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So I Finished Final Fantasy XIII...

by Phil Kollar on Jul 28, 2010 at 01:23 PM

I have a long history with Final Fantasy games, and an even longer history with putting them off. Like any good RPG, entries in this seminal series from Square Enix tend to be very long. My problem is that I don’t like playing them in short chunks, so until I reach a few weeks-long period where I know I can devote multiple-hour-sessions every night, I often won’t pick up the controller at all.

This would explain why I have only now – four months after its release – finally completed Final Fantasy XIII. Aside from the boring MMO that was Final Fantasy XI, FF XIII is easily the most fascinating anomaly in the main series to me. It is at once the most unique and singular but also the biggest exercise in frustration that has ever carried the Final Fantasy name.

Because of its strangeness, the battle system in XIII takes some time to grow, but once it clicks, it feels amazing. For me, that moment was right around where most of the other elements of the game started feeling great as well: in Chapter 11. The problem? Chapter 11 is a good 30 hours into the game.

Much has been made of the fact that you’ll spend nearly 20 to 25 hours in FF XIII before you’ve finished every tutorial, opened up every battle system, and gained access to every party member and class. This is a serious problem with the game that dragged down my overall experience. I had to fight my own boredom and push through endless corridor after endless corridor for the first two-thirds of the game. It really cannot be stressed enough how much more entertaining things got in Chapter 11, though.

Once you hit this point, the world map opens up. No more being funneled from room to room and cutscene to cutscene. Instead, you’re free to explore a wide open, beautiful expanse and take on hunts similar to those found in Final Fantasy XII. More importantly, the battle system becomes infinitely more exciting, as you can change party members and class setups at will, and you begin to learn some of the most interesting, class-defining powers.

The more that I think about it, the more blown away I am by some of the courageous design choices Square Enix made here. MP is entirely gone. Buffs and debuffs are very necessary (to the point that there are two classes built entirely around them). Your HP is restored to full after every battle. These are major changes to the Final Fantasy formula, huge risks that they could have easily avoided for something safe, but they totally pay off.

FF XIII’s battle system revolves around a mechanic that I don’t believe I’ve seen anything similar to before: the stagger meter. You have two classes -- the commando and the ravager -- whose roles are to build an enemy’s stagger meter by dealing damage. Once the meter is full, the enemy becomes significantly weaker and easier to damage, and some foes can even be launched into the air and juggled so that they don’t even have the opportunity to attack while staggered.

It’s a clever twist on traditional RPG gameplay that, when mixed with the class system, makes for some incredibly fast-paced gameplay. Many of the boss battles become clever puzzles. Do I need to spend time buffing and debuffing in order to succeed? When do I need to switch to my medic/sentinel paradigm to recover? And can I heal up and switch back fast enough to stop the bad guy’s stagger meter from dropping? Experimentation is key, and since you resurrect right before a boss or pack of enemies when you die, annoying deaths that require backtracking are gone, leaving you free to test theories and figure out the right way to win.

All that said, some of the battles in this game can still get incredibly frustrating. In particular, FF XIII seems vexingly in love with the idea of putting time limits on their already hyper-fast battles. The worst are the Eidolon battles, difficult fights to receive this game’s version of the classic Final Fantasy summon spells. Not only are you put into set groups that are often less than ideal -- I’m stuck using Fang and Vanille only? Really? -- but the creature immediately casts Doom at the start of battle, giving you a very short time in which to beat it. These fights (along with a couple other difficult boss encounters in the mid-portion of the game) quite nearly led to a broken PS3 controller.

Which I guess leads me to what I find most confusing about Final Fantasy XIII. A lot of the game seems tailored to a wider audience than the traditional RPG. The overabundant tutorials, the fast, flashy pace, the lack of exploration, even the minimal shopping and loot -- it seems like Square Enix looked at the seemingly shrinking market for Japanese RPGs and said, “Hey, let’s make something that can appeal to more people.” That makes sense from both a business and creative perspective. I can understand that.

But if that was their line of thinking, why would they also include such a high number of controller-clenching difficulty spikes. It’s one thing to make a battle system that is easy to get into but has layers of complexity -- something I think Square-Enix has totally accomplished here. It’s also fine to include optional post-game super-difficult bonus bosses, which FF XIII also has in the form of new hunts that open up after you beat the final boss. But to place insanely difficult battles that require pitch-perfect timing to succeed on the main story path? I honestly can’t imagine a mainstream gamer who doesn’t already love JRPGs picking up Final Fantasy XIII and not hitting one of these encounters as a road block and giving up.

At least they won’t be missing out on much of a story. In one disappointing turn for the series, FF XIII’s plot is pretty much total rubbish. I can say I’m genuinely interested in maybe one of the main party members (Lightning) and can stand two more (Fang and Sazh). The other three (Hope, Vanille, and Snow) are annoying JRPG stereotypes that we’ve met a billion times before, and they did nothing to endear themselves to me throughout the course of the game.

Maybe that’s because no one really does anything throughout the course of the game. FF XIII’s plot deals with the heavy topic of free will and whether or not we’re chained to a destiny that has been decided for us. Potentially interesting stuff, except they’re trying to address it in a game where 75 percent or more of your time is spent moving forward down a straight path that only veers to the side for the occasional treasure chest. Not only do you have literally no say in anything that happens and no choices to make, but you can’t even explore for the majority of the game. It’s tough to make you care about the world you’re saving when you don’t feel like you’ve seen much of it, and it's tough to care about the status of your free will when there’s never actually any question that it doesn’t exist.

After pumping a healthy 51 hours into Final Fantasy XIII to see the credits roll, I can happily recommend it to at least one type of gamer: RPG enthusiasts who are just as or more interested in the mechanics of a game as the story. Once it opens up, FF XIII’s battle system is deep and rewarding. Just pack some energy drinks to keep you burning through the game until then.