When you launch Final Fantasy XIII, before the title screen fades in, a message appears: “Press any button to continue.” Or maybe that message is the title screen. That would be fitting for a game whose concept of player agency is so dull that you can conquer large portions by mashing one button. You don’t play FF13; you’re grudgingly invited to participate in it.
The first 20 hours of FF13 are like watching Star Wars’ Death Star trench scene in excruciating slow motion. You march down tunnels, corridors, alleys—anything with high walls to keep you in the pipeline. It isn’t just linearity that kills the fun. The excellent FF10, created by the same design team, also tended to proceed in a straight line. The real problem in FF13 is a pervasive disdain for players. The occasional battles peppered throughout the first few chapters are thinly veiled busywork, designed to kill time between hundreds of cutscenes. Those cinematics tell an imaginative tale, but in the most laborious manner possible. The story chronicles six characters—like rogue soldier Lightning and mourning father Sazh—who were marked for an unclear destiny by a self-serving race of demigods. Establishing that single-sentence premise takes the better part of a day.
Like FF12 before it, FF13 streamlines battle by minimizing commands and menu-digging. But while FF12’s Gambit system added an intricate layer of high-level strategy to combat, FF13 only subtracts. You assign a stock RPG role to each character—berserker, healer, tank, etc.—and watch them go. The computer controls two of the three characters in a battle party, and for the third, you’re strongly encouraged to engage an auto-battle option that chooses commands for you. In most cases, your work is limited to switching the party’s job assignments on the fly. This is called Paradigm Shift, a corporate buzzword that nicely encapsulates the system’s stultifying monotony.
Eventually, FF13 opens up its world, though nothing in it approaches the boundless vistas of, say, FF12 or FF6. At long last, you’re given permission to determine your party’s makeup and explore the combat system’s modest possibilities. But this fun comes only after 20 hours dominated by tedium with little payoff. The improvement—the epiphany that the player really does matter—comes too late to rescue the first major misstep of the main Final Fantasy series.