It's hard to write this series. I've repeated this same sequence for the past two weeks: I sit down, I start thinking about Final Fantasy XIII again, and this red mist blurs my vision. Half an hour later I emerge from my bloodrage to find out that I've eaten a half-pint of ice cream - I'm lactose intolerant, so this act is reserved for when I'm at my lowest point - and I have the latest Baka to Test to Shoukanjuuepisode on repeat while I'm playing Baldr Sky and setting robots on fire. Then I decide that this is an unsustainable behavior and clear my mind of all FF-related thoughts, playing games I actually enjoy until I fall asleep. In the morning, I tell myself that today's the day I finish the Final Fantasy rant, and this whole spiral
Well. Today, I decided I would finally break the cycle and write part two no matter what. I've had very little sleep thanks to an impromptu San Diego road trip that ended up with me getting 2 hours of sleep and beating the cleaning staff to the office, so I don't have enough energy to get angry. I have just enough juice in me to finish my next two points on why FFXIII inspires such hatred in me.
Part 3: The Story (or lack thereof)
Final Fantasy starts in media res, which is supposed to mean "In the middle of things," but in this case actually means "In a really unnecessarily confusing fashion." While it's cool and all to see Lightning ignore gravity and shoot a bunch of people, it takes them 4 chapters to even begin piecing together a cohesive story. People are being forcibly emigrated, there are a bunch of punk kids taking on the army and mostly winning, and the entire time you ask yourself "Who are these people, and why should I care?" The only way to get a solid view of what's going on is to take a break from the supposedly natural flow of the story and tunnel through the story encyclopedia to read a bunch of static text pages that tell you what's going on (I'll get into this point more in part 2).
If you don't set aside a few minutes to sift through the chapter synopses, you'll miss a lot of the details that slipped through the cracks and didn't make it into the dialogue. For example, Snow makes a few references early on to his "future wife" being inside the big prison while he's running around saving random people from the exile trains. Without any outside knowledge and without consulting the encyclopedia, I could only assume that Snow had a messiah complex and wanted to become some kind of rebel love icon: with his stolen air bike, he would swoop into the fray, say "Hey, that girl's hot!" and take her like it was a Conan book. The real story, where Snow is trying to rescue his boring-as-hell girlfriend for reasons you don't find out until chapter 6 or so and never find the urge to care about because Snow is a muscleheaded twerp and Sarah has as much personality as tissue paper, isn't nearly as interesting as my assumption - admit it, you'd play Final Fantasy: Rebel Love Messiah, just for the curiosity factor.
On top of the story requiring Cliffs Notes that the writers couldn't be bothered to, you know, put into the actual dialogue, there's a very herky-jerk feel to the pacing. You spend several chapters following barely sketched-out characters until the party finally meets up, and then just as suddenly everyone gets scattered for silly reasons (including a plane crash and one character deciding to stay behind so he can dig a hole) and you're back to the ludicrously poorly-paced hop from party member to party member as they wander their separate ways... or stay in place to hit the ground with a stick, in one case.
Come to think of it, though, it might not be the pacing of the story that's poor, though the development of it is shaky at best - there are two points in the game where the characters explicitly say "Why are we here?" "Looks like we're supposed to get stronger." What really makes the pacing seem poor is point #4:
Part 4: Way Too Many Goddamn Menus
People complain about FFX's Sphere Grid for making leveling a chore, but FFXIII was designed by someone with an enormous hard-on for spreadsheets. There is no other explanation for how gruelingly involved all of the menus are, and how badly they discourage you from ever playing the game. This point will have to be broken up into subsystems, because there's just too much to work with here.
4a: Leveling Characters in the Crystarium
First, let's talk about the Crystarium system, which is basically the Final Fantasy X Sphere Grid system if the Sphere Grid was designed by a cross-eyed Ecstasy addict. This system makes leveling an interminable chore by making leveling a six-step process at minimum.
1) Go into the menu after you think you've earned enough experience to gain some stats.
2) Select Crystarium.
3) Select which character you want to level.
4) Choose the job that they're going to level in.
5) Find your place in the Crystarium - if you backtrack to take one of the side paths, it's a pain in the ass side paths cost extra XP and are discouraged, but since the system only tells you where your cursor was last, it's hard to track down what you're missing, and the whole thing looks like a nightmarish rock candy exhibit.
6) Hold down a button and hold a direction, then wait for the line of XP to fill up. While this is easy at the beginning, it takes a nightmarishly long time to fill in the 20,000 XP crystals, and toward the end of the game it's more of a burden than a joy to earn 100,000 XP from a boss. It means you're going to have to sift through at least 12 more crystarium entries.
Do this for six characters, after every two fights, and you have a recipe for 10 hours of my life that I'm not getting back. It gets worse because when your party members are separated from each other, they still earn full experience. Normally this would be a reason for celebration and not derision, but you must realize that you have to do this every time the focus of the story shifts. Every time a subchapter ends, you're about to spend 10 minutes leveling up a character's 3 jobs (later 6 jobs, to the delight of Asperger's folks and the screeching despair ofj ust about everyone else) in order to play through about 5 fights, then jump to another group that will have even more time spent in menus trying to make sure they're ready for the next exciting chapter of "The Wonderful World Of Holding Forward And Hitting X A Lot." This wouldn't be quite such a piss-off if it weren't for:
4b: Leveling Weapons Individually
In a marked change from most other Final Fantasies, each character in XIII only has about 9 weapons available to them over the course of the game. You have to feed items to your items in order to level your items, which is a mildly nifty concept but again is pulled off in the most hideously spreadsheet-spooging way possible. Here's the proper process for leveling your weapon or accessory:
1) Choose the item you want to level.
2) Feed your item monster parts in order to build the XP multiplier (note that you tend to have to use entire stacks of one item to do this, and if you don't have enough you have to move on to the next stack of items, so this step and step 3 can repeat up to about 9 times).
3) Use the multiplier to feed your item real items that are worth lots of XP, but try not to give it too much XP because there's a level cap. After the level cap, you have to...
4) Feed your item a special item that allows it to evolve like a fricking Pokemon, which lowers the stats a bit overall but turns it a form that can start leveling again, meaning you go back to 2.
This system not only sucks the joy out of the game by making you spend far too much time in yet another leveling menu, but it makes new loot irrelevant, because the weapon you start the game with and the weapon you find in the last dungeon of the game are virtually the same with a few stat shifts and maybe an ability tacked on. So if you have an evolved Level * Gladius from the beginning of the game, you'll turn up your nose at any new weapon you get because you've spent so many damn resources on the first weapon that the new weapon will drop your stats by like 200 (and note that there are only three visible stats in this game: HP, Magic, and Attack, so weapons are even more important than usual). Again, on its own, this system isn't necessarily terrible, but combine it with the horrible grind of everything else and it turns into a trip to the dentist every time.
4c: Extra Setup Time Every Party Change
This one's a minor but very noticeable quality of life issue that actively discouraged me from ever swapping party members. You have six stratagems (Paradigms) that you can use per party. These are such staples as Attacker/Blaster/Defender or Enhancer/Jammer/Healer or any other number of variations on those 6 jobs. But every time you change out a party member for any reason, the game wipes out your saved setups, and replaces them with 3 automatically generated setups (Healer/Healer/Healer is popular with the computer, which slightly more interesting to watch than the bowel movements of a cow) and 3 blank spaces. It doesn't matter if you have used one setup for most of the game where you've had control over these things - you don't have control over your party makeup until chapter 10, by the way. The moment one character hits the bench, everything's thrown away and you have to choose at least 9 more jobs in the role-choosing menu. If you bring back the original character, even if it's just 4 seconds later, well, enjoy your extra time spent in menus because the game wipes your strategems again.
Ergh. Another 1800 words down the drain about how much I hate this game, and I still haven't dug into the horrendously bad encounter design, the sound design, and my laundry list of things that didn't make any of the six main categories. If you'll excuse me, I'm out of Ben and Jerry's and need to hate myself some more.