Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

10 Bad Things About Final Fantasy XIII

As promised on Wednesday, if a bit late, today’s post will be all about bad things in Final Fantasy XIII – ten of them, in fact. If you’d rather read a positive view on the game, go ahead and read Wednesday’s post. Today will be all negative and reveal some mistakes one would absolutely avoid when making games. Note that these are, as always, subjective, incomplete, and in no particular order at all.

Can I Play the Game Yet?

The first couple of hours of Final Fantasy XIII are extremely tedious and boring. You know, we players aren't THAT stupid, but we sure are an impatient bunch.

Might as well get the elephant out of the room first. The game starts off in the absolute slowest way I’ve ever seen in a video game. For what literally took me hours to complete the only action (pretty much) available to you in the combat system is “attack” and even when you start gaining other abilities, the combat system makes it so that simply hitting the X button over and over against the most effective way to fight any enemy. These other abilities are introduced at an absolutely glacial pace. You do get quite a few members for your party early on, but they all play exactly the same at that point.

Even after paradigm shifts finally get introduced and your characters develop a bit to allow for some actual decisions to be made, the game keeps on taking you by the hand, making absolutely sure that you never get the chance to get lost in it. Many a player has stopped playing the game before the initial intro phase was done simply because the game is incredibly boring at that point. If it hadn’t been for the pretty graphics and the interesting setting I myself wouldn’t have moved past the first few hours.

Don’t Split the Party

For a long part of the game you don’t actually get to choose the members of your party. The game pretty much arbitrarily presents you with preset groups instead that you have to use. These are very loosely based in the story (see below) but their general intent seems to be to make sure you get to know each and every member of your party and their abilities. In some games this might be a good way to shed light on a story from multiple points of view, but in Final Fantasy XIII it is simply annoying. I always take a liking to some characters while disliking others – be it due to playstyle, behaviour, or even looks. It’s not a whole lot of fun to see the cool characters being taken away from me over and over again while I have to play someone annoying.

But what’s worse is that you have to make character-bound decisions in resource allocation such as which weapon to upgrade and who to buy new items for but you never know when you will get to play that character next. It is incredibly annoying to pump a lot of resources into a party member that you won’t be able to play for the next two chapters simply because the developers thought that appropriate.

To be fair, these fixed party shenanigans end at a certain point in the story from were on you can freely choose which party to use. Still they annoyed me for hours and hours – surely that’s a bad thing?

The Gameplay is Mightier Than the Story

Most games bend the story around the gameplay because the latter is more important for a game, but I’ve rarely seen one do that as bluntly as Final Fantasy XIII does it. I’ve already mentioned the changes in party composition above. Sometimes these make sense because the party gets split up due to some event, but in most cases the reasons are really awful. Characters will throw random hissy-fits and stay behind for a while or even simply go “I’ll lead now” and make themselves party leader.

Boss fights are even worse. The designers placed boss fights where they deemed appropriate and then apparently just took whatever character they had at hand and made the party fight them. Be prepared to fight pretty much everyone in the game, be it good guys or bad guys. Oftentimes a harebrained excuse is made as to why one has to fight this particular person that was a friend mere seconds ago, at other times there is no explanation at all.

These two ladies transform into a motorcycle on demand. (image: IGN)

Another example would be the Eidolon battles. Each character has a special transformer friend that can be summoned on demand but these need to be unlocked first (by fighting the friendly helper, of course). In the story these Eidolons appear in a moment of emotional crisis of the individual characters – meaning that the writers had to add one such moment into the story for each member of your party. Most of the time these feel incredibly forced – a character will decide from one second to the next that life is awful (or that the others are weak and must be left behind) for no reason at all. The Eidolon will appear, be fought and beaten, and then the character will be all roses and sunshine again.

Writing

The above section already shows some weaknesses in storytelling, but the writing in general is just awful. The party members all but scream out their character and their current mood whenever they feel that the camera is watching them. “I’m a cute schoolgirl that likes to run away a lot and has a dark secret.” is a line that I would hardly be surprised to hear a certain character say in the game. Each character seems to wear his or her description from the design manuscript stamped squarely across his or her forehead and has to spout it out at every opportune moment. There’s no subtlety at all and very little characterization through action. I would be quite surprised if there were actual professional writers involved in the production of the game. If you put your game on a huge pillar of storytelling and cutscenes instead of gameplay, at least make sure you do that correctly.

Linear Character Progression

Throughout your adventures you will gather so-called crystarium points that can be spent on advancing the combat prowess of your characters. Each of them has three specializations that points can be sunk into (for most of the game) in order to acquire new abilities or raise strength, magic, or health points of the character. These specializations do branch from time to time, leaving you with the choice of path to take. Alas, all branches but one are always a dead end so the choice is less one of which direction to take but rather whether you have the points to spare to buy the improvements in the dead end as well. And you will have the points, loads of them. It was only very late in the game that I ever had trouble filling up all three specializations to the maximum, and even that is something that is easily fixed by grinding some monsters or doing some side-quests. Overall you simply get points that make your character stronger and all the choices are superficial because you will get all the improvements anyway. You never really get the choice of focusing a character more on, say, healing instead of damage dealing because you’ll just pick both anyway. As it is, the system might as well not exist at all. Quite a shame, considering what could be done with it if used properly – with limited points to spend and proper branches in the trees.

Artificial Extension

Lightning's crystarium for the ravager role. A lot less complicated than it may look.

The game is absolutely linear for the most part until you get to a certain region in which you suddenly get the ability of doing all sorts of side-quests. By “all sorts” I mean “exactly one type” of course since that is all that exists in the game. There are sixty-some side-quests in the game, each and everyone being a seek and destroy mission. Go to this point on the map and kill monster X that we conveniently spawned for you there. What’s less convenient is that these monsters are often far away from the place were you got the quest and you will find yourself fighting through monsters you’ve already killed countless times before just to get to the target of your mission. Then you’ll have to fight them all again on the way back due to the way that respawns work in the game.

Missions are also spread very thin, can mostly just be completed in order, and are limited to one being active at a time. If you don’t want to look the position of the missions up on the internet you’d better be prepared to spend some hours searching for the next active quest. Some of these can be done while playing through the story while another aprt is pretty much considered to be Final Fatasy XIII’s lategame. Once you beat the final boss of the game you can spawn back before you killed it with an extension to your crystarium (the skill tree I talked about before) and go out and do missions that give you further experience, money, and items and eventually lead to some “secret” super bosses that are way harder than the final boss of the game. This is pretty much just a huge grind with a couple of more or less interesting boss fights (fully re-used art assets, little to no story) sprinkled in for good measure. Me, I really can’t be arsed to grind a single player game for hours and hours after beating the final boss just to get my party even stronger for no purpose at all. Give me new game plus over this stuff anytime.

The Upgrading System

You will find a million and one different components throughout the game that can be used to upgrade your items. These are split into three categories – items that provide a lot of item experience, items that increase the experience multiplier of an item, and catalysts that are needed to transform an item into a new form. In general an item needs a certain amount of “experience” points spent on it in order to level up and after a certain amount of levels it can be transformed into a new and improved form. So far this is quite enjoyable, but the sheer amount of virtually identical but differently named items in those categories, especially the first two, is annoying. There are dozens of different items that can all be used to increase the experience multiplier of your item, some being a bit better at that than others. The differences are small but exist and are not indicated everywhere. This gives you three options – you can carefully experiment and write down your findings (which the game really should do for you), you can look up the most efficient materials on the internet, or you can simply ignore the small difference and accept that you aren’t upgrading optimally (which I did). Either way the system adds nothing to gameplay but just fills your inventory with all sorts of stuff instead of keeping it nice and clean. And how on earth does adding a thousand “sinister fangs” do the same to my weapons as adding a single “ultracompact reactor”?

Real-Time Menus

My controller has all these buttons. May I use them please?

All combat in Final Fantasy XIII is done through menus with a time limit for completing your selection. You can, in theory, choose all the abilities your controlled character uses personally, but that would require you to select them from a set of menus while the clock is ticking. At least for me this is almost impossible to do, especially because menu items switch their positions all the time when new ones are added or the main character changes. This degrades combat to using the auto-attack function (which still needs to be selected from the menu) and using paradigm shifts to control the behaviour of the party – which also need to be selected from a menu. There are even buttons on my controller that aren’t used by the game at all and there is no use of combinations whatsoever. Surely there must be a better way to control the game than through menus? How about linking paradigm settings directly to button setups for the main character – if at all possible open for selection through the player? However you do it, making me frantically select something from a two-dimensional menu is not the way.

Pointless Slaughter

At many times in the game your party will be misunderstood and fought by enemies that actually are on the good side. There will be the odd cutscene in which a party member shows mercy to an enemy, but for the most part you are just slaughtering everyone. Enemy (misguided) soldiers fighting an awful beast from another planet? Let’s go in and kill all of them because we are the heroes! A motorcycle race in honor of the new leader of humanity? How about jumping right in, causing some explosions, killing a couple of drivers and generally laying waste to the city? They cheered for the bad guy after all, even though they didn’t know it.

Additionally, enemies know absolutely no fear. Even if you are way stronger than they are they will still attack you when you get close and never ever move out of the way. This annoys me as a player because I have to fight pointless fights wasting my time while there is absolutely no chance of me dying (or getting something less than a five star rating for the fight.)

No Decision Making Whatsoever

The plot of the game is 100% linear without any possibility on your side to influence it. Just like in God of War and similar games you either win fights and advance in the story or you don’t and have to retry. There are no alternate ways to solve problems, no moral decisions to make, no alternate endings or modifiable relationships between party members – none of that good stuff we are so used to from modern RPGs. I criticized Mass Effect 2 for a lack of meaningful decision making, but when compared to Final Fantasy XIII even Mass Effect 2 is incredible in that regard. Can we even call this game a role-playing game when there is absolutely no role to play? Final Fantasy XIII seems closer to a game of the Diablo series in this regard – a game that only had a few role-playing elements (character progression, itemization) but no actual role-play. Diablo type games are usually referred to as action-RPGs but that description hardly fits for FF XIII either. Looks to me as if the JRPG has made no advancement in this regard at all since the era of Secret of Mana and Chronotrigger. Admittedly I have little knowledge of other JRPGs – are there examples to the contrary or is this just how the genre rolls?

Conclusions

There you have it, twenty things about Final Fantasy XIII – ten good, ten bad. Overall I enjoyed playing the game, but it isn’t exactly one of the great games of the year. As usual my posts may look balanced (with exactly as many good points as bad ones) but I must say that it was much easier to find ten bad things to say about the game. If you do think about picking it up, make sure you look past the first three to five hours of gameplay before tossing it – those really are tedious.

  • I agree with you on the writing and decision making. As much as I love the Final Fantasy worlds and art, the role playing is and always has been limited to choosing what type of damage you want to use. To me that’s no role at all.
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