Final Fantasy XIII, a game steeped in connotations both positive and negative. A game that divided critics and players, and led to one of the earliest examples of mass ‘meta-bombing’.
With the release of ‘Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy’ on PC. It seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the most bemoaned main series Final Fantasy games and perhaps establish a more sober, less reactionary view with the benefit of hindsight. None of this ‘It’s not like the old games’, or ‘Linearity is bad’ nonsense. Rather, a more reasonable discussion on the game itself; both its strengths and weaknesses. In the context of the rest of the trilogy, and the market at the time. Not to say this will be a defence of the trilogy, I assure you it won’t be. Consider this a final farewell to a trilogy that has personally fascinated me as an example of internet culture, expectation, artistic integrity and just plain old ‘vidya gaming’. Hold on to your caffeine pills, this is going to be a long one.
There will obviously be spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII below.
The first Final Fantasy XIII game was released worldwide in March 2010 following 5 years of development. Intended to be a new start to the Final Fantasy series, in terms of gameplay and narrative. It was constructed around Kazushige Nojima’s. ‘Fabula Nova Crystallis’ (New Tale of the Crystal) mythos. Which in summary, focused on the ideas of Deities being connected to crystals, the conflict of said deities, and the resulting impact it has on humanity as they attempt to battle against their fates. Straight out of the box I have to say this isn’t what I’d call a ‘new start’ for Final Fantasy. Crystals have always been an integral part of the Final Fantasy series as well as fates and Deities. It is worth noting however that these themes are much more significant in Japan as a result of Shinto, Buddhism, and other religions that are inherently anti-fatalistic. This could play a large role in the gulf between the Japanese and Western reactions to the game. With the former being much more positive. Regardless, there are no points for originality here, or anywhere else in the game as we will find out. Bearing this context in mind let us delve into the game itself.
Most likely the first thing that would strike any player (and certainly struck me) as they dive into the first cutscene is just how damn visually striking a game Final Fantasy XIII is. The opening cinematic is a beautiful show of colour, animation and action. It’s honestly a fantastic way to open a game, right in the thick of it all. It quickly establishes Lightning and Sazh’s characters. The former as a cold, confident, driven and slightly psychopathic soldier and the latter as a humorous cynic who’s way out of his comfort zone. Moreover, once the cutscene ends the drop in fidelity from cutscene, to gameplay is incredibly minor. Final Fantasy XIII is easily one of the best looking games of it’s generation. Hell, it still looks better than most games today. Especially in 1080p and with 1440p textures on PC. It all comes down to the overall aesthetic. It’s incredibly colourful. Sensory overload levels of colourful. With it has its own distinctive, clean and oppressive sci-fi look. It’s easy even today to look back and see why critics would praise this game for its visuals the way they did. Amongst the sea of brown environments with burly white mend and shooty bang bang games being released at the time, Final Fantasy XIII appeared like an oasis in a desert. Personally, as I began to play through the first two chapters of the game for this feature, this is where I began to realise why there was such a divide in critic/player opinion at its initial release. Final Fantasy XIII is a game that is driven by spectacle. In 2010 a push-back was beginning against games like Call of Duty and Gears of War that relied too much on spectacle and not enough on gameplay, narrative and innovation. This push-back however had not yet established itself amongst the majority of critics at the time, leading to a degree of dissonance between player and critic. That’s what I think anyway, I may be completely wrong. A push-back had also begun against linearity in games at this time. Which was unfortunate for Square Enix… very, very unfortunate.
Yes, Final Fantasy XIII is an immensely linear game. It is no surprise that people took to nicknaming it ‘Final Hallway’ As you are quite literally walking down hallways for the first 10 chapters. Not always literal hallways mind you, but most of your movement in this game boils down to ‘head for the orange arrow’ with nowhere to explore along the way. Playing this game now, this linearity bothers me less. Partially as a result of the over saturation of open world games in the current market. I’ve spent about 100 hours on Fallout 4 and Just Cause 3 in between play sessions of Final Fantasy. Therefore it’s nice to have a clear goal in mind for a change. Secondly the linearity bothered me less as I’m now mature enough not to subscribe to the aforementioned ‘Linearity is bad’ bandwagon. Note how I’ve said ‘bothers me less’. The linearity still bothers me as a consequence of the fact that in the case of Final Fantasy XIII the linearity is in my opinion genuinely bad, and I think I’ve worked out why. It’s Ludo-narrative Dissonance. Or ‘Ludo-Narrative disco biscuits’ if you will.
Final Fantasy XIII’s narrative heavily focuses on the concept that the characters, once made L’Cie (Servants of Fal’Cie, the gods of the game world.) are meant to be lost and confused desperately looking for some sort of direction. Yet you spend almost the entire game going in very clear, single direction. Consequently there’s no sense of panic or uncertainty in the player as they always know exactly where to go. I wonder if a tiny adjustment were made to give the characters in the game a clear sense of what to do. The ‘fatalism’ theme would compliment the games linearity. Of course for many people this wouldn’t solve the problem. Some people simply don’t like linear games, an opinion to which they’re entitled, especially if they’re a long term Final Fantasy fan and are used to more open ended experiences. Although I don’t consider a game bad if it’s different to another game in the series. Not usually, not in same way as other games that others seem to enjoy (looking at you, Fallout 4). Regardless, the linearity in Final Fantasy XIII is genuinely frustrating to me. As somebody who plays Call of Duty for the single player; that’s saying a lot. It’s pretty horrendous.
This article is quickly descending into a negative rant so let’s change direction and focus on something I genuinely like about Final Fantasy XIII. The combat is bloody brilliant… Okay, put you shotgun away, take a breath, count to ten. Obviously this is entirely down to personal preference. Not only is it a audio-visual spectacle to behold, the combat also has a lot of depth. Yes, you only control one character, outside of shifting paradigms. Yet I find the combat really satisfying as it gradually gets more difficult. The combination of real time and turn based that’s been around since FF VI is present here, albeit the real time element is much more prevalent. Timing your AoE attacks to enemy movements, switching paradigms at the last second to avoid a powerful attack. Using your skills in the most efficient way in order to get as much damage off in as short a time possible. Add this to the 5 star rating system and combat quickly becomes an adrenaline fuelled, strategic yet, fast affair in which a miss-click can cost you an entire battle. I love it. Although unfortunately the combat is only good after several hours of play, and when you fight one enemy type for too long it become repetitive and drawn out. Pacing is a serious issue in FF XIII. It takes 2 hours to get access to paradigm shifts. (Which are formations used to achieve different purposes, some are defensive and healing focused whilst others focus on damage.) It also takes this time to gain access to the crystarium, the skill tree for the game. Additionally most of the crystarium is shut off and gradually expanded at the end of each chapter. Consequently by the time you get access to all the in depth skills and paradigms that make later battles an absolute joy, you’ve had to sit. through 10-15 hours of mundane repetitive battles. Making it not really worth it. Be that as it may, the boss battles are consistently great, ranging from gradually breaking the parts off a massive airship to fighting a God who has an absurd magical arsenal. Every boss encounter as thrilling and breaks up the monotony of regular battles albeit not frequently enough. These combat issues alongside the linearity contribute to my overall opinion that FF XIII is just plain old boring. Much like the characters… oh dear the characters.
Pretty much everybody has ripped on the characters of FF XIII at this point, so I’m not going to go on a rant that you’ll have heard before. Snow is an annoying, foolish, idealist that constantly does stupid things because he thinks he’s a hero. Hope is whiny spoilt kid who blames snow for his mother’s death even though it was clearly caused by the mass genocide occurring around him. Vanille is the cheery, happy girl with predictable secrets. Fang is kind of just there I guess, and Lightning… I actually quite like Lightning. I don’t love Lightning, but I don’t get the hate for her. To me she’s a dignified, respectable character with flaws akin to my own (perhaps leading to some bias) who genuinely cares. People say she’s just a female grumpy soldier character rather than a male one, but she has those brief moments of happiness and emotion that juxtapose against her usual demeanour. I wonder how she would be received if FF XIII was released into today’s world. Considering diversity is such a major issue nowadays, I theorize that her reception would be quite positive. A strong independent, athletic, not supermodel styled but still attractive woman, seems like it would go down quite well. There would obviously be those who would disagree, but there always will be. I think a lot of Lightning’s criticism is due to her English voice actor who’s very monotone. I would recommend watching a few scenes in Japanese online, it’s much better, as is usually the case with these things. Unfortunately a Japanese voice over isn’t available for FF XIII or XIII-2, although Lightning returns on PC will include it. The final major character is Sazh, a character I genuinely love. His only concern is doing what is best for his son, at one point he even considers committing suicide if it would save him. However, he also maintains a good sense of humour and provides rational thought amongst the other hot headed, or day dreaming members of the party. A chocobo chick also lives in his afro which makes him objectively the greatest and I won’t hear any argument against it. (Disclaimer: the last remark was not serious). The overall chemistry of the group however leaves something to be desired. Director of FF XIII Motmou Toriyama said that he wanted the party to ‘belong together but collide heavily’ which to his credit they do. Although their reasons for colliding come across as them being unreasonable. E.g. Hope’s aforementioned relationship with Snow. The characters also don’t really develop or grow much as well, except maybe Hope who thankfully becomes less whiny. All in all most of the characters could be considered… well… boring.
There’s that word again; ‘boring’. I don’t like using it too much because its oddly enough quite a boring word. Yet it’s the word that best sums up my feelings about Final Fantasy XIII, It bored me. Especially on the playthrough for this article as there was no longer any suspense on how the plot will develop, even if the plot was predictable in the first place. I wouldn’t dare say that FF XIII is a bad game as I’m sure many of you want me to. It has alright characters, good combat, a decent if unoriginal story, a great soundtrack that I could do an entirely separate feature on, it looks drop dead gorgeous, and the mythos is interesting if you read into it more. In fact I would go as far to say that FF XIII could easily become a great game. The problem is the elements conflict, and it all comes back to ‘Fabula Nova Crystallis’ in my opinion. It seems to me that Square Enix had this artistic idea that would make for a good world and story, did all the work for it. Then remembered they were making a video game. Once they introduced the gameplay it ruined the pacing and diluted the overall theme with ludo-narrative dissonance. There’s even evidence to suggest this as reportedly the first 8 chapters were drafted as early as 2006, over 3 years before the game would be released in Japan. They refused to compromise their artistic vision, for the artistic medium they were in. I really want to like Final Fantasy XIII, I actually went into the game for this feature prepared to be a contrarion and defend it. Yet, I was just bored to death by it for 30 hours. 30 hours I’ll never get back. Oh well, at least it’s finished now. Fang and Vanille became Ragnaro joining Cocoon and Pulse and everybody else lived happily ever after. At least that’s what I and many others thought at the time. We were wrong, so very wrong.