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XIII Throwback Review — Style = Substance

The critique of “style over substance” carries an odd weight in reference to video games. First person shooters specifically can resign themselves to such dour aesthetics that any title that alters the playing field in its visual design can attain a cult following instantly. XIII is perhaps the most faithful comic game ever, relaying its tale of espionage and conspiracy largely beat-for-beat and presenting it in full cel-shading. The approach is adjacent to games like Ultimate Spider-Man, but XIII is entirely first-person, distinguishing numerous facets of its presentation. It also looks better 15 years removed from its release than any of its competition at the time. Where the monochrome realism of early 00s FPSes has crumbled through the lense of higher standards, the lack of definition and detail in XIII reflects its graphic novel origins and barely impacts how slick it looks today.

 

As a playing experience, XIII is inseparable from its origin. Every instance of spoken dialogue is additionally transcribed via speech bubbles. Comic panels appear within the gameplay screen offering character close-ups or exposition. Onomatopoeias of footsteps and explosions accompany their actions, the former especially helpful in stealth sequences. In-game art design mirrors moments in the graphic novel, expanding environments previously only seen in isolated comic stills. It’s an innovation that still stands alone in the scope of licensed video games, the game retaining its source’s visual design and mining highlights of the narrative so players can experience them vividly.

 

There’s virtue in the excess on display with embellishments like a three-panel animation accompanying perfect headshots truly allowing XIII to come into its own. The malleable comic book presentation never manages to grow tiresome, and counteracts trappings of the Unreal Engine 2 keeping the otherwise ordinary corridors relatively exciting to maneuver through. XIII’s levels restrict themselves to a small, linear scale, which would likely grate if it wasn’t for a decent location variety and an art direction that displaces levels from their otherwise ordinary arrangement.

The power of XIII is to make such a gruesome detail look sorta… pretty? Image courtesy of Amazon

The narrative follows the surface-level beats of the source material, but has been streamlined and largely exists as an excuse to shuffle you from one act of espionage to the next. You are Jason Fly, a wounded amnesiac loosely tied to the assassination of the President. An additional wrinkle in your identity is a tattoo of the numeral XIII, connecting you to a group of assassins (The XX) and framing you for the aforementioned murder. In this rendition, the narrative appears to have little ambition beyond encouraging a quest to figure out what the hell is going on, but its means of conspiratorial intrigue are more than adequate.

 

Production value is also of a noticeably high standard, with David Duchovny, Adam West, and Eve (that Eve) all on board for endearingly exaggerated voice roles, with Adam West specifically bringing the campy demeanor he naturally embodied. The soundtrack meanwhile is limited to less than an hour of content (and is looped regularly), but fixates on a slinky sort of downtempo cool that matches the coyly flashy style of the title. Unfortunately much of the incidental character dialogue is underpar, with enemies prone to acts of idiocy that run counter to the tone of the narrative.

 

It’s also a shame that the gameplay can fail to match the grace of the surrounding presentation. XIII is in the most apathetic way to frame it, fine to play. From top-to-bottom, XIII is essentially a dilution of the equally vibrant No One Lives Forever franchise. XIII is an FPS that carries itself like a stealth game, with basic stealth enforced in certain areas and encouraged throughout. There are unfortunately a lot of arbitrary quirks and limitations that keep it from being above average. The player’s ability to see each enemy footstep in real time may in fact be a bit too much power for the player, especially as the enemies often appear completely deaf to your own movement. There is also a fair degree of latency between enemies seeing the player and calling reinforcements, pigeonholing XIII as an incredibly casual stealth experience which may be for the greater good when less advantageous flaws creep in.

Float like a butterfly, sting like Butterbean

With the exception of the occasional crossbow or throwing knife, melee is the only surefire way to silently take enemies down. That is, if you’re close enough for the takedown function to prompt instead of a single emaciated hand chop. The latter is a surefire way to raise alarm and to add insult to injury, and the stealth takedown can only be triggered when players are standing up, forcing players to oscillate between the stealthy crouch and the oafish default stance. This carries over to hiding bodies as well, a tactic that can nonetheless be ignored for the bulk of the game as with the exception of a few defined stealth sequences enemies hardly notice their fallen peers.

 

The ungainly mix of player concessions and design restrictions comes to a head during a submarine stealth sequence that dangles rational design choice in front of you only to force you to rely on luck due to sloppy execution. The covert approach that is required of you involves anticipating the movement paths of enemies who are behind closed doors, a screen within the screen (or a panel within the panel rather) tracks their movement, but only after you’ve opened said door and immediately opened yourself up to being seen from numerous angles at once. In a more nuanced title this would perhaps be a clever dilemma ensuring players keep on their toes, but there’s no means of speculating distant enemy positions. The permafail brought about the moment you’re seen turns numerous encounters of on-brand espionage into low points of the title.

 

XIII is a lot more convincing the simpler its aspirations become. The game seems a lot more comfortable having you crash through glass ceilings via a rain of gunfire or ziplining across mountaintops to take out the klan than attempting to fully flesh out any of the quieter moments. Stealth initiated on the player’s terms and failed at the mere cost of additional reinforcements can be a refreshing pace amidst the gunsmoke, but the pivots towards required trial-and-error sneaking feel like a self-conscious means of adding depth that has no mechanic solid enough to rely on.

This is XIII in its element

Shooting is not especially impactful, but is redeemed by the expected visual adornments and the occasional oddball weapon choice of throwing knives or a harpoon gun (not to mention the tantalizing prospect of killing enemies in one hit with a chair). Firefights are dampened by broad hitmarkers and inert enemy AI, but surprisingly make the most of their constrained environments. Enemies are deployed with restraint and instead afforded decently sizable healthbars, only reaching its nadir during bullet-sponge boss battles, the likes of which were seemingly inherent to 00s FPS titles. The sizable healthbars afforded to enemies makes ringing off headshots even more satisfying. Enemies perched on skyscrapers and mountaintops outright encourage players to aim sharply and the animation that accompanies a well-executed headshot never gets old. There’s a decent degree of mobility to gunfights as well, mostly masterminded by the level design rather than expansive player movement but it adds a cinematic scope to levels that is redemptive to the gameplay.

 

This is partially made possible by the grappling gadget afforded to your character, a smaller detail nabbed from No One Lives Forever that goes a lot more smoothly. It can only be used in scripted contexts, but expands level design and leads to some unpredictable changes in location. The gadgetry present in XIII may be slightly superfluous, but it’s a more defined gameplay mechanic than the undercooked stealth design, and keeps the feeling of espionage intact even as you inevitably blow your own cover in combat repeatedly.

Let no caveat be ignored, XIII is a shallow game, but it remains stylistically unparalleled to this very day. Setpieces that are creative in of themselves are elevated with its visual design, the cel-shading still tasteful to this day. Given the homogeneity that continues to wreak havoc across FPS visual design, a title that exhibits this much interest in distinguishing its visual scope is as commendable as ever. XIII remains a beautiful vessel for decent gunplay, and within those confines it is still an interesting curiosity.

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