So this is one game I’ve always been meaning to finish myself just to see if all the things fans have been saying about it were true, and after a solid 47 hours of play time, I can now say that I did just that. And I have my answer, too. But let’s not spoil the fun in advance by revealing what I ultimately thought about the game in my introduction — and besides, some of you (yes, you) are going to scroll to the bottom anyway just to see my concluding thoughts. I can’t stop you, nor do I wish to. I’m not your mother, you lovable little rapscallion. Anyway, uh… without further ado, let’s jump right in, because I feel this is going to be one long review. Here are my thoughts on Square Enix’s fairly controversial 2009 entry in the Final Fantasy franchise.
Whenever a discussion starts about FF13, you’ll see the same criticisms leveled at it — that is, a painfully linear main campaign (some affectionately, or not-so-affectionately call the game Hallway Fantasy 13) that mostly just consists of running down straight corridors and only opens up very briefly in a late-game chapter, but when it does, the game “finally gets good”. People were upset that it takes 20+ hours for the game to get good and out of its glorified tutorial, that the battle system is all automatic and the “game plays itself”, that the characters are terrible, that Hope is whiny, that Vanille’s voice is annoying, that you have to read a fucking novel in the datalog just to understand what’s going on, that everyone talks about fal’Cie and l’Cie and whatever without the player being able to follow it, that there is no exploration, no towns, no NPCs to talk to, nothing. There is nothing. Final Fantasy 13 is nothing. I think you get the idea.
Yes, it’s the l’Cie thing. Let’s talk about the l’Cie thing.
Long story short, while I feel some of the criticism thrown at the game is fairly valid and warranted, others are… well, not. But let’s start with the beginning. Final Fantasy XIII starts off with a train (an FF7 nod?) with both Lightning and Snow separately heading to a certain ruin to save Serah (Snow’s girlfriend and Light’s sister) who has recently been branded as a l’Cie, aka a servant of a mysterious god-like entity called a fal’Cie that gives you a mission (a Focus) that you must complete or else get turned into a zombie monster. Y-Yeah. There are some other characters getting caught up in all this, but you don’t have to think too much about that because it’s explained later.
I think it’s the whole l’Cie and fal’Cie thing that really made people go lolwut, but honestly, the basics of it are fairly simple, and I had an easier time understanding what was going on in this game than in the terrible, terrible Final Fantasy Type-0. Well, maybe there’s also the fact that the game has been out for a number of years now and I’ve seen so much discussion of it online that I kinda had an easier time comprehending stuff. Or I dunno. As for the in-game encyclopedia (the aforementioned datalog), reading it is not the ultimate chore some have claimed it to be. Well, it’s not really necessary, I feel, to read all of it, and even if you do, an entry is like 100-120 words or something. That barely takes any time to read, so… y’know, I thought this was quite blown out of proportion. Honestly, blowing things out of proportion is sort of how I feel about the harsher reviews I’ve seen for this game. I’m not sure if people were so caught up in their anger and disappointment, or if the pre-release hype was too strong, or if they just wanted this to be yet another [insert favorite FF game here that’s probably either 7 or 10 or 9] but the bottom line is (and I guess I’ll articulate my fundamental thoughts on the game without wasting any more time) that FF13 is… well, it’s not as bad as so many people claim. I’m not gonna sing its praises as an unmatched masterpiece either, mind you… but still.
Either way, before we get too sidetracked, let’s get back to the story. The basic conflict stems from all the party members getting branded as l’Cie, which is cool because they gain magic powers and can now set people on fire with spells and shit, and not-so-cool because they have to complete a vague Focus they know nothing about, and if they fail, it’s zombie time. Oh and l’Cie are generally feared by the populace as monsters to the point where even the mere possibility of a l’Cie threat makes the government throw a bunch of potential suspects on trains to be deported and killed, so everyone wants them dead. Good shit. So the story is mostly about the characters dealing with their newfound l’Cie-hood, there’s some stuff about free will and destiny and hopes and dreams and making the impossible possible, and by the final cutscene the cheese was flowing in great quantities. If you take away the fairly cool lore with all the fal’Cie and stuff, it’s actually quite a standard JRPG storyline about the heroes opposing destiny to protect what’s dear to them and save the world from destruction, so… yeah. There are worse stories out there, but I wasn’t particularly blown away by what FF13 had on offer. So that’s definitely a weaker aspect of the game, I think.
As for the characters, they’re… acceptable, but I didn’t feel very strongly about any of them, except for maybe Lightning who is super cool and maybe I fantasized about sleeping in her lap once or twice or seventeen times. The characters go through some development, and later admit that they were wrong about certain things and eventually, party members that initially didn’t quite want to stick together (that sort of defies the usual JRPG trope of the party members staying together for no reason) learn to trust and help each other. And yes, even Hope mans up. Besides, his whole deal with revenge was kinda understandable considering what happens to him, so I didn’t feel he was as obnoxious as some people would say. Fang and Vanille I didn’t quite care about, Snow is the guy who you initially want to punch in the face (Lightning does that for you, several times) but later start to realize he’s not all that bad. Or something. I liked the little development the game gave both to him and Lightning, as both of them start off in a certain mindset and later realize their own foolishness and mend their ways. So I liked that bit, it sort of made them feel a bit more human, I guess. There’s also Sazh, who gets bonus points for being an actual adult with a kid, which you don’t see all that often in JRPGs, but his hair has a silly shape and a bird lives in it. I wonder if the bird poops in his hair, too. Trust me, I have experience with birds (pigeons), all they do is poop. Anyway, I think all the characters are over 20 except for Hope and Vanille (who are 14 and 19, respectively), which is cool.
The game, during a certain segment when Lightning and Hope are on their own, also highlights how Light is actually a nice and caring oneesan deep down who just has her own issues to deal with. This femininity of hers is well-reflected in Sakamoto Maaya’s JP performance as Light’s VA, and is sadly not reflected at all in the English dub which makes her sound bland as shit. So play with the Japanese audio, is what I’m trying to say. And I found her interactions with Hope kinda cute, in how she seems to care for him like a little brother. Right, so I might’ve been a bit rambly there but overall, the characters are kinda *shrug* except for Lightning who is best grill, would polish her grate all day and cook delicious BBQ on her.
I also have to mention how the villains in FF13 are kinda… shit. They’re weak and forgettable, basically. And the pope dude also dresses in these silly robes and teleports around the place as he gives his sermons so I just couldn’t fucking take the guy seriously at all. Like, he wasn’t intimidating in the least, and now that I think back upon it, he doesn’t really do shit. I mean, at least Sephiroth did plenty of things that made you think he was a badass (Midgar Zolom, kek) and he also killed you-know-who, so… yeah. Oh, and don’t worry, the pope dude being a villain isn’t really much of a spoiler, unless you genuinely didn’t see it coming that the guy who oversees the so-called “Purge” (literally the FF13 version of the fucking Holocaust) would be up to no good. What a shock.
So let’s talk about the gameplay, which, after my lukewarm assessment of the plot and characters, is what made FF13 an overall enjoyable experience for me. Simply put, I liked the battle system quite a bit, and it’s primarily what made me keep coming back to the game. The basic premise is that you have three characters in battle, and you only control one of them — the leader. The other two use their AI to aid you, and they do this reasonably well, especially if you use a Libra skill to scan the enemy’s strengths / weaknesses. Each character will be using a set of skills and spells corresponding to their current combat role — said roles include damage dealers (Commando/Ravager), buffers, debuffers (Synergist, Saboteur), tanks (Sentinel) and healers (Medic), and you have to switch them around to suit the needs of the situation at hand. This is called the Paradigm system, where you set up various role combinations that you’ll be able to freely switch between during battle (which is called a Paradigm Shift). You need to dish out damage ASAP? Go Commando/Ravager/Ravager. Need to heal while also staying on the offensive? Shift over to Commando/Ravager/Medic or Ravager/Ravager/Medic. Then you can go even further and set up stuff like Medic/Sentinel/Synergist when you need someone to aggro all the enemies as the Sentinel to distract them from the Synergist as he safely buffs everyone up, and the Medic, meanwhile, keeps the heals coming so the Sentinel is always in the green HP-wise. If you don’t need healing that much, you could maybe ditch the Medic and go Sentinel/Synergist/Saboteur, which means the two buffers/debuffers can safely do their thing while the Sentinel weathers the storm. And when everyone is nicely buffed, you switch back to Commando/Ravager/Ravager and get the party started.
If anyone cares, the party combination I ended up settling for was Lightning/Fang/Hope, as I felt it created a nice balance of firepower (Fang is a fucking beast) and healing/buffs. Honestly, I found Hope to be the most useful and versatile character gameplay-wise as he was both a very good Ravager, a reliable Medic and my go-to buff man as Synergist. Like a little shota polyhistor. And you gotta treat your buff man right, people. He just might save your ass in a tougher boss fight (he absolutely did, bless his face).
The main thing you’ll have to master in battle is Staggering. This means building up the enemy’s chain gauge by attacking them continuously (Ravagers build the gauge in a relatively speedy fashion, while Commandos steady it, making sure it doesn’t deplete too fast), and when it reaches the maximum, the enemy is temporarily staggered, and you’ll do more damage and launch them into the air and juggle the shit out of them. Several enemies will be nigh-invincible unless you both exploit their weaknesses and stagger them — and once you figure out the best way to deal with a foe, you’ll be surprised by how fast they can go down compared to when you were blindly hacking away at them. This is what made the combat system quite fun for me.
And the interesting thing is, even after leveling up my characters and upgrading my gear to the point where not even the final boss was *that* challenging, I still found some enemies that could surprise me if I was careless. Because Final Fantasy XIII is a bit like life itself — no matter how good you are, there’ll always be someone else who’s better, stronger, and quite capable of pushing your shit in if you get too cocky. And I don’t just mean bosses, I Game Over’d on normal, non-boss enemies a couple times, too. Thankfully, the game has a lenient instant Retry feature, so actually getting a Game Over is not a huge deal, the game will just plop you down right before the battle, so you will lose no progress even if you haven’t saved in ages. What’s not that cool, however, is that you Game Over whenever the character you’re controlling is KO’d, regardless of how the other two are doing. So you could be in tip-top shape and everything, but you’ll still get a Game Over if your leader gets knocked out, even if you have a party member who could easily revive them with a spell.
Now, another thing I didn’t like is how long it takes for the game to actually give you full control. Much of the game’s first half will be spent battling with teams of two (usually Light/Hope and Sazh/Vanille), thus leaving you unable to use the otherwise fun combat system to its full potential. Only around the 20-hour mark does FF13 get all the party members to assemble, which is the point where you’re first allowed to freely pick which characters you wish to use in battle.
In battle, you’ll mostly be using Auto-Battle to save time, when the AI selects the best possible skills to use (for example if you know the enemy is weak to water, pressing the Auto-Battle button will make your character cast Water spells / skills). You can also individually select which skills to use, but I barely ever used this and did just fine. I assume this is where the “game plays itself” complaints originated from, but this statement, I feel, couldn’t be farther from the truth. Battles in FF13, particularly certain bosses, can get decently challenging, so just spamming the same old attacks over and over will get you mercilessly slaughtered in several cases (because enemies later on like abusing debuffs just as much as you do, lol). Knowing which combat roles (Paradigms) to use and *when* is key, and thus many battles will force you to think about how best to time your Paradigm Shifts and skills. For example, if you need to air juggle a really tough enemy to make sure it doesn’t ever land on the ground (because if it does, it’ll kick your ass), you have to time your attacks right and create a tight rhythm so that when one character finishes attacking the enemy in the air, another can jump in and continue pummeling away at the poor sod, thus keeping it in the air for an extended period of time.
Anyway, the bottom line is that I found FF13’s battle system quite fun and addictive, and packed with just the right amount of challenging fights to not make it stale during the majority of the storyline… even if things, admittedly, were starting to feel like a bit of a chore towards the end, but I’m chalking that up to the final dungeon’s mentality of “hey, here’s this tough enemy. oh, you beat it? cool, now beat two of them at the same time lol” or “hey, remember that boss? yeah, that one. now beat it again.” Other than that, I mostly remember Chapter 10 being a major offender in terms of being just one tedious fight after another in a dungeon that just never wanted to fucking end… but the rest of the game was fine.
The oft-mentioned linearity of the game didn’t bother me all that much. Yes, much of the game is indeed a hallway, I won’t deny this. But at least it’s a very pretty hallway. Despite having launched like 7 years ago, the graphical presentation of FF13 aged surprisingly well, which is something I’m hoping to illustrate through a number of my screenshots. All the screenshots you see in this post are in-game graphics, running in real time (I’m saying that because there are a number of pre-rendered movie cutscenes, too).
And that thing about the game “getting good after 20 or so hours”? Complete nonsense. After 10 chapters of hallways, the game’s eleventh chapter grants you access to a more open area (Gran Pulse) that you can freely explore. This is supposed to be the area that finally redeems FF13, the reason why you should soldier through those horrible, tedious hallways for the first ten chapters. The horror. But once you reach this area, oh, then everything will be fine, the game will finally start for real. Yup. If you couldn’t detect the obvious sarcasm in my above lines, let me be more clear: the big, open area of Gran Pulse is just an empty, ugly sandbox with almost nothing to do except for monster hunting missions. And before you unlock teleport stones and Chocobos, you have to traverse that shit on foot. Oh joy. Can we go back to the shiny hallways, please? The rest of the game broke up the linear hallway-traversing with constant story cutscenes, but on Gran Pulse, the whole game sort of just stagnates as you complete monster hunt after monster hunt — this chapter was the first time I actually felt like I wasn’t having as much fun as before. Also, psst: Gran Pulse has corridors, too. Yes, it has a central, open hub, but then it branches off into various hallways again, so it’s still mostly linear save for that large area in the middle. Just to be clear though, I have nothing against the actual monster hunts themselves, as I greatly enjoyed completing all the challenging Mark Hunts in FF12 too, but Gran Pulse as an area was a massive disappointment for me, and I don’t quite understand why people glorify this place with its empty, copy-pasted grass fields compared to the gorgeous-looking, albeit linear bits of the storyline. That’s just my 2 cents, I suppose.
Oh, by the way, this will come completely out of nowhere but remember that artwork with Lightning on a sofa? Well, it’s actually in the game, lol. In the final area. Did anyone else notice this? I’m sure someone did, I mean, it’s been 7 years. But whatever, it’s still kinda cool.
Anyway, to put the final period at the end of this quite lengthy review (see, I told you it was gonna be long), I must once again reiterate that despite all its flaws, I had a fairly good time playing FF13. It sadly doesn’t quite have that feeling of a Journey with a capital J that I outlined in my post about JRPGs, and the storyline didn’t exactly have me on the edge of my seat, but it has one hell of a solid battle system that I had fun messing around with.
With that said, in a hypothetical parallel universe where I’m the kind of man who rates video games on a scale of 1 to 5, I can see myself awarding FF13 with the solid, respectable, middle ground rating of 3 wedding-rings-I-would-give-to-Lightning-so-she-could-be-my-wife-and-mine-alone out of 5 wedding-rings-I-would-give-to-Lightning-so-she-could-be-my-wife-and-mine-alone. But I’m not that kind of man, and we’re not in a parlallel universe, so instead I’ll just say that… well, that the battle system is fun and Lightning is mine so hands off. And the graphics are pretty. That’s what it boils down to, I suppose. I can’t say I’d ever feel like replaying it the same way I find myself wanting to go back to other JRPGs just to re-experience their stories, but still. FF13 is okay. It’s alright. It’s… acceptable. It’s not the best Final Fantasy I’ve ever played, but it’s faaaaar from being the worst. Seriously.
(P.S. Worst Final Fantasy is Type-0, anyway. Fuck that game.)
(Update: My review of the sequel, FFXIII-2, can be found here. It manages to dethrone Type-0 as the worst FF, by the way. Yup, it’s that bad.)