Final Fantasy XIII Review

I wanted to love Final Fantasy 13, and for the first two dozen or so hours, I succeeded in doing so. However, the completely needless character drama, stunning absence of any kind of logic behind the game’s ending, and painful slogs through too-long parts of the game ensured that I was severely let down. Whereas I originally enjoyed just about everything the game had to offer, I grew to hate it by the end, even going so far as to make excuses to avoid having to play it anymore. This is a game that tells a complicated story involving deities who are never shown or even explained in enough depth to actually understand what’s happening over the course of the story, most notably toward the end, and this is unacceptable.

A story half-told

The story is by and away the biggest negative of the game, so vague and open to interpretation that it makes it impossible to actually figure out what facilitates its many convenient twists. That’s not to say that there’s anything necessarily wrong with vagueness; when used right, a vague story that leaves open questions can be an amazing way of engaging the player by forcing them to examine the events of the story in order to piece together a greater meaning.

This isn’t what Final Fantasy 13 does, though. A well-written story provides you with the rules of the world and finds clever ways to use those rules to the betterment of the storytelling, whereas FF13 goes out of its way to create a grounded world where magic is out of the ordinary, only to subvert its groundedness with literal miracles that are never explained. At least, they’re never explained in this game—there are other Final Fantasy games that explore the pantheon of gods and goddesses more fully (including two FF13 sequels, at least one of which is necessary to understand this game’s ending).

A cast half-maddening

This is a game about the women. Yes, the playable characters are split 50/50 along gender lines with three of each, but the guys are largely worthless as characters. A huge chunk of the game’s beginning is eye-roll worthy because of the unbelievably forced drama between manchild Snow (who looks and acts like the lovechild of Seifer and Zell from Final Fantasy 8, minus the personality or charm) and actual-child-stuck-in-angsty-stage Hope. Those are their actual names. Sazh, the last of the male characters, is leagues better than those two, but once his personal drama plays out, he hangs around as little more than a catchphrase generator offering up flavor commentary that amounts to colorful variations of “dayum” and “teamwork can conquer all!” It gets a bit bipolar toward the end as he—and most of the other characters—flitters between hope and hopelessness at the drop of a hat for no reason but to facilitate emotional speeches about working together and fighting fate that come out of nowhere every five minutes.

Lightning, Fang, and Vanille, on the other hand, are much more rounded characters. Sure, they suffer from the same bad habit of doubting themselves, being reassured, then re-doubting themselves again five minutes later, but they’re nevertheless written much better. Fang and Lightning in particular make for great heroes who are capable of emoting without venturing into the sickeningly saccharine territory Hope and Snow always seem to veer into, making them seem like much more believable characters. When the game finally opened up ~20-30 hours in and allowed me to choose my party members (a huge chunk of the game is spent with certain characters being mandatory), I ditched the male characters entirely. That didn’t stop them from interjecting their drama into the game’s frequent cutscenes, but at least I could pretend that they didn’t exist during gameplay.

Final Fantasy XIII

“If only we could fly,” they say…

Final Fantasy XIII

… forgetting that they can and have (including in a cutscene five minutes earlier).

Inconsistency and stupidity

I’m not done talking about the writing or characters, either. Take the example pictured above, where the group of idiots conveniently forget that they are, in fact, capable of flight. There’s also a part in the game where a bunch of giant robots inexplicably jump down to protect Hope when he’s about to be crushed despite every single activated robot to that point trying to kill them all. Does anyone stop to question why this insanely convenient thing happened? Of course not:

Final Fantasy XIII

I hate this game so much.

There are numerous examples of similar inconsistency and stupidity leading to train-sized plot holes, and that’s not even the end of the problems. For example, a villain character is introduced and built up as an incredibly evil person, only to be killed off in a cutscene shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, a minor villain character dogs the group of heroes throughout the entire game, seemingly invincible in his ability to survive being shot, shot down, and otherwise repeatedly defeated. Imagine that Final Fantasy 6 had killed off Kefka an hour after introducing him, instead filling the game with the hijinks of Biggs and Wedge, and you have a close approximation to Final Fantasy 13’s state of affairs as far as villains go.

The combat is pretty good

I’ve always been a fan of the games where Final Fantasy does something completely new. From the jobs system in Final Fantasy 5 (3 technically did it first, but it wasn’t released in the US until after 5) to the junction system in Final Fantasy 8, the games sporting changes to the series’ tried-and-true formula have always been among my favorites. Final Fantasy 13 doesn’t disappoint in this sense, completely switching combat from a strategic turn-based affair to more of a twitch and timing-based system while retaining many similarities to the combat of the series’ older incarnations.

Combat now takes place in real time, and you only have control over a single character in your three-member group, with the other two being controlled by the computer. Fighting is now a lot like Cyan’s Sword Tech in Final Fantasy 6 in that a bar slowly fills while combat continues on and enemies don’t wait to act, so it’s sometimes prudent to act before letting it fill up entirely (depending on the situation). Your action bar is broken up into small chunks, from 2 in the beginning up to 5 at the end, with different attacks taking up different amounts of the bar. A normal attack costs a single chunk, whereas some of the strongest attacks cost all five. Most cost between 1 and 3, however, and you can either let the game automatically choose your attacks based on your “role” or manually choose them.

Do you like roleplay?

Roles are also a new feature, though “feature” might be pushing it a bit given how limiting they often prove to be. Basically, your characters have a number of different combat roles that are leveled up independently with the “CP”—that being the weird new term for experience—earned from fights. These range from the damage-dealing “Commando” role to the damage-healing Medic role, as well as other roles for strengthening your characters and weakening your enemies. Each character starts with three predetermined roles that can be leveled up, and the skills and magic available to each character is determined by what they’ve unlocked.

This is a bit limiting, though

Characters can only use the spells and skills in a tree when they’re playing that role in combat, meaning a Vanille with a focus on healing spells doesn’t have any healing spells available to her when she’s not playing a Medic role in combat. You can switch your “paradigm,” or player-created combination of each character’s roles, inside of combat, but having to quickly switch your paradigm to have access to healing spells is a bit more cumbersome than it probably should be. However, coming up with clever role combinations that are suited to whatever challenge lies ahead of you is uniquely rewarding.

Combat does have its drawbacks, though. For one, you automatically lose if the character you’re controlling loses all their HP. This remains true even if you have two healthy characters with healing spells that would bring you right back: losing your main character means losing the fight no matter what. This can be a bit irritating in how it removes the margin for error present in previous games that allowed you to continue fighting until all party members were down, forcing you to play a bit more conservatively than you probably would otherwise.

Positioning and timing problems

Another annoyance is that attacks often rely on positioning and timing. For example, if you select four attacks in a row, you’ll sometimes watch your character run up to the target and begin attacking, only to have said enemy back away and leave your character wasting their energy attacking air. I found this most noticeable with flying enemies, and while it’s infrequent enough to not be a huge problem, it’s still a bit frustrating to have a positioning element in a combat system where you can’t manually dictate your position. The timing element is also a bit of a problem, especially since your first paradigm switch in each fight switches each character one at a time, with further shifts in that battle allowing everyone to shift at once. This means that if you’re in dire need of healing magic but haven’t shifted your paradigm yet during that particular encounter, you can actually be killed during the (relatively) lengthy animation. This is just poor design.

With the bad comes equal good

While combat has its downsides, it also removes much of the tedium present in earlier Final Fantasy entries by making combat a much faster experience. Many fights only last between 5-20 seconds, and even most boss fights last mere minutes. Additionally, there are no random battles, with entire groups of enemies being visible while you’re running around an area, and combat is only initiated when you touch them. This means that you can literally run past much of the combat in the game (though you’ll have trouble leveling up your roles if you do), and even when you feel the need to engage an enemy, you know beforehand exactly how many enemies of what type you’ll be facing. I found this to be a refreshing change, personally, as is characters’ health restoring between battles and the lack of a “mana pool” that needs to be managed. All of this helps to make combat slightly less tedious than in previous games.

Another appreciated change is the absence of being “ambushed” by enemies. Preemptive attacks, on the other hand, are still present, though they now rely on player skill; if you can sneak up on an enemy or group of enemies and initiate combat without any of them seeing you, you’ll automatically get a “preemptive strike” that raises all enemies’ chain gauges near the stagger point.

The chain gauge and staggering

As you attack an enemy, its “chain gauge” is slowly filled. When it fills up entirely, that enemy is staggered, which means they take much more damage and can often be launched into the air by someone in a Commando role (if they’ve unlocked the requisite skill), rendering said enemy unable to attack for a time. Some enemies also stop attacking or are only vulnerable when staggered, so it’s a hugely important element in combat. However, the chain gauge depletes over time; attacks by the Ravager class raise the bar quickly, but also cause the bar to quickly deplete, whereas Commandos’ attacks raise the bar by less, but slow down its depletion. Attacking before the bar has depleted completely raises it all the way back up, so you’re often juggling things like healing with the need to avoid an enemy’s chain gauge emptying. Gaining a preemptive strike means all enemies have their bars near their stagger point, so this affords you a huge advantage by allowing you to do a huge amount of damage right off the bat.

That’s all confusing when written out, so here’s what it actually looks like in practice.

This game is hugely linear

You know what? I actually liked the linearity. Sure, Hope and Snow were nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, but the story otherwise seemed to have focus and a pretty good pace. Toward the end of the linear portion of the game, however, the pacing falls apart and forces you to run around a bunch of same-ish looking areas for what feels like far too long. Once you get past that and reach the open map, you’re faced with an entirely different problem: the enemies are suddenly insanely powerful.

Talk about a huge difficulty spike

Final Fantasy 13 is a game defined by its inconsistency, and nothing is quite as inconsistent as the game’s difficulty. It starts out just about right, with all of the enemies providing a bit of a challenge without ever completely overpowering you, but then the open map happens and the game apparently has no idea how powerful you’re supposed to be for the area anymore. You’re suddenly thrust into a wilderness area filled with enemies who can one-shot your entire party, only a few of which you’re actually able to take on. I looked it up online and this is apparently meant to be an end-game area where you’re supposed to avoid the enemies. Even when I did, however, there were periodic spikes in the difficulty later on that would come out of nowhere. One second I would be dominating some little robot guys, only to get into a fight with something else in the same small area that, again, killed all of my characters within seconds.

This difficulty spike carried over all the way to the end of the game, and it probably necessitates doing some tedious grinding if you want to have a less awful time than I did. This is doubly true since branching your favorite characters out of their predetermined three roles to allow for more creative approaches to combat is hugely expensive. For some reason, a character developing a role outside of their predetermined three costs 10-100 times as much CP as it does for the characters with it as one of their three, completely eating any spare experience you have and giving you little back but some weak abilities and stat upgrades.

Upgrading is a chore

Weapon and item upgrading is a thing in Final Fantasy 13, and it more or less replaces buying new weapons. I didn’t count, but I’d guess that each character only has between 5 and 10 weapons available throughout the entire game, forcing you to upgrade what you have instead of saving up for a stronger weapon. Weapons can upgrade up to their max (which could be at level 5, or level 10, or level 60, or any other random level—it never tells you) by using monster drops to level them up, at which point they receive a Chrono Trigger-esque star and can’t be upgraded by normal drops anymore. However, some can be morphed into a new weapon or item using a hugely expensive and rare special item. Others can’t. If you have an item that can upgrade, you don’t have any way of knowing which expensive and rare item actually changes it into a more powerful form, forcing you to waste time and money experimenting to get halfway decent items and weapons. I suppose you could also Google it. Either way, the upgrade system is designed horribly and contributes nothing but frustration and annoyance.

Final Fantasy XIII

Prepare to see these fireworks over and over and over as the game’s characters reminisce about that one night that they all JUST HAPPENED to be present for.

The PC port is terrible

I played this game with an Xbox controller and it felt pretty natural. Playing with the keyboard and mouse, on the other hand, is so counter-intuitive and wrong-feeling that the game’s store page should state that a controller is mandatory if you want to actually enjoy the game’s controls. Nothing illustrates this quite like the fact that the escape key, frequently used in games to open the menu, closes the game without any prompt whatsoever (you actually get to the menu with the E key). This means that you can grind a ton, then go to spend you hard-earned CP, only to instinctively hit the escape key and close the game, losing all your progress.

There are also no graphic options whatsoever. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the game is locked to 720p (a ridiculous 1280×720 resolution). Luckily, the amazing GeDoSaTo tool had a fix for that up almost immediately, and using the tool allows you to run the game at pretty much any resolution you want. However, the game sports some strange graphical oddities and otherwise ugly elements that become obvious at higher resolutions. The most noticeable of these are strange outlines on characters in certain scenes and shadows that are of a very low quality.

The graphics are pretty great

While using GeDoSaTo makes the low quality of some textures obvious, most glaringly those on mountains and the ground during combat, many characters have textures that look amazing at higher resolutions. Taken all together, I’d definitely call Final Fantasy 13 a pretty game. Cutscenes, on the other hand, proved to be a bit of a disappointment. After a PC download of something like 50 gigabytes, I expected more than lossy 720p cutscenes. Granted, some of them look surprisingly good, but most of them look decidedly mediocre.

The music is only okay

There were a few tracks toward the beginning and middle of the game that I really liked, but the music is otherwise fairly forgettable. Worse, there’s a “something emotional is happening” song that plays whenever someone is being dramatic—which is almost always—and it becomes incredibly annoying after awhile. There are a few standout tracks, such as one that sounds like it came straight out of an episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but I walked away feeling that the music was largely lacking, especially compared to earlier Final Fantasy titles.

Here’s what you should do:

Final Fantasy XIII

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