With Failure to Connect, we asked our writers what games they were unable to connect with, regardless of their fiscal and critical success. For the month of May we will attempt to explore this issue in detail on a case by case basis.
This is probably the most low-hanging fruit I could have selected to cover, but let’s face it, this game has a Metacritic average of 83 on PlayStation 3 and 82 on Xbox 360 and has sold over 6 million copies, but is still one of the worst games many gamers have played. All the more baffling because it’s not just a bad game, but a complete and total embarrassment to the Final Fantasy name that, until this point, carried a serious pedigree.
I’m a huge Final Fantasy nerd. As of this writing, I have played every mainline title in the series except for Final Fantasy XIV (due to not caring enough to invest in it when I can just go back to World of Warcraft if I get a subscription MMO itch). On top of that, I’ve played a number of the spin-offs, good and bad, as well as most of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s post-Square work (I would kill for a Wii U remaster of The Last Story, by the way). My favorite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, my gateway to the series was Final Fantasy X and I’ve followed the series since 2002, when I first borrowed Final Fantasy X from a classmate in 6th grade.
Final Fantasy is what gave me my love for RPGs. Sure I had played and was obsessed with Pokemon at the time, but what an RPG was or why I liked them never clicked with me until I had played Final Fantasy X. The characters to interact with were endearing and I wanted to see where their story took them, the world was beautiful and I wanted to live in that world, the combat was exciting and strategic. It may not be a perfect game and time has only shown the game’s age, but when I first played it, Final Fantasy X was one of the greatest works of art I had ever experienced.
Looking back, even today, 13 years later at 25 years old, I still have a love for that game. It’s aged considerably, the cutscenes are awkwardly directed and the voice acting is just plain bizarre at times, plus the linearity of the game is much more obvious to me as an adult than it was as a dumb 12 year old, but I still think it stands out as one of the highlights of the PS2’s large library of RPGs.
It took about four years from that point for me collect the entire series, save for Final Fantasy XI for obvious reasons, and I bought both Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII on day 1. So, when I say that Final Fantasy XIII is a complete betrayal of the Final Fantasy name, I’m not speaking from the perspective of an outsider who doesn’t understand Final Fantasy, I’m speaking from the perspective of a hardcore Final Fantasy fan.
But where to begin with Final Fantasy XIII itself? Well, let’s start with the most obvious flaw that most of the game’s defenders try to justify: The linearity.
From the moment the player gains control of Lightning for the first time until they reach Gran Pulse, 30+ hours into the game, the game puts them in a hallway. The game gives nothing to do except run down a hallway, fight the monsters needed to be strong enough to max out the Crystarium or beat the boss, whichever happens first, and watch cutscenes. There are no side-quests. There is no chance to explore. The only branching paths there are lead to minor treasures or loop back into the hallway.
There are no towns to visit. There are no NPCs to talk to. You are literally told to go forward with no other path until nearly the end of the game. This kind of linearity is absolutely inexcusable. And it’s also the smallest problem I have with this game.
Now, the popular defense is that Final Fantasy X was just as linear. Which is mostly true. There’s a considerable amount of branching in Final Fantasy X with a few optional areas to explore, most notably the secret cave after the Calm Lands that is home to Yojimbo, but yes, Final Fantasy X is an extremely linear game. The difference is that Final Fantasy X hides it by actually pacing the story. You are given towns and areas that slow down the action and let you get to know the world and characters.
Final Fantasy XIII puts you on the run and only lets you stop to catch your breath once, and even that scene is short and only serves to lead into a boss fight.
The difference is that Final Fantasy X feel less like it’s on a track, despite the fact that it, well, is on a track. It builds the world, it builds the characters and it doesn’t feel like it’s in a mad rush to the ending.
I couldn’t tell you anything about the world in Final Fantasy XIII. I could drop a few names and titles like Primarch or Psicom, but I couldn’t tell you anything about those titles. I couldn’t tell you what the Primarch does or if Psicom is Cocoon’s military or some other police entity. As I’ll go into more detail about later, the game doesn’t think to stop and actually build its world.
But there’s a popular defense for the game’s absolutely abysmal world building. The Datalog. Oh, boy, the Datalog.
Now, you might point out Bioware’s usage of “Codices” to give supplementary world building to minimize excess exposition. But that comparison misses the point. A Codex in a Bioware game is completely and totally supplementary. It is entirely possible to play through the entire Mass Effect trilogy without touching the Codex once and still know exactly what’s going on in the story.
Final Fantasy XIII‘s Datalog, however, is where the entire world is. This is absolutely disgusting. Even worse, there is information that I don’t even think is in the Datalog. Is there even a world map anywhere in the game? I know for a fact that the game doesn’t go out of it’s way to show where each of the areas of the game are in relation to each other, but I honestly don’t think there is a world map anywhere.
There is no world building in the narrative. This is just one of the many problems with the narrative, but I’ll get to that. The game expects the player to read the Datalog in leiu of actually telling the story. How the world’s political structure works, what Psicom is, the fact that Lightning is a soldier, what the people of this world do for recreation and so much more are all left in the Datalog instead of actually explained in the narrative.
Compare this to, again, Final Fantasy X. We know what Yevon is and what Zanarkand is. We know who the Al Bhed are and that they don’t follow Yevon. We know that technology is frowned on by Yevon and that the people who use technology are distrusted by Yevon. We know that the people of Spira love Blitzball and we know the significance of Blitzball to many of the main characters.
All of the important information is told to us. There is no Datalog and the supplementary information there is is told by NPCs that you interact with. Cut out those NPCs and the game remains 99% unchanged because that information isn’t needed to understand the world or the story.
This is not the case with Final Fantasy XIII. Cut out the Datalog and there is nothing to tell the player anything about the game world. Of course, it would also help if what story there is wasn’t practically non-existent.
At this point, there are major spoilers for the game, so if, for some inexplicable reason, you want to actually play this terrible game, you have been warned.
To steal a six year old joke from a D-list Internet celebrity, the storyline of Final Fantasy XIII pretty much consists of the party running around going “Should we do something? We should do something! Should we do something? We should do something!” in locations that mean absolutely nothing to the player. Then Barthandelus shows up and starts ordering around the party so they can kill him to create Orphan so they become Ragnarok, kill Orphan and destroy the world. They then proceeds to do everything he wants them to, the whole time going on and on about how they’re not going to do what he says… while doing exactly what he says.
Literally the only winning move in this game is to not play. This is an incredibly abridged version of the story, but it still manages to be pretty much everything that happens.
The popular defense for the story being so simple that it can be summed up in one paragraph is that the game is supposed to be more about the characters and how they’re developed than the plot. This would work if it weren’t for the fact that just about all of the characters either do nothing, are completely undeveloped to the point where their motivations don’t exist, or are incredibly unlikeable.
Yaag Rosch and Jihl Nabaat play the exact same role in the story. They’re agents of Psicom tasked with hunting down the party. If either of them were removed from the game and had the other take their place, the game would literally be unchanged. There is not a single thing that either of them do that couldn’t be accomplished by the other.
Barthandelus’s plan is so idiotic that the only reason it works is because the party is even stupider. His plan literally revolves around telling the party to kill him so they can cause the apocalypse. And they do it.
Lightning is an asshole. She hates Snow, but we’re never told why, her reaction to being branded as a l’Cie (and no, the game never explains what the hell a l’Cie is) is to declare herself an agent of Pulse and vow to destroy Cocoon.
Hope is a disappointment. His story has some promise. The problem is, it, like Barthandelus’s plan, revolves around a character being incredibly stupid. His mother died after volunteering to fight Psicom. OK, sure. Problem: She volunteered to go fight Psicom literally seconds after Snow had asked for volunteer to protect the group of civilians she was recruited from.
Snow is an idiot. The game is clearly trying to tell the player that Snow is this daring freedom fighter and that we should root for him to succeed. Only we’re never told WHY he’s a freedom fighter because of the practically non-existent world building. He has no goal other than defeating Psicom, and his motivation is never explained.
OK, so Snow has Serah, his fiance, but her existence still doesn’t explain why Snow leads a group of freedom fighters against the Cocoon government.
Vanille and Fang serve pretty much no purpose in the story, outside of Fang’s role of showing up out of nowhere and forcing the plot to advance. Beyond that, all they do is become crystals in the ending to hold Cocoon in the air.
Sazh is literally the only character in the game I like. He has a clear motivation, his dread at being a l’Cie makes sense and he is the only character that is sympathetic enough to care about. And he’s supposed to be the comic relief party member.
Now, I know some readers might be asking at this point why the terrible story matters if the combat is fun. The thing is, the combat is, like everything else in the game that isn’t visuals: the combat is atrocious.
To put it simply: This game plays itself.
The combat gives the player control of one character, while the rest of the three-man party is controlled by the AI. Each character fills certain roles in combat and the player sets these roles to make up the abilities the party can use.
In theory, I like this. It puts the onus on the player to change up their strategy or “Paradigm” to compensate for what the enemy does. There is also a “Stagger” meter that, when filled, leaves the enemy more vulnerable. In practice, well, let me put it this way, outside of exactly six fights, there is one strategy that will win literally every fight.
There are six roles, Commando, a physical attacker that maintains the Stagger meter, Ravager, a magic attacker that builds the Stagger meter, Sentinel, a defender that attracts and endures enemy attacks, Medic, a healing mage, Synergist, who casts support magic and Saboteur, who casts status ailments. You can now proceed to ignore Synergist and Saboteur.
Set two Paradigms, one with a Commando and two Ravagers and one with a Sentinel and two Medics. You can add a Paradigm of Commando, Ravager, Medic if you really want to so you have something balanced to open batles, but that changes practically nothing.
When the battle starts, if it’s a normal fight, start mashing Auto-Battle, which lets the AI do the work, until the characters are low on health. Then switch to the healing Paradigm until healed, when you will want to switch back to the offensive Paradigm. Rinse and repeat. If fighting a boss, follow the above instructions, except add Libra at the start of the fight so the AI won’t have to waste turns figuring out the boss’s weakness. And even the Libra is just there to speed things up a touch because the AI will actually work out enemy weaknesses on its own.
That will win will every battle in the game. It is literally letting the AI do all of the work while only telling it when to heal.
This game is so terrible. Gameplay, story, writing, everything. My explanation, no, tirade against this game doesn’t even compare to what it feels like to actually play this dreck. And yet, this game still sits at a Metacritic average of 83.
The characters are awful, the combat plays itself and the villain’s plan is so bad that it literally relies entirely on the party not hearing it and offing themselves for the greater good. The world is lifeless and never developed and the narrative pacing is so padded with almost the exact same conversation repeated over and over again.
Don’t play this game.