FINAL FANTASY XIII
Final Fantasy XIII is the most finely polished turd I have ever played. My score is tethering just on the edge between Recommended and Not Recommended. But thanks to the production values I can’t deny I had a reasonably good time with the game. Nobody was phoning it in during the production of this game. The problem is, every design decision in the game from the combat system, exploration and level design were shaped around the story. They’re all there to support it. Unfortunately it’s no exaggeration to call the story a complete mess.
It takes about 20 hours before you can answer the simple question: “What is this game about?”. It’s not like nothing happens before that point, but it has a laser focus on the characters, without explaining anything about the world it takes place in or what’s going on. This section of the game was the best, even though it was confusing. It did at least contain drama. It had glimmers of brilliance here, like a character driven to suicidal despair in a way which felt believable. In scene after scene it tried to be touching, and felt earnest. I liked that.
In the second half of the game this all fades away. Focus is shifted from the character to the “plot”. Things start to happen, it’s going somewhere. But all the characters freeze in development. Everyone in the cast had multiple layers of issues in the first half. They were all maintaining a facade, with deep regrets over how their lives had turned out. Things which in a good story would be dealt with in a satisfactory way before the end. Instead they’re all dropped. Other things take center stage, and the story starts to feel hollow. I remember the writers of Stargate SG-1 referred to certain episodes as “plot driven” or “character driven”. The plot driven episodes were always boring pieces of crap. This is how the second half of Final Fantasy XIII feels. Things happen on screen, but it's so vapid I start to question what I'm doing with my life. Not the kind of experience I'm looking for in a game.
The shoe really drops at what was clearly intended to be the emotional low point at the end of the second act. The place you visit, the meaning it should have for the characters just doesn’t exist in the script. The environment, the enemies, and the music do their best to create a feeling of loss. The writing here is simply a disaster. It doesn’t acknowledge the scene before you. Characters are as cheerful as ever, when they should be screaming at the sky. It should have been the scene the game had been building up to the entire game. The payoff for everything that had gone before. Instead there’s nothing. Just the vague intent of what they were aiming for based on the work everyone else on the team put in for the environment.
Playing it I got the impression everyone involved believed they were making the best Final Fantasy ever. The designs, the music, the level of technical expertize are on the highest possible level. It’s a game where it feels like the negative response came as a genuine surprise to the developers. On paper, every element they’ve included in the game are the ingredients of a classic. Did they realize the wreck they were making?
The game deserved better than this. It’s possible they noticed the problems midway through production. But when you notice too late, there’s nothing you can do. You have to do it right from the start. Changing course is incredibly expensive, both in time and money. Whoever was responsible for saying that the script was “good enough” did it too soon. A single critical component ruined the entire game. I pray they don’t make the same mistake with Final Fantasy XV.