What’s Wrong With Final Fantasy XIII?   Leave a comment

To be quite honest, I’m having a hard time remembering what it was like to be excited for this game. Final Fantasy has been a defining part of my childhood; I remember a good friend of mine introducing me to the series with Final Fantasy VII, thinking that the graphics looked silly… but soon becoming engrossed by what I saw at the time as a strange but intriguing combat system (“Wait, you use menus?!”) and its engaging story. Final Fantasy VIII impressed me with its new “modern” graphics, and Final Fantasy IX was the first one that I would own myself. It took me a long time to get to Final Fantasy X, but that became the first game to (embarrassingly enough) make me cry.

Playing through all of these games years later, I could see the various flaws throughout: VII was technically rough around the edges and a bit juvenile, VIII had a bizarre and overly complicated storyline in its latter portions, IX tended to drag on in certain chapters, X suffered from having a lot of less-than-great firsts (voice acting, multiple composers making for a lack of cohesiveness in the music department, fully 3D, new console)… but I could still look past the many flaws and see a masterpiece of storytelling and gameplay at the core of each.

I really wanted to see these qualities in Final Fantasy XIII, the first (and, at this rate, perhaps only) full, numbered Final Fantasy title of this console generation, and at first I tried to convince myself that they were there. Alright, I can dig this soundtrack… the battle system is pretty fun once it’s finally fully unlocked… some of the characters aren’t too obnoxious… But once all of the nostalgia and expectations wore off and I beat the game and saw its ending for what it was (an inane mess of deux ex machina BS that hardly even pretends to tie up loose ends or reach a satisfying conclusion), I soon began to realize the game’s biggest problem.

It’s all potential and no payoff.

Final Fantasy XIII has an enormous amount of potential. Right off the bat, it’s flashy and cool. It has fantastic graphics. The music is a compelling mix of minimalism, electronica/rock, and neo-romanticism, with other flavors thrown in at various moments (Folk/jazz/funk?! Alright!). It jumps right into the action, and the storyline is, in true Final Fantasy fashion, very complex. But in every key area, none of this potential really pays off.

Storyline

The story in XIII starts off interestingly (and overly complicated) enough, in usual, standard Final Fantasy style. But it soon begins a rapid decline. The game throws us right into the middle of the plot, and remains pretty fast-paced for the first couple of hours, but soon the main characters split ways and the story devolves into a series of flashback cutscenes that explain the events leading up to the game’s first chapter. It almost gives us something to look forward to between running down long corridors and fighting hordes of slowly increasingly strong monsters, and they do reveal a lot about what’s going on, but really it’s just bad storytelling. It makes it feel like we already missed out on all of this action, and now there’s nothing to look forward to.

Somewhere near the middle of the game, they story gets going again, and it feels like we’re starting to go some places with these characters. But then, we’re thrown a total curveball nutso plot twist and thrown into a semi-open-world, which in this case just means the plot completely derails into lala-land with little to no direction. In the final chapters the story begins to once again tease us into thinking great things are coming, but it slows and subsides once again into contrived, convoluted repetition.

And don’t even get me started on that ending.

Characters

Every Final Fantasy has at least one character that fans disliked. Pretty much every character was that character in this game, with the exception of Sazh, and even he didn’t have many redeeming qualities. This isn’t even one of those cases where you’re supposed to dislike the characters. It was like Square-Enix tried so hard to make a likeable and diverse cast, but instead made one big happy family of walking archetypes stereotypes. While I don’t think I disliked the characters as much as most fans and critics did, they all got on my nerves multiple times throughout the game in their own maniacal little ways.

Wasted Potential

I think the worst part about the game is how much it led me on and made me actually want it to be better than it was. The music was generally great (with a few notable exceptions), but was often misused and stuck in places where it plainly did not fit. The characters’ designs seem like they started in the right place and could have been interesting and likeable and their dynamics more human. The story could have taken different turns and the pacing improved; it could have been less bait-and-switch. The battle system is probably the most satisfying part of the game, but even it could have been improved in a vast variety of ways.

And yet still, for the past few weeks, every night before falling asleep, I’ve been switching on my PS3 and booting up Final Fantasy XIII. I’m still not quite sure why. Maybe I keep seeing its potential and wishing it could have been fulfilled. Maybe I’m seeing past its flaws and looking deep into its core and seeing a great game there, just waiting to be seen by those that look hard enough, those that see a long legacy of great games behind it, a game that both pays homage to and continues to evolve in a way that keeps it relevant in today’s more fast-paced and higher-stakes world of AAA console gaming.

Or maybe it’s just good at putting me to sleep, in the worst possible way.

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