itself stuck in a terrible identity crisis that it endures to this day. It could always be expected that a new entry would bring wild and fun ideas to the JRPG genre. By the time Final Fantasy XIII came around; all the qualities that defined the long running series would be scrubbed away in order to prioritize one of the most incoherently told stories ever conceived.
At times, Final Fantasy XIII can seem like it is a parody of what the franchise is known for. The overbearing melodrama, alien fantasy concepts, and linear narrative are taken to absurd extremes. So much so that it can be easy to disconnect entirely from the scenario, and blindly walk through most of the game in a living dead, fugue state.
Final Fantasy XIII
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Windows PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (reviewed via Xbox One X backwards compatibility)
Release Date: March 9, 2010
Price: $15.99 USD
Final Fantasy has always been traditionally a linear experience. What differentiates XIII from the rest is just how laser focused it is on the straight path, to a point that the entire experience amounts to running down the longest corridor ever. While there are a few forks that stray off into dead ends with a lame item, it’s the most superficial attempt at creating an illusion of exploration.
The most ardent defenders of Final Fantasy XIII will proudly boast about Grand Pulse; a late game sequence where the scenario “opens up” and allows a vast range of freedom. In reality, Grand Pulse is still a corridor- it’s just much bigger. Like everywhere else in the game, all there is to do is fighting; be it in Grand Pulse or Cocoon.
There are no side activities or diversions at all; unless if fighting optional super enemies count… And by the time those side quests are available, players will have dropped about 25 hours of play time. A majority of those 25 hours will have already been spent fighting basic mobs or bosses. Battles are all Final Fantasy XIII has to offer.
In other Final Fantasy titles (including other lesser entries in the series) the gameplay is a mix of all kinds of alternative activities to keep the experience from becoming monotonous. Final Fantasy XV has its issues, but it did at least have some diversions like a surprisingly fleshed out fishing mini game.
Final Fantasy X had Blitzball, the puzzles in the summoner temples, and a version of Chocobo racing. All three PlayStation One Final Fantasy games were dense with activities and optional objectives set within their worlds to make them more immersive. It was easy to get lost and explore those low rez, low poly worlds- because it made the player feel like they were discovering things.
Final Fantasy XIII wastes an obvious opportunity by having players visit an amusement park environment, and never allows a single mini game. There are chocobos roaming the area openly, and not a single race can be partaken. No arcade mini game, no roller coaster shoot ’em up, not even a lame ro-sham-bo for prizes.
What’s ironic is that the developers intended on the story being so focused on the linear narrative to create a sense of urgency; but the handling of the scenario is bloated with dozens of hours of repetitive filler. Much of the game is characters on the run, stopping to talk about their “focus,” Sanctum or PSICOM show up to lose in a fight, and then its back to running down the path.
The writers couldn’t tell their story properly either. From the very beginning, players will be confused and left utterly stupefied to the action happening on screen in cutscenes. Characters will be discussing alien concepts with very vague definitions and poorly defined rules. Motivations will make no sense, and characters will make extremely questionable choices.
Final Fantasy is no stranger to very unusual and bizarre stories revolving around completely fantastical ideas. What made them work was that there was an effort to explain what it all meant, and how the rules of the world were applied. In Final Fantasy X, Tidus was from another era, and because he was a fish out of water, other characters would explain things to him; and by proxy, to the player.
In Final Fantasy XIII, really important plot details and crucial world building information is rarely explained or shown to the player as the narrative unfurls. If it isn’t hand waved by the writer, then the player is expected to sift through gigabytes worth of datalog entries to learn what the fantasy terminology all means.
What a FalCie is and what it does is very poorly defined in the game. There are also glaring inconsistencies with their modus operandi and their motivations, since when they curse a human to a specific mission or “focus,” FalCie’s do not tell the party what it is that they want.
Supposedly, FalCie are beyond human comprehension, and are too advanced for humans to understand. The problem with this is that the main antagonist happens to be a FalCie too, and he speaks to the cast on many occasions. There is no explanation for any of this. Throughout the story, expect to be questioning everything that happens instead of getting invested.
The cast is mostly unlikeable, with Hope being the most human character who undergoes any kind of arc. It must have taken a lot of courage for the writers to craft such a punchable character who happens to be a child. Hope goes from being a vengeful and bloodthirsty backstabber, to being a brave and heroic figure. He is the only character who feels fleshed out, and goes through a change.
It’s hard to care about the story in Final Fantasy XIII. The characters have no idea what they are supposed to do for a substantial portion of the plot, and sometimes the story is so transparent with how little effort it has, the writing admits that a sequence is intended to be a grind.
Each character’s role in battle shifts between a few variations of six classes. A majority of the strategy for all battles comes down to selecting the best configuration of character classes and letting the AI do its thing. Sadly, there is no room for players to pick actions, because the battles move much too fast for a human to realistically plot any real strategy.
Instead of selecting moves manually, it feels more like being a coach to the party. There is some aspect of skill that does make fighting interesting, and it involves cancel timing the party leader’s gauges so as to interrupt enemy animations.
This can also be done with air-juggling, and this can be an effective way to defeat enemies without staggering them the old fashioned way. This makes the fighting look like a technical action game rather than a turn-based JRPG.
The crystarium stands as one of the most superficial and redundant stat systems in a Final Fantasy. In a way, it’s a perfect microcosm of the game’s extremely linear design. It is completely shallow with its visuals and there is only one way to progress.
Overall, the visuals in Final Fantasy XIII are impressive and look as good as Final Fantasy XV. In some cases, XIII ends up looking better, and it’s probably due to the artists not spreading themselves thin with a vast and barren open world.
The vistas are awe-inspiring. It’s a shame that so much of the backgrounds cannot be explored or touched at all. Cocoon and Grand Pulse are beautiful and interesting looking places. The world building is extremely sloppy however, and scenes will shatter suspension of disbelief.
The meticulously animated cutscenes will often have characters in extremely perilous situations. The heroes are mortals; not cyborgs or from a race of super beings. Yet scenes will depict them enduring bone crushing falls and organ mashing crashes; without even getting a scratch. This happens so often that it becomes impossible to take anything seriously.
Music is one thing that can usually be expected to be great in Final Fantasy, and XIII is a mixed bag of mostly good. The various battle themes are rousing and exciting arrangements that match the emotional intensity of their respective scenes.
Character themes are memorable, and some locations have enjoyable light ambiance to contrast with the battle music. Even so, not all of the music is excellent.
There is a really cheesy and skin-crawlingly overused “love” theme that gets a few leitmotifs throughout the game. It’s the worst composition in any Final Fantasy, and XIII‘s most emotional scenes get ruined whenever its used.
Final Fantasy XIII is one of the weakest Final Fantasy games ever made, but it isn’t without its merits. The only aspect that is legitimately impressive on all fronts is its graphics. Square Enix was unafraid to let the money burn on screen, and every cent is on fire with how much effort was put into making this one of the best looking games of its generation.
The battle system is not perfect, but it’s interesting when you realize there is a skill ceiling to its mechanics. Unfortunately, gamers will have to really love the battle system in Final Fantasy XIII, because that is all it has.
Final Fantasy XIII was reviewed on Xbox One X using a personal copy. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.