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Published July 6, 2010

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 still leave it 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.  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!


  1. Jard Jard

    i’ll offer a single line of defense for this game: I think it’s unreasonable to expect an RPG to spoonfeed you character development and story. that R there means, to a certain extent, you’re trying to get inside the brain of your main characters, and cutscenes are increasingly proving ineffective as compared to the more low-tech explore and discover methods. That being said, clearly FF13 doesn’t offer those either, so it failed on both counts.

    The thing about underdogs is: all it means is they’re not expected to win, and most people root for them as a result. You can root for JRPGs all you want, but american development houses are going to TKO them every time until the landscape shifts again.

  2. I’m not asking SE to spoonfeed me character development. I think that can happen organically over the course of the game, much as it would in a movie or book (since that’s how cutscenes primarily operate). My problem is that the characters in FFXIII are static. Outside of Hope and maybe Vanille, none of them seem to change at all over 40+ hours. I think that problem has little to do with the format and more to do with lazy writings.

    I also don’t think that JRPGs have “lost” or will “lose.” Certainly, as Western RPGs have gained popularity, the cutscene/turn-based model has become a niche, but I still think there’s an audience for that. Again, my issue is not with the method of storytelling, but rather the story we’re being told. I think games like the underrated Lost Odyssey, MGS3 and more recently Heavy Rain have worked well despite the limited interactivity. I can see why the less “gamey” aspects turn people off, but they can still offer engaging experiences.

  3. Jard Jard

    I mention it because single player RPGs and MMO rpgs are sort of beginning to converge as each takes on aspects of the other. it’s possible for MMOs, while also being non-linear grindfests, to have a great deal of depth of story… but sort of hidden in little pockets of the world. the story is delivered in a convincing and impassive world that the player explores rather than delievered to the player as they progress through a static story.

    as to “who will win”, modern JRPGs seem to be both failing to innovate _AND_ failing to improve upon rehashed concepts, you have to do at least one well in order to make a game that’s engaging. When he first started drawing, Charles Schulz was revolutionary because nobody had ever made children talk like adults. It was groundbreaking, but seems utterly dated today. The same goes for JRPGs, for a period of time they created the joy of an RPG that spoke to us better than american contemporaries like Might and Magic or even fully text-based RPGs, they did something unheard of by focusing on certain aspects of role playing games. But ever since bioware started making Baldur’s Gate they’ve demonstrated that any number of american houses can develop something that does circles around Square-Enix.

  4. You’re welcome? Sorry, but I don’t see exactly what I spoiled here. Seems sufficiently vague to me.

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