I’ve been a Final Fantasy fan for more than 20 years now, as might be evident from my recent posts on Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call and Final Fantasy I. In 2010, Square-Enix released Final Fantasy XIII, the first FF for the seventh-generation of video game consoles. After playing Final Fantasy X, then XII, then oddly IX, I was ready for the latest adventure.
Of the seventh-gen consoles, I only own the Wii. I borrowed my brother’s Xbox 360, bought the game at the full price of $60, and settled in for the 50-hour quest.
And then a year later I played through the entire game again. Another 50 hours.
FFXIII has received its share of criticism, unfortunately. Most reviewers, and gamers, criticize the game for three reasons: the story is convoluted, the game is nothing more than a trek through corridors, and the game doesn’t open up until 2/3 of the way through. In this post, I’ll put those criticisms to rest.
FFXIII is one of the best of the series, a refreshing change of pace that reinvents nearly everything that had grown stale in the FF series.
A stripped down adventure
FFXIII is streamlined. The creators dispensed with the clutter and clichés of JRPGs, clichés pioneered by the FF series. Towns are nonexistent in FFXIII (well, towns that are safe havens). Gone are the inns, the shops, the endless townspeople who sometimes offer good advice, but most of the time say nothing of consequence.
Gone are the multitude of stats for each character: strength, agility, speed, defense, magic, magic defense, stamina, luck, so on and so on. Only two stats remain: strength and magic.
Healing is accomplished out of battle. In fact, everybody fully heals after each battle, so inns are useless, as are potions (though potions still remain). No longer do you need to equip armor for your characters, headgear and gauntlets and breastplates and shoes. You can equip some accessories, and weapons are modified at the save points, but the modifications really aren’t necessary.
The overworld is gone, as are airships. Dungeons lack puzzles.
Many fans were extremely upset that FFXIII stripped away nearly all of these elements. What’s left of the game without all these things? In short: the best parts of Final Fantasy—the combat and the story.
At first, I was a little shocked to see so many of the familiar conventions of the series left by the wayside. But I found over the course of the adventure that I didn’t miss any of it. That’s not to say I don’t like exploring towns, solving puzzles, and optimizing my armor and weapon choices. But what I learned was, if I wanted that style of game, I could always go back to FFVI and FFVII. It was time to move on from those trappings, and FFXIII’s creators knew it.
Combat is fun again
Combat in the FF series has always been easy. In the early FFs, a four-person party was too much (and FFIV went overboard with a five-man party). Most battles consist of this: selecting “Fight” for each character, watching your four characters plus 2-6 enemies perform their basic attacks, then repeat. Magic and healing and defensive postures are necessary on some boss battles, but 90% of the time, you can get away with mashing “A” or “X” when a battle starts, choosing the default options.
Combat used to bog down in the “grind,” those parts of the game when you arbitrarily had to level up your characters so that you could face the next boss. FFVI had an obnoxiously long grind at the end of that game, as you had to prepare 12 characters for the final battle.
In FFXIII, grinding is unnecessary (unless you want to take on the optional side quests, which I never found the need to).
What makes combat in FFXIII most interesting, though, is the paradigm system. You have three characters in your party, and each has three roles (later six if you want). Commanders are the leaders of the party; ravagers cast magic, healers heal, and so on. Before the battle begins, you set up your paradigms, and at any time in battle, you can switch.
For example, I might begin a battle with Lightning as the commander and Sazh and Vanille as ravagers. Then I might switch to an all-ravager paradigm, and if I get hurt, maybe switch to a healer-commander-healer paradigm.
Paradigm switching happens in a couple seconds, and is absolutely necessary to winning quickly. See, the enemies have a “stagger meter” that fills up with each hit. The more hits, the higher the meter goes. When it reaches a certain point, usually 300%, the enemy’s defenses temporarily fall, allowing you to do massive damage. Staggering an enemy is important, as it’s common by the end of the game for an enemy to have millions of hit points.
Now, if you didn’t care much for the fighting, you could just hit “Auto” each round, having the computer choose your attacks for you. But FFXIII does something unique compared to the other FFs: at the end of the battle, it rates you out of five stars based on how fast you completed the battle. The rating isn’t really important (maybe you get better item drops with more stars), but for me, it was a challenge to try to get five stars as much as possible.
I set up my paradigms in such a way so that I did as much damage as fast as possible. I had to constantly watch the stagger meter, as when you aren’t attacking, the meter slowly drains. This simple addition, the post-battle rating, made combat exciting for me.
Some people criticize FFXIII for only giving you control of your leader character. The computer plays as the other two. But the focus has changed: it’s not about controlling everybody’s actions anymore. As I said, in previous FFs, most of the time you just select “Attack” anyway. This time, the focus is on managing your paradigms, and keeping tabs on your party’s health and status second by second.
FFXIII does not have turn-based combat, but real-time, which makes battles a lot more intense. And because you are healed at the end of each battle, the monsters are a lot more aggressive in attacking your characters. In previous FFs, you could often complete a battle without taking any damage, or very little. In FFXIII, all characters take massive damage each fight, so in-battle healing is now that much more crucial.
There are no magic points to worry about either. By fully reviving the party after each battle, the game can make every battle deadly.
And deadly they are. Another great fix to combat is, if you die, you immediately respawn right before that battle took place. Set-up the paradigms differently, and away you go, right back in the action! No more respawning at save points found 30 minutes in the past.
A story that flips the script
The story in all FFs is basically the same: your group of nobodies rebels against the government/church/monster overlords, slowly gets stronger as the adventure progresses, and finally takes on the boss, the ruler of the world, sometimes a godlike creature. The balance of the entire planet is in your hands, and you inevitably save it.
This trope makes for a compelling story arc and gameplay, but how you do change up this all-too-common script? FFXIII found just the way to do it. Instead of trying to save the world from a godlike monster, your characters are the godlike monsters, tasked with destroying the very world they love!
The story is admittedly a little complicated, but let me try to make it simple. In FFXIII, there are two worlds, Cocoon and Pulse. Each world is managed by overseers, godlike creatures called fal’Cie. The fal’Cie treat humans as their pets, providing for all their needs: food, light, heat, technology. Humans live in advanced, futuristic societies because everything was given to them by their benevolent overlords.
The fal’Cie are unable, however, to directly intervene in human affairs. So when they need something accomplished, they call a human to do their bidding. Humans who are called by the fal’Cie are branded, turning into l’Cie. The l’Cie have two options: complete their Focus, or mission, or ignore their Focus. If they ignore their Focus, they become Cieth, undead zombies. Nobody wants that.
However, if they complete their Focus, they are turned to crystal and given eternal life. So the in-game fable goes. But who knows if they actually get eternal life?
In the beginning of the game, our six heroes awaken a fal’Cie from slumber and are branded as l’Cie. The heroes live on Cocoon, and Cocoonian society is afraid of anything from Pulse due to a war far in the past. Our heroes stumbled upon a Pulse fal’Cie, living on Cocoon, so they are branded Pulse l’Cie, which marks them as enemies in the eyes of the Cocoonians.
It takes a while, but eventually our heroes figure out their Focus: Destroy Cocoon. This is how the script is flipped around. The heroes become more and more godlike as the story progresses, so certainly they have the power to destroy their home planet. But, of course, they don’t want to do that.
So they are presented with a quandary: destroy their home planet and fulfill their Focus? Or ignore their Focus and become Cieth, and likely doom the planet anyway as others would surely be made l’Cie to complete the Focus.
The story is not about stopping some godlike even being from conquering the world, but it’s about these Pulse l’Cie avoiding their fate to save the planet they love. They don’t want to destroy the planet, they don’t want to turn Cieth, and they don’t want to turn into crystal. The story is about fate versus freewill, destiny versus freedom.
Not only is the overall story amazing, but the individual dramas of the characters are the best of any FF game. In FFXIII, it seems like every character belongs together in your party: there is no dead weight.
Compare this to FFIX, for instance, in which one party member is a fat monster named Quina. You find him in a swamp, trying to catch frogs, which he loves to eat. His only motivation for joining your quest, I kid you not, is “I will join you so I can find more frogs to eat.” Really? What a dramatic letdown.
Let’s talk about those hallways
So the battle system and story are excellent, the best of any FF game, but what about the world? What is there to interact with, if not towns or an overworld? In short: nothing. Most worlds consist of nothing more than long tunnels. You run down the hallway, fighting monsters, and every 5-10 minutes are treated to a cutscene. Repeat.
In the beginning of the game, you run along a road, then a bridge.
After getting branded by the Pulse fal’Cie, you run along a crystalized lake, a long corridor through crystalized water.
Later you run down a tunnel bored through stone. Sometimes you run through a city, but it consists of one street, with all alleyways and cross streets blocked off, then you turn a corner, and surprise!, you run down another straight street.
Occasionally there are tiny branches off the main road, and in a couple places you might have two slightly different paths to take, each leading to the same destination. 97% of the game’s environments are tunnels, hallways, or streets.
And that’s okay. If you want an open-world to explore, play another game. I’m fine with the hallways because 1) they look beautiful, 2) the soundtrack is amazing (I’ve been listening to it almost every week for four years now), but most importantly, 3) the hallways keep the game focused on its strong points: battle and storytelling.
You are out of battle for no more than 5-15 seconds in most cases. The action of the battles is what drives the game forward, not the exploration. And the linear nature of the game allows the creators to tell a tight, focused story. You won’t get sidetracked by sidequests in FFXIII. To story is always moving forward, and that’s a good thing.
The game holds your hand for the first 35 hours
Penny Arcade expressed a common critique of FFXIII’s hand-holding, one shared by many:
Here’s what critics are referring to. In the first 2/3 of the game, you have no control over who is in your party. Six playable characters are at your disposal, but sometimes you only play as one, sometimes two, and sometimes three. The combinations are always determined by the game, dictated by the story. Not all of the main characters are in the same place at the same time.
Still, many people wanted to be able to access all six characters, and all six paradigm classes far sooner. I found, though, that once the game “opened up” it was a lot less interesting to play. Here’s why.
By forcing me to use certain characters together, I had to work within their limitations. Playing the Lightning and Hope party for a good chunk of the game was challenging, as was the Sazh and Vanille group. I appreciated that each character only specialized in three paradigms.
Once they had access to all paradigms, whatever individuality they had was lost. Everybody can be every class. Is that really what gamers wanted?
I found that I constructed my party based on certain paradigms I was trying to create. For a long time, Sazh was always in my three-man party because he had the ability Haste, which let me finish those battles twice as fast! But later Hope gets Haste, and becomes his combination of moves was more versatile, Sazh was gone and Hope replaced him for the remainder of the game.
And Snow, sadly, one of my favorite characters, fought almost no battles the last 15 hours of the game. He just didn’t have the right combination of specialized paradigms. So his experience points just built up and up and up: I had no reason to level him.
The only change I wish they made to FFXIII was that they randomized the parties on repeat playthroughs somehow. When I played the game a second time, I found myself constructing the exact same parties as the first time around once the game “opened up.”
See how this desire for an “open” game is actually more constricting in practice?
Gamers also longed to get away from all the hallway running. As previously explained, though, I enjoyed the hallway running. At the 2/3 mark, your party travels to Pulse for one chapter (of 13). Most of Pulse is also hallway running, but at one very specific point there is an extremely large “open” area. A big field, really, filled with dozens of new monsters, most more powerful than your party. It can take a couple hours to cross this field, given how many monsters there are. There are a few nooks on the periphery that introduce you to side bosses, but grinding just to fight these dinosaurs isn’t worth it, in my mind.
After Pulse, you go back to hallway running for the remainder of the game. So the game never really does open up.
The idea of an open-world FF, however, is mostly an illusion. If you play through previous FFs, such as IV, VI, VII, IX, X, or XII, you’ll find that the games are mostly linear. You travel from town to town, and while there is usually a big “field” to explore in between each town, there is usually only one entrance and one exit from those fields.
Now, usually these previous FFs opened up at some point, giving you an airship that let you travel anywhere you wanted. In my opinion, these open-world parts of the previous FFs, though, always came at the expense of the story. No longer was the story in the hands of the developers.
Every Final Fantasy fan has an opinion about which games are the “best” in the series. Comparing the games, though, is difficult, as only a handful of games ever appear for a single system. Every few years, advances in video game technology open up new possibilities for the genre.
In my estimation, the two best Final Fantasies are FFVI and FFXIII—a tie, but for different reasons. In the case of FFVI, the sum of its parts is greater than the whole; in the case of FFXIII, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe I’ll talk about FFVI some other day, but I think it’s easy to see that, while FFXIII might be lacking in many areas compared to other JRPGs, when it excels, it soars above the competition.
Final Fantasy has always been a series that reinvents itself with every game. Compare this series to something like Mario, Pokemon, or Zelda, and it’s easy to see why. While Nintendo can get away with coasting on tried-and-true formulas and nostalgia, the creators of Final Fantasy have always challenged themselves to make something new.
FFXIII was that new thing I was looking for. The classic JRPG formula, established mostly by FF, is great, and whenever I want to experience it again, I have FFIV and VI and VII. By the time Square got to FFIX, the formula was dead. There’s nothing wrong with FFIX, per se, but there’s nothing fresh.
FFXIII’s combination of action, story, graphics, and music has inspired me in a way few other games have. The story, the music, and all of the lush scenery are constantly running through my head, motivating me in my day to day life.
So what if it’s linear? I know of no other game that promises 50 hours of unique content, an ever-progressing story and ever-changing monsters. There is no need to backtrack. The game has no padding, no sections that repeat themselves just to make the game longer. No, it’s a 50-hour trip straight through without sidequests, no shorter, no longer.
True, about 8-9 hours of that 50 is cinematics and cutscenes, but the FF series has always been about telling stories. And this is a story you can get invested in, because you play as these characters, you develop these characters, and while you don’t control their outcome, you experience their successes and failures right beside them.