A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3)
When Hironobu Sakaguchi left Square-Enix in 2003, it left a gaping hole at the core of Final Fantasy. Not only was Sakaguchi the creator of the series, his indelible influence was felt throughout its history until that point. Even in a more hands-off producer role, he helped to ensure it would take a strikingly consistent and constantly evolving direction going forward, eschewing profit-driven (direct) sequels to preserve the creative integrity of individual entries. With such an important figurehead gone, the void had to be filled by someone.
That man was Yoshinori Kitase. Director of some of the series’ most critically-acclaimed entries (and Chrono Trigger), the film-school graduate was one of the only figures at the company with the clout and circumspection to replace Sakaguchi’s elusive brilliance. That Sakaguchi hand-picked him for some of those directorial roles is as ringing an endorsement as any, but Kitase earned the position through his exemplary work ethic, surpassing the master in some ways. The decision was obvious: Kitase was the clearest candidate to guide the series through an uncertain future.
Kitase taking the reins as the series’ gatekeeper is one of the most critical moments in its history, completely altering the style and overall design philosophy of each subsequent instalment. The consistency of the Sakaguchi era gave way to the stalling rollercoaster of the Kitase era, characterised by endless spin-offs, questionable tie-ins and blighted production cycles. None were more disastrous than FFXII, the laborious development of which caused catastrophic delays that the company have only just begun to recover from. (Which, in fairness, Kitase had nothing to do with.)
Final Fantasy XIII was just one project hit by that domino effect. Commencing development in early 2004 and originally scheduled for release on the PlayStation 2, the game shifted generations following the rapturous response to the Final Fantasy VII tech demo in 2005. To accommodate the change, work began on an engine that could handle the strain of multiple platforms on a company-wide basis. Later christened Crystal Tools, the engine, a technical marvel, was also single-handedly responsible for pushing back both FFXIII and its ‘Fabula Nova Crystalis’ brethren by quite some years. (Including a little game called Versus XIII. We’ll get to that.)
Just like FFVII and FFX – Kitase’s other babies – FFXIII and its director, Motomu Toriyama, were tasked with re-asserting Final Fantasy’s relevance going into a new console generation. Once again, it was make-or-break. But VII and X didn’t have the added pressure of corporate in-fighting and the strain of spear-heading a universe within a universe. With all these factors, it’s no surprise that FFXIII didn’t achieve a shared, cohesive vision among its team until the demo was released – five years into development. But it would all be worth it when it finally released worldwide in March 2010… right?
Final Fantasy XIII is the most polarising game in the series. The schism between fans when discussing the eighth instalment is child’s play compared to this. XIII completely uproots the formula, distancing itself from its predecessors with every aesthetic and mechanical decision it makes. The player-lead progression of previous games is replaced with automated, cinematic linearity. Explorative elements like towns and NPC interactions are completely eliminated. Side-quests are absent. There is no role-playing. On occasion, it’s difficult to even call it a game.
In theory, this is a great plan. By getting to the core of Final Fantasy, XIII is able to excise the bloat and pomp accrued through years of dogged tradition, condensing it down to its raw, primal elements. There’s a shadow of a job system and the ATB is present and accounted for, but every other recognisable facet of the series is either frittered away into insignificance or removed entirely. XIII’s ambition is nothing less than reinventing Final Fantasy from the ground up; the determination with which it strives toward this ambition is, if nothing else, admirable.
It kicks off – how else? – in media res, as a souped-up monorail crackles through a futuristic cyberscape, shuttling neon-draped civilians to an unknown destination. A taciturn soldier (Lightning) and her black companion (Sazh) battle their way through hapless Stormtroopers, the former demonstrating some anti-grav martial artistry and a transformative gun-blade weapon. “It’s okay,” says Sazh, “I’m not a l’Cie.” A Chocobo chick chirps from within his afro. Almost immediately, the player is thrust into battle with a scorpion death-robot. A quick fight later, the player controls Lightning as jets and gunfire scream through the sky, all in real-time.
FFXIII kicks off with a monstrous bang. It’s pure Final Fantasy – rolling thunder designed to bombard the player with jaw-dropping graphical fidelity, intriguing buzzwords and snappy character moments. It’s a rousing success as introductions go, throwing the first-time player off-balance before they can even establish their footing. There’s so much going on in the first couple of hours that the player doesn’t have time to catch their breath and start asking the question that the developers don’t want them to ask. Namely: “When does it open up?”
It’s impossible to discuss FFXIII without addressing its linearity. For the 40-plus hours required to complete the game, around 90% of it is spent lightly jogging down hallways with gorgeous wallpaper, pausing occasionally for a battle or a cutscene. With one significant exception and the odd branching path leading to treasure, there is no deviation from this progression. It is as straight and unyielding as a Roman road.
Though critics have suggested otherwise, linearity itself is not the problem. Final Fantasy games have always adhered to linear progression, even in the days of traversable world maps. The real problem lies in how that linearity is disguised; or, more specifically, how the game is paced. The equally linear FFX knew how to break up its narrative with distinct locales and unexpected divergences, establishing its world and lore through NPC interaction and appropriate amounts of exposition.
FFXIII’s overall structure is as follows: Run down the hallway. Fight a battle. Run down the hallway. Fight a battle. Run down the hallway. Watch a cut scene. Fight a boss. Watch another cut scene, usually with a flashback. Run down the hallway. Rinse and repeat. This is how the game goes for 40-plus hours. The pattern is clear to anyone who has played it; even worse, it does nothing to craft an illusion around it. Its exhaustive repetition rips the player out of the game and makes them hyper-aware of the fact they’re going through the motions. Any momentum established by the opening is quickly extinguished once reality sets in: the characters may as well have stayed on the train.
But here’s the thing. Much like with FFX, XIII’s linearity is thematically appropriate. The game takes place on a floating world called Cocoon, perched above the bestial lower-world of Pulse (a more fantastical version of the Australian outback). The human citizens of Cocoon live a carefree life thanks to the fal’Cie, demi-gods tasked with ensuring the world is maintained and provided for.
The fal’Cie have the power to turn humans into branded servants named l’Cie, giving them magical abilities and a task called a Focus, which they must complete lest they turn into monstrous techno-zombies known as Cie’th. If they succeed, they turn into crystal and, supposedly, gain eternal life. (Also, the fal’Cie don’t spell out what any given Focus entails – since they’re so far beyond mortal understanding, humans can only receive a hazy glimpse of what it might be.)
The Sanctum, Cocoon’s government, has conditioned its citizens to fear the lower-world, so much so that they repeat “enemies of Cocoon” as a mantra whenever Pulse is mentioned. When a Pulse fal’Cie is discovered in a seaside town and Lightning’s sister, Serah, is branded a l’Cie, the government orders its inhabitants to undergo the Purge – publicised as a mass deportation, it’s actually a covert mass slaughter in order to prevent a world-wide panic. Eventually, the main party converges before the Pulse fal’Cie, who brands them with a Focus. Now l’Cie, the party are wanted fugitives, fleeing both the government and the populace at large while grappling with a cursed fate.
That’s a lot to digest but the premise is fairly simple and, on paper, very promising. There are so many fascinating concepts within those three paragraphs it’s no wonder Square-Enix thought they could forge ahead with an entire sub-series surrounding them. There’s the clear impression of a deep and considered mythology, cultivated over the course of a year by Kazushige Nojima and Toriyama, with an air of Greek tragedy in its talk of cursed humans caught in the machinations of unknowable gods. In FFXIII, the party is faced with a hopeless no-win scenario – whether they defy fate or surrender to it, they’re knackered. The premise also hints at some interesting socio-political commentary – just try substituting ‘Pulse l’Cie’ for ‘Islamic Terrorists’ and ‘Cocoon’ for ‘North Korea’. It is such fertile ground, brimming with possibilities, it couldn’t be screwed up.
Unfortunately, Toriyama and Daisuke Watanabe’s script is so tedious and one-dimensional that these concepts don’t receive the treatment they deserve. Every single cut scene will feature some combination of the words ‘Pulse’, ‘Cocoon’, ‘l’Cie’, ‘fal’Cie’ and ‘Focus’. Characters will constantly repeat information already given to the player as if they’re three years old, and the subtler nuances of the core ideas are drowned out by the laboured melodrama of characters yelling at each other (or monologuing to themselves) about their feelings. The thumping obviousness of their exchanges only highlights the lack of depth in these characters, all of whom are defined, near exclusively, by a single characteristic.
Snow is brash. Lightning is surly. Fang is wild. Vanille is kooky. Hope is sad. Sazh is black. Of the main party, only two (Lightning and Hope) have tangible arcs. The rest simply plateau, remaining at the same place for most of the adventure, piping up occasionally to gripe about their Focus. There may be appreciable moments of intrigue – Snow’s initial swagger is a façade for his sense of failure, and Vanille’s guilt is concealed by her affectations of childishness – but these are anomalies in the grand scheme of things. The only real insights we receive are the ones screamed at us in cutscenes, where the player has no agency or input.
It doesn’t help that half the cast is unbearable, even after they’re not supposed to be anymore. Snow’s most satisfying moments involve Lightning punching him in the face; elsewhere, after he gets over the hump, his cocksure proclamations of saving Serah because her Focus was to save Cocoon wear heavily on the senses. Hope, an insufferable, whingeing little pissant, could only appeal to teenage boys whose mothers just doesn’t understand. Then there’s Vanille. Vanille is a squalling clutch of ecchi stereotypes rolled into a perky marshmallow of kawaii bollocks, whose helium gasps of forced delight seem to fart out of her mouth with every shiny happy gesture. She is the fucking worst. The best characters are Fang and Sazh, primarily because they at least vaguely resemble human beings in their interactions, even if the latter is delegated to hapless comic relief. (He is, at the creaking age of 40, “Getting too old for this shit.”)
While the elimination of towns and exploration makes sense in context (considering the characters’ status as fugitives), it also denies the player an understanding of how Cocoon works. Along with a crippling lack of NPC interaction and developed side-characters, we never get a real grasp of what makes the world tick, no matter how many times it’s verbally explained to us in cutscenes. The atmosphere – so palpable in XII’s Ivalice and IX’s Gaia – is simply missing because we never get to explore Cocoon (or Pulse) properly.
Further, the lack of interactivity with the world is a disservice to Isamu Kamikokuryo’s incredible art design, which sprawls from crystallised lakes to gleaming sky-cities to vast open canyons full of roaming adamantoises. Cocoon is a beautifully-realised world that we can only snatch long, wistful glances at. Again, that distance is thematically and narratively appropriate, but it doesn’t do much for a player’s motivation when they’ve already been worn down by hours of hallways and asinine story-telling.
The addition of the Datalog – a Mass Effect-style codex with plot-flavoured ribbons – reminds us that a great deal of thought has clearly been put into how Cocoon is run, the mythology behind the fal’Cie and so on, but none of it is reflected in the game itself. Once the player grasps the foreign terms, little is actually elaborated upon regarding the finer details, no matter what Kitase says. Besides, the player shouldn’t be expected to read supplementary material to find answers for questions in the main plot, sparse as it already is.
Since FFXIII is so pre-occupied with the loud inner turmoil of its characters there’s little time devoted to the plot proper. Unsurprisingly, it’s as numb and straightforward as the hallways that connect it. The first half of the game spins its wheels with such banality that nothing sticks. When the smirking pope figure finally transforms into a troll-face fal’Cie and gloats about fate and nihilism, 18 hours into the game, it all feels so perfunctory. All those redundant cutscenes and disconnected flashbacks and automatic battles and jogging, jogging, jogging merge together until it’s impossible to extricate one from another, building to an incomprehensible ending that ranks among the most teeth-grinding, cringe-inducing conclusions in modern gaming history.
Masashi Hamauzu’s score, while great in isolation, can’t save this material. Despite standout tracks like ‘Fighting Fate’, ‘Born Anew’ and ‘The Promise‘, much of the rest blurs into a pleasantly ambient melage. There’s more of a reliance on vocal performances than ever, helping to tie together disparate themes with melodic motifs, but there aren’t many especially memorable tracks to speak of. In fact, by the time they get to Pulse in Chapter 11 of 13, players should be heartily sick of the string section in the otherwise stellar battle theme, ‘Blinded By Light’.
Ah, Pulse. Can you hear it? That’s the sound of the great lie: “The game opens up when you get to Pulse.” The game “opens up” into a large field that funnels into five hallways instead of one. That’s what qualifies as ‘open’ in FFXIII. The plot simply stops for a while on Pulse, which is designed to acclimatise the player to new party configurations and Paradigm set-ups, primarily because the 20 preceding hours are condescendingly tutorialised and abjectly deny player customisation, one of the core appeals of Final Fantasy combat.
As the storyline is overly catered and directed, so too is the gameplay. The battle system – designed by Toshiro Tsuchida and dubbed Command Synergy Battle (CSB) – is a slight twist on FFXII’s ATB and Gambits with the Wait option removed and an Auto-Battle command added. Auto-Battle sits at the top of the menu and is exactly how it sounds – actions are chosen for the player depending on the battle situation. (The option to manually input commands is present but most battles are so straightforward that Auto-Battle is normally the more convenient option regardless.)
The crucial element is the Paradigm Shift. Paradigms are pre-set combinations of six Roles (most of which amalgamate traditional Jobs from the series) that the player can swap between at will in combat. This operates almost identically to Dresspheres in X-2 but the entire party changes their Roles simultaneously; a Commando-Ravager-Ravager trio, for example, can swap to a different deck depending on the situation. The objective in most fights is to Stagger opponents – attacks fill up a Chain Gauge that eventually makes the enemy susceptible to launching, or leaves them more vulnerable to status effects etc.
Timing and reacting have never been so important, especially considering the five-star rating system that affects drop rates, and watching all these elements come together in a challenging battle is almost worth the hours of drudgery beforehand. It’s not without flaws, however. The inability to swap player-controlled Leaders – meaning a KO’d Leader = Game Over – is exceptionally stupid, and sensory overload accompanies longer fights, where numbers and spells and soundbites fly around so thick and fast it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s going on.
The CSB only comes into its own in the post-game when the party has unfettered access to the Crystarium, the levelling system. The Crystarium would be the Sphere Grid or the Licence Board if they were a straight line, from A to B and down to Z, except this time you’re levelling up your Roles. Accrue CP from battles, hold down X, get more stats and abilities. It, like the needlessly obtuse weapon upgrade system, is a microcosm of the game itself: Boring, over-designed and under-cooked.
By Toriyama’s admission the game was rushed through a short production timeline despite being in development for almost six years. It’s even more astonishing when we consider that, at its peak, over 200 staff members were working on the project. Unsurprisingly, 180 of them were artists. 36 were game designers. Square-Enix’s obsession with photo-realism and graphical prowess, which had driven sales for the previous games, finally came at the detriment of the gameplay, the story and everything else surrounding it.
Final Fantasy XIII’s goal was to change everything. The series is no stranger to abrupt changes in direction, from its earliest days to its most recent incarnation, but this is different. Despite the tectonic shifts between previous iterations, like V and VI, they were still fundamentally Final Fantasy, right down to the idiosyncratic flaws that refused to iron themselves out. XIII is so vastly different from its predecessors that it doesn’t share that sense of recognition. By streamlining those individual elements and trimming the excess fat, it dilutes what made the series so distinct into a toxic soup of buzzwords and self-serious anime tropes.
The moment that sticks out most for me is when a grief-stricken Sazh is poised to shoot Vanille. The two yell at each other for a bit, a light erupts from Sazh’s chest and the player is thrust into battle with one of the game’s (near-useless) Summon monsters, the Eidolon Brynhildr. After a tense fight with great music, Brynhildr transforms into a glistening sci-fi dune buggy which a grinning Sazh leaps into, drifting around the battlefield until he stops, posing for the camera. We then immediately cut to a suicidal Sazh pointing a gun at his head and a blackout as the trigger is pulled. Yes, it’s the most horrendously mismanaged story beat in the entire game, but it is only one of hundreds.
I won’t mince words: Final Fantasy XIII is a histrionic wet fart of a videogame, representing the absolute worst of the RPG genre. The awful writing, puddle-deep characters and patronising gameplay are only compounded by the wasted potential of its mechanics, resulting in a tunnel-vision that only gets narrower and more excruciating the further you trundle down it. It is a game so drunk on its own self-importance that it forgets to be worth playing.
So, of course, they green-lit a trilogy.
Next time, it’s more of the same but somehow better and worse: Final Fantasy XIII-2.