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Critical Reception: Square Enix's  Final Fantasy XIII

Critical Reception: Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII

March 10, 2010 | By Danny Cowan

March 10, 2010 | By Danny Cowan
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More: Console/PC, Columns

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Square Enix's RPG sequel Final Fantasy XIII, which reviews describe as "the most technically impressive title in Final Fantasy history." Final Fantasy XIII currently earns a score of 82 out of 100 at

Joe Juba at Game Informer rates Final Fantasy XIII at 9.25 out of 10.

"Final Fantasy XIII has ascended to a nearly religious significance in the eyes of many gamers," he explains. "Final Fantasy XIII became more than just the next entry in this storied franchise. It became a symbol -- a promise for the future of gaming."

Juba says that the resulting product is a solid effort, despite falling far short of fans' unrealistic expectations. "It doesn't have any mystical powers or curative properties," he warns. "It has systems, just like any mortal RPG -- battle systems, leveling systems, and upgrade systems are all here, and they are exceptional. FF XIII is not the Game Whose Coming Was Foretold, but every aspect of the gameplay is precision-tuned to deliver the most technically impressive title in Final Fantasy history."

FFXIII's combat is particularly successful. "Since this series has long relied on a series of simple commands -- like attack, magic, and item -- to govern enemy encounters, I am surprised to report that combat is the greatest triumph of FF XIII," Juba praises. "Square Enix has overhauled the concept of battle, focusing more on guiding the tactical flow of the fight rather than each character's specific actions on a turn-by-turn basis. The result is a kinetic, fast-paced system that stands out as my favorite in the series."

Character customization is also compelling. "The process of leveling up your characters, called the Crystarium, is a great hybrid of the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X and the job system from Final Fantasy V," Juba describes. "You choose how each character progresses in his or her available roles, though the full Crystarium doesn't really open up until relatively late -- mainly because the plot dictates your party composition for the majority of the game."

These features make up for FFXIII's storyline, which Juba feels is weak in comparison. "The fact that FF XIII's other elements compensate for its disappointing narrative is a testament to the overall quality of the experience," Juba notes in conclusion. "Though reality doesn't match the myth, Final Fantasy XIII is a phenomenal RPG destined to be remembered as a technical milestone for the series."'s Jeremy Parish gives Final Fantasy XIII an A-, describing the experience as "a game at a crossroads."

"It's stranded at the intersection between the desires of an existing fanbase, the fading popularity of a genre, a legacy of cutting-edge visuals, and the rising cost of game development," Parish says. "It's a creation that displays the compromises of its development process at every turn, yet to its credit, it doesn't feel compromised. It's defined by creative tradeoffs, yet it embraces those potential shortcomings and transforms them into integral components of its design."

Series fans may be surprised at how different the game is from previous Final Fantasy titles. "It approaches the concept of 'role-playing games' with ruthless pragmatism, lopping off hunks of RPG tradition like a doctor operating on a terminally gangrenous patient," Parish notes, gruesomely. "Traditional towns are too difficult to manage in light of the demands of current technology and art design? Whack -- they're gone. Free-roaming exploration too difficult to implement properly? Chop -- there goes the nonlinearity. Micromanaging turn-based combat bogs down the pacing of battles? Snip -- let the AI handle it."

"On paper, these cuts make FFXIII sound awful: The total abandonment of everything that fans enjoy about the series," Parish continues. "Outside of a few areas late in the game, FFXIII is the complete opposite of Final Fantasy XII. It does display traces of Final Fantasy X and X-2 -- the former in its corridor-like world design, the latter in its fast-paced, hyperactive combat system -- but even there it cuts loose most of the familiar elements present in the older games in favor of something much trimmer."

"In practice, however, FFXIII is far from awful," Parish assures. "It's unquestionably a huge departure for the series, but taken on its own merits, it works. If the quality of a game is defined by how well it lays down a series of objectives and proceeds to fulfill them (traditions be damned), FFXIII is an unqualified success."

Wired's Chris Kohler scores Final Fantasy XIII at 6 out of 10. "The most important thing to understand about Final Fantasy XIII, the latest in the world's most popular line of role-playing games, is that it isn't a role-playing game," he notes. "Final Fantasy XIII isn't an RPG; it's something less."

"This version's gimmick is that it pares down the gameplay to a few basic elements: Turn-based battles against mobs of fantastic creatures and elaborate, movielike story sequences," Kohler writes. "But this time, Square Enix finally threw the baby out with the bathwater: The things that make RPGs feel so different from other games -- the sense of a grand, nonlinear adventure and the rising and falling action of an open-ended world -- are gone."

Kohler finds that Final Fantasy XIII's narrative is more successful than other elements. "XIII's story is good -- a little more human and less esoteric than in previous games -- but it's no Heavy Rain," he says. "It's still over-the-top and cartoony, more like an anime box set than a feature film. The pleasure still comes largely from the design of the characters, the world and the legions of grotesque creatures that inhabit it. It bursts with color and variety, taking you from gorgeous natural environments to futuristic cities."

However, Kohler notes: "Final Fantasy XIII is an almost entirely unbroken string of battles against mobs of monsters. One of the reasons this isn't an RPG is that role-playing games have some degree of variety. Previous games in the series, for all their differences, have been set in large, open-ended worlds that players can explore leisurely. You could find new towns and locations on the map, talk to people, buy new equipment and spend time hanging around the town fighting low-level monsters to raise your stats before tackling the next big dungeon."

Kohler continues: "In contrast, XIII is all big dungeons. The exit of each one is stitched directly onto the entrance of the next. You can never slow down and take the game at your own pace; it's a constant rush forward, with no time to deliberate or relax. This is the big mark in the loss column for Final Fantasy XIII, because the sense of rising and falling action, tension and release, is what made previous games in the genre uniquely enjoyable. That's why RPGs feel like epic journeys and not just really long videogames."

"For all its flaws, Final Fantasy XIII has a certain level of polish that makes it more engaging than its peers, even if they hew closer to the old formula," Kohler concludes. "The fact that Final Fantasy designers are so willing to experiment is a good thing, because it'll keep the genre from dying off. But Final Fantasy XIII should be considered a failed experiment. We can only hope it's a stumble on the path to a brighter RPG future."

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