Ten Things I Hate About Final Fantasy XIII
Welcome to the last FF-related article before the big Square Enix conference this week (though not likely to be the last themed post this month).
Previous posts covered a few of the rumored announcements, including the cryptic trademark Type: 0. Today, in light of Square’s most recent (and far more self-explanatory) trademark: Final Fantasy XIII-2, I feel the time was right to talk about my personal feelings regarding the last numbered FF title.
As of this writing, I still haven’t finished the game, which is why I’ve withheld talking about it for so long (I began my blog covering the game during its very, very lengthy development cycle). Even though I haven’t seen the ending, however, there are still plenty of things I can discuss, which brings us to:
Ten Things I Hate About Final Fantasy XIII
What was supposed to be the next big revolutionary step in the long-running RPG series ended up as one of the most divisive titles among fans since Final Fantasy VIII. While I personally found the game to be less disappointing than Final Fantasy XII (an article that remains my most popular debate), it still had its own set of flaws which, ironically enough, puts it to be the polar opposite of Final Fantasy XII; in regards to character development and a coherent story, FFXIII succeeds where its predecessor failed, but as for technical aspects including gameplay and exploration, FFXII ends up a more polished turd.
So what was my beef with this new generation RPG epic? In ascending order, they include….
10. Paradigm Re-Ordering
We can rename Decks, but can't permanently save them. Double standards, indeed
One of the game’s most innovative features is the Paradigm system, which lets you assign specific roles to each of the three characters in your party and save your arrangement in a Deck. While in battle, you can instantly cycle between multiple Paradigm Decks to respond to how the battle pans out: if the enemy has a high defense and you find yourself low on HP, you can bring out a Deck where one party member is healing you, another is de-buffing the enemy’s defense, and the third provokes it to protect the other two as they cast magic.
In battle the Paradigm feature works great; the big problem is that whenever you want to change party members, or even just want to put someone else on the leader role (which is required for summoning, see below), you have to re-do your Paradigm Decks all over again. So if you came up with a full-proof arrangement with your three party members and are too afraid to start over, you basically have no choice but to keep the same group with you at all times.
Too bad the game forces you to change members repeatedly.
9. Random Battles
It's not like the field isn't big enough to battle foes on the spot
If I had to list Final Fantasy XII’s most positive feature, it would be the elimination of random battles. Even with its ridiculously long development cycle, the developers still managed to allow players to face off enemies in real-time and without having to enter a “battle screen”, a feat which was almost impossible to pull off with the PS2. For that they earn my respect.
So why, then, with the Playstation 3 being considerably more powerful and able to hold far more memory with its Blu Ray technology, did FFXIII force us to engage enemies in a separate screen? For a battle system that places a great emphasis on how quickly you can take out enemies, the unskippable process of “tagging” an enemy on the field, having the screens change, the characters load up, along with an arbitrary ranking screen after winning (who cares about rank in an RPG?), those few seconds wasted on battle transitions eventually adds up….if not on total play-time, then certainly on your tolerance level; as catchy as FFXIII’s battle theme is, you’re bound to get sick of it after hearing it loop over for the billionth time.
As if this weren’t archaic enough, the game steps back even further by having defeated enemies merely disintegrate on the spot; we’ve had death animations for monsters since Final Fantasy VIII, why must we be reduced to puffs of black smoke? Taking down a five-story tall Adamantoise after grueling hours of leveling up loses some accomplishment if the creature doesn’t topple over in some spectacular Shadows of the Colossus-like fashion.
8. Lovely Locations Lacking Life
Only an FF heroine could make smelling flowers seem so sexy.
Final Fantasy XIII is a visually stunning game, no doubt about it. In addition to the highly detailed character models, the locations they traverse are filled with oodles of colors and effects: the first time you see Gran Pulse, it’s truly a sigh to behold.
Gran Pulse aside, however, the majority of locations are devoid of life or context; like FFXII, you find yourself following the group moving from one location to another in rapid succession with no real explanation why. One moment in the game has you running around a city that is supposedly heavily populated, but you hardly come across a single person (until the game decides to toss them in during a pivotal moment in the story). You’re moving from one futuristic wonder of a city to the next, and you feel nothing because there isn’t any story to it.
On the plus side, your party members will routinely make comments about their surroundings, a feature I’ve been wanting to see in RPGs for many years now. Aside from a few memorable quips (“everything is so naturey!”, says the ever-adorable Vanille), most of the dialog is simple “oohs” and “ahhs” that are no closer to bringing you to the world of Pulse or Cocoon. A regularly updated database does offer a short description for each area, but that just brings up another beef…
7. Story Requires Extra Reading
Enjoy our dedication to you, our fans! Wait, you're American? HA HA HA HA HA!
Many people claimed that FFXIII’s story was a confusing, head-scratching mess. I was able to keep up just fine, but that was because I took the time to read the game’s database, which explains in tandem all of the important terms in the game, from Fal’Cie to l’Cie.
Here’s the problem though: most people don’t read the supplementary features, at least not until it’s most convenient for them (which usually means “after the game”). It’s why so many folks were confused by Cloud’s mopey personality in Advent Children, which was justified in an obscurely advertised mini novel. FFXIII has the same problem, which includes an audio CD that, of course, was only available in Japan.
I’m not against reading little known facts and details, or just having a handy database to keep track of all the different characters and monsters in the game: if I have to read several pages of exposition just to understand the general plot, then something is seriously amiss here.
I'm gonna take you for a ride (da na da na, da da)
The very second we received footage and screenshots of FFXIII’s new Summons, the forums lit up with the protests of furious fanboys. Personally, I could never figure out what all the fuss was about, as I found the design of the Eidolons to be excellent. Odin transforming into a horse? Shiva twins that form a bike? A billion-armed, gun-toting robot that looks like Terra’s Magitek Armor? Standards may have been raised this generation, but if liking these over-the-top Summons is supposed to be wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
Too bad they’re all useless in battle: while the Eidolons deliver in particle effects and flashy finishing moves, their attacks do a pitiful amount of damage to even the most basic of enemy. To add insult to injury, only the party leader can summon their Eidolon in battle, which means that you’ll have to re-arrange your party every time you want to see a particular Summon in action. And considering that doing so brings us back to complaint #10, you can see why that isn’t the most desirable thing to do.
5. The Upgrading/Shopping System
So confusing, it might as well be in Japanese
The process of buying, selling, and equipping items in an RPG has always been a somewhat tedious practice that was due for streamlining. Previous FF titles tinkered with the idea, such as doing away with armor and focusing on weapons. When hearing how “money didn’t matter” in FFXIII, I took this as a positive sign that the shopping system would be upgraded even further.
Turns out they meant that money didn’t matter because it was now as rare as a Materia that can resurrect Aerith (which doesn’t exist, but feel free to keep looking). You really have to scratch your head over the game’s priorities: they lock most of the battle system and party customization for nearly 30 hours, yet introduce a shop to you right from the start even though it’s impossible to earn enough gil for potions until Gran Pulse.
They only increase the stupid with the upgrade portion, where you use materials from slain enemies to power up your weapons. While this sounds like a good idea in theory, the truth is that there is no difference between each type of material except for an arbitrary amount of points it gives to each weapon and accessory. Since you’re never told what material offers the most points to what kind of weapon, what you have is a literal guessing game of selecting each component, one at a time, and seeing how many points it offers to a character’s weapon. Repeat for every character until you lose your patience and just put everything into Lightning’s sword.
Put simply, the upgrade/shop system in Final Fantasy XIII is the sloppiest in the history of the franchise. Whoever was in charge of this must have gone on to work on Final Fantasy XIV (and hopefully out of a job at this point).
4. Gameplay Did Not Match Expectations
Would you call this Bullvideo, or Bullfootage?
Nearly every company lies about their titles with misleading screenshots (often called “bullshots” by fans) or early trailers that are less representative of actual gameplay and more “proof of concept”. Square is no stranger to this somewhat dirty practice, so when the first couple of trailers of FFXIII, people debated for months whether the footage was real-time or not. While the finished project more or less matched the visuals of those early teasers, its gameplay system was far from accurate.
To refresh your memory, the first E3 trailer dazzled gamers with its fast-paced battle system, as Lightning seamlessly dispatches a group of soldiers using acrobatics, Time and Fire-based spells, and even parts of the environment in one fell swoop. There’s even a mini-map in one shot that seems to suggest that originally the game was to feel real-time field battles. Sadly, the finished game featured none of this fluidity, with Lightning’s anti-gravity doo-dad damaged early on just to add insult to injury.
Truthfully, the game’s battle system is functional as it is, still serving as a quicker, faster, and flashier FF game that hasn’t been seen in prior games (the closest comparison being FFX-2). The problem is that it soon becomes tedious, which is probably why they held back on revealing the full mechanics for much of the game. Once you get the hang of setting up Paradigm Decks, you’ll learn that there isn’t much strategy to battles other than “hit them hard and fast”. Taking out enemies as fast as possible not only yields the most certain victory, but also the most rewards. In-between healing and casting buffs/de-buffs, there’s nothing else to propel the game from monotony after a few hours.
Had they worked in more team-based attacks, magic spells, or any sort of situation that requires you to think of new ways to fight enemies and ultimately keep you on your toes, we could have had a battle system that could be argued as the best in the series. Instead, we’re left with a half-finished concept that’s fun only half the time.
3. Secondary Characters
She probably wouldn't have lasted long, anyway, but still....
The plot of Final Fantasy XII involves a group that’s “on the run”, which means little time for stopping in towns or interacting with NPCs. That said, secondary characters are just as important in moving the story along and help expand the fictional world beyond the initial cast.
Sadly, the majority of allies and enemies fail to gain sufficient development. This is a big shame, as plenty of the side-character seemed strong enough to deserve more than the handful of scenes they were given. Snow’s band of freedom fighters had enough charisma and camaraderie to make them good temporary allies (of which they only do for the first hour of the game), and I’m still surprised Cid didn’t wind up as an actual member of the main group (he could have gone down as one of the series’ best, right next to Highwind and Thunder God).
But the real drag are the villains. Once again, the antagonists are wasted space and are quickly written off as mere obstacles rather than constant threats. Jihl Nabaat, who I once gave the nickname of “Sephironica” to, looked like a potential rival for Lightning (who doesn’t love hot chicks battling each other?), but much like FFXII’s Judge Drace, she’s taken out of the picture before engaging any of the characters. Even if she was closer to Scarlet than Sephiroth, she still seemed like a capable and dangerous enemy, and ultimately more interesting than “Priest who was actually evil #134”.
2. An Unresponsive Camera
If you want underskirt action, just put Fang as the leader
Final Fantasy XIII has what I like to call a “fanservice camera”. This isn’t referring to panty shots and jiggling chests (of which the game lacks the latter, though honestly it would have a plus; Vanille’s motionless top reeks of uncanny valley), but of assuring that we always get the best possible angle to show off every possible detail for each character, along with flowing waterfalls, sky-bound dragons, dilapidated buildings in the distance, and so on.
The problem is that the game is so focused on Lightning’s dimples that it rarely shows you what’s actually important, including enemies, treasure chests, or the path forward. Try sneaking around behind an enemy to get that invaluable preemptive strike, and watch as the camera swivels and swerves to obscure your goal. It makes one long for the fixed perspectives of old.
1. The Longest Tutorial In Gaming History
The hardest you'll ever have to work for a full menu
The most common criticism is also the most heinous: more and more, it seems Square highly underestimates the new generation of gamers, as the tutorials for their games continue to last longer with each new release. Final Fantasy XIII earns the coveted world record for its tutorial, which goes on for a whopping 30 hours, minimum.
This isn’t to say that the game holds your hand that entire time: there are challenging battles and a consistent story during this “training period”. The problem is that even the most gun-shy players who have never touched an RPG could have figured out the battle system in full in just a couple of hours. The fact that the game spends such a long time slowly unraveling bits of the battle system seems practically insulting.
But upon further inspection, it was probably more of an attempt to artificially lengthen the game, which is still a knock on your perception but also a pitiable justification. As mentioned above, the full battle system gets rather dull halfway through, and had everything been unlocked from the start, people might have come to that realization much sooner, to the point that finishing the game would only feel like a chore (though many still gave up once reaching Gran Pulse).
I never thought I would say this, as I’m always someone who wants games to be filled with as much content as possible, but I feel that Final Fantasy XIII would have been a much better game if it were 15 hours shorter. Unlocking the battle system from the start, cutting down on the lengthy dungeon treks while also chopping down the filler (say, reaching Gran Pulse in 2 or 3 hours instead of 30) would have made it a shorter, but also tremendously better experience.
We can only hope that by the time Final Fantasy XIII-2 rolls out (which as of this writing could very well be announced by the time you finish this), these lessons will be applied. Like Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed II, removing the really stupid mechanics and tweaking the ones that worked turned a flawed first attempt into one of the best franchises this generation. With its setting, characters, and gorgeous visuals, FFXIII is capable of reaching that same threshold.