Unlucky XIII?
By Charles On 11 Nov, 2011 At 04:33 PM | Categorized As Editorials, Featured, Xbox 360/Xbox One | With 0 Comments

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Last night I completed my 17th hour in Final Fantasy XIII. This on its own isn’t exactly noteworthy, especially in a 70 hour game. But the reason this struck me as significant is because I logged this hour a full 6 weeks after buying the game. 17 hours of story in over 42 days- for me this is something of a record. Final Fantasy XIII is the slowest progress I’ve ever made in an RPG.

Thanatos, I choose you!

Now before I come off as sounding either elitist or lazy, I need to clarify two points: while I’ve been playing XIII, I’ve also been playing Persona 3 on my PSP, a game that I just recently passed the 60 hour point in.  These games rarely compete for play time, one being portable and the other being console, and are often indulged at different times during the day. Of course there is some overlap, but generally I manage to log time in both games in the same 24 hour period. So it’s not that I don’t devote the time to progression. But when I’m playing XIII, I frequently find myself staring at the clock, whereas with P3, I often forget what time it actually is.

Second, I don’t dislike Final Fantasy XIII either. I know the game has come under a lot of fire from long-standing fans of the series (which I am, I started with 1 and went down the line), but I do not share their views. The game is hardly perfect, but it does hold my attention more than XII did. It is a beautiful game to wander around in. I like the battle system, though it did take some getting used to. And unlike many, I do not mind the linear nature of the early chapters, as it keeps me focused on a tangible goal. It’s hardly perfect, but then again what is?

So why then, have I managed to progress so far in one game, and so not far in the other? Well, it comes down to one major point: Final Fantasy XIII gives me no motivation to proceed.

Worst Cliffhanger Ever.

Let me favor you with a story. About 11 years ago, I came back from a brief stint in Ireland with a strong desire to play Final Fantasy VII. I had purchased the game for the PC, and low and behold, I received one of the infamous “bugged” copies, that crashed at the crater each and every time. And, being in Ireland, where apparently Final Fantasy VII didn’t exist at the time, I had built up a fairly rabid desire to pound Sephiroth into submission, presumably for making me wait so long to see where all this was going. So there I was, not even a week back home, and I ran out to Target with a wad of cash and one single goal: get a Playstation and finish the game.

I beat Final Fantasy VII in 10 days, give or take. That first day, I think I logged 9 hours easy, and settled in around 4 a night until I was done. But it still only took 10 days to complete the story. I moved on to Final Fantasy VIII, and finished that in about 20 days, if not a bit less. Final Fantasy IX took me a month, but I was taking my time on that one. Notice a trend here? All three of the PSX era titles took me less time to finish than I’ve currently spent playing XIII.

So why was I able to blast through them so quickly, while I’m currently taking my sweet time with XIII? Let’s look at some of the often-cited reasons.

Sazh Katzroy: Inventor of the Choco-fro

1: I don’t care about the characters or story. This is an unfair assertion to make. No, XIII does not have the best character development. Snow annoys the hell out of me. So does Hope, whom I’ve taken to calling “Jr. Tidus.” I’m neutral with regards to Vanille, because Im fairly certain there’s more to her than I’m currently seeing. But those three aside, I genuinely like Lightning, Fang and especially Sazh. I like those three characters more than any in a recent FF game. Not perfect, but definitely a step up from Squall’s sulky little emoverse, or Vaan’s protagonist-identity crisis

Same goes for story. XIII doesn’t have a story on par with, say, VI, but then again, no other game in the series does. VI, often heralded as the high point in narrative of the series, was one game, released over a decade and a half ago, when Square was top of the RPG market, but still not a world power. It was a dense, woven tapestry of conflicting personal stories mixed in with a madman villain and spread out over two worlds, one of which was created when the heroes failed to save it. In contrast, the story of Cocoon and Pulse seems lacking, or just lurks outside of range, almost like filler to the nice graphics. But that doesn’t mean its terrible, just inferior to a game that redefined the RPG genre. Which, in all honesty, is not a fair comparison to make.

2: The system sucks. Also, not a fair comparison to make. Mechanically speaking, I’ve had more fun playing XIII than I did playing most of the series. Yes it did take some getting used to, and I found the paradigms annoying at first, but once I started treating boss fights like raid encounters in World of Warcraft, they got infinitely easier. And while the system is punishing to mistakes in paradigm shifts, it’s certainly not impossible, and allows me to use those raid skills I developed in the past 2 years for something other than chatting while healing. I’ve been told the game gets a lot harder after Chapter 11 (I’m on 9 right now), but I welcome the chance. At least I get to keep myself busy paying attention instead of just entering commands.

Plus I love, and I mean LOVE, the Crystarium. Best progression system since the Sphere Grid.

By night, he plays in the goth band "Ancient Mother."

3: It’s all style, no substance. Yes, this is true, but so were VII, VIII and X. Any time there’s a huge graphics upgrade, substance in storytelling is sacrificed for flashy graphics. As fondly recalled as VII is, it got a huge amount of that love from NOT being 2D sprites on a world map. The story is good, and extremely well known, mixing mythology and politics together into a grand narrative of a dying world and the personal motivations of a greedy megacorporation. But how many people remember that versus seeing that train scene in the opening? Or watching Sephiroth walk through the flames of the town he destroyed? Or seeing WEAPON get blown apart by the Sister Ray? Final Fantasy VII staked it’s claim on being a visual experience, and that visual experience is what gives it charm. And did I forget to mention Sephiroth? Because he had a lot to do with it.

So yes, XIII does place priority on being bigger and better, and flashier, than any other game in the series. But that’s been the rule since it moved from Nintendo to SONY, so I’m not exactly citing that as the main reason.

4: It’s not a Final Fantasy/JRPG/what I expected. Honestly, I don’t even know what constitutes a JRPG anymore. Originally it was the turn-based system vs the more action-oriented fare released by US developers. Then it was the depth of storytelling. Then it was the incessant need to grind levels/skills/whatever. Personally, I don’t think the term JRPG matters anymore, because such designations have become irrelevant. Games evolve. The world globalizes and gets smaller. The hallmarks of the RPG are levels and experience. That’s about it. XIII has both.

As for the remark that it’s not a Final Fantasy: well, given that there isn’t supposed to  be any continuity between the games, and each has it’s own self-contained story, then really none of them are. Final Fantasy is a brand name, not a genre.

Okay, now that’s out of the way. None of those reasons are why I find myself inching along in a game that by all means I should have devoured and put away already. So I’m back at Square one: why is it that this game hasn’t motivated me to blast through it like I did with previous installments?

Look Ma, we're retro!

Maybe I’m just getting old. No, were that the case I wouldn’t be able to log hours in any game, not just this one, and I’ve already mentioned addictions to WoW and stacked up progress in Persona. Could I just be getting disillusioned with Final Fantasy as a series? No, because I popped in V last week for the long car ride to Nekocon, and have already managed to log 7 hours in that. So what is it that’s holding me back?

I guess in the end, that’s the real point. Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a bad game, but it’s not a stellar one either. Unlike Persona 3, which uses an alternating system of classic JRPG dungeon grinding and item fusion with a day-to-day school sim style of plot progression, XIII just seems common. Unlike V, which requires WoW level character maintainence, and thrives on grinding to acquire new skills and jobs, the leveling system of XIII feels too much like what’s come before, flashy clothes notwithstanding. Yes, the battle system is nice, especially when compared to other entries in the series, but fighting always gets tedious after a while. And unfortunately, while I don’t hate the story, what it does give us hardly has the same hooks as the narratives in IV, VI, VII or IX. Final Fantasy XIII isn’t bad, it’s just completely ordinary, which unfortunately is the exact opposite of the main reason why Square started making games in the first place- to not be ordinary.

So in the end, it’s not that I dislike XIII, it just lacks anything that jumps out and screams “Play Me!” Which is also why I haven’t been feeling the overwhelming need to.

About - Charles has written for ROG since 2010. An anthropologist and culture lecturer, he has previously been a featured panelist at Anime Boston and Otakon, the first educational guest at Anime USA, and frequently speaks at cons up and down the East Coast. He received his MA in cultural anthropology in 2011, and currently writes on convention culture, sacred culture in media, otaku identity and mythology.

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