For weeks, I have been trying to write something, anything, about Final Fantasy 13, but the task has proven difficult. One reason is that anything worth saying about the game has been stated already, and by better writers. Another is that I continue to suffer from the longest period of writer’s block I have ever encountered. Recently, I came to a third conclusion about my struggles; you can’t say much about a game that itself has no point. That’s the best way I can describe FF13. It exists as multiple pieces and components, none of which work together to create a unified experience.
This problem runs throughout the entire product. Take the environments, for example. They serve no purpose beyond offering the player a new color palette every few hours. The trails you take through each chapter are so linear that you can never fully appreciate the splendor, and the dialogue between characters is so far removed from the locations in which they take place that you could plant any given scene in another location, and it would work just as well. I can’t even say that the environments all look gorgeous, since some of them rely entirely too much of static, hi res background textures and artwork.
The story, which should be the high point of the game, feels similarly disposable. The early hours of the game are filled with information on FF13’s setting and societies, enough to give the player a basic idea of what is going on. Rather than expound on this information with details or answers, the cast spends the next few hours repeating the same concepts and fears which they (or someone else) already expressed. I’m not sure if this is simply a case of the repetition endemic to game and anime scripts, or if it is necessary because the game’s naming conventions are terrible. In either case, the result of such roundabout dialogue is that the actual twists and revelations feel empty, since it took so long to actually get to them. It hurts even more when you discover that the game’s text based encyclopedia contains crucial background information which is absent from the cutscenes. So we wind up with a game that has to spend too much time explaining the difference between a “Fal’cie” and a “L’cie”, or what a “Focus” is, all because someone couldn’t stop with the made up words.
Meet the first enemy in FF13
FF13’s combat could take multiple paragraphs to explain in detail, but those words would be wasted. The short explanation is that your party can change classes on the fly in order to use different combinations of abilities. The goal of battle is to fill up an enemy’s stun meter, which in turn lets you deal significant damage for a short period of time. Despite claims of being a massive overhaul, combat in FF13 doesn’t feel that far removed from its predecessors. The level up system is a permutation of FF10’s Sphere Grid, and the boss battles in particular feel like an MMO battle, much like those in FF12. FF13’s combat is appreciable in theory, since the existence of the stun meter forces the player to pay attention and strategize, rather than simply mash the ‘x’ button. You will, however, figure out the strategy for every monster in a given area well before the area actually ends. At this point you’re practically running on autopilot, and yes, you will have nothing to do but mash the ‘x’ button. If only the level designers communicated with the folks behind the combat. If only anyone at Square collaborated with each other. Perhaps then we’d have wound up with a winner, instead of wasted ideas.
I haven’t yet finished FF13. I have been told that the game opens up greatly in the second half, allowing for more exploration and better battles. This doesn’t entice me to push forward. Rather, it makes me more eager to be done with it. It has been argued that the first half of the game so a linear and hand holding in order to please the casual players who come to Final Fantasy for the story. And since these fans are less likely to finish the game, it allows Square to make the second half better tailored to hardcore jRPG players. This logic is faulty. If someone plays a game to enjoy the story, they’re not going to stop playing halfway through (this kind of gamer rarely, if ever, walks away from a bad story). And if someone is interested in the number crunching and level grinding endemic to jRPGs, the last thing they need is a game with a tutorial spanning close to ten hours. Square would have been better off choosing to focus on one of these approaches. That would mean making the entire experience an easy, prolonged tutorial, and cutting all of the clutter out of the initial chapters so that the story could be condensed into 30 or so hours (it’s possible, trust me). The other option would be to throw players into the second half right away, spending five or ten minutes to explain the events that occurred in the first half. The story already starts en media res, so it wouldn’t be any sort of stretch.
Square wouldn’t do this, however, because they’re no longer interested in making a good videogame. Their goal with FF13 was to hit every demographic and every bullet point from every marketing meeting presentation. All in order to make sure every single breed of otaku and gamer is treated to the whatever stimulus triggers their Pavlovian fanboy response. Square knows that they do business in an age where “girl with glasses” is a feature which will cause a measurable percentage of their consumer base to forgive and and all flaws. From this perspective, Final Fantasy 13 is a job well done. For anyone interested in being entertained by their videogames, however, this is poison. Not only is it constantly boring, but it is emblematic of the kind of approach which is likely to become more common in the industry with every passing year.