Gaming Fail – Final Fantasy XIII

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.

Any idea what's going on? Nope, us neither

Any idea what’s going on? Nope, us neither

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.

Expansive no?

Expansive no?

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…

Frantic and uninvolved combat hinders engagement

Frantic and uninvolved combat hinders engagement

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.

The first scene of the game - and it doesn't get any clearer from there

The first scene of the game – and it doesn’t get any clearer from there

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…

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About Paul Izod
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

  • FF13Fan

    This article is quite arrogant. Who cares if you have an degree in English lit. This was so out of left field for Square but it worked.
    Yeah you didn’t get much explanation in the gameplay of what the hell all the different l’cie things are but if you spent the time reading the minute details they go into in the explanations part of the menu then you find out a lot more and yes this can be counted as bad design but it isn’t really. Square basically said we can either make final fantasy with a Hideo Kojima style narrative or we can keep it simple and the players can read the more in depth details by themselves.
    By this article you should be doing a gaming fail on Metal Gear Solid or even Kingdom Hearts. They are crazy complex in story like FF13.
    Also the corridors thing is a BULLSHIT reason for not liking the game. What the hell did Final Fantasy X do? Corridors. The story was a terribad ‘love’ story as well.
    I think this article needs rewriting or the writer rethink what he has written. He has come across arrogant and probably only played the first 15hours of the game.

    • devronius

      @FF13Fan Most people want a story told by the characters, not through a historical document like FFXIII’s ‘codex’. There’s no emotional engagement when the characters are just along for the ride, without any interesting arcs of their own. FFX also had a problem with corridors, but it made NARRATIVE SENSE, because the characters were going on a pilgrimage along a specific path. Not to mention those characters were far less one dimensional than those in FFXIII. You’re right that they needed to move away from the Metal Gear Solid ‘too much information’ approach, but they instead went too far in the other direction. I played the game to the end out of respect for the series I love, but I left it cold and uninspired. I didn’t even feel I had overcome a challenge.

    • PaulIzod

      @FF13Fan with respect I was not being arrogant mentioning the degree. This was an illustrative point to explain I can understand complex narrative structure as I explain in the article. It’s not that I don’t understand the type of story telling mechanic, it’s just that I feel it is ineffective in its implementation. Also, I give specific reasons why the corridor mechanic is a perfectly valid complaint in this type of game. Indeed I dedicate 30% of te article to it so to dismiss it as ‘bullshit’ with no justification is somewhat flawed. Why do you feel the corridor mechanic works in a rpg such as this? How for sit benefit the game? I’m willing to listen to why I might be wrong but you have to give me a reason why I’m wrong

  • Kildo

    Loved it. The best episode since Final Fantasy X.

  • SirCrush

    Perhaps the MOST frustrating criticism I read on the internet in my 3 decade lifespan are those of FF13.
    Time and time again I read how the combat mechanics suffer over time compared to earlier entries….yet in earlier entries, copy/pasting your commands will win you the day from beginning to end yet in FF13, you must shift your approach to nearly EVERY battle to be successful, especially later in the game. And you must do it QUICKLY or suffer a death or low score, post-battle.
    Sometimes I think the popular thing to do is to berate FF13…it is one of the better RPGs ever to release on ANY platform, in my opinion.
    Popular to berate….among those who are too young and inexperienced in the gnere to compare it to anything else.
    Is it Skyrim or Oblivion or Mass Effect 2? No. But it isn’t meant to be nor ever should. THose games take the popularized FPS genre and mix it with Square’s ingenuity in game design. You’re welcome.

    • PaulIzod

      @SirCrush I’ll grant you that the combat certainly requires quicker reflexes than previous iterations, but I fear you’re tarring me with the same brush as you are anyone else who criticises the game. As I’m sure you can see from the article, I have a reasoned and structured justification for where I feel the game is let down. Its not a case of blindly saying its rubbish. In fact I clearly state its not a bad game. Also, while I’m not quite in my 3rd decade just yet, I have plenty of experience of the RPG genre (as you may notice from my Ultima series reviews). I do have context from which to judge the games. 
      Also, putting the combat to one side, which I can admit is certainly a matter of taste, surely you must concede the flaws in the narrative structure and environment builds?

      • SirCrush

        @PaulIzod I am sorry to take the tone I did in that comment but I keep reading such critique of the battle system when it’s one of the most brilliant innovations in the genre and it never seems to get tired!
        Regarding the rest of your points…sure, the linearity was definitely a turnoff and the maps themselves were, more times than not, ill-conceived. But they were so pretty! lol And I actually liked ALOT of the environmental builds in the game, especially toward the end.
        I also liked the narrative structure. Feeding players all that back info would’ve received much more ire from gamers than telling the story and having the minute details and backstory optionally readable on the menu. THe story itself was well-told, though not their greatest achievement in Final Fantasy. I guess that is more personal preference as well.
        I am not saying it is PERFECT, but FF13 was one of the most entertaining entries into the series, THere were even parts on 13-2 that blew me away. I just think 13 gets such a bad rap from gamers and even Final Fantasy lovers…but so did 12 and I saw brilliance in that one as well.

        • PaulIzod

          @SirCrush I would certainly argue that the story is very much NOT well told. The story itself is a compelling and interesting one when set out chronologically, but the fractured implementation with no context given and a reliance on codex entries for context renders this a moot point. The way the story is told completely robs the story of any impact, with the player unable to empathise with the characters as they have no understanding of their plight. Its a shame, because theres a great story under there, its just hidden behind a flawed and unnecessarily complicated and protracted narrative structure. 
          Believe it or not I wanted to like this game, I really did. I’ve tried to make excuses for it to myself, but I just can’t. While its not a ‘bad’ game per say, its just impossible to love or care about. It leaves you feeling unfulfilled, as if it was merely incidental. It doesn’t captivate you or make you love it like past iterations of the series and other standout examples of the genre. Maybe its a victim of the high standards of its predecessors, but its just underwhelming. 
          Thats the worst thing really, that it has the factors that could have made a great game but they botched it with poor implementation.

    • devronius

      @SirCrush The game might have been faster paced and require faster reflexes than older entries, but I certainly don’t remember changing my tactics particularly throughout the course of the game, except to add buffs/debuffs to my cycle of commands when they were unlocked, or the occasional switch to a multiple healer combination. In fact, sometimes the speed of the battles was detrimental, as the enemies would move faster than I could navigate the menus, and I was forced to use the auto-battle command in order to get attacks in quickly. While this certainly improved the pacing of the battles, it removed a lot of my control, and I began to feel like I wasn’t really playing much myself.

  • Slendercat

    Having played a lot of the Final Fantasy games, I honestly think that XIII was a solid entry in the series. The only huge complaint I had about it was the lack of an open world and other content outside of the main story. The battles weren’t a rehashed version of the previous entries, and when you got fast enough, you could customize your attack well. For me it wasn’t as much about telling them what attacks to use, but which paradigms to use, constantly switching my strategy to survive the next encounters. Grinding was fast and fun, and never felt like a chore-especially when you’re graded on your performance, stopping you from ‘going through the motions’ of a fight. Leveling up was similar to FFX as well, which was my favorite level system in any videogame. While it’s not my favourite entry in the series, I did enjoy the game’s narrative and themes more than most in the series, and the “Jumping around characters and use of flashbacks” were used in FFVI as well. I agree that there were a few things they could have done much better, but I don’t consider this to be nearly as terrible as “The Powerglove” or “Mindlink”, both wonderfully terrible gaming failures.

  • UgrinkoZvrkVeselica

    FF13, ff13… This franchise should be eutanised long time ago, 13 sequels and countless spinoffs…
    Sometime developers should take time off, FF7 was last FF that should be released. 
    We had 3 FFs in one generation(PS2-FF7,8,9 and couple of spin offs)
    OK, ne generation of gamers come every year but talk about hitting the dead horse or milking the cow….

    • Paul Izod

      Milking the dead cow? Welcome to the games industry my friend. If it makes money, they’ll keep on. Does it make for innovation and variety? nope, but if it didn’t sell they wouldn’t do it. I am far from an advocate of the modern FF games, but even i will admit they must have something about them, as they sell enough to be hugely profitable. that cant all be down to nostalgia.

      Oh and 8 was the best, by far 😉