There comes a time in life where change is inevitable with most things. Growing up as a Final Fantasy fanboy, starting from its stateside SNES entries meant that there would likely come a time where the tried and true series formula would morph into something different, whether that be from fan feedback, developer/shareholder desire, or both. What began in Final Fantasy X as a shift in design philosophy really came to a head with the 13th mainline installment with its action-oriented combat system and strong linearity.
Gone were the days of traversing an overworld, etc, and in its place was something entirely different than what was offered in the previous 12 mainline games. Upon the game’s initial release, it was simply too much for my old-school nature to handle, which led to me abandoning it for a solid decade. But I love the Final Fantasy franchise, and ever since that day I’ve told myself that one day, I would return to the world of Final Fantasy XIII and really give it a fair shot – and today is that day. Was the experience as bad as I had feared, or did I perhaps misjudge the game at first sight?
Final Fantasy XIII takes place on Gran Pulse and a floating continent within its atmosphere, Cocoon. While Gran Pulse has existed for eons, Cocoon was created just over a millenia ago and is governed by massive mechanical entities know as the fal’Cie, whom not only provide basic necessities like food and water, but also social and political assistance as needed. They are basically considered Gods, and their words and instructions are respected and carried out with that in mind. The fal’Cie are not exclusive to Cocoon though, as they also populate Gran Pulse itself.
However, Cocoon and Gran Pulse below it have never seen eye-to-eye, so much to the point that each location’s fal’Cie will sometimes bind followers to their will by way of a special brand. Now regarded as a “l’Cie”, these marked people must complete an ordained task known as a “focus”, otherwise they are destined to transform into the lifeless husks known as a Cie’th. While Cocoon’s “Sanctum l’Cie” are essentially revered as heroes, l’Cie from the Pulse world below are considered extremely dangerous, and any sort of contact with them or their fal’Cie counterparts is considered a serious, unforgivable crime in Cocoon.
This entire framework leads up to the opening sequence of the game itself, where the government of Cocoon is purging Bodhum, a city in Cocoon where a Pulse fal’Cie has been discovered. No women, men, or children are spared in the purging process – the entire population of Bodhum is exiled to Gran Pulse below. On a train designated for the deportees, you take control of Lightning before quickly discovering that the “Purge” was really an excuse to kill everyone in cold blood. It is from that point forward that you realize how terrified all people are of the whole fal’Cie / l’Cie relationship, and how much the people of Cocoon loathe Gran Pulse. But should the mass hysteria be taken at face value, or is there more to the whole situation than meets the eye?
Still with me? Applause is due if so, because the first hour of Final Fantasy XIII can be quite difficult to understand without the accompanying in-game datalog. The game gives you the bare minimum of information organically through cutscenes and events, and then expects you to pick up the slack by burying yourself in the massive amount of datalog entries thereafter. And the truth is, once you understand the terminology that is vomited at the beginning en masse, the datalog entries only become supplementary to further expand your knowledge of the lore rather than being almost mandatory like in the beginning.
Simply put, a better job could have been done defining the staggering amount of terms and phrases thrown around in the first section of the game without you having to resort to digesting it via datalogs, or from piecing it together on your own (but only after playing for several hours). I like comparing it to a friend that has a conversation with you about someone that you know nothing about, but they speak to you as if you are more than acquaintances. I get that having to spell out everything in a cutscene is not always the way to go, as it often can be overkill or entirely unnecessary.
However, the fact that Final Fantasy XIII uses so much obscure terminology right at the beginning without providing ample context organically makes it difficult to even care about what is going on without you first resorting to the previously mentioned datalogs, which is a genuine shame because the religious and political undertones that are prevalent throughout the story are quite interesting indeed.
The odd pacing in Final Fantasy XIII is not exclusive to actual story itself either, and it certainly does a number on the game’s characters right out of the gate. You might grow to like (or at least tolerate) some of the cast, but only after getting knee-deep into the story. Lightning starts out like a female Cloud before kind of developing into her own thing, but I didn’t care for her at all in the beginning. The same can be said about every other character, except for maybe Sazh. I mean come on, the dude has a baby chocobo riding shotgun in his hair! He’s like a futuristic version of Radagast, and that is just plain awesome.
By far, the best part of Final Fantasy XIII is the combat system, which honestly shocked me considering I distinctly recall despising it upon experiencing it the first time. On the surface it appears to be a massive departure from the franchise’s turn-based roots, but it really is just a more modern take on the ATB system that has more or less been in place since its inception in Final Fantasy IV. Various attacks, spells, and abilities expend a certain amount of segments in your action bar, and can either be fired off individually or chained together in quick succession. All enemies feature a “stagger” meter that, upon being filled, allow you to deal a massively increased amount of damage for the duration of the stagger. While the requirements for filling the meter efficiently can vary from enemy to enemy, the general idea is to chain attacks on the same enemy until you cause them to stagger.
Although up to three characters can grace any battlefield, you can only actively control one at a time while the other two execute commands based on their current role. Despite the nontraditional names granted to each role, the familiar tank, healer, DPS, and support archetypes all make an appearance in some form here, and serves as a primary component of the battle system itself in the form of the Paradigm system.
In the beginning, each character has access to 2-3 different roles, though eventually will have access to the entire set. In any given battle, your initial loadout might be Leader DPS (Commando) and two DPS (Ravager). That is, until the going gets tough and you require some immediate healing (Medic), buff/debuff support (Synergist/Saboteur), or a meat shield (Sentinel). With the paradigm system, you can build out a number of combinations that can be switched between in the midst of battle, vastly expanding your possible toolkit for any given situation.
Don’t let the amount of customization bother you, as each role serves a purpose and offers a vast amount of value in certain situations. Final Fantasy XIII punishes the “button mash to win” mentality with the aforementioned stagger and paradigm systems. In other words, the amount of roles available to you and the flexibility they allow are not tedious but, in fact, are mandatory to succeed. That’s not to say that the game is difficult to those that pay attention though. Who would have thought that actually using some amount of cognitive function in an RPG would have a rewarding payoff?
As much as I have raved about the battle system thus far, that comes to a screeching halt once we get into how the game handles character progression. The Crystarium system in Final Fantasy XIII is the distant cousin of the License Board from Final Fantasy XII and the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X before it, but feels more like a downgrade rather than an upgrade compared to those before it. As a quick crash course to those unfamiliar: all of these are node-based progression systems. Rather than leveling up in a traditional sense, the EXP you gain in combat can be used to unlock nodes along a path.
In the case of Final Fantasy XIII, there are only a few instances where the path might branch between a few choices, but ultimately the choices themselves becomes pointless since you’ll have no problem maxing each path out by the end of each chapter, for the first nine chapters anyways. It gives the illusion of choice when really, you’ll end up maxing out everything just by fighting the things you come across. That remains the case until you unlock ALL roles for each character, and then you have a different story. But just like many things in Final Fantasy XIII, that moment comes way too late in the game to really be exciting.
The gear progression is a bit worse off than the Crystarium system, sadly. There are a decent amount of weapons and accessories that each character can equip that all have various properties. As far as weapons go, some bolster physical attacks better than magic, others do the opposite, and there are some that offer balanced bonuses to each school of abilities. There are even some weapons that provide passive buffs to the wielder, and all weapons and accessories can be upgraded to further enhance their value.
Although it might sound like a decent system on paper, there are many issues with it. First, weapon upgrades are a serious resource sink, and that is especially the case if you upgrade a weapon multiple times and then decide to use a different weapon altogether – having to start at ground zero once again. Newly discovered weapons all start at level 1, and it’s not easy to compare its stats to that of your equipped weapon if it happens to be higher than the level 1. I can’t count how many times I had to search for my equipped weapon in the item shop to view its base stats, just to see whether a new weapon would be comparable to it. Also, being able to essentially upgrade the same weapon many times over somewhat invalidates the thrill of looting new gear altogether. I just feel that a more traditional gear system would have been better suited for the game, because the one at present does more harm than good by over complicating what should be an easy, rewarding process.
While many reviews have called out the game as essentially being a “corridor simulator” for its linearity, I don’t entirely agree with that statement. The vast majority of mainline Final Fantasy entries are, in fact, very linear experiences for most of the game, but it is often concealed by a world map of sorts, or at least the occasional visit to a believable town. In Final Fantasy XIII, you’ll be lucky to reach a town before 15 hours of play, and even then it is an empty shell of what its forebears offered.
It is just too on-the-rails for its own good, at least until things open up towards the end of the game. Dragon Quest XI is also a fairly linear game, but wears it with pride and, in many ways, perfects the system. More linear experiences don’t have to be bad – it is all in how you go about presenting it to the audience. The game’s terrible pacing issues present in many of its systems only serve to further amplify the claustrophobic-ness that the linearity exudes.
Graphics and Sound
I don’t think any Final Fantasy fan will argue against the fact that most games in the series are visually and tonally pleasing, and Final Fantasy XIII is no exception. The characters are all visually distinct and interesting, and the game still looks incredibly nice despite its age on both a 1920×1200 monitor and, especially, a 4K TV.
Although Nobuo Uematsu is not in the composer seat this time around, Masashi Hamauzu did an incredible job with the music overall. I’ve grown particularly fond of the standard battle theme, Blinded By Light:
Final Fantasy XIII is not a bad game – in fact, it has a lot of great things going for it. The combat system is simply superb, and the graphics still somewhat hold up to this day. The idea behind the story is interesting, and the characters do get better with time. But it just takes too long for things to get interesting beyond the combat and eye candy, and the weight of its subpar pacing and various problematic systems are too heavy of a burden for the genuinely good qualities of Final Fantasy XIII to bear alone. I am glad that I finally gave it a chance, but it is an experience I don’t see myself desiring to return to anytime soon, if ever.