Final Fantasy XIII Trips Up in Its Attempt to Leave Its Roots Behind

Imagine finding yourself at the beginning of a corridor stretching from here to the sun. An angry man screams at you in a language you barely understand, giving you the vague sensation that you should begin walking. Every five seconds, you're forced to stop and watch a troupe of bad actors dance with a competing troupe of bad actors dressed as Jell-O molds, or watch one of the troupes perform a one-act play about how unsympathetic they are.

This continues for a million years, until you finally emerge on the surface of the sun, whereupon the billions of gigajoules of energy that radiate from it every millisecond immediately reduce you to so much cosmic vapor. You're unloved, unremembered, and alone, but in the instant before you die, you find a bit of happiness in the fact that your wretched journey is finally over.

I defy anyone of sound mind to play a few dozen hours of Final Fantasy XIII and find this assessment inaccurate.

Square Enix's Final Fantasy series was once the gold standard of the JRPG. Final Fantasy VII could run for president of Japan right now and easily beat any competition. Godzilla could run; those weird vending machines that sell used panties could run. It wouldn't matter. The prospect of a spiky-haired, oversized-sword-wielding, nostalgia-ridden future would push voter turnout to record levels.

By contrast, Final Fantasy XIII is so pitiful that the same Xbox executives who once cited its multiplatform release as a sign of the death of the Playstation brand are probably now trying to find a way to re-gift Sony its former exclusivity.

Final Fantasy XIII follows the adventures of… actually, strike that. FFXIII's core of senseless convolution makes an attempt at a proper summary nigh-impossible. Suffice it to say that there are exactly two things you need to know about Final Fantasy XIII's plot: 1.) When the gods get bored, they pluck people out of obscurity, give them magical tattoos, and then pit them against one another in an overwrought game of Risk-meets-Pokémon until their new toys burn out and become zombies; and 2.) Even after 12 Final Fantasy games, Square Enix can't seem to tell that story (a variation of which they've been telling for decades now) without making up an entire dictionary's worth of nonsense just to make their setting seem less obviously derivative.

That second one might be a little unfair, actually, since Final Fantasy XIII somehow manages to draw from every source known to man and yet be like nothing to date encountered by humanity (with the exception of other Final Fantasy games, from which XIII draws blatantly and liberally). It's a wonderland of motifs seamless in its senselessness, flowing from one model to another like a quilting bee of mad gods at the birth of the world's leftovers.

Buried beneath all the baby-babble about Fal'Cie and l'Cie and a bunch of other words for things we already had words for lies an entirely different mission statement. Square Enix, itself a major propagator of the JRPG trend toward massive, ungainly game mechanics, wants to streamline the whole experience in the name of enhanced storytelling, under the belief that each button press from the audience takes a fraction of an instant which could be better used to enjoy a sufficiently engaging story.

The fact that the idea was applied to such an unpalatable story is bad enough, but FFXIII goes on to flout the basic principles of interactive storytelling. Square Enix's newfound love of the streamlined experience has caused them to abandon "storytelling" in favor of lots of pretty colors. Interactivity is thrown out the window.

Direct your party whichever way constitutes forward, slap halfheartedly at the auto-attack button when prompted, change up your party's in-battle roles as required, repeat ad nauseum, and you're done. Mechanically speaking, Final Fantasy XIII is Star Wars' trench run on infinite loop with about as much variation as a three-generation-old rail shooter. After a certain point, the prettiness of the corridors dissolves into a multicolored sludge of window dressing that pushes players through the game's intestines toward its inevitably execrable end.

Streamline it if you want, but don't forget that you're not making another Advent Children (or, God forbid, Spirits Within) movie. This is a video game, remember? Players want to be able to direct their party's actions and trick out their equipment and go exploring and find treasure and hit up some side quests (that aren't 25-plus hours into the game) and generally do all of the other things that games have told them were right and accurate ways to interact with the world since time immemorial. By cutting all these things out, FFXIII removes the player from the equation, making of itself something that might as well be a self-iterating progress bar and a series of arbitrary statistics.

A balance can be struck, and has been numerous times in the past. FFXIII's predecessor, itself nearly as dramatic a step away from the JRPG norms, at least had the sense to not entirely tear itself from the umbilical of fundamental gameplay which nourished the series for so long. FFXIII's biggest contribution to the series may be how much better such past efforts look by comparison.