Across every genre of entertainment there are specific titles or releases that become synonymous with failure, that in the eyes of fans and critics alike embody the worst that the genre has to offer. They become the universal butt of any joke in that medium, the yardstick against which every other poorly-received release is measured. Movies have Highlander 2: The Quickening, for example. So derided is that film that its spawned a number of fan-edited remakes to try and salvage it.
The funny thing is, until recently gaming didn’t really seem to have such a thing. Yes, there are a great many games that fans were embarrassed about, that made them cringe when confronted with; games like BMX XXX and the like. Yes, there have been plenty of truly awful games that have received comprehensive negative reaction; games like Kane and Lynch. But there never really seemed to be a game that achieved that mythical meme-like state of universal derision.
Until, that is, Square Enix unleashed Final Fantasy XIII upon the world.
The reaction to the game was, more or less, completely negative. Now, when gamers are trying to emphasise how bad ‘Insert title here’ is in their own hyperbolic way, they will invariably break out the ‘as bad as Final Fantasy XIII’ tag.
But how did it come to be so? We’ve all seen the videos (there were enough of them about come release date after all) and it actually looked pretty good. What could have happened to cause such widespread revulsion?
Well, the answer is execution: of narrative and of gameplay.
Let me start by stressing something; Final Fantasy is NOT the worst game ever released.
It’s not. No… shut up at the back… it’s really not.
For one, the aesthetics are beautiful, as even the most ardent of detractors must admit. The environmental design and character models are breathtakingly well-realised and feel genuinely iconic. You see an image from the game and can immediately peg it as being from Final Fantasy XIII; always a sign of a good design choice. The mechanics work as they are intended and I never encountered a single bug in my time playing it. Whatever criticisms of the game you can have (and believe me I’ll be coming to those in a second) the game itself is competently put together and in my eyes it’s obvious that there could have been a truly great game lurking in there, if gameplay and narrative decisions had been better judged.
As for those decisions, I would divide them into 3 separate areas: Combat Mechanics, Narrative Structure and Level Design.
Let’s cover off the level design first. While, as I said, the environments are eye-bleedingly pretty, the real problem is contained in the structure of how the various environments are realised. They’re nothing but glorified corridors; a guided and railed linear path set out for you. I know this has been covered a lot in game reviews already, but I think it’s important to look at why that’s such a big problem, especially for a Final Fantasy game.
The great Final fantasy games (the ones most beloved to the fan base) all had, to a greater or lesser extent, an open world set up, even if only at various points in the game. This is important, as (and forgive me if I get on my soapbox for a moment) it helps create a sense of scale and consequence. RPGs of the type Final Fantasy games are have always been about a grand purpose, a coming together of individuals against an overwhelming force to save a world. Yes, the games centred around the interpersonal relationships between the main characters, but the importance of these relationships was within the context of the opposition they faced and the scale of the world they inhabited. This was further enhanced by the feeling of choice, that it was the player’s decision as to where to go and what to do. This meant that the player felt responsible for what was going on and, thus, was more likely to build a vested interest in the characters and events.
Lose that and the impact of the narrative is lessened considerably. Put simply, with lesser consequence comes lesser investment and immersion. Think of Final Fantasy VII, possibly the most widely regarded of the lot; would it have had the same impact if you set it in a small village and gave the player no choice of where to go or what to do? I know that even in the open world aspects of previous games you didn’t really have a choice per say, but it’s the illusion, the suspension of disbelief, that is key here and Final Fantasy XIII really fails to keep that illusion alive.
The second aspect that contributed to the consternation around the game is the combat system. Moving away from the traditional turn-based combat mechanic of JRPGs of the past, Square Enix looked to switch up the combat with a hybrid system. Not truly real-time and not truly turn-based, the combat seems to fall between the two stools, retaining the failings of both systems while retaining the benefits of neither. The player’s gauge fills progressively higher, allowing for actions to be taken, meaning there is a semblance of turn-based mechanic still in place, of a sort, but the options are severely limited, meaning that tactical thinking in a considered manner is more or less impossible. This makes the combat feel somewhat frantic, but not in that adrenaline-filled positive way. Yes, I’m aware that the ability to shift ‘paradigms’ (combat roles) mid-battle allows, nay, requires tactics, but it all feels like a poorly implemented solution to a problem that wasn’t ever there in the first place.
The main problem with the combat is that you never really feel particularly in control, like the game would rather you didn’t get involved. It’s all rather unintuitive and, short of coming bundled with a peripheral that slaps the controller from your hand and shouts ‘Not for you!’, I’m not sure the game could make you feel less welcome.
And if I have to explain to you why an un-involving and un-immersive combat mechanic is a bad thing in a combat-oriented RPG then we have a problem…
The final, and possibly most problematic, issue with Final Fantasy XIII is the narrative structure. The story is baffling in the extreme. Now, admittedly that is more or less a given for this series, but in previous titles you at least got a basic grounding of exposition at the beginning part of the game to set the scene. In XIII you get none of that. You start off watching characters you don’t know anything about, talking about things you know nothing about (and, as such, can’t care about) in a place you know nothing about. This continues unabated for more or less the whole game. It’s infuriating and frustrating to say the least.
The story is essentially told as a series of disjointed flashbacks in apparently random order with no logical sequencing. Now, before people accuse me of just not ‘getting’ how the story works or being too stupid to follow, I have a degree in English Literature, I can follow a complex narrative.
The problem here is that the player is given no grounding from which to work. It’s fine to have an abstract narrative that develops and unravels, with things that are shown earlier being understood better later down the line in the context of later events. The problem is that in XIII the player has no basis from which to build, no basic knowledge or understanding. If the game was set in a familiar world or environment that we knew about, this narrative style may have worked as we would have had a basic knowledge of the context from which to anchor our understanding. The problem with the world of Final Fantasy XIII is we have no knowledge of the world of Cocoon at all, which means any references to various aspects of it have no relevance or context to us. This leaves the player narratively unanchored, unable to become invested in the story and, thus, prevents them buying into the characters’ plights.
Final Fantasy XIII could have been great. It should have been great. When you get down to it, the setting is intriguing and (stock characters aside) the story is actually a compelling one when laid out chronologically. What lets it down is its implementation; it smacks of a developer being too clever for their own good, trying to be artistic for the sake of artistry alone and neglecting to consider the perspective of the uninitiated player. On top of this, the combat mechanic prevents the player enjoying the gameplay and the level design and narrative structure prevent them understanding or immersing themselves in the world as a whole.
Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a Gaming Fail because it’s a bad game, far from it. It’s a Gaming Fail because it’s a failure of design and in many ways that’s worse. Much like Icarus, Square thought they knew better than perceived wisdom, flew to close to the sun and came crashing down into the mess that is Final Fantasy XIII…
Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org