Welcome back to the final installment in my criminally over-long look at Final Fantasy XIII. This part is going to be all about nice and good things. It's hopefully going to be a very fun and chill experience, to balance out all that vitriol from the last part; here's a link for that if you missed it.
The Good: Story
Lightning is probably a good enough place as any to start. She starts out as the grim, tough-guy hero stand-in for Cloud Strife. She's even got a weather themed name. Going in, she's only got a cool sword, a cool guy Clint Eastwood grimace and the MacGuffin of saving her little sister or something to work with. That's not much to go on when it comes time for her to get all emotional over her sister's apparently dire condition, especially when we haven't even met her sister yet.
But after the plot twist where basically everyone is completely screwed now, things really start to take off. Everyone's failed in their quest to save Miss MacGuffin, and they are pretty much faced with either dying a horrible death as slaves to a laughing god, or get hunted down and killed by the military. There's nothing like a little schadenfreude to bring a bunch of goofy-haired idiots down to earth. And it actually works. Once everyone gets over their initial disbelief, you really start to see what everyone's made of.
Lightning eventually gets paired off with Hope, and that's where her character really starts to take off. I particularly liked the flashback where we get to see how awkward Lightning is around authority figures. Apparently, when she isn't busy beating the shit out of her sister's dead-beat boyfriend, she's all sorts of neurotic about looking bad in front of her boss, which I think endeared me to her character quite effectively.
After that, she and Hope cut through some sort of nature reserve or something to sneak into Hope's home town, during which time she takes to toughening Hope up into a perfectly trained death machine. That last part doesn't necessarily work, but between their shared disdain for Snow, and Hope continuing to impress her with his courage in the face of desperation, they end up becoming pretty tight.
They're both dealing with the same situation, and while Hope is desperate to give Lightning any reason not to just up and abandon him, Lightning is scared to death that she can't even take care of herself, let alone keep this kid safe too.
Which is justified, given the gravity of their situation. While the heroes are all suitably larger than life, the story does a good job of showing that they're in way over their heads and the only way they are able to succeed is through a mixture of heroic wiles and outside machinations.
Snow gets to have some character development fun times too. Come to find out his constantly promising to save people and do things isn't just idiot posturing. And you find this out around the time he gets stuck together with Hope. Something about that kid just brings out the character development in people I guess. Hope learns that he has an affinity for looking creepy and following people around while playing with a knife, and Snow finds out that this kid is the one that tough momma told him to take care of.
It's amazing how much more responsible Snow acts when he's finally got a halfway clear objective to work with. After a dramatic explosion, the two of them stop to talk things out, man to man, and come to an understanding that Hope had just been deflecting his anger and that Snow had just been avoiding his guilt. Then, after a short boss battle, everyone gets back together to lick their wounds and think about how doomed they all still are.
We also start getting some pay-off as to why Vanille has been acting so weird this whole time. It turns out she's been at least peripherally involved in pretty much every horrible thing that's happened to the group over the past few weeks. So naturally she blames herself and doesn't want to let on to how much she knows to the others. It also turns out that she's a terrible liar, which makes her seem like a typically obnoxious JRPG character at first blush, but in hind-sight makes for some great comedy when you realize she's usually just doing a poor job of trying to change the subject, and that's what has her acting so damn weird all the time.
But this little plot point wasn't just for the sake of an awkward attempt at comic relief. A lot of Vanille's character arc, and Fang's by association, is framed by redemption and forgiveness. Vanille has to learn how to make peace with and stop blaming herself for everything that's happened throughout the events of the game. All of this is accomplished with the help of the others, who quickly become her and Fang's new family. Which I imagine would probably be pretty important to the two of them, what with everyone they used to know having died like, a thousand years ago or whatever.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how rad Sazh is. He's not perfect, but he's easily the most likeable and relatable character in the cast. He fills the critical role of the down to earth character for the audience to identify with. He is the perfect voice of reason to play off of the more outlandish personalities, pointing out the things we, as the audience are thinking, like 'boy Lightning sure has a chip on her shoulder' or 'that Vanille sure is a strange one.'
This is the kind of confirmation and validation you need as a viewer for this kind of story. When you've got such strange and vibrant characters in such a weird and unfamiliar world, it's important to have someone pointing these things out and showing a strong measure of normalcy. That way there's some point of reference for you to acclimate yourself with.
If Sazh didn't point out that Vanille was indeed strange, we might not even realize the fact that she is actually supposed to be strange, since she's a thousand years old and literally from another planet. That fact probably would have been lost on the viewer. It's one of Japanese games' greatest strengths and weaknesses, that they are so weird. One could accidentally mistake any one of the more outlandish personalities in the game for being some crazy Japanese person's idea of normal, and this goes for pretty much any Japanese game's story.
Eventually things start to move from character development over to plot development. There's some business with gods being created by other gods or something and some vaguely defined political intrigue that makes for some pretty interesting side characters too, but the real strength of the story lies in the main characters for sure. It definitely is a shame that the opening hours do so much to distract from that.
The Good: Everything Else
But the story isn't the only good thing about the game. The soundtrack is one of the most beautiful things to grace human ears. Masahashi Hamauzu put together a soundtrack that feels like the most lavish classic Disney soundtrack production and at the same time feels distinctly Final Fantasy in its melodies and instrumentation.
There is a certain baroque quality to it to be sure, with so many tracks going at once, but that's kind of the case for everything in the Final Fantasy series. That said, rather than feeling garish and over-wrought, it reads very well and really effectively embellishes the environments and the story far more so than any of Uematsu's later Final Fantasy music in my opinion. Uematsu's music has always had a great sense of emotion to it, which works very well for embellishing plot points, but Hamauzu adds a great sense of emotion to simply being in a place.
I mean, just listen to that start screen music up there. That has got to be one of the greatest title screens in any game ever. And the soundtrack continues to breath life into every corner of the game, from the sweeping vistas to the shop menus. The soundtrack is so amazingly gorgeous that it's practically above whatever is going on on-screen at any given time. But it really succeeds in the most important thing a soundtrack can do, which is to embellish the action and emotion of the scene. And there's no point throughout the game where Hamauzu doesn't do this beautifully. I could go on for an entire article about the music alone, but I'll try and cut it short here.
The environments are absolutely gorgeous, which they should be, considering the level designers had all the time in the world to make them. It's interesting how the running chronology of the game's design process is noticeable in hindsight. The level design was one of the first things they started on, so they had plenty of time to make them look nice and pretty. The engine took practically forever to finish, so it's got plenty of bells and whistles to make everything run super nice. But that means the combat was one of the last things they started on, and we already talked about how that turned out.
But the environments are definitely one of the game's strongest points. Aside from Japan's continuing inability to make grass textures that aren't badly stretched, the environments are ostensibly perfect. There are some indoor areas that are garish and not particularly well designed, but only in fits and starts. There's no one area on the whole that looks bad in the entire game.
Chapter 3's level, set in the crystallized Lake Bresha, is unlike anything I've seen in any other RPG. And the music that plays along with it, I mean, I know I already talked about the music but Christ. A lot of people have complained that Final Fantasy XIII didn't feel like the evolution of RPGs that everyone was expecting, and I can understand that, but the graphics and art are still second to none, even going on three years in now.
The character designs are actually pretty great too, which is baffling considering Nomura is the one credited for the character designs. I mean, Nomura isn't completely incapable of making good designs. His work on the Parasite Eve games was pretty fantastic. I just assumed that the garbage he was crapping out for the Kingdom Hearts games would be indicative of his future work. Thankfully I was wrong.
The only obviously Nomura looking design in the game that I can remember off-hand is Cid Raines, and only after he turns into crystal. I hate to just talk mess on Nomura here, but his work comes across so much better when it doesn't have all of the obvious hallmarks of his style. And those hallmarks are much more toned down than I expected to see going in. Instead of a bunch of made-up clothes, they only add embellishments to regular clothing articles, which makes all the difference I think.
The game has a pretty crazy attention to detail too. When you consider the fact that Vanille and Fang were presumably kicking around, being Amazonian warrior chicks on Pulse way back when, it's pretty interesting to note that Vanille starts out with three bars on her ATB meter, as opposed to the two everyone else has, almost as if she has more experience fighting than the rest of them or something.
They even planned around the fact that your party is regularly ordering weapons and equipment over the retail network, and placed hidden messages from an unnamed Fal'Cie, who explains that your network credentials are being altered to protect your identities. There is literally no reason for them to have included this explanation. It's not like it would wear on players' suspension of disbelief that badly if they hadn't. But that's the kind of subtext and narrative depth there is to find if you just look for it hard enough.
The combat design isn't all bad either. They made some really smart choices in a few areas. You start out with full health after every battle, which is a great idea. That along with the inability to grind really forces the focus on tactics over pure numbers and grinding. It's a great design choice on the face of it, and despite the rest of the game not accommodating it as well as it could, I still think it deserves its place in the game's design.
Another great feature that all RPGs should have as far as I'm concerned is that all your characters level up at the same pace. I can't tell you how needlessly backward it is to stick you with an under leveled party member, and I can't tell you how many games still pull that trash like it's a good idea. Granted, the way this game is designed, not having that feature probably would have rendered the design completely untenable. But it's a really cool feeling jumping up several levels after a cast change.
One of my biggest problems with the combat is that the ideas they had were great on paper, but were executed awkwardly or poorly. The auto-battle feature is great in concept; theoretically, it frees you up to switch your brain over to the broader strokes of the battle, rather than which attack does more damage against this specific enemy type. And that's a cool quality for your game to have, being able to switch between two different aspects of a single battle. It doesn't really pan out, but it's still kinda neat, even when you're using it sometimes.
And like I said in part two, the chain gauge is a really great idea, especially when you take the paradigm system into consideration. The chain gauge could have been the thing that made the paradigm system really make sense, and turn your attention away from the vanilla ATB system, but instead it rarely becomes relevant.
If they had structured the roles around more clearly defined relationships to the chain gauge, then I think the whole game would have just opened right up and offered much clearer enjoyment of the game's tactical depths. As it stands though, it still does draw the attention toward the paradigm system pretty effectively, even if it does up being more frustration than it's worth. But, again, bad execution doesn't discount the fact that these are some pretty cool ideas. Ones which I wish had been executed on better for sure.
At the end of the day, I may not have convinced you to go out and buy a new copy of the game, but maybe I've made you think about it in a different way than you did before. Public opinion can be important with games. Just look at Final Fantasy XIII-2. They put towns in because people complained about there not being towns in Final Fantasy XIII. Now, I can't think of a single thing that towns would add to a game like Final Fantasy XIII, and I doubt the developers could either. But that's what people said they wanted, so that's what they added to the sequel. The same can be said for the map design and the side quests.
It seems to me that there is a firmly-set, canonical vision of what Final Fantasy XIII is and where it succeeded and failed. And as you might have gathered from reading on this far, I don't necessarily agree with that vision. As a result, we now have a sequel that didn't really make any attempts at fixing the problems with the combat and general game play. So if the most our criticism can produce is 'The game needs towns.' or 'The characters don't have any personality.' then we're only ever going to get what we asked for.
And that's less of a complaint about Final Fantasy XIII-2 and more of a complaint about the state of game criticism. There's far too much time spent repeating popular opinions and not near enough time spent with the games themselves. But that's probably a topic for another time as I've already gone on for far, far too long as it is.