I’m not sure how Square Enix did it, but somehow the storied Japanese developer managed to spend five years developing Final Fantasy XIII and stillÂ leave itÂ unfinished. The game contains gorgeous environments, state-of-the-art CG animation and a deep battle system, but what struck me during my 46-hour play-through was how hollow the experience felt. It’s clear that FFXIII enjoyed the same lavish production values as its predecessors, but the world building and characters were short changed.
This was apparent from the very first chapter. After a stirring assault along the Cocoon highway, we are introduced to some of the thinnest characters I’ve seen in a modern RPG. Sazh just wants to get his son back,* Hope wants to avenge his mother, Lightning and Snow want to help Serah and Vanille just wants to annoy the hell out of me. I kept hoping for more character development, but most of the cast remained paper-thin. Only Vanille (yeah…) and Fang ever received some kind of pathos.
These broad archetypes would not necessarily be problems on their own.Â After all, VI is fondly remembered for its huge roster, but good luck remembering why Umaro needed to take down Kefka. However, it’s never really clear why these characters need each other in the first place. Why was Sazh tagging along with Lightning in the opening assault? Why does Vanille tag along with Hope? Would Sazh really be so quick to forgive Vanille after her betrayal was revealed. Eventually, some of the answers to these questions are made clear, but these characters seem to basically stumble into each others lives with no rhyme or reason. Too often it feels like these connections are explained more in the in-game encyclopedia or loading screen recaps than in the main game.
After adjusting expectations in the first couple chapters, I eventually warmed to the game. You may even remember hearing me offer the game a few kind words every now and then. As someone with limited time for RPGs, I really appreciated the linear design and meaningful battles sprinkled throughout. But if my tone here sounds unusually harsh, that may be because I was under the impression that the game was going somewhere. The story was moving at a decent pace, the battles were requiring more strategy and there was no shortage of pretty stuff to look at. However, I then arrived in Gran Pulse, and I discovered that the Final Fantasy XIII final destination was a grind-intensive hell.
Oh, Gran Pulse. At one point, you were the promised land, the expansive valley that would deliver all of the quests and exploration a l’Cie could ask for. It’s just too bad that you had to torpedo whatever story the game had left to tell in the process. Like FFXII – a personal favorite – Gran Pulse was comprised of several open areas full of monsters and special hunts, but the former game had towns, a wide variety of species and an actual sense of purpose. For a land with such a troubled and tragic history as Gran Pulse, our heroes really didn’t have much to say about it. Even when they get to Oerba Village, where a few key players were raised, none of the characters felt the need to reminisce.
About 10 hours and lots of palette-swapped enemies later, FFXIII comes to an epic conclusion, but the stuff that came before it was so meandering that the final threats are rendered completely trivial. The ending provides the trademark eye-candy, but it couldn’t hope to satisfy after all of the filler that proceeded.
I do feel a little bad for beating up on Final Fantasy XIII. Maybe it sounds funny to label this hugely expensive game an underdog, but as Nick pointed out a couple months back, gamers are quick to dismiss it because Japanese RPGs are no longer in vogue. Despite all its faults, FFXIII‘s attempted streamlining of that formula is something we haven’t seen before. For that reason alone, I’d like to think of this entry as a noble experiment. It’s failure in the end, but considering that Final Fantasy is a long line of experiments, I don’t think we need to worry about the series’ future. I just hope that a single player FFXV doesn’t take another five years to show up!