It’s taken a while, but we’ve finally cleared the entire game and seen pretty much all the major story content that’s available. I feel that I’ve been quite hard on the game, though I’m sure plenty of people would also argue that I’ve let it get away with a lot of things. All the same, I want to take a step back and look at the game again, from the perspective I usually have when I play it these days, without first-time expectations or article critiques in mind.
One of Final Fantasy XIII’s strengths is that it’s a very direct game. It knows what it wants to do in terms of structure, and it rolls with that from beginning to end. Rather than derail itself with fluff, it takes you from battlefield to battlefield without too much fiddling around, or downtime.
I’ve argued before that this is a bad thing. I don’t believe they got the mix quite right, and I did burn out a couple of times when I first played it. However, these days, I know what’s coming, and I understand what I’m not getting from this experience. At the heart of the game is a story about fugitives on the run from the law, with no safe places to hide out, and by surrounding the player with enemies, it provides exactly that.
When you finally get past the section where you’re running from the law, you’re still alone. All the people on Gran Pulse have either died or moved on – I have no idea if there are still pockets of human life somewhere in the world, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t people somewhere. Still, the player never gets to find any such people – they only learn that they’ve been running from their task, and that there are no shortcuts or escape routes on Pulse. Once again, the design of the zones helps to sell this idea, from the violence of the wildlife to the desolation of what ruins remain.
Putting in towns and safe havens would have detracted from this experience. I’ve thought about it many times, from wanting the player characters to find pockets of resistance around Cocoon, to more protracted sequences aboard the Lindblum with the Cavalry. However, I don’t think, on reflection, that this would have been a particularly good idea. FFXIII isn’t a horror game, but it’s still presenting that idea of isolation, and limiting your interactions with people goes such a long way to selling that.
Final Fantasy XIII is also, at heart, a story about people. It’s not a story about many people, mind you – the secondary characters get very little time on-screen, and the antagonists are either dispatched swiftly, or so single-minded in their goals that they do not need exposure to explore their motivation.
Instead, FFXIII focuses on its cast of six l’Cie, and I think it does a (mostly) good job of this. There’s certainly a frustrating aspect to the constant team switches, but at the same time, I’ve never been attached to such a high percentage of the main cast as I have been in this game. Many RPGs offer up varied casts of characters who you can swap in and out at will, but this all too often involves bringing those characters in for an establishing sequence, before leaving them out of the main plot, aside from making the occasional quip.
This isn’t true in all cases, of course, but it’s still great to see wherever it happens, and FFXIII is particularly good in this area. There’s a definite sense of growth in the main cast, even if I did feel, at times, that they had unusual moments of extreme behaviour that seemed to exist mostly to justify the Eidolon battles. Sazh, in particular, has a great story arc, and his delivery in the English dub is superb.
To be honest, I think most of the cast did an excellent job. Hope surprised me in Chapter 7 with the strength of his argument with Lightning, and Troy Baker will always be Snow first, for me. I know there’s a lot of grouchiness about Vanille, but even she didn’t get too much on my nerves, unusual battle squeals notwithstanding.
In terms of gameplay, FFXIII mostly restricts itself to its combat system, and it’s certainly one of my favourites. The whole Paradigm Shift feature, and setting up your Deck, really clicked with me, and I was glad to see its return in XIII-2, and, to an extent, the version present in Lightning Returns.
There’s a fine line with JRPGs when it comes to combat systems. Having difficult regular fights can become extremely wearing, and that’s certainly an experience I had in some areas of the game. However, the flipside is that general gameplay is extremely dull if you make every fight a walkover, and in a game where you’re basically just fighting, it would be pretty bad to render 95% of the content completely irrelevant.
Instead, FFXIII puts its focus on the main characters and their battle skills, and it does that well. The main problem I do have with the system is that the party members don’t have particularly distinctive personalities when it comes to combat. Yes, there are some characters who are better than others – going with Lightning, Sazh, and Snow as a team, and focusing mostly on their main three roles, certainly underlined that point for me. However, outside of the hardest fights in the game, it’s more about what the team is doing than who is what and where.
Probably the most telling part about my shifting attitude towards FFXIII is that I no longer hate the Vile Peaks with a passion. Sure, it’s a little drab at times, but it’s not quite the life-draining torment that I once thought it was.
Now, this might come across as an apology for FFXIII’s flaws, but I really don’t mean it that way. In terms of delivering a classic Final Fantasy experience, it did fall short. A lot of the systems and design were streamlined, and it’s clear that an attempt was being made to appeal to a wider audience, at the cost of its own fanbase.
What I find interesting, though, is how much of my initial reaction was impacted so heavily by expectation. I expected towns, but got persistent dungeons. I expected to control individual characters, but got Paradigm Shifts. I expected varied exploration of Gran Pulse, but mostly just got linear Cocoon locations.
Now that I’ve played it once, I know not to expect these things, and I don’t feel the same strain. It’s instead a relaxing game for me that delivers a cinematic experience alongside, and while the story and characters don’t always tickle me the right way, I still enjoy the game each time I play it. Because I enjoy it, that’s precisely why I am able to overlook its many flaws.
And with that, we’ve come full circle. That’s where I began this series, so let’s end it there. I hope you’ve enjoyed at least some of what I had to say, and if you disagree, I’ll probably understand why. FFXIII is a contentious game in many ways, but for now, I’m content with it.