This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Final Fantasy XIII.
Being a highly respected and successful professional game critic--shut up, I am!--I'm often asked for advice on how to pursue a similar career. So here's today's hot tip for budding critics: if you're resigned to playing through an extremely long game that you have good reason to think you will despise, don't attempt to do so in the week before you open a small licenced venue in the city's busiest entertainment district. I was only able to play Final Fantasy XIII for about five hours, partly because I was being called out most afternoons to buy more napkins and partly because any more than two hours of this fucking game at a time was even more draining than the hangover from V.I.P. media nights.
I suppose I could have held off another week to play it some more, but the thing is... I don't fucking want to! Subjecting myself to any more of it could probably be classified as self-flagellation. So for what's it's worth, here's a review of the first five hours. You might call that "unprofessional." I call it "efficiency."
Final Fantasy XIII: The Empire Strikes Back opens with the main protagonist, a former soldier, riding a train with their astonishingly stereotypical black sidekick to go fight an evil authority of some description. Wait a girlfriend-impaling second, haven't we been here before? Well, yes, twelve extremely final times, but the seventh outing more than any other. Of course, Final Fantasy VII didn't fill every cinematic with more shaky camera than a Paul Greengrass film being projected onto a fat jogger's tits.
Anyway, after a brief fight--which being in control of would have been nice--the gameplay begins. And the game starts as it means to go on by making you run down a linear corridor. This may be a weird thing to pick up on, but the main character's footstep noises are very, very loud. It's like someone's running along just out of shot banging coconuts together. I wonder if I'll stop noticing it over time.
So far, I've established that the two lead-ish characters are named Lightning and Snow, which are both things that could ruin a picnic. There's also another guy called Hope, as in, "I Hope we can get these sandwiches back in the car before any Snow or Lightning happens." It seems we're already assembling the usual Final Fantasy character archetype pick-and-mix. There's Angsty Spice, Serious Spice, Manly Spice, Ethnic Spice, and, of course, the inevitable Kooky Spice, who deserves special mention, because the kookiness of the prerequisite kooky character has now reached some kind of singularity. Her actions don't seem to have any connection to sentient thought or social context. It's like she's got Alzheimer's or something.
Anyway, the characters have been introduced but by no means established. I know Final Fantasy has always been big on in medias res, but even the most basic questions about the plot remain unanswered. Who the fuck are these people? What is going on? Why should I care? Can I stop playing now, please?
I know what you're gonna say: "Yahtzee, please take your dick out of my eye socket! And why are you even reviewing this game when you're on record as a hater of JRPGs and turn-based combat?" Well, bitch, prepare to have your mind blown a second time by the fact that I once enjoyed Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy VI to be precise. I liked how the overarching story could be summarized in less space than a pamphlet. And I liked how the turned-based battles would always come and go very rapidly, as if the game was ashamed to be around them.
I fell out with JRPGs when they became more about spectacle than substance, always about skinny 15-year-olds dressed up in outfits that look like they were designed with an Etch-A-Sketch and then fed through a threshing machine. Endless gaudy cinematics. Retarded angsty drama. Bloated, unwieldy, menu-driven combat: select ability, select attack, select target, wait 5 seconds for the character's brain to start working, repeat. How about we just walk up to the enemy and press one button that bonks him on the head? Or am I missing the point? Instead we have to work around this badly designed interface with long cool-down times between each action like every warrior and monster on the planet suffers from asthma attacks.
Actually, let's harp on the combat some more. It's the massive disconnect between story and gameplay that always gets to me. There's a flashy transition before each fight, so the combat might as well be taking place in some delusional fantasy world brought on by tight hotpants cutting off the flow of blood to the brain. This Hope guy has been established from the start as a whiny, weak, inept, cowardly, socially retarded mummy's boy, so presumably he's the character most of the audience are meant to project onto. But then combat starts and he literally pulls a boomerang out of his arse and joins the fray. Consistency is nice.
Also, Final Fantasy has generally made an effort to mix the combats up with each game, and this time it makes it very clear that it would prefer to involve the player as little as possible. You only control the party leader directly, and even then I just pick auto-attack every time because it's quicker than stacking abilities and I usually just pick the same ones anyway. Later on, there's a paradigm system that lets you change the AI behavior in battle, but I still feel my grip on events is rather loose, and it all feels about as involving as Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots.
You know why this game is on three discs? Not because it's a complex roller coaster of an epic. It's because it's padded like a menstruating firehose. I've spent the entirety of the last five hours running down three different linear corridors. if this were Modern Warfare, I'd have curb-checked every terrorist in the free world by now. The central plot element has only just been introduced! I only vaguely know what the story's about because I made myself read all that ancillary textlog bullshit. This is not good storytelling! You're supposed to weave exposition into the narrative, not hand the audience a fucking glossary as they walk into the theatre!
Some people have told me that FFXIII gets good about 20 hours in. You know that's not really a point in its favor, right? Put your hand on a stove for 20 hours and yeah, you'll probably stop feeling the pain, but you'll have done serious damage to yourself. The story is paced like an ant pushing a brick across a desert, the characters are either completely unlikeable or act like they're from space, and the art design is like a painting of a fireworks display: lots of garish color and flash, but take one step to the side and you'll see it's completely two-dimensional.
I played Final Fantasy XIII because I am an unbiased critic--shut up, I am!--and I must give everything a chance to surprise me. After five hours, the only thing that surprised me was how I managed that much without chewing off my own face.
- He of the 12 picosecond boredom threshold: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I checked and yep, there's already erotic fanart of the FF13 characters
- Still, the bar's doing well not that you asked