WARNING: Spoilers approach

Last night I successfully completed Final Fantasy XIII. After nearly 50 hours of invested game time, I faced off with Orphan, saved Cocoon, and reunited Snow with Serah and Sazh with Dajh. Before the ending credits began rolling I realized I was lacking the sense of elation, of absolute relief and accomplishment, that I have associated with beating past Final Fantasy games. I’ve come to realize that Final Fantasy XIII may be my least favorite game in the series.

I probably should have heeded the red flags early on. Some people told me the game doesn’t really pick up until about five hours in, others said that after 15 hours the game hits full stride. I shrugged this off, thinking it’d be foolish to judge any RPG by the introductory hours. Heck, Final Fantasy 7 didn’t really “start” until you left Midgar, and FF VII’s first dozen hours were not breathtaking. Little did I know that I would sit through almost 50 hours simply waiting to experience that defining moment. It never came.

If I had one wish for the awesome battle system, it would be for summons to be more useful.

The Final Fantasy franchise doesn’t hesitate to drop you into the middle of the action without any briefing. Many games in the series thrust you into a wonder-filled, perplexing world populated with strangely named characters and a rich yet convoluted mythology. Final Fantasy XIII does this in the most abrasive way possible. Not only must you get to know a brand new cast and setting, but you’re suddenly expected to know what Fal’Cie, L’Cie, and C’eith are. I apologize to any raging fans of FF XIII’s lore, but I simply couldn’t get into this game’s plot. I read every single datalog entry, I know the minutiae inside and out, but I just couldn’t get into it. It contained all the tired JRPG tropes, but this time with confusing, apostrophe-riddled jargon. If a worthwhile kernel of a story lies within FF XIII, it is too buried in nonsense to notice.

Maybe it wasn’t the ludicrous story, but the characters that prevented me from getting into the game. In my opinion, FF XIII contained the most one-dimensional cast in the series so far. My white mage from the first Final Fantasy had more personality than Hope, and HEAL didn’t even have any dialogue (not to mention she whined even less than Hope despite dying constantly). Vanille’s over-emphatic moans and sighs had me cranking down the volume, Snow’s forced bravado made my stomach churn, and Sazh’s dubious comic relief made me miss Selphie. Not to mention all their outfits make me wonder if Square now designs all their characters’ costumes as a big middle finger to cosplayers. Lightning is definitely the best of the bunch, both in character design and personality. Imagine my disappointment when the climax of the game hinged almost exclusively around Fang instead of the main character. What a missed opportunity. Once Lightning came to terms with her anger and frustration the story all but abandoned her.

And the winners for stupidest face are: Snow in first place, Hope in second, and Vanille in third. Also, honorable mention to Sazh.

Where Final Fantasy XIII’s did get it right is in its standout combat system and character progression. Fighting never became boring, and I think it did a great job of parceling out tutorials. I never felt the game was too easy or too complicated. Complementing the battle system’s emphasis on speed and constant motion, the Crystarium is a perfect way to deliver a steady drip of motivation to players. When nearly every battle concluded I excitedly checked my Crystarium to see what I could level up. I anticipated each new skill and relished having complete control over my characters’ development. Additionally, shifting paradigms made me feel like an absolute pro by the end of the game (despite the everyone’s stupid role change flourish). Final Fantasy XIII proves that fighting in RPGs can be fast paced and fun without sacrificing necessary strategy and challenge.

Despite the combat system’s success, I can’t help but wonder how earlier Final Fantasy games would have fared if their only redeeming qualities were on the battlefield. Would you have really fought that nasty EvilWall in Final Fantasy IV if it didn’t mean finally seeing Kain and the gang showdown with Golbez? Do you really think you would have tooled around in the Gold Saucer with its broken arcade games if you weren’t trying to impress Aeris? The gameplay of past Final Fantasy games may have been compelling, but the true motivator for almost any fan I’ve talked to has been story. Final Fantasy XIII does not deliver on this front. No amount of compelling combat can make up for lackluster characters and story.

Roaming Gran Pulse, questing, and leveling my characters provided the most fun I had in the game.

Perhaps Square’s effort to modernize the series has backfired, resulting in a loss of identity. While the the battle system works well, relying purely on voice acting leaves players checking the Datalog for insight that would have otherwise filled text boxes. Wouldn’t you have rather explored towns and talked to NPCs to learn about the world rather than reading encyclopedia entries? (I understand the L’Cie are considered pariahs, but come on.)

Final Fantasy XIII managed to take one big step forward, then take two hefty steps back. It simply doesn’t live up to the standard established by earlier titles.

Here’s crossing my fingers for Final Fantasy Versus XIII…