Minor spoilers contained later in the post.
There are a number of inter-related problems that have plagued JRPGs from their inception. Unchallenging, repetitive random encounters. Grinding. Huge difficulty spikes at bosses. Loss of progress due to dying between save points. To its credit, Final Fantasy 13 does a very good job at avoiding most of this. How? Being able to see enemies on the field means you are rarely forced into an encounter. Setting, effectively, a per-chapter cap on character progression means that grinding is largely pointless. Since you can’t grind, the game designers are able to accurately anticipate party strength and design bosses accordingly. Since there aren’t persistent resources to manage between battles (everyone heals fully, and there isn’t a traditional mana pool) random encounters can have their difficulties raised on an individual basis without fear of attrition overwhelming the player. And finally, the instant “retry” feature means that even if things do go bad, you’re never punished with lost progress.
So I like the top tier of the design. What about the lower level, where most of the gameplay is – the battle system? There are three main innovations in it, and there’s nothing inherently wrong and a lot that’s right about them. The modified ATB system: amalgamating multiple actions into a single turn gives (mostly) enough time to think about and select actions, without the pace-killing pause between turns in a standard system. It also makes each individual turn feel much more meaningful. The stagger gauge: making combat strategy more meaningful than just “attack until it dies”. Paradigm shifting: focusing on the flow of battle, rather than individual actions. Obviously, it takes too long to roll all this out, but by around Chapter 7, the systems really started to feel good to me. But as time went on, and I wanted to get good, not merely proficient, at combat, cracks appeared that were increasingly hard to ignore.
First of all, the way information is presented: there are a couple of really very important things that are not as visible as they should be. For example: A fight is going poorly, so you switch to a Medic-heavy party to heal, or a Synergist-heavy party to buff. When should you switch back to offense? The answer is to recover as much as you can, and then switch back before the enemy’s chain gauge resets. But when is that? I can’t help you there, because you can only see the chain gauge of the enemy you’re targeting, and you can’t target an enemy when you’re a Synergist or Medic.
Then there’s the timing of paradigm shifts in general. The system rewards shifting immediately after characters finish their actions, but for two out of three party members, there’s no UI reference for when characters will perform their actions. Certainly there are audio and visual cues, but these are far too easy to lose in the clutter of battle.
Lastly, there are conceptual problems with a few of the job classes. Commando and Synergist have dual functions – Commando as damage dealer and chain-gauge maintainer; Synergist as offensive and defensive buffer – and the game is pretty incapable of picking the appropriate function at the appropriate time. It’ll cast defensive buffs when you’re fighting enemies that aren’t an offensive threat (particularly annoying since the game is able to guess how long a battle should take, and infer from there whether it’s worthwhile buffing defense). It’ll split up Commandos when you want them to focus their fire on taking down a single particular enemy. They’ll do single-target attacks when you’d hope they’d do area attacks. Again, these are not huge problems, but they’re really annoying when you’re trying to excel at the combat system, and 5-Star battles, and whatnot.
And then there’s the Sentinel role, which the game does terrible job teaching the player about the use of. They’re useful for very few battles, and outside of losing it a couple times, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to figure out ahead of time if they’re necessary. And this leads to the other problem – it’s a pain to redo the paradigm deck, and so it’s particularly frustrating to have to change everything for just one battle, and then change it all back afterwards. It feels so cumbersome. The way it resets them all upon a party change too is annoying.
Anyways, on to the story, the environments, the larger picture. Things really went downhill after Chapter 9. The only really great environment was the large, open plain with the giant turtles in Chapter 11. The story pretty much stalled out. Chapter 10 felt completely like filler. Chapter 11 was just weird. I understand they wanted a place for sidequests, something that resembled a more Final Fantasy 12-esque experience. A place to pause and catch your breath before going in to the finale. And it did this. But it also killed all the momentum that was building up from the previous chapters, and even the spectacle of the opening of Chapter 12 wasn’t enough to rebuild it. It didn’t help that pretty much every chapter felt about a third too long. I don’t really feel like I needed to encounter each enemy in every possible group-configuration.
I guess it’s not unusual for JRPG plots, and Final Fantasy plots in particular, to go off the rails in their last act, so the fact that I wasn’t really clear on the motivations of the bad guys, or what our heroes were trying to do to stop them isn’t necessarily fatal. But what the best of those other games had were memorable, recurring villains and secondary characters. Outside of Cid and Bartholomew, there’s not much doing on this front, and even Cid could be disqualified since his character fluctuates wildly at the whims of the plot. They certainly suffer in comparison to the supporting cast of Final Fantasy 12.
Lastly, from a basic storytelling perspective, I didn’t like that Fang and Vanille were the focus of the finale of the game. They are underdeveloped, or entirely absent, from the first half of the game, and all the conflicts of the first half, with the other four lead characters, are pretty much wrapped up by Chapter 9. If that’s the way they wanted to go, then Fang and Vanille should have been much more integrated into the first two-thirds of the game. Or they should have found a way to extend the arcs of the other four leads through the whole game.
So I guess I had a classic Chick Parabola experience with the game, both in story and gameplay. Slow start leading in to intriguing, and then very involving, middle, but then ultimately a collapse, and the systems show their cracks, and the story stalls and degenerates.