Much like most other North American gamers, the first time I played Final Fantasy XIII was back in March 2010. My verdict then was that though the game was brilliant gameplay-wise, the series had gotten too flashy at the expense of substance and story. Enough for me to forswear, however briefly, the entire Final Fantasy franchise.
This year, with the release of its (semi-anticipated?) sequel, I decided to give unlucky XIII another try. And the new verdict? Well, though I still view Final Fantasy XIII as a sub-par entry in the series, I’ve come to set aside a place in my heart for it, enough to call it a legitimate (albeit unruly) part of the Final Fantasy family.
Two years ago, my primary complaint about the game was not its linearity, but rather its bent towards convolution. The story made better sense after a second playthrough, though it needn’t have been so confusing the first time round. Part of the problem is the gabbledygook terminology of the game, like “fal’Cie,” “l’Cie,” and “Cieth.” If you lose your “focus,” as it were, on the dialogue, the characters start to sound like they’re talking in some lost language. I still don’t understand the writers’ logic in forgoing simpler but more readily accessible terms like “angels” and “demons,” or perhaps even “masters” and “slaves.” The nuance regarding Dajh being a Sanctum or Cocoon l’Cie (as opposed to a Pulse l’Cie like Sazh) was lost on me the first time through, because it was confusing enough having to make out the distinctions between fal’Cie and l’Cie or between Pulse and Cocoon. I also continue to find the mythology of Pulse and Cocoon random and rather uninspired, as if it were part of some nonsensical prompt for a writing exercise. A close read of the datalog entries (which often got vexingly repetitive) does help clear up some of the confusion, but a reliance on text that most players will not have the patience to read through, if anything, shows the game’s Achilles’ heel, storytelling-wise.
An Imbalanced Story
I had hoped with the disappointment of Final Fantasy XII’s excruciatingly over-simple and non sequitur story, that Square Enix’s next offering would harken back to mid-Final Fantasy storylines (VI, VII, VIII, X), which all had sound and decent stories. But instead the writers mistook story for the aforementioned convoluted details, over-the-top dialogue and melodrama. There are numerous throwaway scenes splattered throughout the game’s three discs in which the characters interact without much happening. The first part of the story, in which the band of l’Cie assemble and work out the kinks between them, is actually rather passible. It isn’t until Barthandelus comes in with his godly theatrics that the story turns for the ridiculous and loses all sense of inspiration. It’s as if the writers, having assembled Lightning and her crew, didn’t know what to do with them, and lazily resorted to the usual and often perplexing JRPG Sturm und Drang. The final battle with Barthandelus and Orphan, the game’s ending, as well as the seeming haphazard insertion of Leona Lewis’s “My Hands” as a theme song, still boggle the mind.
The characters, though well-designed, ring rather hollow. I loved the idea of Sazh (a sort of Barrett 2.0, I guess) as well as the storyline surrounding his son, though found it a bit of a cop-out to turn him into a doddering buffoon. Snow’s mindless heroics don’t amount to much (and there was something wrong seeing him paired with the figurine-like Serah, who looked often times like a child sitting on his lap). Vanille is the requisite annoying JRPG female character–always armed with gasping frailty, she’s every hetero gamer’s supposed dream woman and every feminist’s nightmare. Hope’s rage wears thin after a while. The moody Lightning and the butch Fang (yes, I said “butch”…loved the lesbian undertones) are my most favorite characters (I have an affinity for kick-arse heroines), though gorgeous character designs aside, they were underutilized or not leveraged in quite the most effective of ways (they came across, for all their heroics, rather mundane).
What constantly brought me back to the game, even amid its travesty of a story, was the gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII delivers the goods battle-wise, constantly drawing the gamer back with the challenge of increasingly more difficult enemies (Shaolong Gui et al.) and the promise of attaining increasingly more powerful items (the Gilgamesh gear, Dark Matter, etc.). The paradigm shift system is fluid, and I enjoyed the challenge of building up enemies’ chain gauges to stagger them.
Good, Not Great, Music
I loved Masashi Hamauzu’s work in Final Fantasy X, and have no problem with having a Final Fantasy not bearing Nobuo Uematsu’s musical imprint. The main theme of the game is indeed catchy and even beautiful. I loved the battle theme, “Sunleth Waterscape,” and “The Archlyte Steppes.” However, there’s only so much variation on the same theme one can take.
The game remains to this day one of the lushest games out there. The Pulse landscapes are cromulent, if a bit extravagant. There is much to admire in the game’s visual architecture as it balances its characters within its vistas.
The Problem is Partly Me
The twelve installments (plus the random sequel and gaiden here and there) of the Final Fantasy series preceding XIII have each expanded the boundaries of role playing games in general. Final Fantasy XIII has contributed its own share, but with such high expectations from a long-time fan like me, it’s easy to overlook those contributions. Because Square Enix is working off of the Final Fantasy template, I’m hard-pressed not to compare any new title with old tried-and-trues. But I have to disavow myself of the notion that I have to employ arbitrary rubrics for these games. The days of Final Fantasy IV when you could supply your own imagined voices to sprites on the screen with speech bubbles are long gone. There will never be another epilogue as epic nor touching as in Final Fantasy VI. There will never be quite as big a reveal story-wise as we saw in Final Fantasy VII. There will never be another heartbreaking ending like in Final Fantasy X, nor a redemptive one like in Final Fantasy X-2. And it’s just as well, as the franchise would otherwise have gone stale from replicating its previous feats.
With my embargo on the FF franchise lifted, here’s looking forward to finishing FFXIII-2!
Read another FFXIII retrospective by one of my favorite video game journalists, Peter Tieryas Liu »
Read my Ruelle Electrique article, “A Video Game Manifesto: Final Fantasy XIII As A Prototype” »