Final Fantasy XIII - Review

Final Fantasy XIII
Rating: T - Teen

Stunning graphics and a deep, rewarding combat system can't save this adventure game from linear, repetitive gameplay and weak characterization.

It's hard to know where to start when reviewing a title like Final Fantasy XIII. There's not much mediocrity in this game: it's either brilliant or awful, and frequently both at the same time. I chose to abandon the game after 35 hours of play, so this review doesn't address the last three (of 13) chapters.

Graphics and sound
The brilliance begins with the breathtaking opening sequence. It's a masterfully rendered mini-movie comprised of outtakes from the game. The sequence doesn't make much sense. It doesn't have to. What it does is tell you right off the bat that the next however-many hours of your life are going to look beautiful.

The game's sound engineering is on par with its visuals. Everything from the orchestral score to the little "ding" of making a menu selection is crystal-clear. Cutscenes and combat take full advantage of my 5.1 surround sound system. The voice acting ranges from good to stellar.

The background music is well-executed but typical for the genre, with the exception of the delightful jazzy theme for the Sazh & Vanille chapters of the game's first section. Unfortunately, there's no way to lower the relatively loud volume. By about fifteen hours into the game, I was so sick of the music that I simply muted the sound during everything but the cutscenes. Muted sound significantly detracted from the gameplay experience, but it was better than hearing the same synth line for the hundredth time.

Controls and settings
Tarnish begins to show once the eye- and ear-candy give way to actual gameplay. FFXIII is an over-the-shoulder game, with the left stick controlling movement and the right stick controlling the camera. Movement controls feel awkward. Characters either run full-tilt or walk at a snail's pace. The right stick doesn't always grant a full 360-degree arc of camera movement. Occasionally the camera will zoom out to show a large view of an area, with no way to zoom back in. The result is that sometimes it's very difficult to tell where the character is going.

I already touched on the lack of an independent volume control for the background music. Sound effects and voices don't have their own controls either. In fact, very little of the game is customizable - a puzzling decision, given that game settings in other action titles are fairly robust.

FFXIII bills itself as a "Japanese RPG", a genre that mixes computer RPG exploration with complex turn-based combat and uniquely Japanese aesthetics. This label is a little misleading. There's no roleplay at all - not a single dialog choice in 35 hours. Instead, it's like watching an animated action movie where you play through all the fights. Watch a cutscene; fight some guys; run around; fight some guys; repeat. It's an interesting approach, but "interesting" is not the same as "fun".

The movie
I won't rehash the plot here; there are plenty of walkthroughs available on the Web for those who want to know what happens. The story as told through the cutscenes is a little disjointed. Fortunately, the game provides textual recaps in the player's "datalog" to fill in some of the gaps. It's a mishmash of familiar themes from anime: loyalty, self-discovery, fate vs. choosing one's own destiny, revenge, and so forth.

The characters are familiar tropes from anime as well: the cute, spunky teenaged girl who always gives her best (Vanille); the whiny, angst-ridden adolescent boy (Hope); the confident, brash hero (Snow); the exotic, confident, and skilled woman warrior (Fang); the grim, tormented soldier looking for redemption (Lightning). Sazh is the lone exception, for reasons I'll discuss later.

Half of the characters, including the main protagonist, are women. This might seem strange to Western viewers but it's pretty common in Japan. "Fighting females" are something of a cultural obsession in Japanese media. Whether it's cybernetic supersoldiers (Ghost in the Shell), schoolgirl assassins (Gunslinger Girl), or lone weapon-mistresses in medieval times (Morbito), you're equally likely to see women and men in the role of heroic fighter.

With such diversity in the character mix, it's too bad the protagonists aren't more interesting. Everyone except Sazh (and, to a lesser degree, Fang) stays firmly within the established trope. A few are downright annoying. Although Lightning (the primary character, unfortunately) and Hope are the worst offenders in the WILL YOU PLEASE JUST SHUT UP AND GET OVER IT category, the other characters aren't much more interesting. Sazh is the only character who maintained my interest - and not just because he has a tiny bird living in his Afro. He displays a wide range of emotions throughout the story. He makes decisions from his heart. His reactions are complex and believable. Square Enix hit a home run with Sazh; it's frustrating that the other characters don't measure up.

At 18 hours, I was ready to quit out of pure exasperation with the characters. At 22, the story resolved much of its unrelenting angst and threw in a nice little hook to rekindle my interest. At 35, I couldn't take the repetitive fights anymore and I just gave up.

The fights
FFXIII's combat and level-up systems warm my tweaky gamer's heart. They're extremely deep (read: complicated) and highly customizable. Square Enix did a great job with the pacing, too. The game starts with a small subset of the game mechanics available. As the game progresses, the player uncovers layer after layer of additional mechanics. There's an adequate amount of time to practice each new layer before the next one comes along.

Each character in the game can fill three out of six roles. The roles available to each character are predetermined. Within each role, each character has a slightly different set of skills. Development within each role is up to the player, and varies from character to character. With Vanille, for example, I kept each role roughly even because I found myself switching between them quite often. Lightning didn't spend much time in one of her roles, so I maxed out two of her roles and only used leftover points for the third. The plot is structured such that the player must practice with each character over the course of the first several chapters. It's a great way to learn the ins and outs of each character, and it doesn't feel artificial.

All of this role- and skill-building is the core of the combat system. The game's AI is extremely effective so the fighting mostly happens on autopilot. The challenge is knowing which groups of roles (the game calls them "paradigms") to set up and when to switch between them. If the party's health is getting low, do I switch to a paradigm with a medic and two fighters, switch to medic/synergist/saboteur for a few turns to buff my guys and debuff the enemy, or do I just pound a couple of potions and keep hammering away?

These decisions need to happen quickly. It's not a real-time game, nor is it strictly turn-based. Each character has an energy bar with a certain number of sections. Each skill the character uses requires a certain number of sections to complete. The bar takes a few seconds to fill up. The player has only those few seconds to make decisions about what to do: change paradigms, use skills, attack a target (which target?), or use items. When the bar fills up, the game can execute whatever's in the queue. The player can take longer than those few seconds to decide what to do, but every delay is costly.

The cost isn't just measured in the enemy's damage. Each battle happens on a timer. The target time is only revealed after the battle's completion. The player receives a number of stars (0-5) based on the difference between actual time and target time. Higher stars gain more level-up points and better treasure. "Getting graded" on my combat performance was a little jarring at first, but I quickly grew to like it. The urgency is part of what makes FFXIII's combat exciting and rewarding.

My admiration for and enjoyment of the combat system doesn't make up for the unending stream of battles, though. Since each battle is staged and the player doesn't do any real-time control (movement, shooting a gun, etc.), the fights grow monotonous. Each section introduces a new set of enemies. There's generally one big beastie that's hard to kill, a couple of critters with weird special abilities or resistances, and three or four kinds of soldiers. The first couple of battles in a section introduce the different creature types. From there on out, it's fight after fight against the same guys in different combinations. Most fights take under two minutes to complete - which is good, because there are many, many, MANY fights. Most of them don't make any sense; the enemies are just standing around, waiting to yield their experience and loot.

That grind is ultimately what led me to abandon the game. At the end of chapter 9, there's a big boss fight and some exciting plot developments. I was excited to see what happened next. What happened next was a new level full of different enemies and the same repetitive fights. In fact, one of the characters comes right out and says something to the effect of "it's an old training ground where warriors hone their skills and build their power." When the developers come right out and signpost the impending grind, it's time to hang up the controller and go do something fun.

I wanted to love FFXIII. I really did. For a while, I thought I might. It's beautiful, it's challenging, and many of its flaws (like the thumbstick controls) can be forgiven. The lackluster characters and never-ending fights are the one-two punch that knocked me out, though, and this reviewer sadly gives FFXIII two thumbs down.

Fun Factor: Graphics alone do not make a game.
Female Factor: The main protagonist is Lightning - a female warrior
Player Friendly: Constant, repetitive battles

Reviewed by: Finn Kisch - Apr/10

  • Final Fantasy XIII
  • © Square Enix
  • Platform(s): PS3 X-BOX 360
  • To Order: XBox360 $53.54
  • To Order: PS3 $56.99