When is a Final Fantasy game not a Final Fantasy game? When it doesn’t even for a second include any version of this classic theme.
Once upon a time, VIII was the undisputed black sheep of the series. Now XIII, even though it does have its dedicated and zealous fans, has usurped its place. Even if you are one of the game’s defenders, it’s not difficult to see why. First and foremost, there’s the infamous “Corridor.” Throughout most of the game, you will run down The Corridor with no opportunities to deviate from it. Sure, there are a few nooks and side paths where you can find “hidden” treasure, but there’s only a relative few and they’re so obvious that they must have been hidden by the laziest Dungeon Master ever. It’s basically all the restrictions on player exploration from X and cranked up even further up to 11 (or 13, I should say). Second and interrelated, this is the first game in the series where there are no cities or towns. There are spots where you can talk to NPCs, but it’s purely fluff with no clues toward what the player needs to do or toward any side quests. Reportedly this was a deliberate aesthetic choice to give the player a realistic impression that the characters of the game spend the entire plot as fugitives, but I have seen rumors reported that it had less to do with daring creative choices and more to do with deadline restrictions. Whatever the truth (and it is apparently true that at one point in development the game was supposed to include towns), the lack of towns does concrete the impression that so much of the game is just Cut Scene Fight Fight Fight Cut Scene Boss Repeat.
Now I keep using synonyms for almost because there is a point in the game where you suddenly, like the person dragged out of Plato’s proverbial cave, end up in a wide open space with various environments from deep ravines to gorgeous ruins of modern cities that you’re free to explore and where you can find side quests, hidden items, and new areas to open up. But it only comes more than halfway through the game and eventually, once you decide to resume the main plot, it’s back to The Corridor. Honestly it feels more like the game is sadistically teasing you with what XIII might have been instead of rewarding the player. This is especially because there are so many areas in the game most players would just yearn to explore, including large sci-fi cities, a high-tech amusement park (unlike in the famous Gold Saucer from VII, you don’t even get any mini-games to play!), and a digital Internet world, but, no, you have to stick forever and always to The Corridor. Needless to say, after the excellent freedom the world of XII gives the player there just aren’t any words to explain what a disappointment this is. It manages to feel even more restrictive than the old Final Fantasy games where you have to follow the plot and there are only two or three side areas.
The one part of the game that usually gets as much flack as The Corridor is the plot, but honestly that was my favorite part of the game. The main setting is the floating, self-contained land of Cocoon, a technological paradise where every luxury and need is provided by god-like beings called the fal’Cie. The only dark spot in the existence of the inhabitants of Cocoon is that they live in fear of the continent below, Gran Pulse, which is reportedly infested by hordes of monsters and savage people under the control of other fal’Cie who only want to destroy Cocoon. However, there has been no contact between Cocoon and Gran Pulse in the centuries since a cataclysmic war between the two lands, but that hasn’t stopped the theocratic government of Cocoon from maintaining a powerful military just on the chance that a citizen of Cocoon is “infected” by a fal’Cie from Gran Pulse. How do the fal’Cie infect people? They can give someone a Focus, which turns that person into a l’Cie and bestows them with tremendous magical and physical abilities, but there’s no doubt it’s more of a curse than a blessing. See, a l’Cie only learns their Focus through a vague vision, and if despite that they fulfill it their “reward” is to be frozen in crystal, to be “unthawed” if the fal’Cie needs them again. If they fail? Then they’re doomed to become essentially a zombie. So when a young woman named Serah inadvertently brings together her sister, a soldier nicknamed Lightning; her fiancee Snow; a pilot named Sazh; and two adolescents, Vanelle and Hope, they are horrified when Serah suddenly turns to crystal and they are all given a Focus by a Pulse fal’Cie, especially because their vision implies that their destiny is to bring catastrophe to Cocoon. Barely escaping a ruthless “Purge” carried out by the military against the entire local populace to guarantee no one who had any contact with the enemy fal’Cie survives, Lightning and the others have to resist the mysterious manipulations of Cocoon’s leader Galenth Dysley, who almost seems to want them to run loose, and determine if their Focus is to save Cocoon or annihilate it.
Really, as much as I prefer it when Final Fantasy drifts away from futurist angles, I thought the plot was an interesting deconstruction of traditional fantasy and “soft” sci-fi tropes, specifically the idea of a Chosen One guided by benevolent divine forces toward a heroic destiny. It reminded me, in a good way, of how VII twisted and reinvented established JRPG concepts. Yet there is a valid reason why the story gets criticized, because of how poorly it’s presented. As you can tell, the plot is thick with technical terms, very few of which are actually explained through exposition. You’ll actually pray for bad exposition once you realize that, in order to not only keep up with the plot and understand the game’s world but even to have characters’ motivations explained from cut scenes, you have to read these long info recaps after every cut scene. Granted the info screens from XII were long and detailed too, but the difference is that at least 99 percent of those were just details that added to the backstory and the game world, not details that were necessary to understand characterization and plot. Not only is it just a very clumsy way to handle worldbuilding, but it just grabs you and throws you out of the game every ten minutes, if you’re one of the few people who cares enough about the story that you have to make sure you don’t miss any pertinent detail.
On top of this, XIII’s world revives a couple of the sins committed by the makers of VIII. Now I’ll be the first to argue that Lightning is hands down the best protagonist the series has presented in a long time, and her character development throughout the game is actually handled quite well and with some subtlety (although some people, myself not included, might think she comes off as too much of a hardass at the start). The rest of the game’s characters, however, are just pale imitations compared to some of the rich, diverse parties we’ve gotten in the past. Snow is a naive would-be hero whose one and only shtick wears thin just thirty minutes in. Sazh does get a few of the game’s most poignant moments but outside those he amounts to little more than the “I’m getting too old for this shit” action movie cliche (well, that and an excuse to “cutify” things by showing the baby chocobo that lives inside his afro; you read that right). Hope gets a major sub-plot about hating Snow for failing to save his mother’s life, but despite all the build-up that fizzles out. Now the one bright spot is the relationship between Vanelle and a woman who later joins your party, Fang. It’s fairly heavily implied that they are lovers, and without delving into spoilers, they get one of the more redeeming moments from the story. Overall, despite some admittedly big exceptions, the characters aren’t all that memorable, and their character development seems to come in spite of the padding-stuffed plot rather than because. Plus, like the sterile ultra-modern world of VIII, most of what we see of Cocoon is sleek and beautifully rendered but it just isn’t all that “fantastic” and distinctive from our own world. Maybe there’s more to it than that, but Square-Enix knows we don’t get to see it!
At least the gameplay isn’t as complex as VIII, but it too has its problems. Like a cross between the Gambit system from XII and the class system from other games, you don’t exactly directly control all the members of your party and instead you assign them “preprogrammed” AI characteristics. Here they’re called Paradigms, where you can give party members roles like healing (Medic), defensive (Sentinel), using black magic (Ravager), etc. Although the game does encourage – and more or less requires you – to experiment with combining different Paradigms and setting up the right combinations for different battle situations, it really doesn’t offer as much room for strategy as the Gambit or class systems. The Sentinel paradigm is practically useless except arguably in some of the most difficult bonus boss fights, and, while XIII is generally agreed to be one of the most difficult games in the main series, more than a few boss fights seem to just boil down to being fast enough to switch timely between Paradigms heavy on healing to ones heavy on offense. And exactly like X, the system for building experience and learning new spells and skills only gives the illusion of being able to experiment with characters’ development. The game does let any member of your party develop any Paradigm the player chooses after a certain point, but the experience points required are so excessive it doesn’t really mean anything unless the player intends to pursue the most difficult bonus boss fights after finishing with the main plot.
Now for all that I can’t say I hated this installment. As you might expect from Square-Enix, it’s eye-poppingly gorgeous, with an above average soundtrack (despite the crippling loss of the series’ defining theme). It’s just, especially after the underrated XII, XIII seemed to take the potential of new video game technology for RPG storytelling a few steps in completely the wrong direction. And you could tell the Powers That Be knew their experiment had failed, since quite a bit of the direct sequel XIII-2 directly addressed fan complaints about XIII, by including actual towns and tweaking the gameplay, but we’ll get to that when we finally wrap up this retrospective.