'Final Fantasy 13' - Lightning Strikes Down the Middle
Second Chances #32
Hello, and welcome back to Second Chances where my focus is fighting for the maligned, forgotten, and ignored.
Final Fantasy fever has reignited more than it has in years thanks to the phenomenal success of the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake. I'm playing it myself, and, even though it'll never take the spot on my favorite games list away from the original version on the original Playstation, it is still a great reimagining of the first major part of Cloud's story. I've been a fan of the Final Fantasy franchise long before it was considered cool to be one. I own all the major installments of the franchise and even a good number of the spin-offs. Even though I've only finished a few of them (since I tend to jump among different games), I've enjoyed them all. You know one of the ones I HAVE finished? The much-derided Final Fantasy XIII.
Okay, to be fair, Final Fantasy XIII on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (I played the Xbox one, for the record) is more polarizing than outright hated. While opinions now deride it as one of the worst games in the franchise, when it first released in 2010, critic and audience reactions were split right down the middle. Some thought it was a beautiful, fast-paced, strategic adventure that presented a deep tale about the nature of destiny. Others thought it was a "game" that played itself and threw out a bunch of meaningless philosophical gobbledegook as a way of hiding the fact that Square Enix had completely disappeared up their own asses by that point. I don't fall into either of those extremes. It has its problems, sure, but it still held me to the end of the story.
The plot involves a ragtag group pushed together by circumstance. Led by the feuding former soldier Lightning and resistance leader Snow, this group gets tagged by one of their world's god beasts (known as fal'Cie) to go on a mission which they have to figure out on the way. Failure gets their souls stripped from them, turning them into mindless creatures called Cieth. Success would preserve them as crystal forever. As they progress, they learn that their mission was intended by the fal'Cie to be solved one way which would destroy the world; so, they go to find an alternative.
There are two major issues people have with the plot, and I can see those problems they have. The first is that the story uses a ton of game-specific jargon. There are people who have trouble distinguishing l'Cie from fal'Cie. Square apparently decided the solution was to include an in-game encyclopedia to explain everything. Some may consider that a lazy failure in storytelling, but I didn't mind. I've played games that hid their whole plot in the manual; this is way above those games. The second is a major part of the plot that some think makes no sense. The fal'Cie give their chosen (the l'Cie) a task (or "focus") to complete but don't actually tell them what the task actually is. The l'Cie get a mental flash related to the focus, but they're left to figure the rest out themselves. I see that as a parallel to how people ask the "Why are we here?" question when trying to figure out their purpose in life. Sure, we don't turn into zombies if we don't fulfill our destinies in a strict timeframe, but the allegory is sound.
The world and character development structure also got attacked, both for the same thing: linearity. Final Fantasy XIII places players on a strict track from one plot point to the next. The only divergences are to find some hidden items. Things don't open up until the crew leave Cocoon and reach Gran Pulse when full exploration becomes possible and encouraged. Likewise, stats are boosted by going through the Crysterium, a largely linear track for each of the six available jobs where points can only go to one or two stat boosts or abilities at any given time. However, those things can also be said of one of the most universally praised entries in the series, Final Fantasy X. Tidus' crew were largely stuck on a linear path with only a few spots to explore until near the end, and the Sphere Grid is pretty much a 2D version of the Crysterium. I'm convinced that the only reason XIII got trashed for linearity while it didn't hurt X was because of timing. When X came out, JRPGs were still the standard on consoles. Morrowind on the original Xbox was the first taste of completely open RPGs that console gamers got at the time. By the time XIII released, open PC-style RPGs had become the standard on consoles, making the linearity of JRPGs harder to stomach.
The battle system also got lashed at by many players. I can agree with some of the complaints like the idea that the team leader falling means game over even if the other two fighters are still up. Fortunately, that got addressed in its direct sequel Final Fantasy XIII-2. However, the fact that the system largely operates on auto-battling didn't bother me. You're actively encouraged to use the "Scan" ability (which is often ignored in other games) to learn enemy weaknesses, and the auto-battling adjusts to compensate when those enemies show up again. The setting up and shifting of Paradigms which dictate which jobs your characters use at any given time was a neat way to focus on strategy without getting bogged down in micromanagement of the party. Really, the only parts of combat I didn't like involved the Eidolons, the Summons that each of the characters gain. I never really got the hang of using them, and the battles to attain them demanded looking up walkthroughs since they never involve winning a straight fight. Other than that, I thought the battle system was an interesting change of pace.
Final Fantasy XIII is very different from the rest of the series (aside from XIII-2). However, it's not as bad as people say these days. The plot can be a little confusing but not nearly as much as the Kingdom Hearts series. It is very linear but no more than X. I'm convinced that it was more a victim of changing tastes in games at the time than any real problems it had. If you hadn't tried it before or gave up on it after the first chapter, give it another try.
What do you think? Am I off-base here? Let me know, and game on!