I’ve played a lot of Final Fantasy. Not everything in the canon, but I’ve done pretty well. I’ve completed I, IV, V, VIII, IX, X, XII, Tactics, Tactics Advance and Tactics Advance 2. You could fairly say that I’m Down With that Final FantasyThing.
Final Fantasy XII is my favorite in the series. That’s worth mentioning, because I’m going to reference that game quite a bit in this discussion of the deeply weird, vexing, confounding, and confusing Final Fantasy XIII.
I remember how mixed the reviews were when FFXIII was released in March of 2010. I also remember being dubious of them. Such criticism! Of a big-budget, main-numbered Final Fantasy game! Surely they are being too harsh?
Turns out, they weren’t.
Playing Final Fantasy XIII was such a head-scratching experience I’m surprised my scalp isn’t riddled with bald spots.
Again, I’m going to ruthlessly compare this game to its immediate predecessor, a game in which I think Square Enix got almost every last thing right. Better than right.
In XII, the prelude and backstory exposition are brief, tantalizing, and effective. Then, periodically, the game stops for story-driven cutscenes that almost always make sense and move the story forward. And it's a good story, involving mistaken identity, old grudges and a complex political struggle.
In XIII, the game constantly stops dead for endless cutscenes that meander and wander tediously. I felt like I was watching a string of late 80s music videos in which they’d forgot to include the songs. Particularly in the first few chapters, the game is so peppered with overlong flashback sequences that I nearly gave up on the game.
Oh, and I forgot the biggest problem with the plot and story. Despite all the scores of minutes spent in these soporific scenes, the plot makes absolutely no sense. I never understood what the real relationship is between the two worlds of Cocoon and Gran Pulse. To be fair, I have since actually researched the damn thing on the internet and come to a slightly better understanding, but the game never makes it clear.
Even worse, the characters’ relationship to the plot, to their own pasts, and to each other are muddy, unclear, or nonsensical as well. You never have a good understanding of why this particular group of badly-costumed individuals run around with each other, risking death every three minutes.
The characters in FFXII are clearly drawn, with interesting backstories. I really felt invested in the fates of the sizzling-hot and badass bunny-eared forest Amazon Fran, the sexy rogue sky pirate Balthier, and even scrappy urban orphan Vaan.
In XIII, not so much. The backstories of the characters are so muddled and muddied, I stopped caring pretty early on.
Recent games in the series tend to have one character who’s a chirpy, peppy young girl who’s a bit annoying. In XII it's Penelo, and while she isn’t my favorite, she didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out with a rusty spoon…
... which brings me to XIII’s Vanille. Oh, Vanille. How do I start? In Vanille, the game designers have taken the stock “chirpy young female” archetype and ratcheted everything up so far past eleven on the dial that it practically ruins the gaming experience. Vanille is the single most annoying game character I have ever experienced. In fact, she’s one of the most irritating characters in anything that I have ever experienced. She makes you long for the return of Jar-Jar Binks. Yeah, that bad. Her mincing walk makes you want to kill people. Her consistently inappropriate reactions to situations makes you want to kill her. And her ridiculously inconsistent and annoying accent and constant infantile nonverbal vocalizations (even during combat… don’t ask) makes you want to kill yourself.
I simply don’t get how this could have happened. Perhaps the crazy Japanese gamers love Vanille. But aren’t games with budgets this large tested during the localization process in the major foreign markets? I find it quite difficult to believe that Square Enix ever showed this character to test groups in North America and Europe because there is simply no way they wouldn’t have gotten a chorus of lusty “please make this character die screaming in a fire.”
The only reason that this loathsome creature didn’t completely ruin the game for me is that eventually, I was able to leave her out of my fighting party. But I couldn’t escape her during the endless cutscenes, during which she had a crushingly voluminous amount to say.
Japanese games are weird. That’s just how it is. But XII kept the weirdness under control.
XIII wears its weird as proudly as Bjork does. Example: One of the main characters sports a 70s afro in which a baby chocobo lives. Why? Who knows? Does this weirdness ever pay off? No, not really.
And, as mentioned above, the entire story and backstory is one big waxy, smelly ball of weird.
Final Fantasy XII’s music was thrilling, epic, and energizing.
In XIII you have to listen to various versions of the same vapid pop song over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.1
Final Fantasy XII’s summons were powerful and fun to try to optimize. Almost all FF games have summonable creatures to help you in combat. XII’s were very powerful and came with a challenging but fun minigame that you had to master in order to get the most firepower out of your etherial friends.
The summons in XIII are woefully underpowered Transformer rip-offs. Yawn.
Final Fantasy XII took place in a fascinating world that was fun and rewarding to explore. Huge cities full of vendors and quest-givers, swamps, deserts, mines, forests, snowy mountains and more. Each new portion of the map you uncovered helped you piece the interesting game world together. It all felt organic. Each area also had its own minor stories which were interesting in themselves. Even though, like all Final Fantasy games, there was a certain linearity to the story, you always felt that there was a huge, beautiful, and dangerous world just waiting to be explored. The environments were also stunningly rendered on the PS2.
The plot of XII organically drew you into the world, encouraging exploration, providing rewards as you gradually opened up the map.
The world of Final Fantasy XIII is beautiful, but it’s soulless and utterly without context. You barely look at it, because it never matters. The only plot in this game, your only significant directive during the entire adventure can be summed up in two words: MOVE FORWARD.
You don’t go exploring a buried city because you need to find the answer to an ancient riddle. You don’t brave your way across a dangerous desert because you need to find a mysterious ally. You don’t visit an eerie forest to ingratiate yourself with the local inhabitants to further your aims.’
You simply move forward, as quickly as possible, to the nearest exit.
Final Fantasy XIII has no towns. No vendors. No significant sidequests. All you ever do on each new map is … move forward. The entire game is one big gauntlet.
What deranged designer (or executive? committee?) decided this was a good idea?
All you do in this game is run forward. And watch really long, dull cutscenes.
Final Fantasy XII had a fascinating and challenging combat system featuring “Gambits,” or programmable AI scripts you designed yourself. Challenging to learn, but fun and really rewarding once you did.
Instead of XII’s interesting Gambit system, XIII uses something called Paradigms. They are essentially sets of role combinations you can use to adjust what your party (of up to three) can accomplish in battle. It’s not a terrible system, but it’s simply not merely as fun to explore and tinker with as the Gambit system was.
Final Fantasy XII’s License system made leveling up and character customization meaningful and truly player-driven. It was fun to plan how you wanted to build your various characters, and immensely satisfying when you were able to unlock valuable abilities you’d been working towards.
Final Fantasy XIII’s leveling system is almost completely linear. What’s worse, it’s got a glass ceiling, which severely limits your ability to grind if you want to grind.
What’s even worse: You don’t even get to character progression until Chapter Three. Yeah, you read that right. The designers make you plow your way through two entire chapters worth of enemies with combat that builds your charactersnot one single iota. This might be acceptable in an action game, but certainly NOT in an RPG.
So why, you may ask, did I bother to finish the damn thing? Tricky question, actually. I think for two reasons: 1) my completist side still wants to finish all the major numbered FF games (got to get to work on II, III, VI and VII – everyone knows XI and XIV don’t count), and 2) The Paradigm system made combat just barely enjoyable enough to keep playing.
If you’re a long-time Final Fantasy fan, you may remember that there’s generally still a whole lot of game waiting for you after you beat the final boss in the game. This time around, five minutes after the boss was dead, the DVD was out of my PS3. The characters, story, and world haven’t lingered in my mind (and heart) the way they did after I finished most of the other games. (To this day I have very fond memories of VIII, IX, X and XII.)
Naturally I hope there’s a Final Fantasy XV. I just hope that they do not use XIII as a model of what to do next time around. [shudder]
So what do you say? Did you play XIII? Do you agree with my complaints? Let’s hear from you!