Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. And when I say black sheep, I mean that the majority of people, both casual fans and hardcore followers of the series alike, really hate it. And I mean they REALLY hate it.
Final Fantasy XIII is a departure in so many ways from the history of the series. There are times when the fact that it’s a Final Fantasy game is indiscernible. It was directed by a series newcomer, Motomu Toriyama, instead of series favorites Hironobu Sakaguchi and character designer Testuya Nomura. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, who created nearly all of the music for the first eleven Final Fantasy installments, was no longer working with Final Fantasy at the time, and the music was handled by Uematsu collaborator Masashi Hamauzu, who had previously helped with some of the music on Final Fantasy X (his work is usually characterized by stacatto piano and violins, atop lush string arrangements, as opposed to Uematsu whose work feels a bit more like pop rock music in orchestral form). The story took on similar themes as previous installments: a group of ordinary characters fighting extraordinarily powerful forces they shouldn’t by any right be able to handle, characters who harness magic and summon powerful creatures, and as always, the ever present religious allegory and the final battle against god (no really, the final battle in most, if not all Final Fantasy games, is against either the god of that universe, a symbolic god, a literal god, or a character who has become a god or seeks to do so).
Final Fantasy XIII had a lot going for it before release: fans were excited about the new protagonist, Lightning, who was shown off in an E3 concept trailer that showed an early version of the battle system in which battle was entirely active, though still featured menus and magic commands like previous games. Initially, the story was going to be focused on Vanille, but after the positive response to Lightning, the developers switched focus to her. I think that was a good choice because Lightning is a fantastic character. I do often find myself a little aggravated when she is referred to as “the female Cloud Strife.” Despite the opening scenario bearing a lot of similarity to Cloud and Barret’s battle agaisnt the Guard Scorpion, and the fact that she’s an ex-soldier with a moody personality, I don’t actually see much resemblance between the two. Cloud was, in general, a pretty positive character, who actually had a lot of compassion for people’s problems, despite constantly shrugging his shoulders and flipping his hair. Lightning is steely-faced and determined, not at all emotionless but refusing to give in to her fear. Cloud stopped every few minutes to fall to his knees and spazz out with his hands shaking to hold his head still, whereas Lightning almost never loses her drive to push forward.
At any rate, fans liked Lightning and the developers went with it.
The story was written by director Motomu Toriyama, and suppoedly he’s notorious for creating plots that make very little sense. The story of Final Fantasy XIII is so convoluted and bogged down in it’s own terminology that even a dedicated fan who’s played the game several times finds they didn’t really have any clue what was happening on the first play through. Characters communicate with one another, but they seem to always be side-stepping what they’re actually talking about, and no one really gives any clear idea of what’s happening, aside from constantly repeating a few choice phrases (those phrases being, “We’re Pulse l’Cie, enemies of Cocoon,” “If we don’t fulfill our Focus, we’ll become C’ieth,” “Pulse is hell on earth,” “We’re puppets of the fal’Cie,” and “Serah wanted us to save Cocoon”).
Backstory is provided in sporadic chunks that don’t seem to form any clear narrative, and the premise of the final boss fight makes little sense at all. Basically, the villain WANTS the main characters to kill him, because if he dies, Cocoon will be destroyed and he will win. So their response is… to try and kill him. The party shouts about how they refuse to do what he asks, all while doing what he asks. Even weirder is that he fights BACK. His goal is to be killed, yet he attempts to defend himself. It’s a very strange thing. Lightning gives a speech about how they refuse to be bound by their fate, how they refuse to be puppets and do what they’re told, but then she does exactly what they’re told and kills the fal’Cie, with seemingly no idea of how to handle the consequences of what to do when Cocoon falls out of the sky.
The ending also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Throughout the story it’s explained that l’Cie who fulfill their focus become crystal for eternity, unless they’re awakened from crystal stasis by a fal’Cie who gives them a new focus. At the end of the game they fulfill their focus, which was to become Ragnorok and knock Cocoon out of the sky (despite the fact that they did save it), and they turn to crystal because… they did what they were told? Even weirder, it’s never explained how someone can be saved from crystal stasis unless called upon by a fal’Cie, but in the end the entire party turns to crystal and then, with the exception of the characters who held up Cocoon, they’re released fromc crystal with their brands gone, and receive no explanation. This will be half-heartedly explained in the sequels, but Final Fantasy XIII is a self-contained story, and doesn’t mention how this could be possible.
Then there’s Fabula Nova Crystalis.
You see, Final Fantasy XII takes place in a sub-series within the Final Fantasy series called Fabula Nova Crystalis. This is kind of like the Ivalice Alliance from earlier in the series, except that Final Fantasy Tactics wasn’t created with the intention of making a sub-series. Basically, Fabula Nova Crystalis games share the same lore about the creation of their universe, but… not much else. They contain similar themes, they contain fal’Cie, but apart from that they don’t seem to have much to do with one another. The gods serve different functions in different games within the subseries. For instance, the goddess Etro has a different function in Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (we’ll come back to that in a moment). They don’t all actually happen in the same universe, they happen in different VERSIONS of the same universe. So Final Fantasy XIII and it’s direct sequels are a sub-series (The Lightning Saga) within another sub-series (Fabula Nova Crystalis), within a larger series (Final Fantasy).
Even as a dedicated fan of the series, I’ll admit it’s all very contrived and pretentious.
Then of course, we have Tetsuya Nomura.
Nomura is the character designer for Final Fantasy. He works alongside Yoshitaka Amano who does almost all of the concept illustrations (you might recognize his style from the Final Fantasy logo illustrations, the art of Vampire Hunter D, or his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on a Sandman spinoff). Amano’s style is very unique, his characters tend to have angular pale faces with dark-colored lips and flowing garments that look like watercolor even when they’re pencil sketches. Nomura’s style is a bit more reminiscent of anime. His style has actually become something of an RPG trope.
It’s become pretty common that if there’s an RPG, the main character will have some or all of the following characteristics: a tall, thin but slightly muscular male, with spikey or otherwise outrageous hair, usually blonde. His facial features will be somewhat androgynous, and regardless of his age he’ll look like he’s seventeen. He’ll probably be wearing a constant scowl and gazing longingly into the horizon, or moping in the rain. He’ll be carrying some kind of enormous weapon like a sword that looks like it’s a chunk of metal ripped from the side of a skyscraper, or something eqaully obstuse like a techno-sword or transforming gun. He’ll be wearing outlandish clothes, usually covered in belts that don’t serve much purpose, accesorized so much that you wonder how he can walk around without jangling like a set of house keys, he’ll probably have a pauldron on his left shoulder and the left side of his outfit will be far more decorated than the right side. He’ll also be wearing either combat boots or large sneakers, and if he’s done in the style of animated character, he’ll probably have giant hands and feet and a thin, lanky body.
Oh and also sometimes angel wings. Don’t ask me why.
If you recognize this archetype, you have Tetsuya Nomura to thank. I don’t mean to imply that he created Bishounen or the style of Doujinshi characters, but his influence on the video game world is pretty undeniable. Nomura was involved in the development of Final Fantasy XIII but only as far as character design, after that he stepped away and didn’t want to have anything else to do with it. In fact, he was so opposed to the game, that he started working on his own game, which he titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, because it was created in direct opposition to Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy Versus XIII was a bad name, but it stuck, and for years, fans had only scraps of information and a few brief concept trailers relating to the game. No one really knew what it was like, who these characters were, what kind of game it would be. Information was so slim that after nearly a decade, fans began to wonder if it hadn’t been cancelled altogether. Then it was announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII would be rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, and fans collectively lost their shit with excitement, especially those who felt put upon by the radical departure of Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t just different in it’s scenario design, it played unlike any in the series so far. One of the big complaints fans had for Final Fantasy X was it’s linearity, the fact that players mostly walked a (very pretty) straight line from end of the game to the other, and that any time the world opened up, it was really only the illusion of space. When an ariship was provided for exploration, it only allowed players to warp to previous locations in the game, since there hadn’t been an overworld since Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy XII attempted to remedy this problem by opening the game up so much that traversing the world map meant slogging through several screens of wide open land. Both of these approaches worked in some ways and failed in others. In Final Fantasy X, the focus remained on the story, while traveling the straight path allowed some time for random battles and character customization. The wide open areas of Final Fantasy XII meant a larger opportunity to grind for experience, money and items, but a longer wait for the next story segment.
Final Fantasy XIII decided to adapt the Final Fantasy X strategy and keep things linear. Very linear.
Very, VERY linear.
No really, the number one complaint about this game is that it’s virtually on rails. And the people who made that complaint are absolutely correct. It really is. The areas are breathtakingly beautiful, but most of the time the paths you travel are tight hallways or catwalks, overlooking a gorgeous landscape that you can’t explore. Many of the paths serve only as set pieces to highlight the beautiful surroundings, which you cannot experience up close. Rather than random battles, enemies prowl around in real time, but approaching them moves the game to a battle screen. This method has been used in plenty of RPG’s before and it works, but it’s ultimately up to the player to decide whether they prefer slogging through endless random battles or choosing which battles to partake in. I admit that if the developers had chosen to use random battles, the linear pathways would probably have been unbearable for me, and the huge surroundings would be barren and lifeless.
Battles themselves turn the RPG formula on it’s head. You still have the option of choosing commands from a menu, but it’s really only the illusion of choice. Most of the time you’ll be using an “auto-battle” function. Now, I know it seems ridiculous to even include an “auto-battle” option, but there is a reason for it. Final Fantasy XIII’s battles are not actually about choosing which individual abilities to use on which character, they’re actually about choosing which CHARACTERS are performing which KINDS of actions. Characters are given six roles: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Saboteur, Synergist, and Sentinel. What these ultimately equate to are: Tank, Offensive Mage, Healer, Debuff Mage, Protective Mage, and Damage Magnet. Different characters have different combinations of access to these roles, so constantly changing your style to fit the situation is a necessity. You then focus all your effort on one enemy at a time, attacking them and building up a Chain Gauge, which when filled entirely, will send the enemy into an incredibly weak “staggered” status, which allows your characters to do double, triple or more damage, launch foes into the air, hit them with debuffs they were previously resistant to, or in the case of some behemoth superbosses, knock them on their side so you can pound away at them or heal yourself.
Different roles have different staggering capabilities. Commandos basically don’t affect that chain gauge at all, and during my first play through of the game I somehow managed to completely miss this, often throwing three tanks at a single enemy and wondering why they just weren’t doing enough damage. Ravagers are the best at building chain gauges, but if you attack with only ravagers, the gauge will rapidly drop down to zero, so you need a Commando or a debuffing Saboteur to stabilize it so that it drops much slower. The entire battle system is built around monitoring your opponents chain gauge, buffing yourself and debuffing them, and keeping yourself healed while you wait for them to hit their stagger point and then go in for the kill.
Healing items basically don’t exist. You are given two healing items the entire game, a simple Potion, and an incredibly rare full-healing Elixir (there are something like five obtainable Elixirs in the entire game). The Potion is obsolete even by the third chapter or so, it only heals a set number of HP, and there are never any upgraded Potions available at any point during the game. It’s like they’re only there to taunt you. You absolutely HAVE to have a Medic in your party, healing you almost constantly, or you will go down quickly. This makes party customization (when it becomes available extremely late in the game) very difficult, because there are only two apt Medics in the entire game, Hope and Vanille, and they happen to be the characters with the lowest HP, particularly Hope, you will have to spend a good amount of your time either healing or bringing back to life with Phoenix Downs (luckily those are still pretty useful, if expensive).
Even though each character has a unique set of three roles available to them (ability to unlock other roles becomes accessible later, but the amount of experience required makes it nearly impossible, and even still, not all characters can excel in every role), there are essentially three presets: tank, mage, and all-rounder, and you are given two of each. In order to succeed, you basically need to have one of each kind in your party if you want to win. For example, the two all-rounders are Lightning and Sazh, the two mages/healers are Hope and Vanille, and the two tanks are Fang and Snow. This means that it’s almost impossible to have a successful party setup WITHOUT Hope or Vanille, and attempting to use both Sazh and Fang at the same time means you have to subtract Lightning, or if you want multiple tanks in your party your other character can’t be an all-rounder, they need to be a healer. This isn’t about Paradigm roles, it’s the way the characters are designed.
I personally like characters to have limited designs (for example: Vivi is the only black mage in Final Fantasy IX, and cannot be turned into a tank no matter how hard you try, whereas Zidane is a physical attacker and can’t learn magic whatsoever), it’s definitely preferable to the blank slates of Final Fantasy VII, where each character is an interchangeable carbon copy of one another and the ability to overpower characters with Materia makes the characters themselves inherently pointless with no noticeable stat differences. However, the battles are set up in such a way that you simply CANNOT survive without having an adept healer, so Lightning isn’t good enough, and if you unlock the Paradigm roles for them, neither are Sazh, Fang or Snow. Only Vanille and Hope can be counted on to reliably heal the party, so this means you HAVE to use one of the two of them at all times. I don’t mind these characters, in fact Vanille is one of my favorites, but you can see how this becomes limiting quickly. This preset character type also means that the only way to viably use Sazh in your party is to replace Lightning, in which case you have an all-rounder that can’t heal, or replace your tank, in which case you have to repurpose your all-rounder in a tank.
Characters level up through “CP,” or Crystogen Points, which you use to increase their stats and abilities in the Crystarium, which is more less a very limited version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. The Crystarium actually caps at a certain point in each of the game’s thirteen chapters, and you don’t actually unlock the entirety of the Crystarium until after the game is completed. Grinding for crystogen points can be incredibly monotonous, particularly if you don’t have the Growth Egg accessory which doubles CP and is very difficult to acquire when it becomes first available. Though each character is eventually granted access to every role in the Crystarium, each Crystarium is different for each character, and no matter how much you grind, certain characters will never be able to excel at certain roles or obtain certain abilities. For instance, the healing ability Curaja is available to only two characters in the game, the dedicated healers Hope and Vanille. So, no matter how hard you try to make Sazh a capable healer, he will never have access to that spell, basically making your efforts to turn him into your parties dedicated healer useless unless your incredibly overpowered. Lightning and Hope both have unique versions of the Sentinel role which allow them to sidestep enemy attacks rather than take them with the damage mitigated, but you don’t really get the chance to use Lightning in this role until after the game’s completed and you’ve already got plenty of other capable Sentinels, and Hope manages to be a damage magnet with the lowest HP in the game even when he isn’t a Sentinel, so making him one would require incredibly careful repurposing of your other party members.
Because of how limited the characters are, it’s incredibly difficult to choose a weapon. The weapon in system in Final Fantasy XIII is probably my favorite aspect of customization, despite how flawed it is. No weapon in the game is truly bad, they’re all just suited to different purposes, and each one has a catch. If the weapon has incredibly high strength growth, it’s probably at the expense of magic growth, and if it excels in both, it will probably come with the Stagger Lock property which prevents that specific character from being able to stagger enemies. Some weapons have great secondary bonus effects like improved healing or extension of buffs/debuffs/stagger time, but this usually comes at a cost of hugely cutting the weapons stats, to the point that you can’t rely on that weapon to increase your stats at all and you have to use accessories, of which you have a limited amount of slots.
Because you can’t really tell what the stat growth for each weapon is like upon receiving them, you’re basically forced to use a guide to tell which weapon will have the stats you need for the role you’re intending to use that character in, and if you make a wrong choice you can waste a LOT of resources leveling up a weapon that doesn’t suit your purposes, with no way to get back all that money you spent on it. And money is an incredibly limited resource in Final Fantasy XIII. LITERALLY the only way to get money is to sell items that you find in the field, usually weapons you aren’t using. This is frustrating if you’re attempting to get the Treasure Hunter achievement/trophy, which requires you to possess every single item in the game, and it’s upgraded form, at one time or another. Either you sell the equipment now and buy it back later to upgrade it for the achievement, or you give up on the achievement altogether. Ultimately it’s an achievement not truly worth breaking your back over, you don’t get any other in-game reward apart from the achievement itself, but for die-hards who want to unlock everything, it’s very frustrating.
So, put all of this together and you can see where the criticism comes from. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with a contrived plot, which takes place over several linear chapters where you travel on rails from point A to point B, fighting battles in which you’re forced to keep everyone in their boxes without much chance for customization, given incredibly little money or resources to upgrade your equipment or buy new items, a character growth system which provides only the illusion of customization (every character will cap out with the exact same stats every time you play the game) and level caps for each chapter, and a system in which truly excelling at battles isn’t permitted until after the game has been completed.
So… why do I like it so much?
It’s hard to tell. I once had a friend who accused me of being in an abusive relationship with Lightning, that I had convinced myself the game was fun and stayed with it even though it was doing absolutely nothing for me. And I’ve actually wondered that a few times too. I see the games flaws, I’m not ignorant of them. I’ve sunk SO many hours into this game, replaying from the beginning many times, that I recognize these problems probably more than casual gamers who gave up on Final Fantasy XIII (and I have met a lot of people who said they gave up and never finished the game).
But there’s something very charming about it. The story is mostly nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense, and there are some worthwhile concepts being explored, even in Final Fantasy XIII’s obtuse way. The characters are fun, Lightning herself is an awesome heroin, Fang and Vanille provide the first example of an LGBT relationship in the Final Fantasy series, even if it’s entirely subtext. Snow annoys the hell out of me, but at least I get to see Lightning punch him and Hope call him out on being such a chummy douchebag. Sazh is one of the most well-rounded characters in Final Fantasy, humorous and emotional at once, with perhaps the most believable motivations in the game. The flashbacks are odious, and the game drags at several points, but there’s something about Final Fantasy XIII that makes me want to put in some headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook while I while away forty hours trying new things that I didn’t before. I’ve replayed the game many times, and I’ve been impressed by the versatility of the characters if you know what you’re doing and put it to good use. It’s possible to make Lightning a better tank than Fang, to have Sazh excel in either damage dealing or magic (he happens to have the best weapon/ability combination for building chain gauges in the game), to use Snow… at all.
No really, I would estimate that I’ve probably put a combined… three hundred to four hundred hours of my life into this game, and I only recently on this very last playthrough ever used Snow at all, for anything. Previously I had only used him as my human shield while Death-spamming the Ochu that gives you the Growth Egg. Fun fact about that, by the way: it usually takes me hours to get Death to work on it, this past attempt it worked on my FIRST try. Sorry, I just needed to share that.
Final Fantasy XIII, for all it’s limiting narrow linearity, actually has a fair amount of versatility. If you go into it wanting it to be Final Fantasy X, you’re going to be disappointing. But if you accept it for what it is: a deeply flawed but still fun game, with stunning visuals, a mostly excellent score (even if it is repetitive), and an immersive world, even a silly immersive world, then you can have fun with it. After my first time conquering the game, I thought maybe I’d be done with it, but found that I had much more fun in the post-game than I did during the story. The world DOES eventually open up, even if it opens up to the Archylte Steppe, a huge (gorgeous) sandbox filled with wolves and Adamantoise, and several hours worth of monster hunts.
Final Fantasy XIII will never be the open-ended, super customization adventure that most RPG’s attempt to be. But it wasn’t actually trying to be. It was trying to create a method of playing so streamlined that it felt like an interactive movie, where battles happen in the illusion of real time, the characters traversing narrow catwalks are actually experiencing this real journey on foot, and the story takes precedence over everything. It is riddled with flaws, and I wish that there could be a re-release of the game that just fixed a few choice issues: lack of customization in the Crystarium, lack of money, and better access to weapon customization materials. It isn’t the linearity that bothers me as a player, it’s the lack of ability to make each playthrough different from the last. It’s possible, but the differences are subtle.
I genuinely don’t know why I learned to love this game, but I did. I see it’s flaws, and I enjoy it anyway. It is not as immediately fun to pick up as past Final Fantasies, but for some reason, when I want to binge on an RPG and mindlessly level up a character for hours while I’m listening to audiobooks, I tend to choose Final Fantasy XII.
This post was initially meant as an overview of why I like the entire Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, but it accidentally turned into a review of the game, which is fine because I attempted to review it once and made a huge mess. So, maybe sometime I’ll come back for “Why I Kind of Like Final Fantasy XIII-2” or “Why I Mostly Like Lightning Returns.”