(Note from Dom: I started writing this rant last week, but a combination of life, diarrhea of the pen, and blinding rage kept me from writing everything I wanted to write at once - this is now going to be a three-part rant about every design decision they made wrong in FFXIII. I don't expect to scare people off of buying this game, since at least 3 people I know have said "I'm going to buy it anyway, I don't care how bad it is" - but I just need to get this out of my system.)
Late last night, I decided to take a break after a nightmarishly busy month of moving and AOD 2010 prep work by sitting down for a half hour with Final Fantasy XIII. I had saved my game just before the end, and I figured that I'd earned a nice half hour of sitting down and watching the fireworks. Eighteen minutes later, I was done with Final Fantasy XIII forever - not because I'd beaten the game, but because the game had pushed me with so many horrible design decisions and uninteresting segments that I finally washed my hands it before I broke a controller.
So, a month and some 50 hours after I first cracked the game with low expectations (seriously, have you heard any of the insanely bad buzz this game has been getting? Trust me, it's all justified), I'm ready to write out everything that Final Fantasy XIII did wrong and why it was wrong.
The short answer on what went wrong: Everything. FFXIII was designed with diametrically opposed design goals, and succeeded at none of them.
The long answer
The long answer is a bit more involved, and I'm going to sum it up by saying that Final Fantasy XIII is the result of too many cooks throwing everything in the pot, while other cooks just take things away from the pot. What's left is a watery, sour monstrosity that can barely be called soup. I'll go system by system and pick apart what went right and what went wrong.
Part 1: Level design
The first thing everyone mentions about Final Fantasy XIII is the level design, AKA One Long Tunnel. Honestly, I don't mind the tunnel thing - I'm used to visual novels these days, and those are some of the most linear experiences you'll ever see. But you have to have a damn good game to support the tunnel, and while Final Fantasy X was also one long line for the first half of the game, it had an interesting story to prop up the rather dull journey, and it rewarded you for your patience by opening itself up in the later half and making a huge number of areas more accessible than before. Final Fantasy XIII finally gives you a more open world in chapter 12 (out of 13), but even then it's just one big grassy plain with some tentacles of even more linear dungeons radiating out from the center. So you're left with some very pretty but uninteresting "hold forward" dungeons for 90% of the game.
Even worse is the fact that a lot of these dungeons extend the amount of time you spend in them with long periods of dead time and criminally underdeveloped gimmick mechanics. The biggest culprit in the wasted animation department is the "treasure chests" of the game, which are floating orbs that bob up and down to grab your attention. When you open one of these, your avatar stops, turns, pokes the orb with one hand, and after a flash of light, you get your item. It's about two seconds longer than your average "Treasure chest opens, you get your stuff" animation from other RPGs; it seems like a minor gripe at first, but after a few hundred chests you start to despise the animation as you just want to get on with the game, especially combined with all sorts of artificial dead time as you wait for bridges to extend and platforms to float lazily into place - one dungeon is just a series of buttons and extending bridges, and it's excruciating to combine that with the interminable periods of running without anything happening - and there are a lot of those segments.
A final frustration is that you see occasional hints of a more involved experience than "walk until you get to the next monster," but they take the form of half-assed gimmicks that just don't work. A prime example of this is one dungeon that tries to play around with a rainy-sunny weather pattern, with different monsters that appear depending on which switch has been pulled. But because they didn't develop the concept very well, it was just as easy to keep running forward as it was to play along and hit the switches, which wasted a good 15 seconds every time I hit them as the game needlessly cut away to the sky and showed it being overtaken by the new weather pattern.
Combine that with the "We didn't know how to do towns so we gave up" and all of the window dressing feels like curtains thrown over a strip mine to try and disguise the mess.
Part 2: Mind-Numbing Repetition and Inexcusable Dead Time
Related to the piss-poor level design is a massive, unbelievable oversight by the developers: the game they worked so hard to make so pretty is just plain boring. The combat system is mostly automated, with you only taking control of one character, and there is potential within the combat system for things to be interesting - some fights are a dance of role switches, burn phases, fortification phases, and so on. But more often than not, you just go Attacker/Blaster/Healer or Attacker/Blaster/Blaster and spam the X button for seven minutes. Yes, a good portion of the dungeon encounters are designed to last upwards of seven minutes each. They're not particularly interesting minutes, either - in many cases, the enemies will be resistant to physical attacks, so your Attacker will forgo the visually interesting and painstakingly crafted physical attack chain in favor of standing in place and waving his/her arms around like a moron. It's even worse as a Blaster, Healer, Enhancer, or Jammer, because you never actually move. The camera stays still, you stand still, and all of that talk about how every battle is like watching a pre-rendered movie from another game turns into "Every battle is like watching grass grow."
God forbid that you try and play a Defender, which, by the way, the game forces you to do a couple of times. The only commands you have as a Defender are "Taunt" and "Defend," with a "Revenge" option available that can barely break the monotony of having to watch your character make "come on" motions and then curl up into a fetal ball for minutes at a time. There's a part of the game where you only have Snow and Hope in your party, and for that segment of the game, I had to stand there and watch a ski bum get beaten like a pinata for 4 minutes before I could actually take any offensive actions, just because the plot forced me to field a terrible team that wasn't capable of generating an offense against more than one person at a time. It was soul-crushingly boring watching minutes upon minutes of "Taunt" "Taunt" "Taunt" "Taunt" and "Defend" "Defend" "Defend" "Defend" while I had to wait for the AI partner to do actual damage. I'll get into the combat system in a lot more detail in the next portion of this rant, which is already way too long and deserves to be longer.
The last part of my kvetching about how boring portions of the game is the sheer repetitiveness of the subquests. In Chapter 11 of the game, you finally are plopped into something resembling an open map (it's just a giant plain). You finally have some subquests to do here, too - but all of the subquests are exactly the same: "walk across the map and kill this guy." There is no variation, there is no break of pattern, there's just walking to a new place that looks like the last place you were in, then killing a monster that says "mission" over its head. Even the points where they tried to break up the monotony seem like colossal failures, like the abortion of a chocobo-finding mini-game that basically involves running in a circle and spamming X (this is a theme, by the way), or the mech mini-game that mostly involves holding forward and ignoring everything. Other than that, there is zero variation in the game play. Look forward to 60 hours of trying to train your pet to hit X for you, with occasional actual interaction when you have to change jobs - then it's back to hitting X a lot.
Oh boy! Next time I talk about such exciting things as boss design, menu design, narrative structure, and the most annoying sounds you'll ever hear out of your speakers.