I’m way, way late to the party when it comes to critiquing Final Fantasy XIII, but this is one of those instances where I know my brain won’t stop buzzing until I’ve written this down, so here we go.
Let me begin with a disclaimer. I haven’t actually played Final Fantasy XIII, at least not directly. Rather, I’ve watched my two roommates play two separate games. After watching hours upon hours of Square-Enix’s latest offering, I’m left with absolutely no desire to play it myself, because I’m fairly certain—and here’s the crux of the problem, so pay attention—that there is little difference between playing the game and watching it.
It certainly looks stunning, I’ll give it that. Animation is detailed and fluid, and the world positively explodes with color and texture (often literally). It’s obvious that an enormous amount of thought went into the game’s art direction and implementation, though Square’s increasingly eccentric aesthetics do occasionally spiral out of control. At times it feels like you’re not battling a well-defined monster so much as an oddly pleasing collection of curves and particle effects. It doesn’t help that enemies have names like “Zwerg Scandroid”. It can be downright Lovecraftian at times.
So while the Art Direction department obviously got a truckload of gold bars to spend, it seems like every other department suffered as a result. The plot oscillates between numbingly straightforward and needlessly confusing. It’s established early on that there are god-like entities in the world who turn humans into magically-empowered servants to perform specific tasks. Fail to complete your task and you become a zombie. So far, so good, I see where this is going. Successfully complete your task, and you turn into an ornate statue. Huh? Plot-wise, the conditions for success or failure are never clearly established, nor is the timeline for your inevitable transformation. It robs the narrative of any real drive or tension.
The characters are your usual band of Square-Enix JRPG standards. Terrorist who’s portrayed as a snow-white good guy? Check (and in this case, he’s actually named Snow). Thirty year-old who routinely gets referred to as if he’s one bowl of oatmeal away from collecting Social Security? Check. Angsty female? Check. Willowy, androgynous blond male semi-protagonist with self-esteem issues? Check. Gratingly annoying, sexually infantilized female? God almighty, check. Yahtzee hits this point really well, if you’re looking for more, but the long and short of it is that you end up actively hating the characters with which you’re supposed to empathize. Snow is a jerk, Lightning’s an angry bitch, Hope alternates between whiney and saccharine, and Vanille? God, just go see for yourself.
These are but quibbles compared to Final Fantasy XIII‘s crucial failing, and that is this: if you step back from the overproduced spectacle, you’ll realize that there isn’t an actual game there. True, Square has been gradually taking the “G” out of “RPG” ever since Final Fantasy VII. I’m certainly not the first gamer to point out that Square’s games consist of walking in an exceptionally pretty line until you hit the Big Bad Boss, but XIII is beyond the pale.
Imagine game design as a great big decision tree. At every fork in the tree, Square had a choice to make: give the player X amount of control over the game, or don’t give them that control. At every opportunity, every available decision point, Square decided to rob the player of control. You don’t select attacks individually, you switch your party into “paradigms,” or sets of roles that broadly determine their actions in the fight. Just as in every Final Fantasy game, your characters can learn a vast corpus of magic spells and attacks, but as far as implementing them in Final Fantasy XIII, your choices boil down to “attack” and “defend”. This allows battles to play out at a positively frantic pace, but it’s counter-productive. If you can’t keep track of what’s going on, you aren’t really playing, are you? The fights become a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The plot, such as it is (see above) is spoon fed to you at discrete points throughout the game, and I do mean discrete. Either you’re running around looking for the next incomprehensible fight, or all the action comes to a dead stop so that another character you don’t care about can have an epiphany. A good game will weave story elements directly into the gameplay, so that you, as the player, feel responsible for the character’s actions, thereby becoming that character (see God of War, Fallout, Bioshock, etc). With Square, it’s an either/or proposition. The game is either clumsily dialing the pathos to 11 or throwing you into gameplay that’s totally detached from the story.
Of course, many other recent hits can be critiqued as Exceptionally Pretty Lines. Bioshock, both the original and its sequel, have but two possible outcomes, and as far as the story goes, you don’t have much choice in how things turn out (the first game, of course, turns this unspoken truth on its head to truly masterful effect). Fallout 3, for all its decision trees and engaging sidequests, still forces the main story to culminate in a ludicrously transparent choice between selfless good or overwhelming evil. Despite the appearance of forks in the road and tangles in the plot arcs, these games are linear. Still, there are lots of things to do. In Bioshock there are many plasmids to be had, many ways to deal with the next wave of crazed Splicers, and in Fallout you can lose yourself in the Wasteland for literal days, leaving the main story untouched. In both cases, there are many possible ways to play the game.
Stepping back onto Square’s turf, consider Final Fantasy X. It’s one of the few Square games to feature a strong plot (though by no means perfect) and a simple battle system that still offered plenty of control. Toward the end of the game, you’ll have to take on a character named Yunalesca. She’s one of those difficult, somewhat undead, multi-stage bosses that Square loves. When the Tall One fought Yunalesca, he cut her to pieces with a handful of basic physical attacks. She was defeated in perhaps two minutes, most of that time spent on her transformation animations. The Tall One was able to do this because of how he plays. He will happily grind his characters for hours, until they can easily overpower any foe in the area. Then it’s a simple matter to press “Attack” and stomp the local boss to death. I, on the other hand, prefer to progress the story. New areas, new art, and new plot are my preferred reward, not overwhelming might. As a result, I was somewhat underpowered when I went up against Yunalesca. It took me an unbelievable forty minutes to beat her, and even then, I did so by the skin of my teeth, pulling out every magic spell and item at my disposal. I found this experience infinitely more epic, more rewarding, then simply dispatching her by pressing “Attack” three times.
The point is this. In Final Fantasy XIII these kinds of choices do not exist. The Crystarium, which is the visually overwrought screen where you’ll gain new strengths and abilities, is divided into tiers that only unlock as the story progresses. In fact, you can’t access the full Crystarium until after you beat the game. Why would I want more abilities after the game is, you know, finished? And let’s remember, all these abilities you’re unlocking still boil down to “attack” and “defend,” so all that really matters is whether you’ve done enough character grinding to take on the larger enemies. You don’t even have full control of your party members until about twenty-five hours into the game. And I’m not talking about some kind of accelerated gameworld clock, I’m saying that you sit there and play the game for an actual twenty-five hours before the game lets you decide who you can use (before that point, Square is too busy doling out the plot to care about things like autonomy).
The Tall One and the Southerner both played Final Fantasy XIII to completion. These are two guys with vastly different gaming habits, game preferences, play styles, and life philosophies. By all rights, there games should look very different. Yet their save files are virtually indistinguishable from each other. I submit that this is a game that is not really a game. It’s all art, no matter. It is a game without real decisions or choices. It is not a game you play, rather, it’s a game that plays you.