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Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3) artwork

Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3) review

"Final Fantasy XIII is a game that would like nothing more in the world than for you to believe you enjoy playing it. Its simple list of wants does not extend as far as actually being enjoyable; it is content to pretend, to lie about a lie. "

Final Fantasy XIII is a game that would like nothing more in the world than for you to believe you enjoy playing it. Its simple list of wants does not extend as far as actually being enjoyable; it is content to pretend, to lie about a lie.

It is not a bad thing for a videogame to lie - in fact, it is necessary. All videogames are - in fact, all fiction is - built on lies to some extent: you, the player, are, after all, simply a person sitting in front of a TV holding a controller. You are not an intergalactic mercenary, you are (statistically speaking, probably) not a soldier fighting a brutal war that is about something bigger than yourself, you are not marked for a greater destiny by a power beyond your comprehension. Most games simply ask you to pretend that you are one of these, and then present a sequence of scenarios in that context that are built to entertain you.

Final Fantasy XIII, however, does not even bother to attempt to entertain, and the instances where entertainment value does manage to manifest are low enough in both frequency and quality that one honestly begins to wonder whether they weren't just accidents. Instead, it makes a very dedicated and sustained effort to seem like it is entertaining you. It's like someone attempted to isolate the things we enjoy in games, but instead of working these elements into a new game, they just took a lot of pictures and pasted them over the front of it. The better part of the "fun" things in Final Fantasy XIII are like this; attractive, well presented backdrops, but backdrops all the same, yielding to the most cursory investigations to reveal the brick wall behind. It is a safe bet that most of the development time of this game was spent creating these backdrops and arranging them such that they might fool the eye - and on this, a very good job was done. The illusion will almost certainly get you at first. It might even hold the entire way through. Anyone who isn't already in the habit of questioning probably wouldn't give any of it another look.

And that's just how Final Fantasy XIII would like it, because it does not take well to examination. Its intention is to lure you in with its reputation, keep your eyes focused on the pretty pretty graphics (about the only aspect of the game that can be appraised, at face value, as being superb), occupy your brain with the growing intricacies of the battle system and the meandering plot, and keep you distracted with busywork. What it does not want is for you to stop and think about it, because the second you do, you spot what the game is trying to do: trap you.

The bait for this trap is the smattering of Actually Pretty Neat™ things that Final Fantasy XIII does; things that someone who was neither an artist nor an animator (nor an executive producer) might have Actually Thought About™. Some of these things may have simply been results of the conscious attitude that must have pervaded development that "this game must never seem not-fun!", but there's a proverb about a stopped clock that's applicable here. Regardless, some of these things are neat enough to constitute "gameplay innovations". Let's go over a few.

Most noticeably, Final Fantasy XIII is extremely forgiving with respect to checkpoints. Not only are there save points literally everywhere (and I'm talking "would you like to save?" [big cutscene] "would you like to save?" here) but a checkpoint is also created before each individual battle, from the most disposable of mooks right down to the final boss, from which you can restart should you fall in battle. If you retry, and right there decide to spend ten minutes fiddling in menus, the checkpoint will be updated. Forgiving isn't bad! There are videogames that are about endurance, where your party treks through treacherous dungeons and are gradually worn down until they cannot take any more - but Final Fantasy XIII is not one of these. Here, the difficulty is a matter of the individual fight rather than the campaign, and this setup gives Final Fantasy XIII an open pass to kick your ass with regularity. You might never have failed at a videogame so many times, but at the same time, you'll lose less progress due to death than you ever have in any other game of this type. The checkpoint system does cut down on frustration a lot - at least, unless you encounter one of the ten or so places in the game that the checkpoint system is fooled by cutscenes and battles that inflict forced changes on your party. And, more importantly, the fact that the checkpoints are so forgiving gives the developers free reign to make the individual battles that much more challenging.

Secondly, and very fortunately given what we just discussed, the battle system is pretty decent! Battles themselves consist of strategically switching between combinations of roles as the situation requires. All of the roles are useful! This is because they're only six of them and they're all fairly self explanatory and include an even distribution of skills: for the benefit of those who have yet to learn the lingo, they are fighters, mages, healers, tanks, buffers and debuffers. By the time the game fully opens up, you will have a variety of different strategies at your disposal and might actually find yourself spoilt for choice. There will come a time, for example, where a party whose skillset consists of nothing but status ailment spells will be a viable choice for dealing with large numbers of powerful enemies.

A character might have access to all of these roles, but can only employ one at any given time, and each role is dedicated to the single-minded pursuit of their obvious task. So instead of just picking abilities from a big, character specific list, you simply choose from pre-defined combinations of roles for your party and let the game mechanics take their course. The actual process of killing enemies is a little more involved than just hitting them until they die; you have to build up a combo, earn a substantial damage multiplier, put the enemy in a vulnerable state, and then hit them until they die. Rather than expendable "MP", most attacks and spells are free and need only be charged for the appropriate length of time. Battles use a variant of older Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system, where instead of waiting for a bar to fill up and then inputting commands, you input commands as the bar is filling, and execute them in a combo when it's full. It's kinda neat! It feels fast paced and action packed - but wait! There's that word again… "feels". It's big and pretty, and slightly more involved, but this is just Active Time Battle, people. That's not a bad thing, but let's call a spade a spade here. Final Fantasy XIII's battles are not "action based", you are still picking commands from a menu and waiting for them to execute. Or you can pick the "Auto" option and let the AI pick moves for you.

Corollary: The AI is pretty good! This is very fortunate, because the AI is in full control of everyone except your party leader at all times, and, once you realize that the AI is, 99% of the time, better than you at picking commands in time (and how to spot that other 1%), you will be unable to be bothered to manually select commands for your leader. The AI is determined by the roles of your characters, and you have control over those - you can change them at any time. It isn't too difficult to predict how an AI healer might behave given that healers can only heal - they don't cast defensive spells (that's the buffer's job) and they don't even have limited offensive capabilities; they just heal. Offensively, the AI acts according to a database of known information about the target. If you encounter a new enemy, your mages will cast lots of different spells at it and make a note of what sticks and what doesn't. When something sticks (or doesn't), it is noted down in a list, which you can read at any time, even (especially) during battle. When a weakness is identified, it will be exploited routinely (and, of course, if you encounter another enemy of the same type, you'll have all this information from the start). It gets better! Other information is revealed over time, or as the enemy fights you (or when you use the information revealing ability). You might get a note, for example, suggesting that the enemy employs formidable physical attacks. If this happens, your buff-casters will prioritize the Protect spell. 99% of the time, the AI does exactly what you would - only it has access to all known information at once, and it remembers every obscure weakness of every single random enemy. The AI works because it is a known quantity - it behaves according to easily predictable parameters, and reacts to player decisions in many cases (ie, in a situation where the AI is told to concentrate attacks on a single target, AI characters will focus on the target the player chooses).

Those paying attention might have found the above description a tad familiar. This is because Final Fantasy XII, back in the day (ha!) worked along similar lines, with two monumental distinctions; first, the AI was entirely player made - you created lots of "If [Condition] then [Action]" scripts and prioritized them - and second, that the player could always override or even disable the AI, and order any party member, at any time, to drop whatever they were doing and cast Raise RIGHT NOW DAMNIT! Final Fantasy XIII offers neither of these luxuries; there is no way to tell your AI buffers that, regardless of circumstance, you'd rather focus on offensive rather than defensive buffs, and there's no way to override your AI healer when they insist on healing you when you are at close to full health and somebody else is dead. I will personally guarantee that you will run into situations where you have a plan but the AI ruins it for you, and that these will be among your most frustrating moments with the game. I would have liked to tell you at this point that I have no idea why it never occurred to Square Enix to have a system where, say, all party members (even the leader) are AI controlled, and the job of the player is to a) tell the party when to switch roles, and b) issue specific orders to any character that cancel and override the AI's choices, but I can't pretend I don't know why the battle system is the way it is; it's because it makes the player feel more involved than they actually are.

Despite all this, the battle system is pretty fun - for a time. It coasts along on goodwill borne of novelty, but never once is this battle system ever taken anywhere really interesting. It gets a free pass at the beginning of the game because at this point it's still new, and because the process of gradually pushing enemies towards the point where they become "staggered" and vulnerable is fun the first hundred or so times - as is the process of deftly switching from a setup where you have a tank drawing attacks while you heal to a setup where two mages and a fighter apply concentrated pain to a target (a process which the game celebrates, every time, by pausing the entire battle for about two seconds while each character does the "I'm changing my strategy" dance, to make the player feel good about the fact that they're playing the game). The problem is, really, that this is all you'll ever do; only once your party greatly exceeds the capabilities of a group of enemies will you be able to just hit enemies in the face to kill them, and you're ether strong enough to do that, or you'll be picking enemies one at a time, concentrating fire, staggering them, and then pummeling them. These are your choices. By the end of the game, you will be sick of it. The very final boss, as if to punctuate this point, is invulnerable to all damage unless staggered - it's almost as if they wanted a failsafe to make sure that no-one who had not learned to stagger enemies could ever finish the game. A couple of later plot bosses (and several optional bosses) actually enable an arbitrary "you will lose in ____ seconds" timer if the game detects you are wasting its valuable time by playing safe and chipping away at the enemies' health. How arrogant is that? Final Fantasy XIII will make you play by its own rules until you forget what any of the other rules even are, until you are so completely absorbed in them that you start to feel like you're really beginning to understand this game, man. On a few occasions, you will be required to, say, concentrate on, stagger, and murder the faces off of two or more targets in order, but that's the extent of the variations on this theme.

On top of the fact that the battle system doesn't really go anywhere is the fact that it (along with the rest of the game) takes next-to-freaking-forever to actually get to the nowhere it's headed toward, which is, from one perspective, an incredible thing for anyone to accomplish in any medium. You might hear such defamatory statements as "twenty-five hour tutorial" thrown around by people discussing Final Fantasy XIII, and while not entirely true, the accusation isn't entirely false either. It has not been uncommon of late for JRPGs (or even other RPGs) to fall into the "it picks up after ______" trap, especially so for more complex games that actually need to spend time teaching the player how to play them, but… really?! Twenty five hours!? Can any game, no matter how good it gets at the end, really be excused for taking that long to start being fun to play? Final Fantasy XIII certainly cannot. The game drip-feeds its own mechanics to the player at such an unbearably slow pace that most of the plot (ten of the thirteen "chapters") feels like you're being handheld on a walk to the park in which you'll be able to play if you're good along the way; each new "revelation" of something neat you can do is more of a "finally!" moment than a "oh, cool!" moment. There's no process of discovery, nor any actual discovery. Just about every slight deviation from the safe, certain world of walking straight forward towards the goal is signposted and covered in warning lights. At no point in the "tutorial" is there any requirement of, or reward for, independent thought. Never will a barrier be erected in your path that is not accompanied by a screen-filling dialog box explaining exactly how to overcome it. There will be no uncertainty with regards to player safety; character development is as restricted as the path forward to ensure that no bad leveling decisions can be made (more on that in a bit) and all enemies are guaranteed defeatable. The one exception to this occurs midway through the plot when you are presented with a screen-filling dialog box telling you that the enemies in this area are too strong for you to handle right now, and that you should avoid fighting them.

It's like they couldn't see the forest for the trees; you've already got the most forgiving checkpoint system in JRPGs, ever, so why not just let the player get their ass kicked and let them figure out for themselves that maybe they're not supposed to fight these things? It'd even allow for an actual "I feel smart!" moment! But instead, no, they just spoil the whole thing for everyone, and when you get to the one other instance in which the "too strong for you" card is played, not only is it extremely obvious, but it's also old news. Every moment that could have been a learning experience is instead a dictation experience, and a few of them are just so outright ridiculous that you begin to question whether or not Square Enix thinks all their customers are idiots (don't answer that). In one more mind-boggling example, the party enters a forest and learns that the area ahead is "maze-like", intended to disorient outsiders. Despite this, there is only one possible path to take, with a few offshoots whose dead-endedness is plainly visible on the mini-map (and by sight). Also, bright pillars of light mark the correct (and only) way forward. How can we respect a game that won't respect us?

In addition, there are a metric ton of little things, some of them actually not that little, that just seem to invite a reaction of "why?". Let's cover a few! Why must it be Game Over when the party leader dies in battle, even when other people in the party can routinely revive dead characters? This is kinda a big deal, especially once you encounter enemies who can instantly KO a character of their choosing. Why, once a party of more than three is assembled, do the non battle-team members just disappear outside of cutscenes? They're not "waiting on the airship", and they're certainly not ready to step in should the battle-team be wiped out (they were in FFXII! Has this somehow been unlearned?), so what gives? Why is there so much weird music (happy techno J-pop warning!)? Why, when it comes to picking roles for the battle team, are we limited to a "deck" of six "paradigms" (a "paradigm" simply being a set of "character 1 be role A, character 2 be role B, etc) that cannot be altered in battle, rather than just being able to freely change jobs on a per-character basis in battle? Why does the game throw certain plot battles at you in which your party is force-changed, along with your deck of paradigms, without letting you into a menu first? Why, in these same instances, are your paradigms force-changed even when your party isn't changed (by virtue of already being the "correct" party)? Why, still in these same instances, where the said battle basically requires a certain paradigm (by virtue of being a stupid puzzle boss) are you forced to use a paradigm deck that does not include the appropriate paradigm?

Actually, on the subject of surprise post-cutscene-party-change bosses, it turns out that there is a way to access the menu between cutscene and battle, but… it's hidden. Seriously. And it seems you have to fail the battle in question at least once before you're allowed to do this. And it doesn't abate the fact that these stupid puzzle bosses are the single most unreasonably frustrating parts of the game that don't involve you being bored.

Final Fantasy XIII is quite reliant on you not stopping to question it, because the illusion of enjoyment is such a key part of its master plan. But it also employs a secondary illusion to supplement that of your enjoyment: the illusion of progress - the impression that all of the work you put in to training your characters is going to have a big payoff, the suggestion that by making good decisions with regards to how to develop your characters, you are making a real difference in your ability to kick ass. This illusion is a subset of the illusion of enjoyment, but it's nevertheless an important piece of the puzzle, and a truth that needs to be bought to light. So let's cut right to the core here: no game that harbors the ambition of Final Fantasy XIII to make the player believe they are having fun at all times would ever do a thing as cold and uncaring as just dictating the various improvements your character undergoes as they get better gear, gain experience and level up. Final Fantasy XIII is going to let you *quiet voice* believe you have the ability to *end quiet voice* level up your party as and when you see fit.

Make no mistake; all Final Fantasy games have dictated your character advancement on some level. I feel compelled to remind people at this point that FFVIII had levels, but they were only one way of improving your party, and that X also had levels, and despite its seemingly freeform Sphere Grid (aka, Level Up! The Board Game) it gently forced characters into specific roles until very late in the game (shut up, International Version owners, we're getting away from the point). In "Final Fantasy XIII Speak", you do not do anything as pedestrian as just using "experience" to "level up", but rather, you undergo "Crystogenesis" (in other words… leveling up), by spending "Crystogen Points" (experience) to unlock a variety of enhancements in the "Crystarium" (not even going to touch that one). That's practically another lie right there; do they honestly believe that no one will notice that they've just substituted in fancy sounding names for the same system (don't answer that)? To hear the game tell it, the Crystarium is a glorified skill tree, but really it's more of a vine; it twists and turns and is arranged in pretty circles but it's still a line, punctuated with occasional offshoots consisting of one or two minor stat boosts. It's also unique and separate (read: dictated) for each character. The whole thing is needlessly pretty. There is a bright flash and a dialog box every (every!) time you spend enough points to reach a new improvement (Flash! Sound Effect! "Strength increased by 6!"). There is also an arbitrary cap placed on how far along the Crystarium your characters can go; when you hit the cap, that's it! Go finish you some plot, and maybe, the game will let you progress a little more. Or, if you prefer, you can experience the clunkiness of this needlessly pretty menu as you search the entire grid for the one little branch that you may have passed up earlier because you were foolish enough to question the necessity of training a pure magic user in strength (you can't browse inactive nodes in a list or anything, you have to scroll back along the line).

Stop and think about that for a moment. Why do that? Why put a plot based cap on character advancement? It makes no sense, even from our "illusion of fun" standpoint. Final Fantasy XIII uses the traditional technique of requiring more and more experi-er, Crystogen Points the further along the path you go, and appropriately, the enemies in each successive area yield more and more points upon defeat. The increase in price from one "level" of the Crystarium to the next is not trivial; it usually involves an order of magnitude or two. So if somebody wants to grind in one area for a while and get better, why stop them? It makes no sense to deter people from thinking they need to grind; the increased cost of advancement is a big enough hint (admittedly this assumes people can Take A Hint™). Neither is it sensible to use this as a means to dictate the measures by which your characters can advance according to the plot; because if you're going to do that, why bother having a leveling up system that pretends to be giving you a choice in the first place? Why not just level people up automatically as the plot goes on? Leveling up becomes a chore once the novelty wears off; you don't have a choice over how your characters are going to grow, but you still have to do it yourself anyway. The whole thing is one big lie. We could speculate about this all day: for all we know, it's a cunning ploy to make sure that when you do unlock new levels, you'll have a huge surplus of "spare" CP to spend, and you can be all like "whoa, man, I just unlocked, like, fifteen nodes in one go!" and you'll think it's awesome - and just like that, you're a little further under the spell. Maybe that's not such a crazy suggestion…

It's the same with weapons. Somebody has decided that finding a sword, and then finding a better sword, and then maybe buying an even better sword from a shop just isn't going to cut it anymore. Instead, they proposed the (not unreasonable) idea of there being several different basic varieties of weapon for each character - all different, but none "better", of which you can take your pick, and then upgrade. The problem is, that rather than do anything sensible like, say, allow you to use specific items to improve your stuff in specific ways, or even requiring specific items to level up specific weapons with options depending on the weapon, they just let you "use" any and all of the hundreds of unrelated useless doodads that accumulate in your inventory until your weapon somehow "levels up". Eventually, you'll hit a cap, and need to use a special item (that you can buy) to transform it into something even awesomer. The game hints at hidden nuances at work (such as multiplying the "Experience" that each item adds to your weapon (yes, Experience)) and tells you to "experiment", but at the end of the day, there are only really four different items that you need to use (and everything else should be sold), all of which you will be able to buy from any save point in the game once unlocked, and any idiot who can Google will learn of them (and what they do, and how to use them with maximum efficiency) in thirty seconds. Once you learn this information, the facade starts unraveling, and the truth behind the system is laid bare for all to see; everything, the entire process - the masses of unrelated-but-identical components, the monsters dropping them, the experience system, the multipliers, the different shops, all of it - exists as part of a vain attempt to delay your inevitable realization that at the end of the day, you are still just buying better weapons from a shop (and occasionally finding them in treasure chests).

Square Enix saw (because it was obvious) that the second people figured this out, they would immediately start searching, with all the terrifying single-minded dedication of People Whose Demographic Includes World Of Warcraft Subscribers™, for the most efficient possible way to make money. As such, they did the only thing their unique mindset would allow: they carefully engineered the buy/sell values of each individual item (rather than just use the usual "buy for 50% of sale price" routine) for the specific purpose of eliminating any possibility of players being able to do smart things like, say, search the various shops and establish profitable trade patterns (not in and of itself a bad thing, but it does raise questions such as "why are you only paying me ten thousand gil for this impossibly awesome item when the sale price is two million?!" (topical humour: maybe all of Final Fantasy XIII's "retail networks" are owned by GameStop!)), and then carefully tailored the drops and drop rates of each monster so that grinding for money became something that only a complete idiot would try to do before the absolute last minute, during the post-endgame (yes, there's a post-endgame. I guess that's nice). They did all this, rather than, say, try to come up with a system that wasn't basically "buying levels for your weapons". Why? Because, duh, people like to see things level up due to their own button presses. So they deliberately required players to beat the game and then some before letting them anywhere near the right to then spend tens of hours grinding for the vaunted Achievement/Trophy for fully upgrading everything ever, which is only in the game in the first place to keep people from deciding that that much grinding isn't worth it, and opting instead to just upgrade a few well chosen items instead (heaven forbid someone makes a videogame that rewards intelligent allocation of resources over wasting hours upgrading useless items you never use).

And then, there's the plot. I confess to being at a complete loss as to where to even begin talking about the plot, so let's just start with the premise; like the rest of Final Fantasy XIII, the plot relies on promise and feeling better than it is. It's all staged against what might have been a clever meta-humourous backdrop (but probably wasn't) of high-and-mighty mechanical god-like beings who routinely mark passers-by with tasks from on-high, whose penalty for failure is widely considered to be worse than death and whose reward is widely considered to be not much better than death. It kinda just goes from there. The characters, each a walking embodiment of one specific character trait, meet up and then just as quickly separate into groups defined by which pairs will best bring out eachother's flaws. Each of these characters exists for only two reasons; firstly, to provide a vehicle for the character development paths that seem to have been pre-agreed before the characters themselves were even finalized ("OK, here's where the strong, self-reliant one gets really angry at the useless one for being useless…"), and to appeal to a specific kind of player. There's even a no-nonsense, ass-kicking, down-to-earth character who seems squarely targeted at people who hate JRPGs; this character is the only one who ever requests that the others just shut up and get moving, the only one who, even for a second, considers not going along with the crazy scheme to engineer a situation whereby the world can be saved.

The various groups then spend twenty-odd hours walking down corridors, taking occasional breaks to develop their characters along their formulaic paths and inviting the player to hate them a little more. There's very little "banter" (except from the characters who banter because they're hiding things!) or any conversation that isn't about either the prescribed character development or a gameplay obstacle, or some brief explanation of where you are. So grating is this process that characters that should invite sympathy will receive only "shut up"; no matter how tragic the plight, you will be sick of hearing about it hours before the predictable resolution is even hinted at. Eventually, every characters single defining trait will reverse itself: the stoic fighter becomes the empathetic protector, the lovable oaf wises up, the emo becomes the optimist, and they all - mostly - get over themselves. Everybody meets up, the Objective Of The Game is laid out, everyone swaps interchangeable words of encouragement, and march toward the bad guys. There will be brief stops along the way where everyone will take turns reminding eachother of how far they've come and how much their characters have developed.

The larger plot is the kind of meandering mess that seems custom-designed to drive newcomers to internet forums to ask for pointers on what in the blue hell just happened in that last cutscene. There, they will inevitably be greeted by people who have finished the game twice and read all the little synopses and in-game encyclopedia entries (your party carries, at all times, a complete record of all the plot and background information uncovered so far), who will gladly inform them that, "duh, if you just think about it, it's so obvious what everyone is trying to do (you idiot!)." Indeed, most of the developments really only become intelligible when you read your in-game encyclopedia regularly, and brush up on all the people, factions, places, and history, but hold it! If this information is so important, why isn't it given any exposition? Why do we instead get to listen to the same people whining about the same things they whined about previously, as if there's any danger of us forgetting what we were supposed to be whining about five minutes ago? When you boot up the game and load your file, you will be treated to "Previously On Final Fantasy XIII", a feature that will more often than not spoil some aspects of the plot, though still manage to not explain them that well. Not only is the content sorely lacking, the delivery kinda falls flat too - it's all very melodramatic, and full of the unique variety of made up words (like "l'Cie", pronounced luh-see) that can stop any sentence dead in its tracks. You will Have To Do a thing, and then you'll find that you Have To Stop It, and then you'll find that the only way to Foil The Bad Guys is to Do The Thing Anyway, and hope that you can just believe hard enough when the time comes and somehow fix everything. The Power Of Friendship™ will have gotten a workout by the end - consider yourself warned.

On the way towards the final boss, the party passes through Sidequest Land, the only place in the entire game that has anything to do that isn't advancing the plot. Sidequest Land contains a big plain and lots of corridors, dotted with Dedicated Sidequest Pickup Points, each of which will give you none other than a screen-filling dialog box containing the name and location of some creature you need to murder. A few of these sidequests are legitimately interesting, difficult engagements. The rest will demand more time in finding the damn things then actually killing them. One or two are just plain cheap, fights that are tests more of patience (or luck) than skill. Some of them are literally duplicates of eachother. You'll stumble across one, finish it, find another, finish that, and so on until you hit the pre-designated point where you're supposed to take a hint and continue on with the plot until you've gotten better. You'll unlock teleportation points; you'll travel to new areas on foot, find a mission that unlocks a teleport point, and immediately complete that mission there and then, because the thought of having to walk down that beautifully rendered yet completely featureless path again will depress you more than anything. You'll come across a group of seventeen missions that you must tackle in groups of five but are arranged such that you are forced to go through the entire process seven times to complete them all - each run through accomplishing less than the last - and by the end of it you will have replayed already-complete missions no less than eighteen times, for the simple reason that some idiot game designer dictated that these missions were special and you can't just play them freely. Seventeen missions that take thirty five missions worth of time to complete. Only in Final Fantasy XIII.

Figuring out Final Fantasy XIII is like becoming aware of the Matrix. You're busy and distracted, plodding through the beginnings of the plot, fascinated by the battle system, and totally gripped by the (again, phenomenal) graphical beauty of the thing, you're still on that "new video game!" high, probably also on a "new Final Fantasy!" high too - you're having fun, but there's something off; what is it though? It's like trying to spot a blue dead pixel in the sky. It's like an echo on the very edge of audibility. Something is bothering you, or rather, you feel bothered, but you have no idea what by. You put it down to psychology or some such and continue on your way. You get to some point or other; maybe it's when one of your characters unlocks an awesome new ability that can only be used when they are the party leader, and then the party leader is immediately and forcibly changed to someone else, or maybe it's as you're fighting your way to the final boss, and some enemy casts instant death on your party leader and warps you to Game Over.

You start thinking about this, and then suddenly, in the time it takes you to question, it all dawns on you in one brick wall-like realization; you hate this game! Maybe you'll return it to the store then and there; if you do, then you are a stronger person than I. You may keep playing past this point, but you won't be playing because you want to play, you'll be playing because you want the damnable game to be over already. You'll be through listening to the lies, you'll see right past the game's every attempt to suggest to you that you are enjoying yourself. Every time you play, you'll notice something new and hate it all. But in the time it took to realize this, you might have invested tens of real-life hours into the game; maybe you'll be driven to finish what you started because, what the hey, you're this far in right now. Maybe you'll want to just see how the plot turns out in the end. Maybe you're curious about the fact that you're almost finished and you still haven't heard "My Hands", the song billed as being "featured" in Final Fantasy XIII, and you're convinced that they're reserving it for an awesome cutscene during the ending (this is partly true). It doesn't matter. The damage has been done.

Square Enix doesn't want your adoration: They want you to buy their game, and to hold on to it for long enough that you stop considering returning it. They hope that by the time you figure this out, it'll be too late.

And the truly frightening thing about it is that this scheme has been meticulously thought through; in all likelihood, more polish and attention and expenditure went into making sure that Final Fantasy XIII would perform to this specification than the entirety of the actual game development effort. For all their failings to make a good game, Square Enix are very good at deception. They know what they are doing. Their target audience do not.

Please, see what they are doing.


Fedule's avatar
Community review by Fedule (May 08, 2010)

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Metroid: Other M (Wii)

Metroid: Other M tells two stories. One is the story of Samus Aran, galactic bounty hunter - a story that is objectionable because it is poorly written and incompetently executed. The other is the story of Yoshio Sakamoto, videogame developer - a story that is objectionable because it keeps barging in on Metroid: Other...


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jerec posted May 09, 2010:

I haven't read this yet, but this has to be the longest review I've seen on this site... I may have to tackle this one in a few sittings.
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Fedule posted May 09, 2010:

What can I say? I thought there was a LOT wrong with the game, and I'm trying to establish a new personal record for seething hatred. I hope I was able to write well enough to hold your attention throughout; the word count was not lost on me.

Anyway, I guess these are the perils of reading these guys all the time (and their review of FFXIII is, like 20000 words, so there).
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zigfried posted May 09, 2010:

I started reading this one from the bottom. The last line really grabbed my attention -- I had to read more, because I wanted to know what Square-Enix's evil plan was. After reading, I thought it was an interesting point, so I kept going up, one paragraph at a time.

Never quite made it to the top (once it dawned on me that I don't actually give a crap about FF13, figured I should do something else with my time) but I appreciate your review confirming that I don't give a crap. The point about trade routes was particularly interesting -- establishing trade routes can be a game in and of itself (Starflight 2 proudly advertised this) and it's pretty rude of Square-Enix to rob us of this. Sure, some people would get money as fast as possible and shorten the overall game time, but other people would extensively delve into trading and extend their FF13 experience.

It's like Square-Enix doesn't care about people enjoying games "in their own way". They want to lead people down a specific, predictable path with specific, predictable completion times so that... wait a second. That ties directly into your final point!

Yeah, neat review.

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zippdementia posted May 09, 2010:

Now this is what I like to see! Reviews that show up Square Enix for being the hacks they are! And this is coming from a long time Squeenix fan. I enjoyed this review, though I must admit to skimming huge pieces of it because I'm a busy man with little time to read novels these days.

But it's on my "to read again" list because you actually say things with those thousands of words.
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joseph_valencia posted May 09, 2010:

This review is long, but it delivers in its goal to thoroughly deconstruct a game that sounds awful. I tip my hat off to you, Fedule.
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Suskie posted May 09, 2010:

This review seems really well-written from the glance I gave it, but yeah, I doubt I'll ever get around to reading the whole thing.
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Fedule posted May 09, 2010:

"This review seems really well-written from the glance I gave it"

Ha! Final Fantasy XIII seemed pretty decent from the glance I gave it, but, yeah, look at how that turned out. A fitting irony, really.

If I might be permitted to get all paranoid-defensive; normally I write these reviews for fun, because I think it's interesting, and often (particularly in this case) because it's a kind of catharsis. There are a great many things that I feel need to be said about this game, but these objections are difficult to lay out briefly in the context of talking about a game; Final Fantasy XIII was pretty mediocre to me, but what I really, really needed to get off my chest was the fact that the game is, beyond its own failings as a game, symptomatic of a deeper problem with large videogame companies that needs to be dragged out and screamed about. It is a great tragedy (and absolutely not a coincidence) that the true problem with FFXIII is not the kind of problem that the kind of person who believes FFXIII is an amazing, revolutionary videogame will even recognize as being relevant to the context videogames. By the time I was done playing it, I felt like I was literally the only person in the world who could see what this problem even was. As I said, I had a lot to talk about, and it was all I could do to try and keep the whole article as interesting as possible throughout; I want to make this problem communicable. This is my effort.
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zigfried posted May 09, 2010:

I went back and read from the top this time. I rarely, rarely, rarely say this about long reviews, but it's pretty brilliant. Thanks for writing this.

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Suskie posted May 10, 2010:

Well, I decided to give this review a shot and wound up reading it top to bottom without ever looking away. Anyone else who's planning on writing a FFXIII bash should pack up and go home, because this guy has done it so thoroughly that it seems impossible to one-up him.

This is an absolutely extraordinary review. It's amazing that you're able to organize so many thoughts into a coherent piece of writing that flows, and that you're able to keep my attention throughout with humor, breathtaking detail and a distinct voice. How is this the first review of yours I've read, and why the hell aren't you reviewing more often?
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jerec posted May 10, 2010:

I will read this, I swear. I'm just trying to mentally prepare myself.

Also, from a basic skim, I think we have similar complaints about the game, and what it means to the genre. If future FF games choose to go the same way, then... =/
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jerec posted May 10, 2010:

And, you know what? That was a good long read. It was also quite easy to read, it seemed to have a natural pace and good flow... and I've honestly read reviews that were a quarter of the size and were much harder to read.

I already reached these same conclusions. I can't quite remember where in the game I was when the illusion broke, and I realised I wasn't having fun... but I still did finish the game, and tackle a fair few of the side quests. I really want to get all the trophies for this and then never play it again.

And I really should stop buying collectors editions of these fucking games. It seems like each one I buy, the game ends up being crap. I fell for it with Grand Theft Auto IV, Star Ocean: The Last Hope... and now this. The only one I don't regret is Oblivion.

Final Fantasy XIII makes me angry, not so much because it's a bad game, but as you say, because it lies and pretends to be something else. Everything is sacrificed so that the story can take precedence... and the story never reaches any of the heights that it could, despite the interesting premise. There's nothing like the scene at the end of disc 1 in FF7... or when Zidane loses his mind and his friends pull him out of it, or when Tidus breaks down when he discovers what will happen to Yuna if she succeeds in her quest. FFXIII likes it characters too much and protects them from their lowest moments. Despair is replaced with angst. Like you said, whining.

And when each character finishes their little development, they become boring, empty shells that have nothing left to offer.

I can see why you were able to write over 6000 words on this subject. Despite the game being stripped of all RPG elements except battle and story, there really is a lot to talk about.

Again, Fedule, great review.
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- posted May 10, 2010:

Wow, this review summed up a lot of my own thoughts about the game. I probably wouldn't have been as critical on the whole, but I agree with most of the complaints put forward here.

I thought it was pretty amusing how, when I searched to find out what the heck happened in the ending, there were already countless topics asking. Which leads me to this:






If the baddies' whole plan in the first place was to get Orphan killed, why did

(a) the baddies not do it themselves;
(b) the good guys still kill Orphan, knowing the world might end, blah blah blah;
(c) the baddies make the good guys' journey to Orphan so perilous and difficult?






Maybe I'm missing something or being dumb, but not much of the story seems to make sense to me. Oh well.

Anyway, super review.
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Fedule posted May 10, 2010:

First up - Wow. You guys are too kind. I am not worthy!

Answering questions in order:

zigfried: You're welcome!

Suskie: Fun Fact™: I doubt this is the first review of mine you've read; I wrote a fair amount of stuff for GameFAQs when Review Of The Day (including two ROTDs...). I know for certain that you read at least one of those, because one of the ROTDs I have saved (from, y'know, having wrote it) contains a reference to something you said about something I wrote. So there! Anyway, it's true that I'm an... infrequent... contributor; if you have read any of my reviews it'd be long enough ago to be forgettable. I don't review more often because for all my knowledge and love of videogames, I don't really play that great a number of them, and it's not always the case that I can think of something to say that I can say with any kind of conviction (I don't know how you prolific writers do it!).

jerec: "I really want to get all the trophies for this and then never play it again." - Oh, man, do I ever hear that. My honest opinion? People who use the savegame editor to apply money hax (to get the Treasure Hunter award, and then using all your shiny ultimate gear to rampage through the missions) are probably more morally justified than those who don't. In fact, I think that using money hax is the only way to really "beat" FFXIII. Oh, what, did you spend twenty hours grinding Adamantoises to get Platinum Ingots for the sellin'? As a great man once said in an iconic film: "Son? You playin' that game, or the game playin' you?"

Ben: Duh! It's so obvious if you thi- ah, anyway, yeah, you're right. At the risk of revealing how much I've thought about the plot, it goes something like this: Orphan wants to die but "cannot self terminate", Bart wants to destroy Cocoon but cannot, because, surprise! Fal'Cie have Focuses too. So the idea was to lure the party to Orphan by making them think the Cavalry were going to destroy it, and forcing them to kill Orphan. Yes, it's very flimsy. Yes, it has probably been written with the express purpose of creating clusters of fanboys who will appear to be (and act like) geniuses who can understand such a complex, nuanced plot, that us fools will be in awe of when we dare to question its logic.
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Lewis posted May 10, 2010:

jerec: You think this is long? Try Tim Rogers' FF13 review.
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Fedule posted May 10, 2010:

God Bless Tim Rogers. I believe I mentioned him in the second post on this page!

He says in his "about" page that he does things like write "reviews" in order to talk about "videogames" generally, and that FFXIII review talks about FFXII, Dragon Quest IX, Monster Hunter, etc. It's all legit, and good stuff, but it's like no "review site" you'll ever read. He also happens to be the friggen' master of the "stream of consciousness" writing style; next to no structure but still gripping and interesting and very, very, correct. I read his review long before I wrote mine, and it was all I could do to not copy and paste entire swaths of it at once. The fact is, what he has spotted, and what I spotted too, is The Truth™, and the fact that my own experience of the game differed a lot from his and still lead to The Truth™ shows just how much of a Big Deal™ The Truth™ is.
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Suskie posted May 10, 2010:

It's interesting. I can't deny that I enjoyed FFXIII, yet at the same time, I find myself sympathizing far more with those who didn't like it. I hate it when people bash a game in an established series just for being different, yet many people such as yourself are taking a far more considered approach, i.e., it's not just that FFXIII omits crucial elements, but that the changes actually detract from the experience. You covered that in phenomenal detail here.

I still stand by what I said in my review: The combat is great, and the game works because it revolves so heavily around its combat, yet I don't really see what Square-Enix accomplished by making these alterations. They've done enough good for this industry to ever be called "hacks" in my mind, but yeah, FFXIII was a bizarre misstep.

By the way, am I the only one who didn't think FFXIII was all that difficult? I did a fair amount of grinding even before Chapter 11 (found a few spots where enemies respawned quickly) so I wouldn't say it's the game's fault, but I was surprised to go back to the FFXIII thread and read that Genj tried to beat the final boss for a couple of hours, since I was able to blaze through all three forms without breaking a sweat.

(And speaking of that, it's been a great year for stupid-looking final boss designs, hasn't it? Mass Effect 2, Dante's Inferno, and now FFXIII's grand finale pits us against a couple of fucking Christmas tree ornaments.)

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