A couple of months ago I won an Xbox One at a Target that does contests nobody signs up for because they (understandably) believe they're a scam. They also gave me a copy of Anthem that I didn't want, which they were nice enough to exchange for a $60 gift-card, heh. This was a great win because it was a console I didn't own, but was always interested in – I've never had any kind of Xbox, only ever holding a controller of its ilk in my hand for Halo matches at friends' houses.
When I brought the thing home, I putzed around with it for a little bit, downloaded a bunch of games from the Game Pass trial that I immediately deleted after being overwhelmed, and started another Minecraft file before stopping because I remembered that I was incapable of making anything more than a dirt house in that game.
And then I remembered the Xbox One was backwards compatible.
The realization hit me like a wave. I hit the store: there was Metal Gear Rising: Revengence, a game I was hankering to play again but too lazy to pull out my PS3 for. Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey were accounted for as well, both games that I had always wanted to play on the 360. And so were all three games in the Final Fantasy XIII series.
Soooo in a whirlwind three or four weeks, I played all three FFXIII games, which is what this retrospective series is focusing on. I was considering making this one article, but I quickly realized that it'd be way too long, so I'll be writing one article for each game, starting with the first one, obviously. Please note that this is a retrospective, not a review – there's a lot to look back on with these games, but I'm more interested in looking at them nearly 10 years after their original release, not in the lens of a straight analytical review. Without further fanfare...
Final Fantasy XIII was revealed in 2006, when I was 12 years old, and released in 2010, when I was 16. I never actually played it when it released, which might come as a surprise to anyone who knows me and my love for the series. I can't exactly remember why I never did: I might have exhausted my 3 game allowance by the time it was released, or been distracted by other releases. You have to remember that 2010 also saw the release of Nier, Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Demon's Souls, all games I was extremely interested in and impressed by.
It was that, and most likely the reception from fans. At this point in my life I was actively keeping up with what the critical world had to say about videogames, and the general consensus on XIII was that it, shockingly, wasn't good. Some fans were saying it was the worst game in the series to date, as hyperbolic gamers are wont to do. I figured I'd decide for myself at a later date, and just never did. On top of that was the fact that my PS3 wasn't getting any younger, and running games on it was a huge pain. I learned this when I was 19 and finally decided to give the game a shot. Going back between it and other games on my PS4 was a chore that I eventually decided wasn't worth putting up with until now, 5 years later.
Now, having played it, I feel that FFXIII was unfairly shoved into the dirt. Nowadays I am most interested in games that have a solidified vision and execute that vision with intent. Final Fantasy XIII fits that criteria neatly, as it had a very specific message, and its creators built it in such a way that pretty much every aspect of its gameplay is tied into that message. Minus a few misgivings, it does what it sets out to achieve very well. Like all Final Fantasies, it is completely separate from every other game in the series. It's this uniqueness that makes each game stand out, but also what causes each one to get flack – uh, outside of the nostalgia that shows up for them later. However, FFXIII has received more animosity than any other FF before it, and that's for one big reason that we're going to need to talk about: the hallways.
Highway to Hell
A constant line of critique towards Final Fantasy XIII is the way it shuttles characters from one area to the next down what are essentially very long (and very pretty) hallways. The characters run from point A to point B, fighting enemies, and that's the core loop of the game. There are no towns to explore, and barely any characters to talk to. Critics complained that the game left little room to wander off the beaten path until the very last section of the game.
I personally didn't have a problem with this for a couple of reasons.
Baby We Were Born to Run
Final Fantasy XIII is about a group of people who are brought together under a series of unfortunate circumstances outside of their control, branded as fugitives and forced to run for their lives and find a way to change their fate and earn their freedom. It's an immediately compelling tale, with a cast of characters that constantly butt heads, argue, split up and rejoin, before unifying under a single banner to win the day. Lightning and Co. feel petty and vindictive and distrustful in a way that feels real. They're not buddies by any means – at least, not at first – and it was refreshing to see them come together in a way that felt slow and realistic.
The plot unfolds at a break-neck pace, and the game isn't interested in explaining its world to you. Unless you dive into the codex, you're forced to come along for the ride, just as disoriented as the cast that's been thrown headfirst into their unfortunate circumstances. This confusion feels like a deliberate choice – the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon existed long before you arrived, and when you do show up, it's in the midst of earth-shattering events that have everyone in a tizzy.
These elements reflect themselves in the hallways, which also feel like a deliberate choice. A band of fugitives on the run from the entire world don't really have time to stop and smell the flowers. They're not going to be able to run around town and talk to people who fear them as a threat to the entirety of civilization, whose faces are plastered on every TV labeling them as the enemy. Lightning and the gang are never really given a chance to breath, so it makes sense to me that this is reflected in the game's environmental design.
Blinded by Fight
The crux of every JRPG is the combat system. My playthroughs of games in this genre have lived and died on how entertaining the combat is, as you'll be spending 70% of your time in any particular JRPG fighting. It's why JRPGs that don't extend past mashing the "Attack" button don't last very long for me. No amount of fun exploration or interesting plot can get me to slog through a game with boring combat.
FFXIII doesn't have boring combat. The Paradigm System is one of the best combat systems in the entire Final Fantasy series, as far as I'm concerned. It perfects the ATB-style of fighting, gives it the flair of the ever-entertaining Job System from other Final Fantasies, and is deeply customizable. Every battle in FFXIII requires strategy and finesse – you can't auto-pilot your way through any encounter, because each one is a puzzle that asks you to break an enemy so that they stagger, letting you up your damage output and finish them off. Switching Paradigms becomes a juggling act to manage buffs and debuffs that can completely change the tide of battle.
Honestly the worst part of FFXIII is that it doesn't let you fully explore the potential of the Paradigm System until you're nearly finished with the game, and often restricts you to two party members for multiple acts throughout the main story, which limits your customization. But the fact that I wanted to fight more in this game is a miracle in and of itself, and participating in combat made those hated hallways fly by for me. I'd argue that the positives of the combat system outweigh the negative in the game's lack of exploration.
I'm an Adult (I Swear)
This last point is an extremely petty and personal reason why I don't care about XIII's hallways – I'm impatient. I have things to do. Other games I want to play. And FFXIII's bee-line approach makes getting through it quick and simple. You can get through it in a cool 30-35 hours if you skip the stuff in Pulse like I did, and I appreciated that! Too often, "exploration" in JRPGs is just for the sake of it, rarely providing anything of value and turning into a "check every room and talk to every person" checklist so you can find, at best, a hi-potion, or at worst, an unmarked quest that should have been easier to find in the first place. FFXIII trims the fat, and that's a personal positive for me.
How Different is it?
Often, Final Fantasy XIII is put up against other Final Fantasies and said to be too linear in comparison. But how much is that true? Going back and following the paths of the parties in previous Final Fantasies, you'll find that the formula of "linear first 3/4ths, open finale" is present in lots of them. Final Fantasy VI is basically a shuttle until the World of Ruin segment. I barely remember moving anywhere but a straight line in Final Fantasy X. And you could go wherever you wanted in Final Fantasy XII, provided you were fine with getting immediately killed by mobs too powerful for you to go up against. I would posit that Final Fantasy XIII's pathing is no more linear than some of the most popular Final Fantasy games. Sure, it's not true for every FF – but to say that FFXIII is alone in that category feels erroneous.
Overall I believe that the hate for Final Fantasy XIII's hallways overpowered any other potential conversation for the game, which is disappointing. You can tell that's the case, because the entirety of my retrospective on the first game in the series revolves around it. Hell, I'm at 1800 words so far, and I've done nothing but talk about the hallways! There's a conversation to be had here about how overblown complaints ruin the interesting conversations around a videogame – this certainly isn't the first game to receive this fate – but that's outside this retrospective's scope.
Regardless, I have to admit that I let this overblown """discourse""" color my own feelings about Final Fantasy XIII, which is disappointing. Take away the talk about tunnels and funnels, and you have a Final Fantasy with an interesting combat system and grating, realistic, ultimately endearing characters. I'm just saying, I'd die for Sazh, and I would absolutely let Fang kill me. I liked Final Fantasy XIII – not enough to put it in my top five, but certainly close to it.
But, what happens when we take the hallways away? In fact, what if we said "screw hallways! Let's have no direction at all!"? Well, then you get the subject of my following retrospective, Final Fantasy XIII-2. And the results, in my opinion...well, they aren't great. But we'll get into that next time.
So...until next time!
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