10 Thoughts in 10 Hours: Final Fantasy XIII

I’ve been interested in playing Final Fantasy XIII for a while, but I never had the opportunity before. The interest manifested after I’d already passed along my PS3, and I never had an Xbox before. But now I’m fully-stocked on consoles, baby.

I think the main reason why I was fascinated with the game was because of the great backlash it received. The criticism came from a lot of directions – the level design, the story writing, the combat, the characters… basically everything but the quality of the graphics was subject to scrutiny. While I believe a good number of FF games before it were met with skepticism on their releases, XIII seemed to mark a turning point where the fandom lost faith in their series.

I have gone into the game with a totally open mind, ready to love or hate things based on my own experiences, but I’m still armed with the knowledge of criticisms from its release. Here’s my honest thoughts, ten hours in.

1. Word Salad Central

The party of FFXIII faces a fal'cie which is a mechanical god-like thing which glows blue-green

In my (admittedly rather limited) experience with Final Fantasy, the games tend to start you off in the midst of the action. When the game begins, something already pretty major is going down, and the game expects you to roll with it and keep up. The difference between XIII and the other FFs I’ve played is in the amount it asks you to roll with.

In other games, I can usually sum up the starting action in a sentence.

  • “Cloud, a mercenary and former solider of some sort, grudgingly works with a resistance group to blow up a fantasy oil rig.”
  • “Tidus, a blitzball star, finds himself caught in the middle of a disaster during a game and ends up in a strange new land.”
  • “Prince Noctis’s car breaks down while he and his posse of bros/guards are on their way to his political wedding, and they must work to get it working again.”

It’s not that these set-ups don’t leave the players with any questions – you have to keep interest after all – but there’s generally enough to grasp on to in order for a player to orient themselves in the action. Now here’s my honest attempt at summing up the beginning of Final Fantasy XIII.

“During a Purge – execution masked as deportation, carried out by a section of the military – Lighting and Snow launch separate rescue efforts with the same goal of saving a girl named Serah. In the wake of their violent resistance, several other characters are pulled along with them though circumstance. In the end, they fail to save Serah and end up marked with the same curse that led her to her doom.”

I worked on that for a while. There’s a lot of proper nouns going unmentioned, and Hope’s whole deal is totally excised. Could probably cut out some of the fancier phrasing, but it’s still not getting as short as any of the others. There’s no getting around that it’s just a lot more set up than other FF games. It throws a metric ton more exposition at you and still expects you to roll with it.

I was willing to do so because I think the story it was setting up was interesting, and the character dynamics were promising. But I can admit that the presentation could have been cleaned up.

I’ve read the datalogs now, and I’m still not sure I could confidently define a fal’Cie.

2. From Zero to Sixty in One Paradigm

Example of the FFXIII paradigms. The menu hovers over "War and Peace" which turns one party member into a Medic and one into an offensive-oriented Commando

Because the majority of the combat system is tied to the characters becoming l’Cie at the end of the prologue-type section, battles remain deeply barebones for the first three or so hours of the game. You just tell one character to hit when they have enough ATB, and that’s it. Maybe you use a potion. Like one potion during a boss. Not exactly electrifying stuff.

Now, once the characters can use magic and the different party roles are introduced, the combat gets much more interesting very quickly.

The main strategy is in shifting between party set-ups on the fly. Each character has different roles they can inhabit. Commando does damage, Ravager fills the stagger gauge, Sentinel takes on damage, Medic heals, etc, etc. Before battle begins, you need to anticipate what combination of roles you might need and create shortcuts of party set-ups called Paradigms.

For example, if I want to rack up the stagger gauge quickly, I might have Lightning and Snow as Ravagers while Vanille works as a Saboteur to decrease the enemies’ resistance to stagger. 

If I take a big hit or am preparing for one, I could switch to a Paradigm with Vanille as a Medic and Snow as a Sentinel while Lightning keeps doing some damage as a Commando.

If the enemy’s been staggered, I might want a couple of Commandos and a Synergist to boost their abilities and remove as much health from the enemy as I can.

You see what I’m saying? As the battle situation changes, you can change your party’s priorities to whatever is most effective at the moment. 

It’s surprisingly fun and rewarding! But it does sort of dump it all on you at once and expects you to figure it out. That seems to be a trend with this game, doesn’t it? If you don’t figure it out, there’s luckily a decent retry system, although you might be skipping some cutscenes.

There are also some gimmicky battles that play with roles, summons, and something called techniques. I won’t get into all that. But it is a lot deeper than initial impressions would suggest.

3. Equal Billing

The party of FFXIII riding together in the sky on some sort of creature

So, ostensibly, Lightning is the protagonist of this whole deal, right? She’s on the cover art, she gets the cool scene at the very start, she’s got the angst to carry it. But, honestly, FFXIII gives much more equal billing to its five (soon to be six, I believe) main characters than you might expect.

The beginning of the story is rendered even harder to follow by how you switch between three different distinct groups with relative frequency. Sazh is tagging along with Lightning, Snow’s on his own, and Vanille’s tagging along with Hope (or, really, vice versa). They only converge near the end of this beginning section, and they split once again pretty quick (with Sazh and Hope swapping places). 

Final Fantasy, as a series, usually picks a protagonist for a game and then sticks with them. You might get some scenes from outside their perspective, but you know which character you are. You play as Cloud, you play as Squall, you play as Tidus, etc. 

I believe FF IX also has some perspective swapping, and maybe XII as well? So it’s not a totally new thing to the franchise. But XIII’s first ten hours are built on perspective switching. It almost feels like a TV show in its structure, as we check in on different characters, looking in on their present situation and the past events that led them here.

It creates a weird pace. Not necessarily a bad one. But definitely a weird one.

4. Oh Boy These People Are The Worst

Hope, a young boy, looks down at the knife in his hands, surrounded by sparks or embers

Here’s the thing about XIII’s main party. They suck. They are surgically designed to piss each other off. 

Snow and Lightning clash in their disparate attitudes about Serah (by the way, a major focus on an in-law relationship feels very unique to this series, or even just video games in general. I don’t even think Final Fantasy dabbles in siblinghood too much. It’s neat). Hope projects all his anger onto Snow, and his abandonment issues onto everyone else. Vanille is uniquely off-putting with her erratic behavior. And Sazh is the lone pessimistic adult stuck with a group of equally but differently pessimistic children.

Obviously, they are purposefully designed this way. The conflicts between them are clearly one of the main focuses of this story. And it’s not like Final Fantasy is a stranger to annoying characters or to party antagonism. I don’t think I have enough FF knowledge to put my finger on why the XIII cast seems to stick out differently. But I’ll do my best.

All of them getting introduced around the same time can’t help. You have no time to get used to any of them before another character is being introduced. It might also be how long their antagonism sticks around. They’re all still split up and angsting! Ten hours into the game! Barrett warms up to Cloud way before that.

Hope has the unique curse of being a child. There’s nothing gamers hate more than angsty children. I think it’s also easy to get sucked onto either Lightning or Snow’s “side” in their argument despite how they’re clearly both in the wrong. But Snow’s annoying and Lightning’s frustrating, so whoever bothers the player more will probably earn a decent amount of ire.

But I appreciate the way XIII is willing to do this. It wants to make these characters’ flaws abundantly clear to you. They suck. In a myriad of ways. But it starts to become clearer and clearer why they suck the way they do, and that eventually draws you in. 

5. Except for Chocobo, Chocobo did nothing wrong

A small yellow chick rests on top of Sazh's afro

I don’t really have anything else to say. Chocobo Chick is good. If Chocobo was leading this team, there wouldn’t be so many problems. I hope Chocobo gets to meet a grown-up Chocobo someday. There are surely more Chocobos in this game, right?


6. Is Lightning Just Fem-Cloud?

Lightning, a woman with pink-blond hair, wears a costume inspired by Cloud's look from Final Fantasy 7 complete with belts, shoulder paldron, weird arm brace, and big sword

That’s a screenshot from Lightning Returns where she has a Cloud costume, and it is deeply funny. But okay, no, seriously.

It’s flat-out wrong to say “no.” The development team has talked about it. I’ll dig up a source. She’s a former soldier, she’s short of words, she’s very cool, her story starts on a train in a green-tinted environment, etc, etc, you get it. There are also definitely aspects of her visual design – her face especially – that recall Cloud’s iconic look.

But Lightning is her own beast. She doesn’t have quite the same dork hiding behind her mask, at least not so far. Her coolness is far more cold and harsh. She has huge walls up, and she always has, even before all this happened. She also seems slightly more self-aware about this than Cloud was about his own act at the start of his story.

I think my favorite scene so far has been the flashback to the aftermath of Serah telling Lightning about her becoming a l’Cie. It tells a lot about this family’s whole dynamic, and Lightning’s specific defense mechanisms. I’m really excited to learn more about what made her this way. And I think it’ll be distinctly different from Cloud’s own backstory.

7. Vanille’s Whole Deal

Vanille, a pink haired woman in a short dress, sits on the ground among the grass, flowers behind her, and a yellow chick hovering near her

I’m not sure what to do with Vanille. The whole innocent/sensual aesthetic sets my teeth on edge a bit – that’s not unique to her, I just tend to dislike it anywhere. But they clearly were doing this on purpose with Vanille, and I’m not confident that’ll be narrative justified. I do have my suspicions about a narrative reason why her l’Cie mark is in such a difficult to notice place beyond just weird fanservice, but that’s not really enough.

Also, I’m not really sure how to feel about her costume in general considering its clear Native inspiration, but that’s beyond my own ability to evaluate.

At first glance, she’s just a weird, quirky girl who gets way too familiar way too quick. But Vanille is also the narrator of this whole affair. And that omniscient nature makes it hard to read how much of her childishness is an act, and how much of it is her true personality. I assume it falls somewhere between the two.

I’ll need more time with the game to settle how I feel about her as a character. Ten hours in, I’m still in a place of torn uncertainty.

However, I can at least say that the one (Chocobo blocked) up-skirt shot was tasteless. Really soured my ability to appreciate Vanille and Sazh’s dynamic (which is otherwise genuinely interesting), and that’s all on the writing and cutscene direction of that single scene.

8. Hallways/Set Pieces

Hope, a young boy, stands in a gameplay scene, looking down a long elevated walkway in a forest

The last commonly cited criticism for FFXIII that I’ve seen is that it’s entirely comprised of long hallways. And…yeah. I’ve got no rebuttal to that. The level design is basically just long hallways with some chests hidden at short dead ends. It’s not very exciting. They’re not even wide hallways. There’s basically nowhere to go but forward.

The very first area gets away with it because it’s a big set piece. The gaping caverns underneath the walkways contribute to the feeling for chaos and unease. Planes swoop close by overhead. Explosions happen from the sides. It works on its own. The issue is once you get out to the real environments. From there, the endless hallways start to be unjustifiable.

Still though…

9. Pretty Pretty

Lightning looks out at a sunset over water, with the bottom part of the sky being orange and the top part being dark blue

It’s definitely pretty. It’s a pretty game. I love the lighting, and there are some lovely views. Honestly, if games had never gotten prettier than this, they would have been pretty enough.

I don’t have much else to add though. It’s pretty.

10. I Still Like it

Two characters riding a flying motorbike look at each other, framed by fireworks in a romantic scene

Finally, with all this in mind, I’m still enjoying it! I like the characters, I like the weird pacing, I like the combat… there are for sure definite issues, but the whole picture comes together to obscure some of those flaws. Maybe it’s because I went in with my expectations checked, but this is a solid game so far.

I don’t think it’ll break into my top favorites any time soon, but I’m getting something out of it. That’s all you can really ask for from a game. Also, hey! It seems like the full party will finally be coming back together soon, so I’m excited to see where the story goes from there. Even ten hours in, I really feel like I’m still in the prologue. So maybe my opinion could still change, one way or the other.

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