Thursday, October 6, 2011

Final Fantasy 13.

Well.  That was unsatisfying.

It's currently October 5th as I'm writing this.  When I started this entry, getting as far as that first, tantalizing line of the post, it was September 21st.  Yesterday, I even made it as far as having a full blown out introduction to this post, but was unsatisfied.  So I'll give it to you in short.

Yes, I finally finished Final Fantasy XIII.  I've been struggling with this post because I don't want to bore you all with reading yet another take on a game there are thousands of posts on.  Look, I get that bashing just about any Final Fantasy game after the widely loved 7 (or, if you're particularly snobby, any Final Fantasy made after the SFC/SNES era) is pretty normal, so I definitely don't want to add to the already tired discourse bemoaning the fate of the series and how things were better "back in the good old days".

Back when we had to trudge through the snow for 15 miles to get our copy of FF.
I want to be clear that the game has a number of great things going for it.  I liked the combat system:  It was intensely fun, if at times frustrating.  Like any good SE game, the graphics are gorgeous, the enemies, even your rank and file fodder, look amazing.  It has a protagonist that doesn't need to be smacked:  Hell, if anything, she does a lot of the smacking for you!

Look, I know most of you reading this have probably read the reviews and criticisms of  Final Fantasy XIII.  While I don't want to rehash them, I'm sure you want to know what gives me a lukewarm reception to the game.  It wasn't the extreme linearity (save Gran Pulse).  It wasn't the combat system (I mentioned that I liked that).  It wasn't the lack of towns (because, while this was a peeve, given the story and the world, it made sense). It wasn't Vanille saying "what went wrong?!" in an annoying voice as I lost to her Eidolon yet again.

What it comes down to is this:  Final Fantasy XIII is, I repeat, not a bad game.  It's a game that squanders its potential.  While the story is convoluted, the lack of development on the part of the supporting cast, as well as the somewhat mediocre development of certain protagonists leaves one feeling unattached to the entire proceedings by the end of the game.

I wanted to care by the end, but frankly, I just didn't give a damn.

Sigh, even as I type this, I'm hardly inspired to continue on.  Oh well, let's get on with it.

Who are these people and why should I care?

Calling Final Fantasy 13's story convoluted is a bit of an understatement.  In typical Square-Enix fashion, there's a lot of action and not a lot of explanation in the first hour or two, which I was ok with.  You eventually learn the motivations for each of the characters:  Lightning and Snow are desperately fighting to save Serah:  Lightning's kid sister and Snow's fiance`.  Sazh is along for the ride in an attempt to save his son.  Hope's some poor kid who got dragged into the whole mess.  Vanille is just sort of there to quietly accept her impending doom.  In the process of all of this, they get cursed to become l'Cie, the tools of the god-like beings that run Cocoon, the floating paradise in the sky that most of the characters come from.

In true Final Fantasy fashion, everyone ends up being split up:  Lightning goes off with Hope, Snow's off on his own until later, Sazh and Vanille are off on a journey together.  Even this split didn't bother me.

Here's was my issue:  With Lightning and Snow having such prominent roles and being united in a similar purpose, the quest to save Serah is a prominent theme throughout the story.  Serah's not a particularly unlikable  character:  She's sweet enough, and when, earlier in the game, she's cursed to the fate that Lightning and company are later on, she attempts to accept it with quiet dignity.

The problem is that Serah's given very little character development.  You see a bit of her interaction with Snow and Lightning through flashbacks early in the game.  You'd think that they'd do a bit more to flesh her out, with her being such a major motivator for two characters, but nope.  So great, I'm on a quest to save a girl I don't really give a shit about.  By the end of the game you're like "Who is this girl again?"

Plus, I hate her stupid half pigtail look.

But maybe my disdain was due to her being engaged to that idiot Snow.

Alright, maybe that's a bit harsh.  I mean Snow isn't that bad.  In fact, he's probably one of the more human characters in the game, even if trying to play a drinking game to the number of times he says the word "hero" will have you in need of a new liver.  See, Snow alone isn't the problem:  It's the fact that he's the leader of a group of rebels.. or something, called NORA.

Let's talk about NORA for a bit.  They seem like they're going to play a much larger role in the story than they actually do.  They're prominent in the early parts of the game when Snow's raising hell to save Serah, but they fall off the map for awhile, only showing up briefly near the end.  Even then, it's only long enough for them to say "Nah we're still cool bro, we don't hate you cause you're a l'Cie" then fly off into obscurity.  What the heck?  I mean heck, look at their character designs:  These aren't your everyday mooks.  They stand out.

Off to save the world, or off to a J-Rock concert.  You choose.
 So great, Snow's made out to be this leader of a band of misfits who don't really matter.  On one hand, I get that they introduce you to NORA to give Snow a bit of backstory, on the other hand they're just made out to be more than they actually are.

The problem is that this sort of trend continues through the game.  There are plenty of other characters who seem like they're going to be more important than they actually are.

Who's Jihl, you ask?  Don't worry, you won't be seeing much of her.
There are other characters in the same boat, but also had the potential to be potentially cool supporting characters to your cause.

Hey, it's Cid!  He'll be around a lot, right--wait, we don't need an airship?  Fuck.
You even have the potential recurring villain character, Rosch, who's sorely underutilized:

It's the headset that did him in, really.

Therein lies my real gripes with Final Fantasy XIII.  You have all of these characters that time and effort was clearly spent on designing, and they barely see any real screen time.  Furthermore, courtesy of the game's datalog (which you'll be relying on to get the full scope of the story), you get some exposure to Cocoon's society and it's military structure:  The Guardian Corps, which Lightning is a part of, and PSICOM, the "elites":

Unfortunately, very little is really done as far as expanding on them.  Heck, very little is done to expand on much of anything, leaving our protagonists to carry much of the story by themselves.

A task that's too much for Snow and his lesbian motorcycle.

And as for the story?  Well..

So much potential, so much squandered

The previous section already gave a sense of my issues playing through Final Fantasy XIII.  Popular criticisms of the game make it a point to bash the game's convoluted story.  While this jabs are well founded, my primary misgivings aren't that, but rather that the game does a good job of giving you the sense that you're in part of this massive world, yet they manage to do very little with it.

Here, let's make a comparison:  People have complained that Final Fantasy XII has a way of telling you about all of these areas that you never go to.  I, however, argue that it does a great job of showing you that the Ivalice you're experiencing is only a slice of a larger world while still giving you plenty to explore:  The game's starting city gives a good sense of just how much thought and effort they put into it.

Similarly, the Suikoden series does the same thing:  Each game does a great job of creating a whole massive epic that takes part in just one part (occasionally two) countries in a march larger world.  With each entry into the series, you're exposed to just a little bit more of this great world which has you eager to explore more in the next entry.

Someday we'll see Harmonia.  Someday.  ..Right?
Final Fantasy XIII sort of misses the mark here.  As I mentioned earlier, you get the sense of Cocoon being this much larger society, yet you only get to explore parts of it.  For storyline reasons, this kind of makes sense:  Your characters, after all, are fugitives for pretty much the entire game.  But even then, they still could have found some sort of way to work around on that one.  It's only when you get to Gran Pulse much later in the game that you get a sense of the sheer scope and magnitude of the world.

Many people complain about Chapter 11 of the game being frustrating because it's one of the first (and only) times you're allowed exploration in a game that's been enormously linear.  For me, it was frustrating because it gave me the first taste of what a next-gen Final Fantasy game was truly capable of, only to yank it away by the next chapter.  Thanks, guys.

The game just has a way of teasing you with these story snippets:  You get a glimpse of Lightning's life as a trained soldier only through some quick interaction between her and a commanding officer in a flashback.  The same thing goes with the NORA folks, who were previously mentioned.  Even Vanille and Fang, characters with a big part in the story that could have easily been expanded on more upon reaching Gran Pulse. . are sadly undeveloped.

The story wasn't the main issue here:  It was the large amount of squandered material.  I mentioned that, by the end of the game, I really didn't care.  This my friend was the reason:  All of those little things we take for granted in RPGs:  NPC interaction, those flashbacks or sections we get to play as the character in flashbacks were either ill placed in XIII, or simply not enough.

Closing Thoughts

Final Fantasy XIII is not a bad game by any stretch, but it was certainly a disappointing experience.  As I think back to most Final Fantasy games, they've been games that are (for the most part) strong enough to stand alone as self-contained stories.  Sure, Final Fantasy VII spawned countless spin-offs, but left alone, it was still a solid enough game in its own right.  The same can be said of Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy XII, despite the follow-ups they produced.

Final Fantasy XIII, by contrast, feels like a sort of..incomplete game.  I won't spoil things for you, but perhaps you'll get that feeling of things being rushed by the end than I did.  When you stop and consider the length of development for the whole Fabula Crystal Novalis project, one is just left expecting more.

..I really wish I had a brighter, or more witty note to conclude this on, but I really don't, my friends.  I'm just happy to be done with the game, and I'm happy to be done with this post, so that I can get back to writing about, and playing games that feel like less of a chore.

Actually scratch that.  At least some of those games make me angry enough to make for some amusing writing.

I'm looking at you, Unlimited SaGa.


Charles said...

Interesting ruminations, actually. I just started playing this last night, and so far Ive been entertained with what Im seeing. I read a lot of other reviews that bemoan the linear progression of the game (something that doesnt actually bother me), and bashes the character development (a criticism I have of Final Fantasy VIII myself), but I felt the need to play it for myself.

Based on what you wrote here, I have a feeling Im going to say the same things about XIII I did about VIII, just without a Junction system to trash. This may or may not be a bad thing, because, mechanics aside, I didnt hate VIII that much, I just thought it squandered its own potential with cardboard characters and a confusing story.

Ayn said...

"Squandering its own potential" is probably the best way to describe it for both, yeah. I think that becomes even more marked when you hit Chapter 11 in XIII, because you see just what it was capable of..

The linear progression, as I noted (I think) didn't bug me because it kind of made sense in the context of the story.

Anonymous said...

Good read. The thing with FF13 is that there is a back-story to the whole game. There are also alot of material to read. There are some published work (before the game was released IIRC) and the story you get from doing the cie'th stones missions. I feel like the game was very huge and they were rushed to release it. Releasing it on XBOX on 1 DVD didn't help either.

Anonymous said...

typical "I hate ff13 because I've outgrown this series" post.

ok we get it, ff13 doesnt give you an orgasm like ff7 or whatever your favorite is did, but you're in the minority.

game is extremely popular, sold 6 mln copies and is now getting a sequel.

you should just gracefully step aside and keep your opinions for yourself.

people like ff13.

David Pratt said...

Part of the reason our blog is here is to express our opinions about these games, keeping them to ourselves because someone might disagree with us isn't very smart.

Ayn said...

Well, I know I'm doing something right if the post affected something in someone.

However, it's faulty reasoning to assume that an unfavorable perspective of the story's execution (key point there -- as noted in the post, though admittedly not as obvious to some -- I did like a great deal of the game) means I've outgrown the series.

You seem to like the game quite a bit, based on the (seeming) hostility in your post. Would you like to share some of the points you liked, or a different view on the story?