I’ve already written a retrospective blog gushing about my favourite two games in the Final Fantasy series, namely Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X, but my third place deserves a bit more space to talk about. Firstly because Final Fantasy XIII has been, ever since it’s original release, extremely divisive not only amongst critics but also the series loyal fanbase. Secondly because I struggle to take the thirteenth entry in Square’s franchise as a standalone game; I actually prefer it’s direct sequel, but you have to play the first game to setup its world and characters for the payoff. The Final Fantasy XIII Trilogy has been a bold set of experiments by Square-Enix, and one with an unsure direction and an overall lack of focus, but it has nevertheless produced a set of games I consider to be some of my personal favourites in the series. I’ll try and explain why.
A criticism levelled at Final Fantasy XIII is often the off-kilter pace and structure of it’s story, and I can’t deny that it gets off to a particularly bad start. The whole thing is kicked off with an absolutely gorgeous CGI cutscene, in which we are introduced to some of the key characters, including the excellent Lightning who I’ll talk about later. The problem is that the dialogue is littered with alien words such as “l'Cie”, “fal'Cie” and “Cie'th”, which are given absolutely no explanation or context for the next few hours of play; leaving the audience baffled. This is definitely a weakness of the game, and it’s a shame it caused people to write the plot off as incomprehensible, when actually the core story is pretty cool! Basically, the plot is that after some godlike being created the world it entrusted the running of it all to a group of complex living machines, who are now lonely and missing their creator, and are trying to orchestrate a catastrophic apocalyptic event in order to gain its attention once again. It’s your job to try and stop this from happening. See, the plot is *awesome*!!
Another thing that’s awesome is the combat system, which again was met with some heavy criticism over the “auto-battle” command and the laboriously slow way that the game opens up. It’s an undeniable truth that the game treats the player like an idiot who can’t be trusted for waaay too long; the opening “tutorial” is about 20 hours!! Again, it’s a shame the game was designed this way as once the control is put firmly in your hands Final Fantasy XIII has one of my favourite combat systems in the entire series. This game shifts the focus completely away from strategic and slow battles and into fast tactical skirmishes, with you only controlling the main character and using a genius “paradigm shift” feature to dictate what everyone else is doing. These “paradigms” are basically character classes that you can mix and match to create a trio capable of launching magic attacks, or quickly healing, or dishing out heavy damage, or buffing the party, or debuffing the enemy, etc. This all happens so fast in battle that while you can choose your attacks/commands if you really want, it’s more efficient to let characters fight via an “auto-battle” command. That doesn’t mean you can just mash the ‘X’ button as many people claimed, as you have to constantly be switching through paradigms to survive the eye-watering speed enemies will react to your moves.
The graphics and art direction of Final Fantasy XIII are simply *astounding*, even now that we’ve moved on a console generation, going back to this game illustrates what a fantastic job Square-Enix did at the time. Characters are also very memorable, some for the wrong reason (Vanille and Hope AARGH!) but some because they’re legitimately good; lots of people still complain about Square’s love of Lightning, the protagonist, but truthfully I can see why… in my opinion she’s fantastic. In terms of the music, overall again I think they did a fantastic job, and tracks like ‘Sabers Edge’ or ‘Fighting Fate’ remain some of the most memorable for me in the series. I’ve been enjoying playing lots of the Final Fantasy XIII tracks in Theatrhythm this month and it really shows what a strong soundtrack this game had. Lastly, I’d like to tackle the subject of the linearity of the game, and the assertion that it was a “corridor runner” of a game. I’m sure people have rose-tinted glasses or something but Final Fantasy XIII was really no more linear that many of the previous games in the series, excluding perhaps the eleventh and twelfth entries. Yeah, there’s no world map or subsidiary towns to visit, but there is a structure to this game by which it funnels you down a tightly constructed plot before pulling the rug from under you and dropping you into a massive open-world area. It’s disorientating to be suddenly given so much freedom, and you can spend ages in this area midway through the game before diving back into the breakneck speed of the focussed story again. I loved it and personally, I thought this game was great despite its flaws
The thirteenth entry in the series sold well despite the backlash it received, but obviously Square-Enix wanted to try and recapture some of those people who had written it off, and actively sought to “fix” all the problems with a direct sequel. Final Fantasy XIII-2 uses quite a lot of the same assets as its parent game and so was a quick game to make, coming out not-too-long after the original, and to be honest it is a superior experience is almost every way. As much as I enjoyed the first game, it is unlikely I will play it again any time soon, mostly due to the incredibly long first section of the game before you are given free reign over the combat system. Well, right from the start freedom of choice and treating you like a grown-up is the order of the day in Final Fantasy XIII-2, as the genius combat system returns once again, but this time with an added Pokémon-style monster-collecting system to make up part of your team in battle. This time the protagonist is Serah, Lightning’s sister, and you only have access to one other (permanent) human member of your party; the third member is cherry picked from creatures captured in battle, and you have to level them up, accessorise them, and mix and match them in “paradigms” once again.
The gameplay improvements continue into the structure of the story, which this time takes place across time and space, as you leap through portals to different dimensions altering things in one place to unlock progress in another. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is basically the polar opposite of the narrow-focussed original, and allows you to tackle different areas in a variety of ways, and in a non-linear patchwork order. As well as the usual combat focussed progression, there are also lots of puzzles and side missions this time, often involving minor returning characters, and there is even a shop in the form of an insane half-chocabo lady; her voice acting is great/nuts/WTF. The scattershot approach to storytelling obviously means that the narrative isn’t as strong as the original, and the sense of urgency is somewhat diminished, but this is made up for by a decent villain and the ability to travel through time. Also, there are *loads* of secrets and unlockables hidden throughout the game, which adds to the feeling this is quite a replayable Final Fantasy.
Because Final Fantasy XIII-2 was hastily cobbled together, the graphics are not as polished as the first game, and you won’t get the same grand sense of wonder as you did before, but it’s still no slouch in the visuals department. Music is again very good, a bit jazzier and more experimental than before, with less stand-out tracks and sweeping orchestral classics; voice acting is also decent although playing through Final Fantasy Type-0 HD this month has made me wish there was a Japanese alternative to the English dub in all Final Fantasy games. This second game in the thirteen trilogy also had DLC, including extra characters, which would take the space of your monster teammate, although I don’t remember bothering with any of it.
Overall, as stated above, I actually preferred Final Fantasy XIII-2 over the original and it’s one of my favourite Final Fantasy games, but to appreciate the story and the combat system you need to really play the original game first. This month is my “Final Fantasy Month” and one of the games I might try and squeeze in is Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which is really Final Fantasy XIII-3. I’ve actually had this third entry since its launch, and have played a few hours of it but was repulsed by the *awful* dialogue in English; luckily you can download a Japanese language pack, which I’ve now installed ready for a second stab. I’ll be putting a review up in the future and updating this post to reflect my thoughts on the trilogy in its entirely at a later date. Suffice to say, it was widely accepted that to hate on Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 in their day was the right thing to do, but now there seems to be a bit more of a hipster-cool admitting that you think they’re actually decent games. And they are.