So I finished up Final Fantasy XIII the other night. By and large I enjoyed the game a great deal, but I was surprised by how clearly the game is divided up into discrete sections. My thoughts on each section are fairly different, so that’s how I’ll present them.
The First Third – FF10, but better.
(Chapters 1 – 10)
The rumors you’ve heard are true: FF13 is very linear. The game is broken up into chapters, and each chapter is like a standalone mission: you are assigned a party, dropped into a dungeon, and you fight your way through. It actually plays out very much like the first 80-ish% of FF10, except without the boring mopey bits and horrendous block puzzles. It’s not quite a straight line; every area has sidepaths to take and goodies to find, and in Chapter 3 the combat begins to evolve into something interesting (much more interesting than the use-this-character-against-that-monster combat of FF10, anyway).
Some of the individual chapters towards the middle of this section tend to drag, and Chapter 10 is essentially useless filler, but other than that it genuinely feels like a game that knows its focus and does everything it can to direct you into it. Most of the games I play and enjoy are like this, so I won’t fault it, even though the rest of the internet apparently will.
The Second Third – FF12 but prettier
Once you’re done with Chapter 10 you are dropped in a giant wide-open world filled with monsters way more difficult than anything you’ve seen so far, given some vague goal, and told to get to work. Welcome to the Steppe.
Chapter 11 takes place in a vast open space absolutely packed with monsters. You will be hopeless against many of these critters, and will eke out slim victories against others. The idea here is to explore, explore, explore. You press out in every direction, taking on the baddies you can, giving the rest a wide berth. You stumble across some faux-optional sidequests. You complete a few. You find others too difficult. You start making sense of your weapon upgrades. You advance in the Crystarium. Eventually you start making headway against challenges you couldn’t touch before. Progress is very organic.
If the first part of the game is the entirety of FF10 condensed, the second part is the same with FF12. Except where FF12 is sprawling, confusing and vague about its goals and challenges, sometimes to the point of being overwhelming, FF13 is more collected. Again, it’s about focus: you take a sidequest, you are directed to that sidequest on your map. You can either kill the monster or you can’t. Sidepaths are worth taking because treasures aren’t random (and therefore don’t suck). FF12 tried to be a single-player MMO; FF13 tries to be a single-player game with MMO sensibilities.
Oh, and you get chocobos. What kind of monster could say no to a chocobo?
You advance the plot here, too, of course. But rather than the “series of tubes” dungeons of the first part, the dungeons here are more open. You have to explore them, rather than just cross through them. One is a series of battles broken up by some mild puzzling. Another is a mass of caves with several long, branching paths. Very different from the hallways of the first ten chapters.
I spent as much time in this one chapter as I did in the previous ten combined, and didn’t regret a second of it. Indeed, you have to spend a lot of time here, preparing for the challenges that lay ahead.
The Third Third – FF… uh… let’s say 2, but… longer?
Finally you get to the endgame and… it’s a slog. There are the big, climactic battles we’ve all come to know and love, sure, and the final dungeon is one of the more imaginative “weird metaphysical realm” areas I’ve seen.
But it’s boring. It’s too hard. No, “hard” isn’t the right word. It’s too… it’s like trying to chisel through a brick wall. The game build momentum for ten chapters, set you loose for one massive one, then… stops you. Meet the immovable object.
I had a discussion recently where someone laid out the main problem with final dungeons in RPGs: these games spend 30-60 hours teaching you the quickest, most efficient way to get through combat, then populate the entire endgame with monsters that can’t be killed quickly or efficiently. I’ve played a lot of RPGs in my time, and I can say without a doubt this assessment is accurate. It’s surely accurate for FF13.
You meet a giant monster with hundreds of thousands of HPs. It can’t be staggered quickly. You slog against it, or you shut the game off — there’s no other option. You can’t run away from him, like you might in some other game, because he’s standing right in your way. You fight him for six minutes, take your meager CP rewards (which you don’t really need anymore anyway), and move on.
In the next room, you fight two of that guy at once.
The whole of the final two chapters is structured like this. Giant monster, different giant monster, both giant monsters together. The bigger fish eats the big fish etc. Any sense of momentum is lost as you’re just ticking off the battles until the game will let you win. You’ll get Game Overs, but more due to bad luck than lack of preparation. (And if you’d managed to get here without preparing, it’s not like you could go back and fix that, anyway. At least, not in Chapter 12.)
The final boss sequence was decent, if a little sloppy. He has over six million HPs, if that tells you anything about how ridiculous this game gets.
It took me a few hours to hammer my way through the final stretches of the game, and pretty much all of it was me thinking (sometimes out loud), “Jesus, just get on with it already.” It would have been more fun and every bit as “epic” if all the monsters had their HPs reduced by two-thirds. That would have been a great endgame. I suppose they have to keep up appearances, though.
So that’s FF13: great build-up, fantastic mid-game, falls apart at the end. I was excited for the post-game stuff, maxing out all my characters, building unimaginably powerful weapons, knocking out the last few ridiculously overpowered marks… but now I’m kind of not. The last dungeon with its chain-stunning fishmen and nigh-unkillable motorcycles seems to have broken me. We’ll see how I feel about it in a few months, I suppose.
In other news, I have a very strong desire to replay FF12 now.