It’s next to impossible for me to discuss Final Fantasy XIII at any length without going into my history with the series at least a little. But once I cut into that particular subject, there’s an excellent chance the entire article will just get completely derailed. So I promise I’ll try to keep it brief.
The Super Nintendo’s Final Fantasy VI (what we called FFIII at the time, because we – or I – certainly didn’t know any better) was literally the first game that ever made me look at myself in a new way, and at gaming as something that can be pursued in a more serious way than I had previously until that point. I’ve talked at length about the impact FFVI had on me growing up. I don’t know if it was the weeks of extra chores I took on to get together enough money to afford the game (plus a ride to pick it up). Or perhaps the enticing four-page “Two’s company/Three’s a crowd) print campaign that ran in Electronic Gaming Monthly and that revved my anticipation immensely. It could have been all of the incredibly detailed FAQs I found online shortly after that helped me through parts of the game – I had never heard of a FAQ before (this was in the days of the internet’s infancy). But most likely it was just due to the immersive storyline, beautifully charming characters, and masterful score that made this not only a life-altering game, but also the beginning of my long love affair with this JRPG series.
But, like any long-lasting relationship, there’s always the propensity for things to go south and “turn weird”; people change and tend to become too familiar with each other – I’ve certainly changed in my tastes as a gamer, and boy oh boy has Final Fantasy ever changed! No longer the same sprite-based, light-hearted humorous experience it once was, the newer iterations have followed a new trend completely, with characters awash in loose belts and dangling buckles, intent on creating a more mature tone through darker themes and convoluted plots. Not that it was all sunshine and rainbows before, but the they certainly didn’t delve deeply into state affairs and the inner political workings of a government as would be much more likely in the franchise today; simultaneously requiring more effort on my part and receiving less interest and attention from me.
The Thirteenth Steppe
Onward and upward to Final Fantasy XIII, then. I once read a review of FF XIII describing the game, basically, as “running down a long series of equally long hallways”. And it’s hard to disagree with this. For at least 90% of the game, even in open outdoor areas, you’re confined to running down a street or walkway or whatever arbitrary path has been laid out for you. Essentially, you’re on rails, with only a few forks branching off here and there.
It isn’t until the very end, shortly before you make it to the game’s boss, that you enter a true open area, without restrictions on where to go. I personally enjoyed this last part, as it’s the most akin to previous games that had you going out into the field, encountering enemies, and grinding levels. I spent quite a bit of time deliberately not progressing past this section, instead partaking in the hunt challenges, looking for cool secrets, and powering up my characters and weapons – finally!
You see, I never really got the hang of the leveling system in FF XIII, and as a result was woefully underpowered by the time I reached the end. It’s interesting I was able to make it that far at all, and some battles along the way were substantially more difficult than they should have been. I dislike the whole notion of powering up your weapons, or at least in the manner this was done. Rather than growing in strength after repeated use, you have to use certain items that boost their stat gauges. But the order and type of item used matters as well…basically, without a guide, you’re doomed to sell or waste your best items and never be the wiser for it.
Of course, the weapons were only part of the equation, the other being learning new skills by grinding. The very act of sticking it out in an area long enough to just gather experience points was anathema to me in this game: no area was interesting enough to continuously run back and forth in. Getting to the Archylte Steppe on Gran Pulse near the end finally offered up an area with something to actually do while grinding.
The game has gotten a lot of crap for its battle system. I personally didn’t mind it as much; true, it did take a lot direct control away from the player, instead putting you in charge of creating and switching between various battle roles for the characters to assume, such as healer, tank, DPS, etc. While it’s a big departure from the turn-based battle system of classic FFs, it was still a well-implemented idea that certainly kept you alert and watchful throughout the entire battle; knowing when to switch between staggering an enemy, going into a defensive or healing stance, and switching again to maximum damage output could prove to be rather tricky.
Since I’m quite late to the party with finally getting through this game, a second and third installment are already incoming – FF XIII-2 has been out for a while already. Knowing that the battle system, among other things, is one aspect of the game that received a substantial overhaul is a good thing; it didn’t bother me as much, but considering it wore on me after just one game, I can’t do two more of the same.
Not the Most Fun, but It Has a Good Personality
Yes, I figured I’d eventually get and play all three. I’m like that; I like to know what happens. In fact, my brother, who lives with me, has the second game on PlayStation 3. But I don’t know…I’ll surely play it eventually. Until that day comes, though, I promised myself it’s time for a bit of a break. I’m not exactly frothing at the mouth to spend more time in Cocoon and Pulse so soon. Especially since I’ve heard many of the characters are reduced to cameo appearances in the follow-up…
I do think the characters were one of FF XIII‘s strongest aspects. I liked the dynamic between certain combinations, like Hope’s hatred and eventual forgiveness toward Snow, or the mystery surrounding Vanille and Fang, two beings from Pulse somehow trapped on Cocoon. Most of all though, I thought Sazh was the standout! During my time at BNBGAMING, we discussed his design at some point during a podcast. At the time, I thought it was kind of a ridiculous move to have the only Black character sport a bit of a high top afro that has a bird living in (and occasionally popping out of) it. After playing the game myself though, I feel that his character arc was by far the most interesting and moving one to watch, and his personality as a person far eclipses his questionable look. He became the most likable as the only true adult in the group early on, becoming a quasi-leader, and later a sort of father figure to Vanille. Of course, eventually learning the truth behind his son Dajh’s fate was one of the game’s great dramatic moments, and made me really root for Sazh. Maybe it’s because I’m a father as well, but it was an unexpected and very cool plot decision.
Lightning, on the other hand, frankly bored me.
In the end, the game just left me feeling a little short-changed. While there was some momentary gratification, it lacked the appeal that made me really connect with the world and the gameplay, which ultimately means there’s little chance I’ll be inclined to revisit the game at any point in the future – something several of the better games in the series (VI, VII, IX) have accomplished flawlessly. Of course, it’s hard to live up to almost two decades worth of expectations when you’ve got giant-sized shoes to fill. Shoes, incidentally, designed with plenty of buckles and loose belts in mind…