Final Fantasy XIII – Mixed Feelings

Final Fantasy is one of the few defining game franchises for me as a gamer. As a kid, I didn’t look far past the usual platformers, fighting or racing games, but at one point after getting the PlayStation, I got talked into buying Final Fantasy VII. Since then, I’ve played through most of the series and enjoyed each and every game I tried. This is a single post instead of a series, but I have now completed Final Fantasy XIII as well. Did I enjoy it? Sort of, maybe, but I’m not really sure.

It was a whole new world for me

My Final Fantasy experience started with Final Fantasy VII. I never owned an SNES and I was too young to properly understand an RPG during the NES era.

Even with Final Fantasy VII, when I first started playing the game, I had no idea what I was doing. The concept was beyond me and the fact that it was in German, which I understood poorly, made it even more difficult. Even so, I managed to advance through the game up to the moment that horrible thing happened that anyone who has played Final Fantasy VII will remember. Suffice to say, tears were shed, but not as badly as a few days after that event.

I turn on my PlayStation and think “Hey, I wonder if I got any good at this game. Maybe I should try and see how easy the first reactor was now that I know my way around the game”. Keep in mind, I didn’t really even understand the materia system at that point yet.

I didn’t get far, but I remember that it actually really was easier. I mean, at least I knew the characters and vaguely understood what was going on this time. Then I reached the save point.

Keep backups.

That event made me abandon the game for a couple of days, but eventually, I got back to it, pushed through that horrible event and finally reached the Northern Crater. I never finished it back then, though. Instead, I spent dozens of hours farming for sources in the sunken Gelnika, racing chocobos and collecting rare materia. I’m not absolutely certain, but I’m pretty sure the first time I’ve completed Final Fantasy VII was years later, on a PC, using ePSXe.

In the meantime, I did the same thing with Final Fantasy VIII, playing up to Ultimecia’s Castle, but never getting through it. Final Fantasy IX was the first game I actually completed on the first go, but Final Fantasy VII will always be my favorite.

Since then, I’ve discovered emulation and gave the earlier games a try, of which Final Fantasy V was by far my favorite. I have invested at least a dozen hours in pretty much every game in the series and played through most of them, as well as a bunch of other SNES and PSX era JRPGs. Final Fantasy VII was the one that started it for me and it opened my eyes to a whole new world I never knew existed.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Why did I Final Fantasy VII?

Because I like the idea of a character getting stronger, possibly even overpowered. I love the concept of hard work such as fighting monsters, exploring, collecting items paying off in some way. The thought of defeating a powerful enemy, exploring a dangerous dungeon or solving a puzzle in order to unlock a cool new move or a powerful piece of equipment excites me.

Final Fantasy VII had all of that. Sure, I wasn’t the one who figured out the quests (I used a guide for that), but I was still the one that executed the steps, invested the time and got to enjoy the rewards.

And all of that was happening in a rich and interesting world with great atmosphere, which can easily compete with most things on offer today.

But more importantly, there was this feeling, throughout the series, at least starting a few games in. You just knew it was a Final Fantasy game. It was a combination of the music, recurring characters, concepts, themes and just overall atmosphere and story development. You just knew.

Final Fantasy XII has that.

For the entire time I was playing this game, I knew I was playing a Final Fantasy game. That fact kept me going. As dull as many of the parts were, the hope that eventually, I would get that feeling pushed me onwards, all the way to the final boss.

But it never happened. Not really.

I could hear the hints of older game’s soundtracks in the new music. I could see the signs of the atmosphere of previous games. It’s all still there. It’s overshadowed, though.

By what?

Corridors

I finished the game about a week and a half ago. I remember 3 or 4 places more clearly than the rest of the game. I can’t remember the names of those places exactly, so I apologize if I make any mistakes naming them, but I remember what they looked like.

The Archylte Steppes are the most memorable because that was when the game at least partially opened up. Oerba is memorable because Fang and Vanille talked so much about it and there was that tiny robot character with a side quest there. Mah’habara  remained in my memory because I was running away from battles up to that point and ended up being seriously underleveled for a boss battle, so I had to grind in that place. Lastly, I remember Orphan’s Cradle because it actually looked cool, was memorable and was the final area of the game.

Outside of those areas, I remember hallways. Just lots and lots of hallways.

Final Fantasy XIII - Ifrit

Pictured: A scene from an in-game theatre act. The only place I was able to see Ifrit.

Seriously. The dungeons in Final Fantasy XIII are just lame. It’s just one room leading into another. There’s nothing special about any of them. Sure, there’s a unique graphical theme to each new area, but that’s not enough to make it memorable. You need identifiable and memorable features or events and we got none of those. There’s no Shinra Mansion, no Balamb Garden, no Treno. Everything is just more of the same, painted with a different set of brushes.

It took me somewhere between 50 and 60 hours to finish this game and I remember only four areas with relative clarity. One is basically the equivalent of the world map of the previous games, one is the only one that had any real character, one was the only one that properly challenged me and one just looked sort of nice and it’s still fresh in my mind. That says something about the game.

It’s the philosophy of streamlining

Streamlining. I’m really, really starting to hate that word. The argument sold to the gamers is always something along the lines of we should eliminate the pointless things because they just distract you from what matters.

Well, let me try and list a few things streamlining did for Final Fantasy XIII

There’s just HP, Strength and Magic…

Those are the stats in this game and nothing else. There are no resistances as character stats, no defense or magic defense. They exist as equipment stats, but the characters only have these three. Your weapon will increase your magic and strength in some ratio. Your accessory (there’s no armor, but that’s really not the issue) will either increase one of those stats or make your character start with a status effect or gain it when certain conditions are met.

Ok, I’m probably not being clear here, so let’s describe it more specifically. An accessory will probably do one of these things:

  • Add X to Strength
  • Add X to Magic
  • Add X to HP
  • Start with Y status effect at the start of battle
  • Gain a Y status effect when HP is critical (or some other condition)
  • Provide resistance/immunity to a status effect
  • Provide physical/magical damage reduction

OK, maybe I’m being unfair. I guess having stats only on equipment should also count. It doesn’t feel like it should count, though. It feels like there’s Strength, Magic, Health and nothing else.

I’m not a game designer. I’d probably suck at it. I do play games, however, and for the 50 hours I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIII, it simply didn’t feel right. I kept playing, because even through all that, it still was a Final Fantasy game, but it wasn’t right.

…gear isn’t much better…

Previous Final Fantasy games I’ve played all had interesting equipment. There were iconic pieces with recognizable names, powerful items that make all the difference in how your character plays. Even Final Fantasy VIII, which didn’t really have memorable equipment, at least had the Junction system and GF abilities. As broken as the junction system was, at least it was fun to mess around with.

When the system in Final Fantasy XIII was first unlocked and explained to me by the in-game tutorial, I was actually excited.

The premise is that you have basic weapons and accessories. You can the use items you find in the world or collect from monsters to upgrade these basic weapons. Once you upgrade them to the max level, you can transform them into something even more powerful.

And it works, for a while.

Then you try to upgrade an already higher-version weapon to the next level and you realize it will take either hours of fighting enemies, past even the point where your characters will be maxed out in the experience department, or it will take millions upon millions of Gil.

Final Fantasy XIII - Location Intro

Pictured: I believe Final Fantasy IX introduced these location intros. I’m glad they kept them.

And what will that get you?

Well, the weapon will become significantly more powerful and it’s ability will change as well, but in the end, it will be just numbers. The abilities reduce down to numbers and the stats are just numbers to begin with. It doesn’t feel unique or special in any way.

Sure, the Genji equipment set exists in Final Fantasy XIII, but I’ll never think to myself, “Wow, I need to get this!”.

Honestly, the entire upgrade system is just numbers. Materials to use to upgrade weapons have different names and description, but they all do the same thing in different amounts. All that ever happens is that you need increasingly higher amounts to get the next upgrade level. It’s a grind.

…neither is the experience…

The experience system also does a bait and switch. You see this awesome display sort of similar to the sphere grid of Final Fantasy X and you get all excited. Then you realize it’s just another of the game’s many corridors.

You kill enemies and they give you CP (an unfortunate acronym for character points, I believe). You use these to invest in, initially, three different battle roles. I’ll explain battle roles and the combat system lower on the page but I will say immediately, I find it fun and interesting enough, though many people do dislike it.

In any case, you spend this CP on what looks like a branching tree of increasingly more expensive unlocks. These unlocks are either attribute increases or new abilities, moves and spells. This is interesting.

Final Fantasy XIII - Corridor

Pictured: Pretty and well-disguised corridors are still corridors.

The point where it fails is that it could’ve been an improvement of the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. Instead, it’s an upwards spiraling line with 2 or 3 unlock-long branches coming from the side of the main line at best. As with everything else, the premise is great, but the realization and the streamlining just make it into a grind.

…and neither are the side-quests.

The side-quests are the final nail in the streamlining coffin.

Once you reach Archylite Steppes, you encounter your first Cie’th Stone.

What is a Cie’th Stone?

It’s story time!

In Final Fantasy XIII, there are two worlds – Pulse and Cocoon. Pulse, or Gran Pulse, as it’s denizens call it is your regular planet (kind off). Cocoon is a giant sphere floating in the air above pulse, where people live on the inside of it.

There are these amazingly powerful and incomprehensible creatures called fal’cie. They pretty much rule Cocoon and dominate Gran Pulse, but the two factions are in conflict against one another.

Final Fantasy XIII - Amazing Cutscene

Pictured: Watching scenes like this one is one of the reasons I stuck with the game to the end.

Both can brand humans with a mark, turning them into a l’cie and giving them magical abilities. A l’cie will get a focus – a task they absolutely have to accomplish. If they do not, they transform into a cie’th – a horrible abomination devoid of reason or will that attacks everything it sees (again, kind off). If they do accomplish their task, they turn into a crystal and sleep for an unstated amount of time, with a promise they will wake up some day. Good deal!

Well, somehow, or eventually, I didn’t quite get that, a cie’th can also become crystal, except they have failed their task, so they’re eternally tortured by that fact or something.

As I said, once you reach the Archylite Steppes in the game, you encounter one of these stones and the gang decide to ease their suffering by accomplishing their task – defeating some monster somewhere. This is the first side quest in the game.

It also happens to be the only type of side quest in the game, and there a 64 of them.

Surprise, it’s another grind!

If you like, you can also repeat these over and over again until you get a 5 star rating on each of them. You will get new equipment pieces, upgrade materials or might even unlock a new area, a new shop or something.

In my game, I went through about 45-50 of them. The remaining ones would require me to invest several hours into my characters to prepare them stat- and equipment-wise and I don’t intend to bother with that. I just don’t see it being worth it.

There are good parts to

I listed a lot of bad things, but the reality is, I did spend over 50 hours playing Final Fantasy XIII and I intend to buy XIII-2 as well, though not immediately, unless it’s on sale.

So what are the good things?

The combat is pretty fun

As I said above, there are battle roles.

  • Commando is the role that uses physical attacks to inflict large amounts of damage, mostly against a single enemy. Physical attacks also slow down the depletion of the target’s stagger value.
  • Ravager is the role that casts spells, mostly on the commando’s targets. Magic doesn’t do as much damage, but it does increase the target’s stagger value by a far greater amount.
  • Saboteur is the role that casts bad status effects on the enemy.
  • Synergist is the role that casts good status effects on the party.
  • Sentinel is the role that taunts enemies and reduces damage received both for the character in that role and the entire party.

You only ever control the first party character in a battle. The other two are controlled by the AI. “That’s horrible”, most would say. The things is, the combat mechanics are designed around it. The idea is that each character can (eventually) learn any battle role, but they excel at the three they get earlier in the game.

In any case, all characters have battle roles, but you also set up up to five combinations of these roles in a party. These are called paradigms.

I might not be completely clear here, but let’s say we have Lightning, Snow and Vanille in the current party. In one paradigm, called Delta Attack, Lightning is a Commando, Snow is a Sentinel and Vanille is a Ravager. In another, called Relentless Assault, Lighting is again a Commando, but both Snow and Vanille are Ravagers. You can set up up to five of these combinations, between which you can freely shift during a fight.

Final Fantasy XIII - Snow

Pictured: I could call Snow the most cringe-inducing character, but it’s not like the bar is set very high.

The idea is that when you know the enemy will not be attacking, you switch to a more aggressive paradigm. When you expect a lot of damage, you switch to a defensive one, etc.. The results can be very interesting and it makes for a fun and unique system.

In addition to that, your main character can also use special techniques which cost TP. You accumulate these by winning fights and killing enemies. They are not plentiful, so you can use one or two specials in a major fight, but they act more like life-savers than something you rely on regularly. As with everything else, they tend to be pretty streamlined, sadly.

The world is very pretty and interesting

The locations in Final Fantasy XIII can be alien or familiar, depending on where you are, but they are all very beautiful.

The setting itself is also unique and interesting. It offers a lot of depth, but you have to dig for it by reading through the in-game encyclopedia. A big part of it is not served to you through the story, so if you don’t access the encyclopedia, the story itself gets confusing.

Basically, the world and the setting are great, but the story fails in my eyes.

There’s fun in the various item combinations

Yes, the upgrade system is streamlined and yes, it’s designed to be grindy, but you as a player can have plenty of fun with the effects of various equipment combinations.

It’s just that for me, the fun ends at the endgame, when you’d like to get the ultimate weapons and items Final Fantasy used to partially be about. It’s still about that, but for me, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t see the process as worth the trouble.

Overall, though…

There are games I give a try, play for an hour or less and just let them go.

There are games I immediately know I’ll enjoy and then proceed to spend days with.

There are also those games where I invest the time, but I’m not really sure if I liked it, or if it was just some psychological effect/phenomenon that made me spend so much time with it.

Final Fantasy XIII went with the third option. I stuck with it, but I can’t confidently say I enjoyed it.

The story is bad. The setting is great. It’s new, original and interesting. The story is just bad, though. People are free to disagree with me, but I can safely say I didn’t enjoy it at all. I was just interested enough to see how it plays out. It was none of those “I got this far, might as well get it over with” things.

Final Fantasy XIII - Barthandelus

Pictured: On of the game’s main villains. Who would have guessed.

The characters are animein a completely derogatory sense of that word. They’re shallow, cliché and annoying, and this is from someone who occasionally enjoys an anime show. Also, whoever said Sazh is the best one was really stretching it. He’s no better than any of the other ones.

The JRPG system is far too grindy to be enjoyable. There’s some apparent depth, but it’s overshadowed by all the grinding.

I guess what I really liked during the 60 odd hours I’ve spent playing this is that it at least on the surface felt like I was playing a Final Fantasy game. As someone who had their list true experience with a new game in that franchise back in the PlayStation 1 era, this meant a lot to me. The remnants of the old charm were still there and it was enough for me to invest those 60 hours into it. I’m not sure I’ll be playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 or Lighting Returns, though. I might give it a try, but I’m in no rush to do so.

So how far did I get?

I played through the story and I got about 45-50 of the 64 Cie’th Stone Missions.

I started to grow way to tired of the game to proceed, so I looked at the walkthroughs to see if there were any iconic bosses within the remaining missions. There was the giant Cactuar, so I gave that one a try and failed.

I haven’t played since.

As for character advancement, I maxed out most of the character’s main roles (the ones they start with). I didn’t get an ultimate weapon, and I didn’t get any other ultimate piece of equipment. It requires too much work, and I do mean work – not fun. That’s about it.

It might not be all over

I’ve been looking at trailers for Final Fantasy XIII and I have to say, I’m sort of liking what I see. There may be hope yet, but I’m not keeping my expectations high. For now, I guess I’ll always have the earlier games. I’m sure I could still get enjoyment out of replaying a few of those.

And one last thing

There’s one department Square still rocks in. You’ve probably guessed from the screenshots I decided to add to this posting.

Watching the pre-rendered cutscenes is just as enjoyable as it was in 1999. It’s just awesome!

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  • This, combined with the the initial failed launch of the latest Final Fantasy MMO, makes me think the whole JRPG genre needs a massive shaking-up. I greatly enjoyed Final Fantasy XII, especially the “International Edition” of it, but the plot was really just Star Wars meets Final Fantasy.

    Even though I enjoyed it, each Final Fantasy game (excepting the obvious -X2 “sequels”) is so different from the other ones that a good Final Fantasy game doesn’t help get me interested in any of the other ones.

    • The series was a big part of my childhood, so for me, the common recurring themes and elements are enough to get me interested, but this was definitely the numbered game in the series I enjoyed the least. There have been worse offenders in the offshoot games, though. Final Fantasy All The Bravest, for instance.

  • Daniel

    You forgot the Medic role,the “White Mage” of FF XIII. :v Talking about my experience with the game: I could think of some things that could have been made a little bit different (I think about it even with older FF games)