Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Final Fantasy 13 Review


In my quest to play every Final Fantasy game, I was particularly excited to try Final Fantasy 13 because it's one of the most divisive entries in the series. Now that I've finished the game, I can see why that is: even my own feelings on 13 are very conflicted.

Structure:
Final Fantasy 13 presents a distillation of modern Final Fantasy: the game is broken into 13 chapters, each of which consists of battles, cut scenes, and short walks in between. The level design is almost completely linear with little opportunity for exploration. There are no NPCs, towns, and very limited side quests. 

The bright side of this linearity is that that for the first 10 chapters of the campaign, the game always knows exactly which items, characters, and abilities you have at any given moment. This makes for well-balanced boss battles that are challenging and strategic yet require no grinding or item farming to come out on top. This linear design also makes the pacing of the game feel fairly quick since you're always making forward progress in the campaign. The negative side of the linear structure is that once you've fought every possible permutation of a given area's enemies, the gameplay is essentially a rinse and repeat cycle until you reach the chapter boss. As a result, I found myself excited to start a new chapter to see a new area and encounter a new mix of enemies (as well as advance the plot), only to start getting bored around the chapter midpoint as the game became repetitive again.

In Chapter 11, the game attempts to change things up by introducing a few non-linear areas to explore. This initially feels very freeing and dovetails nicely with the game's themes of free will and fate (more on that later). Unfortunately, this freedom comes at a heavy cost to the game's pacing and balance. The non-linear areas introduce the opportunity to take on sidequests in the form of hunts (i.e. taking down a specific type of enemy). The problem with this is, after spending 35 hours to get to this point (much of which was spent in battle), the prospect of taking on entirely combat-based sidequests was not particularly appealing to me. Since the non-linear areas and sidequests increase opportunities for grinding, the game makes enemies, especially bosses, extra spongey going forward to compensate. This dragged battles out and slowed the game's pacing to a crawl. By the time I neared the end Chapter 11, I was so burnt out that I ended up dropping the game difficulty to Easy and activating a few cheats to shorten or skip battles so that I could speed through the rest of the game and get to the ending.

Systems:
Regarding the battle system itself, FF13 uses an interesting sped up variant of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system from previous games in the series in conjunction with a unique take on class-based strategy. The AI controls all but one character in the party, so much of the control the player has comes in the form of mid-battle character class changes (think a fusion of FF10-2 and FF12). By changing between different sets of classes called Paradigms, your party can switch between offensive and defensive tactics nearly instantaneously. Observing the enemy to time your tactical transitions and selecting the right combinations of classes for your Paradigms is the core of the battle strategy. The game initially restricts the characters and abilities you can use, which makes battles feel kind of dull, but once the combat system opens up (in about the 3rd chapter), I found this system to be one of the most engaging in the series, at least for the first 35 hours or so. 

Spending so much time with this battle system got me thinking: With a timing and speed-based ATB system, is rapidly navigating combat menus really all that different from an action-based system? I wonder if a similar line of thinking is what lead the FF series to true action combat in later entries such as 15 and 7R. The other thing that struck me is that the way this game focuses heavily on combat and gives you a star rating after each encounter, I couldn't help but be reminded of Mobius Final Fantasy, which debuted smartphones a few years after the release of this game.

Final Fantasy 13's other system is its character upgrade system. Instead of earning XP and money from battle, spoils come in the form of crystal points (CP) and crafting materials. CP is a pretty straight forward system that unlocks stat increases and abilities along a skill tree for each characters' classes (similar to Final Fantasy 10). Crafting, however, is a needlessly fiddly system that involves dumping monster claws and minerals and such into your weapons to level them up. Often this involves using hundreds of craft items or combining them via trial and error to see what yields the most upgrade points. Using crafting materials in a suboptimal manner could mean having to grind for more crafting material later on to fully upgrade a handful of your preferred weapons in preparation for the endgame. I found this to be so tedious that I largely avoided it for most of the game. When I broke down and used cheats in Chapter 11, I gave myself unlimited crafting supplies so that I could knock out all the upgrading in one shot and not have to deal with it again.

Artistic Qualities:
Final Fantasy 13 drops you straight into the story with very little in-game explanation of what's going on. The game also throws lots of jargon at you from the get-go. The game's way of bringing the player up to speed is that after every cutscene, a "datalog" in unlocked within the menu screen. These text documents explain the backstory of each character, define terminology, and provide context for the story. I can't really decide how I feel about this "watch the lecture and then do the homework" format. Would I have preferred lengthy scenes of characters standing around explaining things to each other, or an omniscient narrator offering context before each story beat? Not really, but I still have to image a more elegant solution exists.

The crux of the story is that our heroes have been tasked by a god-like being to destroy the world; if they fail to comply they will be turned into mindless zombies. From there the characters spend the rest of the adventure struggling with their fate while on the run from the authorities that are aware of their divinely-assigned task. Each of the game's six characters also has their own personal struggles that cover topics such as family discord, prejudice, and revenge. The characters are fairly one-note and the execution of both the larger and smaller stories can be pretty clumsy at times, but I still found myself generally invested in each cutscene and interested to see what would happen next.

In terms of aesthetics, Final Fantasy 13 is visually and aurally stunning. Even though this game is nearly a decade old, it offers some incredible vistas in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes that I could only describe as resplendent. I never would have guessed I'd be mashing the F12 (screenshot) key nearly so frequently in a game of this age. The music may be less varied than some earlier Final Fantasies, but the main pieces that play throughout the game sound great and this game's battle theme stands as one of my favorites in the series.

Conclusion:
Final Fantasy 13 presents itself as a streamlined Final Fantasy experience but still takes over 50 hours to complete. The combat, graphics, and music are all high quality and could have easily sustained a 20-30 hour game, but are just not substantial enough to keep a game of 13's length engaging the whole way through (as evidenced by the shortcuts I felt compelled to take). As a Final Fantasy fan, I felt like playing this game was still a worthwhile experience and would recommend that other fans give it a shot with an open mind. However, to general RPG fans, I'm not sure Final Fantasy 13 offers what they would be looking for.

Score: 
Completion Time: 54 hours

Note: With this game completed, I now only have Final Fantasies 1, 2, 14, and 15 left. I will likely play 1 next since I like to alternate between retro and modern entries. At this point, I'm not sure if/when I'll play the direct sequels to FF13. I would be curious to hear what readers who have played the FF13 sequels think of them.






6 comments:

  1. I find it interesting that you didn't talk about the characters and how you felt about them, because, OMG, they nearly drove me insane.

    Maybe I just wasn't prepared because I hadn't played a FF title before (actually I didn't play this one either, I watched as my GF played it), but those characters are the most irritating I've ever had the displeasure to watch. I wanted to punch them in the face basically all the time.

    It can't be because I just dislike Japanese storytelling. I've watched numerous Anime and also played FFXIV a lot, and there I didn't have this issue at all...

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    1. Good point. I guess I only gave the characters passing mention since this post was running a little long, so I decided to mostly focus on mechanics/gameplay with this review (which is usually my angle with reviews anyway).
      Like everything else in FF13, the characters for me were a mixed bag. While they're mostly one-dimensional characters, I feel like there's at least some balance in the party between the plucky/optimistic ones (Vanille, Snow) and the more serious/dour ones (Lightning, Fang) such that I feel pretty neutral about the cast... with two exceptions. I'm right there with you on Hope; I found his whiny attitude to be pretty irritating, especially in the first half of the game. On the positive side, there's Sazh. Him being a grief-stricken single father who transitions back and forth between despair and denial made him feel like the most real person in the crew by a long shot. Also, he has a cute baby chocobo as a pet; what's not to like?
      Did your GF feel the same way about the characters that you did? I'm curious if they seem different depending on whether or not you're the one playing vs simply observing.

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    2. That's a very interesting question. She indeed felt much less strongly about the characters than I did.

      At the time I attributed it to the fact that she had played a couple FF games before, but maybe she felt differently because the gameplay occupied her enough to not be as focused on the story as I was.

      I indeed hated Hope the most btw. :-)

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    3. I love me some Japanese storytelling but I still found the characters really one dimensional and annoying. Only Lightning was ok.

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  2. It was definitely a mixed bag but also was hurt by the hype before release. Ultimately, it was an ok game with some fun mechanics that as you said gets old after a while and pretty lackluster story. At least the JP VA wasn't cringe like the English track.

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    1. I could see how pre-release hype would hurt this game; especially if marketing materials misrepresented it as a game with an open world. For me, FF13 came out during my gaming Rip van Winkle phase, so I missed all the hype but vaguely remember some friends griping about it. I also had the benefit before I started this game that one of my Twitter pals set my expectations by saying "Don't play FF13 waiting for it to 'open up'; it doesn't. Just try to enjoy it for what it is."

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