When I was thirteen years old, I fell ill with a bad case of tonsilitis; my family has a history with the illness and I was no exception to the rule (my sister got the short end of the stick though, usually getting it once a month until she had them removed). I was bed-ridden for six weeks, with nothing but a television and a PlayStation for company, with the occasional visit from my mother, and I had run out of games to play; I didn’t have many games at the time, because I’d only recently got the system.
I remember game magazines everywhere singing the praises of one game, Final Fantasy VII. It was being touted as the ‘must have’ game of PlayStation, an adventure that spanned over three discs with a compelling storyline and over 100 hours of engrossing gameplay; I had to have it. I spoke to my mum about it, and the next day to my surprise, she bought me a copy of it from Tesco, and after that six-hour first session, my gaming life had changed forever. It was the first RPG I had played, and whilst I found the turn based battles unusual at first, I took to it like a fish to water. After scores of hours playing the game, I got better and my tonsilitis had gone, and kept on playing. I eventually got the strategy guide and it opened up a world of opportunities to me (I didn’t have the internet at the time), I felt like this was the ultimate experience in gaming; I experimented with hundreds of Materia combinations, I bred the Gold Chocobo, I defeated both Ruby and Emerald Weapon, and was blown away the first time I witnessed ‘Knights of the Round’.
After I had done all that was to be done (and this brought the play time to a little under 200 hours), I thought to myself ‘this is the seventh game in the series’, and that there were six more Final Fantay games I hadn’t played. I took it upon myself to find them and play them, and now at the age of 24, even though I haven’t played the first Final Fantasy game in its entirity, my mission to unearth this wonderful series was not a waste.
I became a Final Fantasy fanboy.
As time passed by, new Final Fantasy games came out, and of course I was excited by the prospect of playing one of my favourite series, and more excited at the thought of the series only becoming better. Final Fantasy VIII was good, but just a little below par with Final Fantasy VII. There was just something missing with it, whether it was the characters or the new magic system, I don’t know, but whilst I did love it, it didn’t meet the unfeasible high standard of VII.
In May 2006 at E3 in Los Angeles, Square Enix announced Final Fantasy XIII for the PlayStation 3 and showed the first trailer. I was in awe, and I had a reason to blow over £400 on a PS3. For the next few years my eyes were fixed on FFXIII’s development. I saw the game grow and with every mouth-watering new screenshot and trailer I grew more and more excited.
Time passed, and I held my excitement at bay until March 9th 2010 finally arrived, and Final Fantasy XIII was delivered to my door. I had the entire day free, and I intended to dedicate it to Final Fantasy XIII, the game I waited four years for.
By 11pm that evening when I finally decided to turn off my system, I came to a realization; for the past four years, I had been excited for no good reason whatsoever. Final Fantasy XIII was the biggest disappointment in my entire life as a gamer.
The question is; where to begin? In my opinion, this game fails everywhere in being a Final Fantasy game, and came across as nothing more than being an underwhelming JRPG, and here’s why;
In all honesty, I have never disliked a main character in a Final Fantasy game as much as Lightning. Even when in games like Final Fantasy VIII where Squall’s brooding nature could bring you to the point of switching off, the supporting cast could offer some redemption in their differing personalities. VII had Barret, Aerith (for a while at least), Tifa and others, IX’s cast was predominantly likeable, X had Wakka and Auron, and so forth. Final Fantasy XIII had five annoying bastards, and one slightly redeemable character in Fang, who out of all the cast was clearly the most fleshed out, and it’s a shame she wasn’t the lead and had to be accompanied by such one-dimensional personalities. The rest of the cast fell into the remit of stereotypical anime characters; Lightning – the conflicted warrior bound by duty, Snow – the self-proclaimed hero who rallys the troops at their most dire of moments all the while trying to rescue his lost love, Hope – the confused, angsty teen searching for purpose, Sazh – the elder of the bunch looking out for his son, and Vanille… do not get me started on Vanille… the perpetually cheerful, endlessly optimistic cute one of the bunch who never fails to irritate.
It’s not enough that these characters are annoying beyond belief, but their voice actors are equally so (apart from Fang, but Vanille especially). You can’t get through one of the many cutscenes without them bellowing out some annoying gasp, grunt or scream that stands out like a fart in church, but worst of all is that they’re so laughably predictable in their actions; Lightning will be stern as ever, Sazh will make some unfunny sarcastic remark, Vanille will be cheerful, and Snow will build their hopes up again; repeat ad nauseum. Despite Fang being so likeable, it’s hard to look past the presence of these characters. Imagine if on The Office, Steve Carrell was surrounded with the douchebags from The Hills; you’d be waiting around for him to get some screentime, whilst these boring, unlikable stereotypes had their say. It would be intolerable.
Let me be blunt here; the storyline in Final Fantasy XIII is so unbelievably boring. It’s a clichéd tale of the “Chosen few” selected to determine the fate of the world, which has been told a hundred times before in a hundred more interesting ways.
The antagonists have been seen a hundred times before in uninspired games and Hollywood blockbusters. Of all the Final Fantasy games I’ve played, this had the worst ending, and I couldn’t care less what was to become of the characters or the world around them. What’s worse is that they had a staff of writers working four years on this story, and if this is the best they could come up with, they should not be working in the creative industry. I wrote a book in one year and I can say without any ego that there’s more depth in it than Final Fantasy XIII. Yes, it’s a different medium, but that was my first attempt, whereas these people have been doing this for years and get paid for it.
By far, the most important factor and unfortunately, a huge let down. Gone are the scrawling landscapes of past FF games, gone are the dozens of mini-games that you can whittle away time with and earn rewards at the same time, gone is the malleable character development, gone are the wonderfully varied towns and gone are the plentiful weapons and armour. Overall; gone, is everything that made Final Fantasy a great series to begin with.
In the game your battles are a predictable series of actions, as arbitrary as the buttons you have to press in a rhythm game like Guitar Hero. The Paradigm system relegates your party members to one specific function; you can vary these classes to create the right combination for the right time, but a lot of the battles can be won in a simple ‘rinse and repeat’ formula. You get presented with some more interesting scenarios later in the game, but compared to how the game used to allow you to hone your characters as you see fit, it feels more like a fighting game where you’ll never develop beyond your pre-determined skill set.
Even if you do want to ‘personalize’ the battle in some way, it’s not the best option; the creators felt it best to sacrifice control in place of style. Even though you can dictate the actions of the party through the Paradigm system, the only way you can feasibly keep up with the pace of the battle is by using the ‘Auto-Battle’ function, which picks the best course of action for your party member, and it’s not always the best choice. You have to rely on this system if you want to survive; if they toned down the pace of battle even a little bit, you could’ve withstood the action whilst plotting the course of battle, but with all that flair comes sacrifice, and in this case it was ‘choice’.
One of my biggest peeves with the game is its structure; whilst the majority of the game follows a linear course, and it holds your hand through what has to be the longest ever video game tutorial (over 30 hours, which could’ve easily been compressed into two or three hours), when it comes to the point you’re allowed some form of free rein it has so many curveballs. When you’re released control of your party and allowed to explored the world of Gran Pulse, a land littered with numerous monsters and tasks, even if you’ve developed your characters to the furthest point possible (oh yes, your development is capped at certain points, so even if you want to level grind you’re left waiting for the cap to be removed), you’ll find the vast majority of the creatures roaming the land can simply not be defeated, and there’s no indication that they may be too tough for you.
It’s disheartening to lose so much when you’ve gotten so far, and makes you feel like you might have done something wrong along the way. In games like Shadow of the Colossus where all the odds seem stacked against you, you know there’s a way you can get around this and triumph adversity; that’s what makes a great challenge. Encountering a foe that you simply cannot defeat no matter how strong you are is just a kick to the balls. Not only that, but you get these undefeatable enemies peppered throughout the main course of the game; but why even put these there when the levels have been capped? It’s bad design, and even after buying the strategy guide I thought there may be a way to defeat them, but no, all I got was ‘You may want to avoid this enemy, because you won’t be able to defeat him yet’. What a load of crap.
I could honestly go on, at this point I’m already at nearly 2,000 words and I’m sure I could write 4,000 more about how inept this game is, but what I have to say is this; Square Enix, you have broken my heart, and turned a brilliant franchise into an underwhelming and stereotypical JRPG, and in my opinion it serves as a prime example of the ailing Japanese gaming industry. It’s a game that had to dumb itself down so it became accessible to the uninitiated, and for a culture so intent on offering fan-service, it offers little to none, and that fan-service was something that made the series so great to begin with. Final Fantasy XIII has sold millions, and regardless of whether it was going to be bad or good, it was going to succeed, because fanboys like me love the series. I feel that instead, Square Enix grew paranoid along the way that it would fail, and that to succeed it needed to be accepted by the masses, so everything that made the experience of a great Final Fantasy game like the character experimentation, and exploration and the mini-games had to go, but that’s what made Final Fantasy great.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Final Fantasy XIII’s a bad game, but after years of playing the series and experiencing several incarnations which all have that same feel and charm but at the same time are so different to each other, I expected more. Maybe I’m to blame though; maybe my expectations were just far too high. I can admit I’ll probably never feel that same affinity with a Final Fantasy game that I had in those long but wonderful six weeks I spent bed-ridden, alone with Final Fantasy VII, but I have evolved as a gamer, as has the industry, and Square Enix have done the series and its fans a huge disservice with Final Fantasy XIII. I know I’ll be back for more when the next singleplayer Final Fantasy is released (XIV will be an MMORPG), and I hope for their own good, Square Enix will have listened to their fans, because I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed this time, and if other Final Fantasy fans don’t want to be ‘once bitten, twice a shy’ I hope they won’t stand for this too.