This review was originally published 09/14/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
This game makes me feel like poor Yorda.
The "Final Fantasy" name is synonymous with "quality." The idea that any FF game could ever be bad is tantamount to gaming blasphemy. The reputation is well-deserved, as the franchise has consistently provided incredibly compelling characters and story with rich, interesting worlds, and deep customization and character development options. The franchise has completely reshaped the fantasy role playing world. With Final Fantasy XIII, the developers took some radical new directions in every aspect of the game.
Unfortunately, these changes severely hurt the game, since they practically take away the need for the player to do much of anything. It reminded me of being Yorda, being grabbed by the hand and dragged around by Ico all over the castle. In fact, the game could be considered a whole new genre: the "On-Rails RPG."
Brings finality to gameplay
Visually, the game is stunning. Character models and environments are incredibly detailed and lifelike, the special effects are undeniably gorgeous (and in full 1080p on PS3s!), and the visuals on-screen are matched with quality voice-acting. But pretty visuals and nice voice acting can only go so far. After all, we’re still playing a game, and Final Fantasy XIII does itself no favors by giving the player virtually nothing to actually do when playing. Battles typically devolve into tapping the X button to "Auto Battle" when your turn comes up, occasionally stopping to change paradigms. You only control one character, so all the other characters are completely AI-controlled, and you have absolutely no say in what they do at any given time, aside from assigning them generic roles based on pre-created "Paradigms."
And even if you do want to manually control your character, the combat speed is so fast, that you’ll just end up wasting a whole turn’s worth of time scrolling through the menus. It would also be nice to have a chance to read some of the descriptions for actions and abilities when selecting them in battle, but doing so just might get your character killed. However, this can be somewhat alleviated by switching the Battle Speed to "Slow" in the Settings screen. Or at least, it WOULD, if not for the fact that target times for battles don’t increase to accommodate this setting. So setting Speed to "Slow" will net you a lower average rating, and less rare loot and Technical Points. Some people argue that this is a "punishment" from Square-Enix since the game is not intended to be played at a slower pace. I guess that’s a valid argument, but I think the slower pace makes the game more enjoyable since you can actually see what’s going on, so it all comes down to preference. I think not adjusting target times up for the Slower speed is a point against the game, as the developers seemed to do everything possible to make the game as non-interactive as possible.
The battle system is full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
The battle system is further hampered by being overly simplified. Every character’s HP is restored after each battle, so you don’t have to worry about keeping your party healthy during combat. Only alive. The AI-controlled party members do a good job in their roles, although the Medic character seems to focus too much on casting cure and never bothers to revive a KO’d ally unless both surviving characters are at 100% health. But then again, the game doesn’t have MP, and health doesn’t carry over, so the AI party members are free to do whatever attacks or use whatever magic they want without risking using up available resources. So yeah, the AI does a good job, but the combat system is so "dumbed-down" that they really don’t have much to think about to begin with.
The combat also suffers from the fact that once your character (the party leader) is KO’d, the game is over. Granted, you just start over right before the same battle, but it’s annoying. Especially considering that it just doesn’t make sense within the context of the story. In a very large chunk of the first part of the game, your party is split up into 2 or 3 parties of just 1 or 2 characters. You take turns controlling every character as they pair off and develop a rapport with one another. So every character has a turn at being the "party leader." Every character demonstrates that they are fully capable of leading the party and healing/reviving other characters. But yet, if at any time, the leader is KO’d, none of the other characters are able to revive him or her. It makes NO sense. What is the point of making every character lead the party if they’re not going to be able to use what they’ve learned to aid the party when not leading it?
Also, defeating enemies often requires you to chain combos together in order to "stagger" them and create a damage multiplier. This is a nice addition, and adds depth to combat, but you never have to worry about YOUR characters being staggered, which I think is a huge missed opportunity, as it would have given a lot more strategy to the game’s combat.
It’s half game, half tutorial
The majority of the game is VERY easy, but with very sudden and very sharp spikes in difficulty (i.e. Bosses). Unlike the hordes of enemies who claim to do so, Bosses really do deliver "devastating attacks." But the strength of the bosses isn’t the thing that really makes them hard. The real problem is that they have very powerful area-of-effect (AoE) attacks, and your whole party (even if they know what attacks the boss uses) insists on always grouping very closely together, effectively maximizing the amount of damage the party as a whole receives. It’s one element of the game’s battle AI that is VERY poorly implemented, and you as the player have absolutely NO control over where your character stands. Even attempting to cast Cure (a ranged magic ability) usually causes your characters to walk towards each other, opening them up to being hit with an AoE spell once again.
Character development is capped in each chapter, so you can't power-level. Not that you'd need to...
Character development doesn’t require much more effort from the user either. Characters have only TWO attributes. That’s right, just TWO: Strength and Magic. No Agility. No Stamina. No Intelligence. No Accuracy. No Wisdom. Not even Luck. Just Strength and Magic. Well, and Hit Points. OK, so maybe 3 attributes. For the first half of the game, development is capped in each Chapter, and only a few roles for each character are available at any given time. I often have enough CP (experience points) left over from the last area that I’m able to instantly go through half of the newly added development skills and attributes at the beginning of a chapter.
All these problems combine to make the first half of the game very boring and uninteresting. It is essentially as if the game contains a 25+ hour tutorial before opening up any freedoms to the player. After then, the game does get a bit more fun, but not by much. The story is only mildly interesting, and none of the characters are really all that likeable. In fact, Vanille is pretty irritating most of the time. So even if the game does get better, by that time, it’s already too late. And by then you’ve probably decided whether you like or hate the game, and no amount of enhancements are going to change your mind. It’s a shame too, because the game does do a lot of things very well.
Production values are very high. The world is very detailed and there is a well-crafted backstory and mythology. The Datalog is a convenient logging system that stores enemy stats, character bios, world mythology and history, and even a handy Events Log that recaps the story up to now (in case you haven’t played for a while and forgot).
In terms of gameplay features, the Libra spell is significantly more useful than in previous games. In fact, it’s almost necessary. Once you have used Libra to scan an enemy’s stats and weaknesses, you can recall that information any time (even in battles) with the press of a button, rather than having to scan the enemy again. And, of course, all the accumulated Libra scans get added to the DataLog.
In the end, this game gave me the same feeling that I got from playing Devil May Cry 2 many years ago. I played through the game relentlessly, waiting for it to get good. In the case of DMC2, that never happened, and I was left with a horribly sour taste for a long time. But in the case of FFXIII, the game did (eventually) start to get good. The problem is that it took 40 hours to do so, and by that time, my opinion of the game had already been set. I’m sorry Square-Enix, but I’m going to have to mark this one down as a lost cause…