This post is intended to be a living review of FF13, tracking my views of it and the various contents (in particular: Plot, Characters, Setting, Music, and Gameplay) as I play through the game. I'll be talking about it in a highly critical (not complaining, but analyzing in depth) fashion as I go through. I've heard that after 20-30 hours, this game is amazing, and part of this is an effort to chronicle my journey to that mythical point, and see what happens at it and after it.
This isn't just for me to blab all my feelings: I'm hoping people will engage in discussion and debate in here about my views on the game (I'm aware there are a lot of people who love this game, and I feel like discussion about the specific points that make this game bad or good is the only way I'll ever understand how).
Without further ado, my analysis of FF13 so far:
Current Play Time: 9:28:56
Current Chapter/Location: Chapter 5/The Gapra Whitewood - Field Trial Range S
Current feelings about the game so far in one sentence:
This is going somewhere, right?
There are some issues I have with how people are presented in general in this game. I'll talk about the severe lack of non-main characters and how there is no feeling of humanity a bit more under setting and plot. One by one, I'm going to address the main characters and what I've experienced with them so far, and I'll save the side characters for other sections of the review.
A couple of general notes on the main characters and my impressions thus far. Initially, and even now (nine hours in), I felt that all of the main characters were not individuals of their own, but were simply derivative of prior FF series main characters. This has gotten a bit better with time, but it's been a slow and arduous crawl (as all thing in this game are), and it's difficult to become interested in the main characters when they feel more like resurrected tropes than individuals. Rather than a unified group where there is one or two people are displeased with the situation, the entire groupe is disorganized, in constant disagreement, and prone to petty squables at the drop of a hat. Watching the main characters interact is all two often like watching young children try to organize to play a game. My hopes are high that things will eventually get somewhere, and the group will figure out what is going on and form some sort of cohesive unit, but at ten hours in, I'm starting to worry that my hopes are in vain.
-Lightning: A rehash of Cloud (FF7), though her purely anit-social tendencies are Squall(FF8)-ish as well. From her initial appearance, Lightning seems totally disinterested in anything that could benefit anyone other than herself. It's totally unclear what she wants to do for the first three or more hours of the game, and after becoming a l'Cie she instantly assumes that she is meant to destroy Coccoon despite any evidence to the contrary and the lack of evidence for it. After attempting to leave her companions behind (and actually succeeding once, but just sitting around until they caught up), she finally agrees to let Hope stick with her. Why is she suddenly compassionate? I'm not entirely sure (other than if Hope magically touched her heart, but nothing had up to that point, so that seems unlikely), but at least she's growing as a character.
-Sazh: For the most part, Sazh is actually his own character, though he does have hints of Cyan (FF6) and some very Cecil(FF4) moments when he's with Vanille. Sazh seems to be most like an actual person in the way he's dealing with the situation. There is one thing I have a bit of trouble dealing with - namely the fact that in spite of being in a country where the government is killing people for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he remains fiercely nationalist (even though he is one of the people on their hitlist).
-Snow: Anone remember Zell(FF8)? Not just the fists, but the attitude. There are certainly hints of Barret (FF7) and Locke (FF6) as well. And Zidane(FF9), lots of Zidane. Honestly, if Snow and his friends (the NORA gang) were the main characters and the game focused on their struggle against the government trying to protect the people being Purged, I'd be talking about how great things were instead of how everything is dragging me down.
-Hope: A whiney child, unable to deal with all the things happening. A bit of Rydia (FF4) combined with Dagger (FF9). And Vaan (FF12), way too much Vaan. Hope is so far a very empty character, a child incapable of realizing his mother made her own decision and that Snow is not responsible for what happened to her. A realistic character, but he's not an enjoyable character.
-Vanille: The obnoxious perky character: Selphie (FF8), Yuffie (FF7), Palom (FF4). She's obviously very out of place, but no one else seems to catch on. Honestly, I'm not really sure what the design team was going for with her. It's worth noting that the rest of the voice actors have been just fine, but Vanille's moves wildly between solid and just plain awful. I rather enjoy when she's narrating, but her casual speaking voice does not do it for me.
Final thoughts on characters so far: Stories set in a drastically different setting than our own world generally need a strong main character to pull you in and help you relate to everything going on. The primary main character is Lightning, but she's an unrelatable ass. The rag tag main cast just seems... well, rag tag, and I'm finding myself only driven forward so I can continue to review the game and try to see what everyone was talking about when so many claimed it was great.
The world of Final Fantasy 13 was described to me through walls of text buried in the menu in the game (rather than shown to me by actual game events). From what I read and what I saw unfolding over the first couple hours of the game, I was expecting a fascinating sci-fi setting that I would be fully immersed in. Sadly, the most informative and immerse aspects were the writeups in my Datalog, and not actually seeing or being places. My expectations were high, but the actual game has been tragically disappointing.
The world of Cocoon is, in a single world, sterile. Not sterile in the sci-fi disturbingly clean, white fashion so popular in 1950s/60s stories/movies, but sterile in the empty, hollow sense. Cocoon doesn't feel like a real place, not because it's fictional, but because there's nothing to it. The game opens on a train full of people, and within moments, we're on an open highway (for lack of a better term) with nothing else around. Nothing. There are no people, no ways to go but straight forward. Nothing is connected and nothing makes sense. It's just this empty straight road.
Eventually, we come to Snow, and while he's with NORA (it's worth noting that while nearly everything I know about the setting for the first three hours of playing came from my Datalog rather than actually playing the game or seeing events, I don't get to know what NORA stands for until eight or nine hours in) and a group of people, There's no interaction with them, just the overhearing of conversations if Snow walks to close that he could give them a hug. As a player, this is very disconcerting. Even when surrounded by people, I have no way of interacting with them. I am completely cut off, and not for any reason beyond the game designers being to lazy to create a world I can actually interact with. This doesn't express a feeling of loneliness or isolation, it just creates a boring empty setting. There are ways to create feelings of isolation and loneliness without making a setting that you are wholy incapable of interacting with.
There just isn't any setting in the actual game. Why should I care about a terrible threat to Cocoon if it doesn't seem like a real place with anyone in it. All I see are robots, and hordes of humanoid enemies with so much armour on (and masks, not a single foe I've fought has had a face) that they may as well be robots. The few people I have been around and fought to save I have no idea of their fate (not even the slightest, not even a fake "oh they all died but later you find out they're okay" situation - I just have no idea what happened to NORA and friends). There is no world in this game, it's just a bunch of people bickering in a vacuum, and that's pretty damn boring.
It's a little strange, because the last RPG I played before starting FF13 was roughly 12 hours long, had an incredible series of events that progressed quickly, and had a highly involved battle system and interesting, realistic environments (read: lots of stuff there that isn't relevant to the story but would be there in a real place). I've switched over to a game where less has happened in the first nine hours than happened in thirty minutes of the last RPG I played.
FF13 has you up against a faceless enemy. Literally. The first time I saw the leader of the Sanctum was in a Datalog entry, and I didn't hear him speak until around an hour after that. Cid is the first enemy any of the characters encounter in person that actually has a face. In many RPGs, they make sure to introduce some enemy that recurs early on, because it gives the player an actual person to struggle against. In 13, nearly every enemy is completely dehumanized. Even the commanders of troops have no faces, and are even less humanoid than the troops under them. This creates a rather uninteresting story, as there's nothing for you as the player to see the characters encounter and triumph over.
Villains aren't the only characters lacking in faces. Little to no attention is paid to any of the non-main characters, resulting in Hope's mother literally being named "Mother." It's hard for me to be emotionally touched by what happened to her when the game's makers don't even regard her as a real person, just "Mother." I don't feel like I'm fighting for anyone, or against anyone, and the plot just sits in one place as a result.
Granted, it's not just the vacuum surrounding the main characters that keeps the plot stagnant. The protagonist cluster regularly fractures, and I'm left with incredible amounts of time with each small group of characters, so long that I start to forget about the others, and regardless of which group I'm with, almost nothing is happening. At current and for some time now, Snow has been the only character where there are actual events taking place, and I only get tiny flashes of him in the huge stretches of boring, empty, eventless wandering with other characters. Part of that is a gameplay issue, and I'll get to that soon, but for now, I'll include an expression I feel is very fitting for the plot of this game: The story drags like a dog with worms.
It's worth noting that the music is generally very good. That does not mean it has been included in a way actually fitting to the game or the events within it.
-Backgrond Music: I have yet to experience background music that is appropriate to where I am or what I'm doing. The music seems to be completely dissonant from my experience, and as a result my attempts at immersion only continue to suffer.
-Cutscene Music: I have, in the many hours of cutscenes I have experienced so far, seen ONE cutscene with music where it felt relevant to the events. This, in a nutshell, is very very bad, and Squeenix needs to get it together.
-Battle Music: Leaves me bored. Much like the actual battle system. The victory music (if it can even be called that) does not make me feel like I've been victorious at anything.
This is far and away the worst part of this game. It wasn't until I received magic and paradigms that this even felt like a game. Speaking as a person that greatly enjoys top-down and rail shooters, there is more to interact with in Starfox and more to the combat system (read as "choosing to shoot, lock-on, or fire bombs) than there is in FF13. Lets look at exploration (hah) and combat in a little more detail each.
-Exploration: This game takes place in a world where everything exists in relatively straight lines. It's a bit surreal, really, that no matter where I am or what I'm doing, everything is in a straight line. I'm aware that in videogames, you are generally just making your way from point A to point B, and this one is simply streamlining that process, but it does so at the cost of feeling like I'm in a real place. When I'm wandering a frozen sea, there should be paths every which way, not a perfectly formed line that conveniently leads me forward. This would likely be more tolerable if anyone that made this game understood pacing.
The trouble here is, I spend a large amount of time running straight forward. I'm not exploring a castle trying to find where to go next, I'm walking in a line. I'm not running from some terrible threat hot on my heels, I'm walking in a line. There is no feeling of tension when the characters talk about being persued and running, because there is nothing happening in the actual game mechanics that make me want to hurry. I know that the only actual threats lie ahead of me, and I'll likely have to run for 30 seconds just to get to them, and see nothing of interest on the way. Character banter in these pointless straight stretches could be telling me about the characters, their feelings, the world, the events of the 13 days, and just about anything. Instead, I'm treated to several minutes of running through a barely curving course with nothing in it for me to interact with, find, or even anything for me to see that teaches me about the game world. The game didn't show me that the area I was in had wreckage from Pulse, it had characters talk about it in a cutscene. Instead of having interesting interpersonal drama come to pass as I walk from fight to fight, I have to stop and watch a cutscene. I spend all of my time "exploring" just moving forward to the next cutscene, and it gives me the distinct feeling that I'm getting nothing done. It's as if the snail's-pace-plot cutscenes are just separated by insanely long loading segments, and as some twisted form of torture I don't even get to just wait for the scenes to load, I have to run in a straight line through boring, sterile environments to pass the time.
There was a fascinating mini-game (for lack of a better term) where I got to walk around on a mech as Hope. This was fascinating in that it was a focused view about how the game treats being played. You are in a mech, unable to battle with enemies (unlike FF6, where you get to fight while in Magitek armor, you cannot engage in battle in the mech), walking forward. There are no rewards (it doesn't help you avoid fights, weaken enemies before fighting them, or give you a more powerful way to approach combat), and no punishments (your mech has no health, isn't damaged by the pulsework soldiers, and you don't get attacked by soldiers you ignore). You just walk in a slightly curvy line, occasionally knocking over barriers until you get to the end. This mini-game, and the game on the whole, is just about moving forward until you finish and nothing on the way really matters. How depressing is that?
In short, exploration is a joke. Everything that happens outside of battle can be summed up as holding up on the stick to run to the next battle or cutscene.
-Combat: First off, before I even talk about the actual combat system, allow me to talk about missed opportunities. At the very beginning of the game, Lightning assaults her captors in a "super cool flashy cutscene." This was interesting and all, but if you're going to start a game in the middle of some action, let me FUCKING BE INVOLVED IN THE ACTION. For all my issues with many parts in FF7, it starts with a simple cutscene that gives me a preview of the setting and my surroundings, and then, when I get in a fight with some guards, the game lets me do a fight. Dragging out the action movie for five minutes before fighting some big impersonal robot on top of the train I was in is not how to start a game. Show Lightning breaking free, a couple seconds of her kicking ass, then cut to a battle where I get to fight the rest of the guards, move up to the next car, fight a couple more, then let me free to actually do things. Action scenes aren't interesting when I'm sitting there waiting to be involved in the action - they're just a cocktease when done like that.
Now, the actual combat system. In FF12, I was able to program my characters (main character included) to do what I want without my input. Some people felt that the Gambit system took playing the game away from the player. This was not true at all, it simply put play into a different place (not to mention you had the option to turn it off, more than I can say for 13). The Gambit system took play out of executing a certain strategy in battle, and moved it to creating a perfect battle strategy with Gambits. I enjoyed the planning and strategy aspect this created, especially since how the character behaved in combat was still totally at my command (rather than following pre-set AI tactics I have no control over). Eidolons and Gestalt mode fix the trouble that 13 has (kind of), but even then I'm not really playing a game. The only control I have now is choosing which AI style my characters act in, but I have no way of knowing what that AI style thinks is important, and no way to alter it. Even the main character is largely out of my control: You only have Auto-battle and have to keep selecting it to give you the illusion that you're playing the game. You're just pressing X to advance, much like you turn the pages of a book to progress in a written story. That being said, the switching paradigms is interesting, but not interesting enough to make the battles engaging.
Most battles take place with enemies that are best described as pointless, and it makes me wish they didn't feel the need to give me the illusion of playing by hitting X to auto-battle. I'd love to just set down the controller and get a drink when I get into about 90% of the battles, as that's about how involved I feel. The battles that are more involving are artificially hard, made so by letting the enemy do massive damage regularly, forcing me to switch between paradigms constantly, and even then risk them choosing the same character twice and off them before I can react. This isn't difficulty, it's just bad game design. Luck and switching between AI modes does not make a good game, and shame on anyone that thinks it does.
Once I get a bit farther in the game I'll write up some more as my ideas about some things change (hopefully). I'm hoping that some people will take this as an opportunity to challenge my views and talk to me about why they see certain aspects of the game differently. As a head's up, I'm not worried about spoilers, but please remember, I've only seen as far as my current chapter/location section says, so take that into account if you think I've got something wrong (I may just not have seen it yet).