Final Fantasy XIII released on March 9, 2010. I played it off and on over the course of a few months, before finally giving up somewhere about halfway through. I never beat the game. It marked the first time I failed to complete a Final Fantasy game I had played.
Hoo boy, where to start on this one? As a longtime fan of the Final Fantasy series, I was, of course, super excited about the prospect of a new entry being on a brand-new, super awesome system in the PS3. How could you not be? IX and X are two of my all-time favorite games, and while I skipped XII due to various reasons, I knew for a fact going in that XIII would be right up my alley. Heralded as a masterpiece in visual effects and emotional storytelling, I eagerly looked forward to its release.
While the reviews weren’t exactly what I wanted to see, I thought surely it was some sort of mistake. Square Enix made some of my favorite games ever, so surely they couldn’t shit the bed so hard with their flagship series, right? The game came out, and I bought it.
For starters, the game’s very complicated and rarely sensical plot was dumped very quickly and very unceremoniously upon the player. There was little in terms of storytelling by the game itself, as it relied almost entirely on the player reading backlogs of sorts explaining just what the hell everyone in the copious cinematics is talking about. It was incredibly off-putting, and a very poor way of delivering what might have otherwise been an interesting story. Games like Bioshock used logs (in its case, audio) to fill in gaps and enrich the backstory; Final Fantasy XIII used logs to give even the most rudimentary parts of the plot. It was a curious decision, and one I could never get over.
The characters were probably the biggest fault in the game. Lightning as a character channeled all the angst and stoicity of Cloud and Squall while capturing basically none of their appeal. Snow was a douche, Hope was the most irritating character I think I’ve ever encountered, and I don’t even remember the others. Vanilla? Fang? Was that it? Horrible. The only exception to this is Sazh, whom I actually found to be a well-written and compelling character with motivations outside of grandiose plans to save the world from whatever vague overtones the plot threw at you. If Sazh were in a better game he’d be a very memorable character; Sazh was in this game and will be forever punished by that fact.
The combat was just fine, and I actually kind of dug the Paradigm system it used to regulate AI teammates. While it gave off the impression of the game “playing itself,” in reality the better prepared you were for an encounter (especially for the much tougher bosses) the better you’d fare. As I recall, you could switch Paradigms at will, and often had to do so to get around some of the tougher foes. From what I remember, though, if Lightning died the game was over, so that was kind of bullshit. I also remember the summons being kind of hokey and mostly useless, focusing almost entirely on summon animations over their actual function. And lacking random encounters was nice, except its replacement was rendered basically useless as you essentially had to attack most enemies down the hallways.
Look exciting? Of course not.
And oh, the hallways. Dear God, the hallways. The entire game was hallways. I consider the “classic” Final Fantasy experience to go something along these lines: You start out in a village or town and are given a bit of direction. From there, you start to uncover a larger plot, leave the village or town with a destination in mind (usually to another village or town), and begin to branch out. At some point pretty early on, you get to the world map. While initially the world at large is inaccessible due to either insufficient transportation or some sort of geographical feature, you eventually gain access to most of, if not the entire, map. Let the open world fun begin! The biggest problem with FFXIII was that the game never opened up. You spent the entire time running down samey hallways, fighting enemies you basically couldn’t avoid, and watching cutscenes. I don’t mind changing up the formula (and in many ways, FFX did just that) but oh my God at least make it interesting. In my first playthrough all those years ago I made it up to the part where the game finally opens up (after 20 hours or so) and you get to Pulse or whatever - but by that point I was tired. A game shouldn’t take 20 hours to become interesting.
I really, really wanted to like Final Fantasy XIII. I did not much care for Final Fantasy XIII.
In February 2017 I decided to play through Final Fantasy XIII again to give it a second chance. I played through the entire story, finally beating the game after nearly seven years.
Play it Again, Wes!
Let’s start with the best thing about Final Fantasy XIII - the story. That’s right, the story! This game has a really, really good story. It deals with really complex and dark themes, such as the meaning of life, finding internal purpose in an unrelenting world, and abject hopelessness in the face of adversity. The characters spent 99% of the game fighting the fate given to them, each having to face their own fears and challenges to find the strength to carry on. It’s a bit melodramatic at times, but it’s effective in showing a desperate struggle against oppressive outside forces. I wouldn’t go as far as saying each character experienced any real growth as an individual, but I will say they had to overcome certain aspects about their own choices in order to complete their journey - something that added to the story and gave credence to the plot’s several twists and turns.
Pictured: Me, about 30 hours into the game.
The best part of the story is just how incredibly bleak it is. This game goes to some seriously dark places, one character going as far as nearly blowing his brains out at the prospect of continuing his journey with the hand life dealt him. I’m definitely biased as I do quite enjoy when stories go to some dark recesses to elicit an emotional response, but this game really took a turn for the series that hadn’t quite been done to such a level in the past (though, admittedly, Vivi’s arc from FF IX his some pretty heavy seas, as well). The sheer bleakness and the world doing its best to make the situation worse for the cast really adds up to a moderately depressing story to play through, which beats the hell out of your typical “plucky heroes save the world through the power of friendship” RPG fare. The characters are less compelled by hope and more concerned with spiting the powers that be pulling the strings above them. They’ll save the world, alright, but damn it, they’re gonna kill it while they’re at it!
The combat system is mostly fun, as many bosses require you to switch back and forth between the so-called Paradigms (essentially a role system, where each character can switch jobs on the fly) in order to go from attack, to healing, to defense, to buff/debuffing, and so on. You can power through most enemies after a certain point, but at least most bosses are challenging enough where you have to switch around in order to keep up. Obviously certain characters are more adept at certain jobs than others, but you can eventually unlock new jobs for all characters, so they can have at least some skill in each role.
And speaking of unlocking roles, the Crystarium system used for leveling up is essentially the Sphere Grid system from FF X, wherein you unlock new abilities along a set path on a board using experience points built up from combat. I love the Sphere Grid, so this copycat system is something that appeals to me. It’s simple enough, and having a different grid for each job (six in total - three of which native to each character, three unlocked late in the game) makes it so that you have to keep battling in order to upgrade the skills and stats for each role. The system is addicting to run through, and something I enjoyed doing.
Look at all that good I found in Final Fantasy XIII!
...the bad outweighs the good.
That story that I said was really good? It’s told in the most off-putting way possible. Immediately, the game inundates you with complicated terms that sound exactly the same (l’cie, fal’cie, cie’th) and are repeated ad nauseum - which, despite constantly hearing over and over, doesn’t actually help you to learn what the hell they actually mean. These terms make following the main storyline extremely difficult, as you constantly lose track of who’s what at any given time. Further, the cutscenes in the game itself focus almost entirely on the characters expressing melodrama instead of giving actual insight into what’s happening. It has a telenovela flair to it - and not in the entertaining way. The only real way to follow to story is to pause after every single cutscene and read the game’s datalog, which gives you insight into just what it was the characters were so goddamned pouty about. It’s jarring to consistently pause the game just to read the story that the game should have given you in the first place. What’s worse is that the events leading up to the big break at the beginning of the game are told via flashbacks, which are presented completely out of order. You’ll get part five (of like eleven!) to the backstory in hour 3, and not get parts one through four until several (even dozens) hours later. Sure, you can always go back and read the datalog, but that just loops back into its problem - you’re constantly having to refer to the pause menu just to keep track of the story.
I hope you have a PhD in English, because you're going to do a lot of reading while playing this game.
Having to check in every twenty minutes wouldn’t be a huge deal if the characters weren’t so damned bad. Seriously, they’re awful. Lightning is an even more mopey Cloud, Snow is an even cockier, more clueless Zell. My wife actually thought Hope was a girl. Vanille is irritating (“Why does she keep making orgasm noises?” asked my wife, watching me play the game). Fang is just bleh. But Sazh. Poor Sazh. Sazh goes through some actual character development, and is by far the best character in the game. I felt bad for Sazh and went through my own issues of personal resolve along with him. He’s a good character, and I wish he were in a better game.
And while the combat can be fun and rewarding at times, it can be downright boring at others. Most normal enemies you can eventually just spam through (making the game feel like it’s on auto-play, which is a common complaint for the game) without much thought, while most bosses prove to be too difficult to tackle in a timely fashion. The game rates your performance based on how long it takes to complete the battle, doling out only points for magic skills for hitting time targets. It makes it really unrewarding to not get anything other than what boils down to MP for doing well in battle. Further, I experienced several instances where it would take me 2-3 times the amount of time the game thought it should to beat encounters. Not a huge deal when a battle that should take one minute takes three; it’s a very huge deal when a battle that should take twelve takes thirty. This is, in part, due to the game limiting your growth via the Crystarium: Access to higher skills and stats is tied to story progression, so until very late in the game you literally can’t level up your characters until you continue the story. Why is this?
The small flaws I could overlook. After all, no game is truly perfect, and even a good overall experience can weigh more than the sum of its parts. However, two fatal flaws ruin the game. The first offender: The game isn’t very fun at all. I put roughly 74 hours into this playthrough (yeesh!), and apart from the only open area of the game (Gran Pulse, where I spent about 25 just fighting and clearing out missions) the game boils down to this exact sequence of events:
There is almost no delineation from that sequence at all. Right before the game opens up, you encounter an area with large gear-shaped platforms connected with straight paths. One of the characters quips, “Try not to get lost in this area.” The game has the audacity to tell you to not get lost running down straight paths! I was 30-something hours into the game at that point, and quitting would have set me back even more than just continuing, so I couldn’t do more than chuckle and move on.
Pictured: Extremely shitty ending that pulls the rug out from underneath you at the very end.
The second, and most heartbreaking, flaw of this game is the ending. Remember the total sense of hopelessness and dread that the game (either wittingly or unwittingly) cultivated throughout the story? It all culminates at the end, where right before fighting the final boss, the plan is revealed that they were essentially created to destroy the world. And the whole cast is just like, “Yeah, fuck it, let’s go,” at which point the final boss kills everyone but two characters, drives one insane, and turns the other into the machination to destroy all humanity. Then the former tries to kill her, and everything just kind of falls apart - and it’s awesome! It has the makings of being the videogame equivalent of the ending from The Mist, which has, as you might recall, the greatest movie ending of all time. I was thrilled that the game had rewarded my patience with an ending truly befit of the tone of the adventure. Then...it happened. The worst possible thing the game could have done, it did. It pulled the rug out from under the player, and totally shifted the tone of the game right at the very end of it. It was revealed that the deaths were an illusion, and everyone is a-ok! Now, let’s use our powers of positivity and happiness to beat the bad guy, wweeeeeeeeee! Everyone shifts immediately from despair and woe to resolve and grit, and it’s absolutely ridiculous. They proceed to kill the planet’s sustaining entity, only for Fang and Vanille to turn into a giant tree stump to keep it from crashing down. Also everyone turned back into humans and got reunited with their families. Yay, everyone’s happy!!!
...the fuck? I just spent 73.5 hours in abject misery, and you completely reverse the tone of the game in the last thirty minutes? All for what, a cliched happy ending I can find almost literally everywhere else? Up until that point, the game had taken a very bold stance on portraying despair and anguish in its main storyline, and while certainly a bit out of left field for a mass-market videogame, it was a breath of fresh air. I let out an actual, “Oh, shit!” when whatever the hell the bad guy’s name is when he offed the gang. It was a legitimate surprise. About four minutes later, I let out an actual, “Are you fucking kidding me?” when they all shouted, “Surprise!” from behind the proverbial couch. Everything they had built over the journey, every setback and emotion and redemption you experienced with the characters, was instantly erased by a happy ending - one I strongly suspect was built with sequels in mind (as you’ll recall, the game had two direct ones, and a spinoff in what eventually became FF XV). It was shameful and abrupt, and killed any shot of me enjoying it with one late, decisive blow.
Now that I’ve played it again, I must ask myself...
What Did I Learn?
Finally, some honest marketing!
Seven years ago, I didn’t like Final Fantasy XIII. Older, wiser, and more mature, I still don’t like Final Fantasy XIII. And that’s a real shame. I didn’t set out on this journey to spend 1500+ words complaining about a game; I was truly hoping to find some inner peace with the title, and come away appreciating it more than I could have in the past. After all, that was the entire point of this blog - to look past my fading memory and find some new appreciation of a relic from my past. I don’t play games to be miserable - I play games to have fun!
Unfortunately, the reality of this particular game is far worse than my memory serves. I knew I didn’t like the game very much the first time around, and now with a little more experience and a little less time left on this earth, I can decisively say that this is not a good game. I’m glad I gave it another chance, but ultimately realize that in the end, the game is essentially just a very pretty, moderately-interactive cutscene. After over 100 combined hours with this game, I can definitely say I won’t be playing this one again.
Join Wes the next time he Plays It Again! Next up, No More Heroes!
And, as an added bonus, Wes presents to you the Editor's Cut of this very blog, annotated and illustrated by Dtoid's very own, Vadicta!