Final Fantasy XIII Reader Review
This review was written by a gamer that has been playing JRPGs since the SNES era and has been anticipating FINAL FANTASY XIII since it was first revealed at E3 2006.
"The most important part of a RPG is the player feeling like they are taking the role of a character in a fully realised fantasy world. They can explore, visit various towns and places, talk to people, customise their character, collect various items, and defeat monsters. The story is not the focus of the experience and is only there to make the atmosphere of the fantasy world more interesting and engaging during the course of the game." ~ Yuji Horii (Creator of the JRPG genre/ Supervisor: Chrono Trigger)
"Although the FF series has greatly advanced over the years, it's still a RPG. FF tends to be mostly story driven so I always try to balance the experience by putting more effort into the RPG gameplay." ~ Hiroyuki Itou (Director: FFVI, FFIX, FFXII)
FINAL FANTASY XIII (FINAL FANTASY is referred to as "FF" for the rest of the review) is the latest main series FF from SQUARE ENIX (SQUARE ENIX referred to as "SQEX" for the rest of this review) and has been in development for almost 5 years by Product Development Division - 1. FFXIII is a game that numerically follows FFXII but the game is nothing like it as FFXII was made by a completely different development team called Product Development Division - 4. FFXIII instead is an evolution of the game design of the last main series FF by Product Development Division - 1 called FFX. However, the decision to skip the gaming innovations of FFXII and go back to the incredibly restricting and interactive move-like game design of FFX is ultimately the downfall of FFXIII.
The leader of Product Development Division - 1 is called Yoshinori Kitase and he studied to be a Film Director before he joined SQEX. He has openly said in interviews that it's the intention of the games made by his division to play like interactive movies. After FFVII: Advent Children (a CGI movie released on DVD in 2005) was made he said in the bonus footage contained on the DVD that he, "Always wanted to make something like this." The problem with Yoshinori Kitase is that he values film and cinematic qualities over gameplay and good game design and that mentality has greatly affected the game design choices of FFXIII.
FFXIII is an interactive movie with RPG elements. This is not a video game and it doesn't even try to pretend it is one. It is unashamedly a CGI movie with a stylish battle system and pretty growth system tacked on. Summing up the game is really that simple.
RPG Game Design
Firstly, what exactly is the game design of a RPG?
It's about the player feeling like they're actually taking the role of a character in the story and virtual world. Therefore, what needs more depth is the story being told in a way that the player actually feels like they are the character in the story. The player must also feel like the virtual world is a real place in which the character can fully interact with. During the course of the game this character grows in strength and learns new abilities and techniques.
That's the definition of a Role-Playing Game. If it just has a deep story that doesn't mean it's a RPG as any video game genre can have a deep story.
If you want to make a film then make a film; if you want to make a game then make a game. If you want to make a hybrid then go for it but don't call it a video game, instead call it an interactive movie and if you're making interactive movies then don't classify yourself as a games designer. I don't know why this beautiful medium that's built on interactivity as a foundation has people that keep using lengthy non-interactive cinema scenes as the main focus of the game. If I want to see pretty CGI from SQEX that I can't interact with then I'd watch FFVII: Advent Children Complete or FF: The Spirits Within on Blu-ray in 1080p.
A film is a motion picture so no matter what the director tries to do it will always primarily be a visual moving photo. With a video game, it's interactive computer entertainment so no matter what the director is trying to accomplish it should be focused on the interactivity as a foundation. It can tell a deep story but it must first embrace the interactivity, just like a film must first embrace being a motion picture before it can provide a story to the viewer.
FFXIII has been in development for almost 5 years and yet it appears that most of the focus was put on the non-interactive story scenes and graphics. The bad thing about this is that non-interactive story scenes and graphics can both be done in cinema. Interactivity cannot be done in film and as such is what needs to be focused on and perfected in order for games to really stand on their own two feet as an art form. FFXIII doesn't even try to present any form of interactive storytelling and is instead a story that is presented to the player in completely non-interactive motion picture format. I will not go into the specifics of what the story is about but I will say that while the story never becomes majorly epic, it does include a lot of character development for all the playable party members. Sadly, it also contains more melodrama than any other FF released to date.
What hurts FFXIII besides the numerous non-interactive movies is that the parts where you actually play are incredibly alleyway-linear. I'm talking like an alleyway where a woman could get raped or a child get mugged, just that the alleyways in this game have been majorly decorated with superb art direction and some with beautiful skylines and vistas and others with numerous things going on in the background.
You run down these pretty alleyways and fight some battles. The enemies are on the field but because the fields are so alleyway-linear it's mostly impossible to avoid these enemies and thus when you contact them it switches to a completely different field for the battle. The enemies are on the field but the battles are not seamless and take place on a separate field, a clear step back from the innovations of FFXII by Product Development Division - 4. After the battle ends you reach the next long non-interactive cut-scene. This cycle repeats for almost 40 hours making up 80% of the main game. You eventually reach a huge open environment near the end of the game but that whole big area is completely bland compared to the superb art direction of the alleyway-linear areas and it is also thrown in far too late into the gameplay experience. To make things worse, it's impossible to back track to the beautiful alleyway-linear areas once you complete them. You see an alleyway-linear area only once and if you want to see it again after you pass it you must start a new game.
For a game that's been in development for 5 years this is the game design they're selling me? There's nothing remarkable about this as a video game. Only buy it if you want a beautiful looking interactive movie.
Product Development Division - 1 has even axed the towns, shops, conversable NPCs, side-quests and other JRPG staples. Sorry, but I need to repeat this so really it hits home:
- No towns.
- No shops.
- No conversable NPCs.
- No side-quests.
- No mini-games.
- No airship.
- No world map.
Don't get my words twisted, there is nothing wrong with playing a video game for the story but this story must be interactive and part of the gameplay experience and not separate from it. Think for a moment... If the main reason you're buying any video game genre is for the parts that are non-interactive then why should the developer even bother adding any interactivity to the game? If the non-interactive story is the most important part of the game and the reason you're buying it then the game should never have been a video game to begin with and instead just a film.
FFXIII is a deep but non-interactive story with some brief gameplay on the side. This is not a video game that is striving to make this beautiful interactive medium the greatest art form of the 21st century.
Graphics and World Immersion
FFXIII is the most beautiful video game you will ever set your eyes on. I'm not going to waste time on this point, FFXIII is the best looking video game ever made. The Art Direction is also superb but it's expected as it's by Isamu Kamikokuryo (who was also Art Director of FFXII by Product Development Division - 4) but sadly Kamikokuryo has not been able to show the full extent of his talent. When he worked on FFXII he was allowed to design fully explorable locations and cities. With FFXIII he has been restrained to design alleyway-linear maps and his art just used mainly as background with no real feel of world immersion via exploration and interactivity.
Also, sexy graphics do not make a great game and even though FFXIII looks like a burning hot girl, it plays like taking that girl home and discovering she is a dude in drag. It would appear that Product Development Division - 1 focused so much on graphics that they didn't bother to focus on world immersion. The majority of the locations in FFXIII resemble a movie set as they are straight to the point with no real breathing space. You often feel that if you could move out of the alleyway-linear maps you'd bump into the camera crew and set decorators. The world just doesn't feel like a real place at all. It has a nice sci-fi atmosphere but you never feel fully immersed and that it's a real world, instead you feel like it's just the setting of a film and that you have only one direction to move in that the film director has planned for you.
Here's the first 10 hours of the game in maps. You will be able to see from this image that the maps are very alleyway-linear and unfortunately they make up 80% of the main game (SPOILERS):
Really, this is the only enjoyable interactive element in this game and sadly it's more flawed than the Active Dimension Battle (ADB) of FFXII. The name of the battle system in FFXIII is called Command Synergy Battle (CSB) and was an attempt to bring the stylish fight scenes seen in FFVII: Advent Children into interactive format.
You have the ATB bar of past FF games but there are now up to 6 of them and depending on the move that you do it will take up one or more ATB bars. A standard "Attack" command will take up one bar while a move like "Firaga" will take up 3 ATB bars. You can mix and match as many moves as you have ATB bars for and then release them as a single chain of commands.
This part of the game is very fun but then it becomes slightly tedious with the addition of the Break bar on enemies (Stagger bar in the NA/EU version). When you first begin combat with an enemy you will first have to make it fall into Break mode before you can do any real damage to it. You do this by attacking it as quickly as possible to fill the Break bar and when it's full the enemy will fall into Break mode and take much more damage. It's an interesting addition but it makes certain battles become overly drawn out and tedious. CSB would have been far quicker and streamlined if the Break bar was only on certain enemies instead of all of them, you could therefore damage the regular enemies straight away while certain powerful enemies and Bosses have a Break bar that needs to be filled before you can perform major damage on them. It would have made the system more interesting and varied, you'd have the enemies that you can speedily and stylishly defeat while others take longer to bring down.
Also, while the underlying gameplay mechanics of the CSB system are fun, it's still lacking in areas.
Firstly, there's the decision that you can only ever control one party member in battle and that the game will never present you with a choice to switch controlled party member during a battle. It's a shame as ADB in FFXII offered the feature and all past FF games let you control all party members in a battle. If you're playing as Lightning in a fight but then want to play as Snow for a bit in the same battle it's impossible to do that in this game. You can switch party member but only outside battle and even then you only get the ability to this 80% through the main game so almost 40 hours into the game. What I don't understand is why they could not make it so that you can change controlled party member during battle like you could in the ADB system of FFXII. It would have been a simple process of swapping over the AI routine of the character you want to switch to with the character you're currently controlling.
Also, why so late in the game to give the player the feature to choose their own party members? The reason is obviously the linearity and majorly story driven nature of the game. Because of how story driven the game is, it even scripts what characters you control and who your party members must be for 80% of the main game. Yes, you read right, you can only really begin to choose your own party members around 40 hours into the game. Everything about whose in your party is pre-scripted before this time. You only get to make a party made out of party members of your choice when you reach that big open area I mentioned earlier in this review.
They have also made it so it's Game Over if the party leader dies. What this means is that if the current party leader is Lightning and she dies while the other two AI controlled party members are still alive it will be Game Over, even though there are two other party members that are still alive. It's a very harsh game design approach especially given that past FF games have allowed the whole party to be controlled. Instead of trying to find a way of adding this feature to CSB they should have found a way to at least allow the player to switch to and play as another party member during a battle. What makes this Game Over feature even worse is that when you're fighting a boss or powerful key story related enemy, it will cast "Doom" on the party leader if you're taking too long to defeat it. It just feels very forced and cheap and makes the CSB system feel very user-unfriendly compared to the both ATB and ADB.
The AI system that is used in FFXIII is called Optima Change (Paradigm Shift in the NA/EU version) and was added much later in the games development. Product Development Division - 1 initially had CSB having the player only controlling the party leader and the other two party members on AI with no editing from the player. They later decided that they needed to find a way to let the player control the party member AI rather than have them only control the party leader and that's how the Optima Change system was born.
The Optima Change system is not even close to being as deep and the Gambit system that was in FFXII as the Gambit system existed in FFXII from the start of that games development. As I've just mentioned, Optima Change was a last minute addition to CSB in an attempt to give the player more control over the AI. The Optima Change system basically involves you having 6 AI roles to choose out from for each character in your party and by mixing them together in unique ways you create various party battle strategies. The problem is that the AI can't be customised to the degree it could be with the Gambit system in FFXII. Optima Change basically has you choosing a role for all three party members and the CPU then decides when and what move the two AI controlled party members do based on what role they currently are and what's going on in the current battle. You can't take over this position from the CPU and set your own AI routines so the AI characters act according to what you told them to do. The way it's set up works most of the time but there are times when you wish an AI party member did a different move instead of the one the CPU told them to do. The lack of control over party member AI in the Optima Change system is a step back from the Gambits in FFXII.
What hurts more is that FFXIII has game design that is worse than JRPGs released on even the SNES. The majority of the time spent making this game went to the graphics and non-interactive story scenes but none of these aspects are important to make a great gameplay experience; none of these will help make video games be regarded as a major art form.
The bottom line is simple: If you're buying looking for the sexiest and most beautiful looking interactive movie ever made then buy this without hesitation. However, if you're looking for a RPG with more than just pretty graphics and instead with good RPG game design and interactive storytelling then you should avoid it.
- RPG Game Design: [ 2 ]
- Graphics: [ 10 ]
- World immersion: [ 3 ]
- Battle System: [ 7 ]
5 / 10