Some Thoughts About Final Fantasy 13

in #gaming3 years ago

Final Fantasy 13 is a fairly controversial installment in the beloved Final Fantasy series of RPGs, with critics disliking its battle system and highly linear level design. Now that the conversation around the game has mostly died down, I'd like to share a few thoughts of my own. As this game has been thoroughly discussed in the past, I'd mainly like to focus on how my opinions differ from the general consensus, and how they do not.

Living, Breathing Worlds (Presentation)

Square-Enix may make its mistakes, but they always seem to get the presentation just right. Final Fantasy XIII truly was a visual marvel for its time with dozens of complex, beautifully designed characters, landscapes and enemies. It looks more impressive than many recent games do. And in typical Final Fantasy fashion, it has the soundtrack to match.

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The only minor problem I had with the presentation was that some enemy designs and animations are re-used quite a bit. While the re-used designs usually get updated and look more unique than mere recolors, it's still pretty noticeable.

The voice acting is also solid and does a good job of representing the characters.

Hallways and Automatic Battles (Gameplay)

I mentioned this briefly in the first few lines of this article, but people have some fundamental problems with the way this game is structured as well as its battle system.

Let's start by discussing the way the game's environments or levels are structured. It gained the nickname 'Final Hallway XIII' in certain circles because its levels are very linear and rarely necessary to visit again after you simply go from A to B. You simply walk through lengthy corridors and fight monsters, with the occasional tiny side path hiding a treasure. The game opens up eventually, but it happens so late into the game and so much is optional that it'll only make a difference if you really care to explore every corner of the world.

Enemies can be encountered in the overworld - that is, there are no random encounters in the traditional sense. Once you run into an enemy in the overworld, that's when you enter the battle system.

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Final Fantasy 13 is a turn-based RPG, but you can't rest on your laurels. It uses a so-called active time battle system. Both your and your enemies' turns load in real time, and your enemy will continue to attack even if you don't. But you won't have to fiddle with menus too much, because of the game's second controversial feature - auto battling. Select the button, and the character you're controlling will just fill their turn with logical actions based on the situation. The real strategy in FFXIII isn't in choosing individual moves, but in controlling your party's Paradigm. To put it simply, each character can fulfill a few Roles, and each of those has its own specialty. Commandos maximize damage, Medics heal their teammates, Sentinels attract enemies and take damage for the team, Synergists buff teammates and so on. You don't select the roles individually either, however. Outside of battle, you'll prepare a set Paradigms - that is, different ways of dividing the roles among the characters - and during battles, you can switch between them at will. It's a surprisingly involved system, but to simplify it, you could have prepared a paradigm to attack enemies, a paradigm to protect against powerful attacks and a paradigm to heal up. In the battle itself, all you do is respond to the situation by shifting paradigms and occasionally use an item or summon when necessary.

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In this regard, FFXIII is a very streamlined game. Exploration is simplified in such a way that there's little more than going from A to B, and battles are simplified in such a way that when you've prepared your paradigms, much of the battle resolves itself. I honestly don't think there's anything inherently wrong with linear environments or auto battles, but perhaps the combination of the two made people feel like every part of the game is stuck to the rails? I personally didn't mind this very much at all, as I've always preferred games that have clear destinations over games that make you wander around - and while the battle system took some getting used to, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring just how many possible Paradigms there are. I particularly like the Paradigm 'Bully,' where you have a Commando to damage the enemy, a Synergist to buff your team and a Saboteur to debuff the enemy.

To summarize, Final Fantasy XIII's environments and battles both move on set tracks, though the environments more than the battles. Exploration doesn't really come into play until much later in the game, while you'll be experimenting with the unique Paradigms soon after you start. The ways this game simplifies the formula of turn-based RPGs, and perhaps Final Fantasy games in particular, was not appreciated by some fans, but I personally thought it was a refreshing take on the formula.

A World that Hates You (Narrative)

The story of Final Fantasy 13 is, in true Square-Enix fashion, pretty complicated. You may regularly need to consult the in-game datalog to get a handle on exactly what's going on. I'll try to give you a quick summary, but I may make a few mistakes:

In the world of Final Fantasy 13, most humans live in a closed community called Cocoon. Cocoon is like a small planet floating above the world below, protected and provided for by powerful machines known as fal'Cie. The people of Cocoon are particularly afraid of anything to do with the world below - called Gran Pulse - because they were at war with it once. The problems start when a fal'Cie on the side of Gran Pulse appears in Cocoon. Its very presence starts a mass panic because fal'Cie can mark humans as their servants - such a human is called a l'Cie - so even if the fal'Cie is defeated, one or more people could have been marked as the fal'Cie's servant and become a danger to Cocoon. This kickstarts an event called the 'Purge,' where the Cocoon leadership tries to forcibly ship off everyone that could've possibly come into contact with the Pulse fal'Cie. The events of the game start during this Purge, with each of the characters having their own role to play. The backstory of the game, which is revealed gradually, is all about the days leading up to the Purge and what all the characters were doing at that time.

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In the opening events of the game, the Purge is happening and each of the characters is involved in it in some way. I won't go into too many of the details, but the inciting event that leads into the rest of the journey is important to mention: The characters run into the Pulse fal'Cie and try to destroy it, but instead, it marks them as its "servants", l'Cie. Now they're considered the "enemy" of Cocoon and are given a vague goal by the fal'Cie which they have to complete or else they'll turn into mindless monsters known as Cie'th. This starts a journey of trying to navigate a world that hates them to figure out how they can escape their fate, and if they even should.

I think the story holds up overall, but definitely prepare yourself for the usual Square-Enix shenanigans - they'll use a lot of new terms (ie fal'Cie, l'Cie, Cie'th) and talk about a lot of places and people to establish their fully realized world and it can get overwhelming. The game has a datalog to mitigate this a little bit, but you'll still have to pay pretty close attention. You may find yourself asking 'What just happened?' a few times. The only thing I'd genuinely call a plothole occurs very late in the game, so I won't spoil it, but it feels like the characters' goal completely flips around at one point.

Speaking of the characters, there are 6 playable characters in total - Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, Vanille and Fang. Which ones you like is going to come down to personal preference, but the most universally liked character seems to be Sazh and the most universally disliked character seems to be Hope. I can identify with the appreciation for Sazh. Very different from the brooding characters we often see in JRPGs, he's a very expressive person and his goals are easy to empathize with - he just wants to reunite with his son. I understand the dislike for Hope as well - he's the youngest character in the cast and mostly driven by misplaced anger. It makes sense in the context of the story, of course, but I can understand that not everyone had the patience to want to deal with an angry child. The rest of the cast is pretty strong and I particularly like Vanille - a cheerful girl with a hidden guilty conscience - and Snow, a natural born leader with endless optimism and courage.

All in all, FF13's high stakes story holds up, but there are an overwhelming amount of names and things to remember - makes sure you pay attention and occasionally consult the datalog, or you may get lost. Which characters you do or don't like is going to come down to personal preference. Save for one or two strange plotholes, it's a great journey.

Final Words (Conclusion)

Final Fantasy 13 represented a shift in the series that a lot of fans didn't appreciate, but looking at it for what it is, I found a lot to love about it. The strategy isn't gone from the battles because you can auto battle, it has simply moved to preparing and shifting between paradigms - and the linearity was never really a problem for me to begin with. With that said, I can understand that streamlining both the exploration and the combat made some people like the game is a lot less involved than other JRPGs. Even so - with incredible music and visuals, a mostly strong cast and very thoroughly realized world, Square-Enix took me on an unforgettable ride with this game. Just don't do what I did and take long breaks between sessions, or the already complex story will really make your head spin.

Final Fantasy 13 is an interesting case in that it has two direct sequels, Final Fantasy 13-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13. I've already finished the former and am now playing the latter, so you can expect me to share some thoughts about those games as well. Because Final Fantasy 13 is so radically different from its predecessors, it's especially interesting to discuss how the developers iterated (and didn't iterate) upon what it established.

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Thank you for reading and I apologize for the long hiatus. The first few months of 2020 weren't very productive in terms of article writing, but I'll slowly build it up again over the next few months. Please bear with me and please let me know if you have any feedback or suggestions. Have a good one!

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