“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
― Lewis Carroll,
Our first review ever is for Final Fantasy XIII! It is the thirteenth numerical installment in the fanatically popular franchise. In step with the series’ motif of telling new stories with each entry, FFXIII follows the intersecting lives of several throwaway characters: the unlikeable, “coolness-factor” protagonist Lightning, the second-token-black-guy in the series Sazj, the blondie beau Snow, the airhead waif Vanille, the effeminate mama’s boy Hope and the mysterious sounds-like-an-Aussie-for-no-reason Fang. That’s right, a cast just as memorable as H.R. Pufnstuf.
In the dystopian society of Cocoon, the Sanctum government is ordering a purge of civilians who have allegedly come into contact with Pulse, their national enemy. Former soldier Lightning fights against the Sanctum in order to save her sister who has been branded as an unwilling servant to a god-like entity from Pulse, known as a fal’Cie. Lightning is joined by many allies and together they also are marked by the same creature and become l’Cie, the fal’Cie’s puppets. Rallying against the Sanctum, they try to discover the task assigned them by the fal’Cie and whether they can avoid being turned into monsters if they fail or crystals as their reward. In the process, they uncover a plot (spoiler) by a Cocoon fal’Cie who was masquerading as the human primarch Dysley but is actually a villain named Barthandelus. He tells the party that their mission is to transform into the beast Ragnarok and kill the sleeping fal’Cie Orphan, who keeps Cocoon afloat above Pulse. Killing Orphan will result in Cocoon’s destruction and the summoning of the Maker, the creator of worlds, who will supposedly wipe the planet’s slate clean.
All the beauty of a franchise that has consistently made nerds soil themselves since 1987 is here. The graphics are most impressive, the score is worthy of Uematsu’s legacy (I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing the pianist’s melody on the title screen), the voice acting is more than passable, the world environments are as fantastic as the title suggests, and the battles feel new, fast-paced and exciting.
The Paradigm Shift system essentially allows you to change your characters’ classes at any point in a fight, emphasizing quick strategy to attempt to “stagger” enemies, reducing their defenses and rendering them vulnerable. Fear not, Paradigming does not make your characters clones of each other. Certain members of the cast are better at different Paradigm classes, like Ravager (magic-based), Commando (physical-based) or Saboteur (insulting an enemy’s mother to inflict negative status effects, such as “Yo momma’s so fat she couldn’t fit through the narrow, linear hallways that comprise over 85% of this game”). Further, the Crystarium leveling system allows the gamer some degree of customization, letting you decide how exactly to direct your characters’ statistics.
The biggest complaint anyone can make about FFXIII is its infamous linearity. The director, Motomu Toriyama, said about the lack of open world exploration and I blockquote:
“[It] becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story when you’re given that much freedom.”
Imagine you are walking down a long hallway. There are no doors or passageways that branch off. Just this one hallway. Imagine you reach the end of the hallway and you find that there is another, similar hallway. Oh sure, it might have different wallpaper or a different flower soaking in a vase on a shelf, but it seems like it’s the same hallway. You reach the end of that hallway to find, dread as you might, another hallway… Imagine traversing these hallways for hour after hour. You might try to run or you can just walk, but either way, you’re only passing down the same hallway, endlessly. No, it’s not eternal damnation. It’s Final Fantasy XIII. Just look at this map:
Most of the game (like some 85% of it) is spent on purely linear routes, moving across the map toward a glowing orange symbol to encounter a boss or trigger a cinematic, barring any of the sense of adventurous exploration present in so many other examples in the franchise. When the game finally opens up into a vast green world rife with side-quests galore is the moment when the plot comes to a screeching halt. So much time can be spent getting all of your exploration fix in that by the time you decide to pick up the story again and finish off the last 5% to 10% of what’s left of narrative, then odds are you’ve already forgotten what’s going on. Certainly there’s no sense of urgency to the scenes that comprise the game’s climax. I believe it’s this structure that ultimately brings the game down. When it at last gives you what you want, it ends up destroying everything it has been linearly building toward, leading to a bigger “Who am I? Why am I here?” moment than Cloud’s mental breakdown in Final Fantasy VII. So despite what Mr. Toriyama said, I think it’s clear that a sudden burst of open world explorative freedom after holding out on it for so much of the game makes it “very difficult to tell a compelling story”.
There’s a lot of bang here but there’s a hollow feeling underneath the showmanship. FFXIII is a gorgeous game with a lot to enjoy from its great Paradigm Shifts keeping the battles energetic to the intricate backgrounds, settings and cinematics, to the eventual side-questing with the Cie’th stones, however its structure works against itself and leaves you wanting more. More of something else.
The 8-Bit Review
FFXIII‘s strongest element is the graphics. Fantastical hyper-realism is the word of the day here, so I was surprised to see some of the cartoonier FF tropes make it into the game: Cactuars and Chocobos come to mind. The atmosphere is nigh claustrophobic in much of Cocoon and there is that sense of wild wilderness in the organic settings. All of it is huge detailed. I mean, this game makes Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within look like a polygon test screening for the first Toy Story. Feast your eyes!
Though not the best in the series, there are several tracks that match the grandeur of Final Fantasy’s long musical history. This is apparently the first numerical entry in the franchise not to include any compositions by the original maestro of the series, Nobuo Uematsu, and you can really tell. Masashi Hamauzu, who also composed Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, unfortunately chose to go with several tracks that feel really out of place, not only for the series, but for some of the sequences in which they feature: grungy, metallic, garage-band guitar riffs and steely pseudo-techno ensues. The end result is a less melodic soundtrack with not many memorable tracks.
No real complaints here. I didn’t notice any major glitches. The innovative Paradigm Shift system was not hard to get my head around it. The Crystarium seems tedious and overly complex at first but turns out to be a delight, contrary to other examples of building characters stat by stat. A lot of transitions are seamless as well and everything seems responsive enough.
When FFXIII‘s story isn’t hideously complex, it’s too familiar. Believing in yourself, dystopian utopia, suspicious religious authorities, nihilistic villains, a sullen protagonist who is a former soldier (Cecil, Terra, Cloud)… all of your fav FF fare is here. Furthermore, the cast of characters are downright unlikeable. Sazj stands out as a brotha you can enjoy with some real motivation for what he’s doing. But Lightning? Why is she so moody? I mean, did she stub her toe really, really hard? Did she get dumped? If so, why isn’t the story about her ex’s new chickadee, who must be a thousand times more interesting? Why is she on this journey? What does she want? Why is her hair pink? Does she dye it herself or go to a salon? These questions and others I cannot answer, because the answers are forgettable and I probably won’t play it again to find out.
Not difficult at all. I don’t think I died once playing through the storyline. Some bosses, like Barthandelus, will push your strategies and reaction time to the limit with Paradigm Shifting but the fact that you recover all your health automatically between battles means less healing and less stress. A breeze.
Hey, if you want to walk down those hallways all over again, that’s fine by me but you’re still a sadomasochist.
Let’s be honest. This is a franchise that has reached double-digits for entries. This is the thirteenth game, not including the numerous spin-offs and spiritual successors. However, Final Fantasy is renown for pushing the RPG genre further and further. The Paradigm Shifts keep the game’s battling fresh but a lackluster storyline and characters means FFXIII really fails to stand out from the better games in its series.
My Personal Grade: 4/10
I wanted to enjoy FFXIII a lot more than I did. Final Fantasy is a favorite series of mine and at the time I played this entry it was the newest one. I was disappointed. I thought about platinuming it but I’d just had enough of this one. It’s been called the worst Final Fantasy ever, which is a great excuse to produce a direct sequel!
Aggregated Score: 4.5