Delusions of grandeur: The failings of Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII is much maligned. It’s not without many problems, but it’s also become a punching bag for so many different groups. Jaded Square Enix fans, apparently still upset that the last entry in the series, Final Fantasy XII, is quite possibly the best, dramatically point to XIII as the last straw in their relationship with the company. The in vogue anti-Japanese-game zealots salivate over the perceived toppling of the JRPG giant, citing it as as evidence of the inability of Japanese games — JRPGs, in particular — to keep up with the times.
These dramatic, reactionary viewpoints are agenda laden with implication far beyond XIII’s relative quality. As a game, it is deeply flawed. What it is most symptomatic of the travails of AAA development catching up with vaunted gaming paragon that was Square Enix proportional to a rise of cynicism and unrest amidst the gaming community (one that possibly went into the title with inflated expectations because of inexplicably positive reviews from mainstream publications). It is a victim of Square Enix’s bloated development studio and general mismanagement, but also of developing too heavily for a market, instead of for the sake of game making.
Some missteps along the torrid, overlong development cycle may stem from an antiquated organizational hierarchy inherent to Japanese business, but mostly its failings are similar to those you find in most AAA games. The Final Fantasy series, despite its wild success since Final Fantasy VII, has mostly managed to deftly avoid these pitfalls. Not this time. This time the Goliath gaffed while the world waited with bated breath. Expectations were not met; reactionary declarations were made and something of a foul scandal was born.
Final Fantasy XIII was going to be a PS2 game before rabidly positive reaction to a next-gen Final Fantasy VII tech demo pushed XIII, too, to the “next-gen” frontier. But that wasn’t all; Square Enix decided to build an engine from the ground up to play host to their newest ideas, thinking it would abet development. It didn’t. We got a trailer that didn’t represent the final version of the game — because there wasn’t a playable version of it in existence — in 2006, almost four years before it released. Square even announced an Xbox 360 version of the long awaited game (after years of assuring exclusivity; a firm twist to the loins of pathetic fanboys everywhere) because, apparently, the people working on it didn’t have enough on their plates.
It’s a common talking point that there was enough unused content to make an entire separate game, according to art director Isamu Kamikokuryo. More recently, director Motomu Toriyama talked about the rough development cycle, saying, “With a large-scale development team, we didn’t use our time well,” adding, “How do you communicate to everyone in the department what the drive of the game is?” Well, there’s a problem. Not only did the team admittedly not use their time well, but they failed at simple communication. And this is one of the larger game developer/publisher companies around. So yes, mismanagement seems to have been the biggest issue in development. Still, the game was eventually created and is quite nice to look at and otherwise technically proficient. The problem is in the focus, or lack thereof.
With a “next-gen” release, the team wanted to proportionally match peaks reached with the previous generations’ flagships, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X. This posturing had a profoundly adverse affect on the game. It led Square Enix down the dark, modern AAA path of pomp and glitz and style, all devoid of substance. It’s obvious how Square bent to the whims of visual fidelity; many of the sections that were cut, like Lightning’s home, which could’ve added so much to her crepe-shallow character, were cast off because they couldn’t reach the same level of prettiness as the rest of the game in time to ship.
The narrative tries to match Final Fantasy proper and deliver a world shattering width of scope, but now more than ever the fine lines are cannibalized by the broad strokes. The overarching plot has little direct connection to the main characters, save for the fact that they’re being used like pawns and are fighting for survival. To what end, though? It remains nebulous, thanks in part to the muddying done by an indulgence on proper nouns from the onset: fal’Cie, l’Cie, C’Zar, “focus” and a bunch of other unnecessary jargon. Jargon which, even to the main characters remains a nebulous bit of quasi-religion and mysticism, so how is the player supposed to be invested in the story if even its characters can’t fathom what’s going on?
Ideally, it would be through good writing, but that’s where Final Fantasy XIII really disappoints. Despite its density, the overarching plot isn’t bad; it’s badly mishandled, mostly through muddy exposition that reveals little. If you look over some of the massive tomes that make up the absurd Datalog, you’ll notice there are loads of interesting ideas at play. But they’re relegated to the labyrinthine menu of an overstuffed Datalog that reads like a textbook, which is not only bad storytelling, but insultingly lazy. The characters, on the other hand, are bad, failing to provide the saving grace to a world painstakingly, intricately built, but not effectively realized.
Almost all the pivotal characters of the game are puddle-deep, plodding along paint by the numbers character arcs that fail to threaten to be interesting or revelatory. Hope — and anyone who knows anything about the game knew this was coming — is the awful metastasization of a done to death anime trope and so irritatingly angst ridden that it’s surprising that he isn’t the worst written character in the game. No, that dishonor goes to Snow, who hemorrhages schmaltzy dialog about heroism, using the word “hero” (or some derivation thereof) more times than it should be used in this entire generation of games in total. Even my favorite, Fang, despite wonderful character design and a pitch perfect voice actor, can do little to quell the doldrums. Most disheartening is that Sazh, one of Square’s better written characters in recent memory, has to waste away in this poorly planned, poorly placed story.
Square Enix’s higher ups marred Final Fantasy XII’s brilliance trying to market the game better to youths, shoehorning Vaan and Penelo into the plot and effectively forcing the opposing director off the project. Here, again, trying to dazzle and impress audiences they created a veritable amusement park thrill ride and therein lays the biggest problem. As is the case with seemingly every other AAA game that drops these days, Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t respect its player.
The first few dozen hours of the game are basically a glorified tutorial system, something Square Enix caught flak for with Kingdom Hearts, but somehow returned here with a vengeance. New mechanics are introduced at glacial speeds, as if the developers don’t trust you to figure out how to play the game. In the same way you’re whisked down painfully linear corridors, the game slaps your hand for wanting to do something that requires skill. Unfortunately, the combat system is Final Fantasy XIII’s saving grace, so gating it off for an inordinately extended amount of time just mucks things up further. It’s often said that once the story arrives at Gran Pulse (20-30 hours in), things hit a nice clip, and that’s rather true, but it doesn’t excuse the prior tens of hours of patronization and poor storytelling.
This isn’t uniquely Square Enix failing. This is the failure of the “blockbuster” AAA model that’s in vogue being stretched over an RPG framework. So quick are most current games to throw a bunch of HUD elements at you to tell you where you’re going should you wander off the beaten path by whatever miniscule amount the funneled level design affords. So often are we bombarded with hints and tips, to downright explanations and solutions to puzzles. So many games are afraid of being deemed inaccessible that they restrict player agency to its basest, locking you into a roller coaster instead of letting you roam the amusement park. You hop into a Jurassic Park style jeep that rolls along the tracks, but this time the locking mechanism doesn’t malfunction and you can’t jump out of the moving vehicle to plunge your arms shoulder deep into dino dung.
In the case of Final Fantasy XIII, you’re forced for much of the game to be a passive observer, early on only occasionally allowed to indulge in what was is brilliant battle system, while a poorly crafted story played out by shallow characters washes over you. Square Enix might as well have bought me a Ferrari and then proceeded to drive me around in it for a couple dozen hours while gossiping about its friends I had no interest of investment in before finally pulling into an open parking lot and letting me have a go at it.
Yes, the venerable franchise stumbled, essentially producing a poor, muddled echo of Final Fantasy X, enveloping an innovative, deep battle system destined to waste away under its captor’s mediocrity. The soulless homogenizing of mainstream games may have presented itself differently in Final Fantasy XIII, but it’s undoubtedly the root of the game’s undoing. Content is admittedly sacrificed for visual fidelity. Cutscenes go from being a spectacular payoff of our invested time to a stylish, but soulless spectacle punctuating an empty story. The heavy handedness of developers so high on their own convoluted mess throttles any life that could’ve bloomed in this beautifully designed, fantastical science fiction dreamscape.