With Final Fantasy XV right around the corner, I thought it'd be a great time to dabble in some fantasies. I've been playing the "actually pretty good for a mobile game" Final Fantasy Record Keeper, which is a fun nostalgia trip through the series as a whole. I'm also playing the newly released Mobius Final Fantasy, which is an experiment on how a main console styled game would work on mobile devices. The game is pretty fun and I consider it a success!
But above all of this, I tackled what many fans consider to be the most polarizing game of the series, Final Fantasy XIII, and I have to say it's an extremely interesting game.
Like a lot of players, I really didn't like XIII when it first launched back in 2010. I thought the characters were all lame and too typical, with the exception of Sazh, but even then he's the usual comic relief party member. The battle system turned into this awkward "halfsies" mix of active time battle and action RPG mechanics. The auto-battle function essentially played the game for you. Important elements of the story were told through the datalog, which was just oddly executed exposition. You ran through endless straight corridors with little to no exploration—needless to say I quit just shy of an hour into the game and didn't bother to revisit it, until now of course.
First off, the story. While I still think that the datalog is a pretty bland way to build the world of Cocoon, I don't think it's as bad as I originally thought. I tried to go through as much of the game as possible without referring to the datalog to see how much I could comprehend. I was still kind of confused even halfway through, but by the end I "got" mostly everything. I actually knew what pulse l'Cie and the fal'Cie were! The datalog is there to refine what you already know about the characters and world.
Speaking of the characters, I started to love them all by the end of the game. The overall plot of the game isn't too interesting and many will find it to be a bit crazy, but it's the characters and their relationships with each other that made it work for me. The narrative pacing and character development here is actually pretty strong, but also most of the complaints about the game being too linear stem from this.
For the first half of the game, you'll bounce back and forth between the characters. They don't group up until you're far into the game, and there's reason for this. The first half has development arcs for each character, and believe or not most of the characters are at each other's throats during this time.
The part where Sazh holds Vanille at gunpoint but ultimately turns his gun on himself was genuinely heart-wrenching! Even the initially annoying and mopey Hope had redeeming moments when he rethinks his whole plan to kill Snow and becomes a respectable hero.
In order to have all of these establishing moments though, the game needs to put you on a tight track to make sure everything is paced neatly. This also allowed new battle mechanics to be introduced in an orderly fashion. The main heroes are considered "l'Cie," which essentially makes them refugees on the run. It makes sense that you can't really spend too much time in one place exploring, as the government forces are on the party's tail for a good portion of the game. It's all deliberate, because by the end of the game the ragtag group of unlikely heroes becomes a respectable team worthy of a Final Fantasy game.
Deliberate. That's a good word for understanding a lot of XIII's design choices, for better or worse. You can see it full force when it comes to the gameplay. So, as mentioned before, there's an auto-battle button that automatically commands your controlled character to take the smartest actions for the current situation. I thought about this some more, and it's actually kind of a smart move. In most of the earlier games, you pretty much hammered the regular attack button when going through normal battles and occasionally used items or magic to cure or fight a physical damage resistant enemy, but that's about it. Generally speaking, you didn't actually issue intricate commands until you encountered a boss.
In XIII, the developers approached battles in a different yet elegant way. There are no random encounters, as you can see every enemy in the world and initiate combat by walking near them. Think of the battles as preset puzzles to solve, each with their own solutions. There's a score and rating system with some slightly confusing aspects but basically you want to finish battles as fast as possible to get more crystogen points (experience points) and items. To do so, you'll need to analyze your foes and act accordingly, which is where the "Paradigm Shift" mechanic comes in. Each character can be assigned a paradigm role much akin to MMORPGs. For example, the Sentinel can "tank" and has access to mostly defensive abilities, improving their survivability. Medics are the - you guessed it - main healers that keep the party going. Commandos are the physical attackers of the party, while Ravagers are the magic attackers. You can create up to six decks of different paradigms and can shift freely between them during battle. The developers wanted to shift focus from issuing commands to strategizing and anticipating the flow of battle, and experimentation was heavily encouraged. Should you switch to a defensive paradigm to try to ward off some damage, or keep pushing through to stagger the enemy?
Speaking of, another cool mechanic was staggering enemies. Attacking enemies rapidly built their stagger gauge and when it reached maximum capacity, the enemy becomes staggered. They'll become more vulnerable to attack and in some cases lose abilities. It's another aspect of the "risk versus reward" kind of design they were going for here, and it works very well once you understand the mechanics fully. Spamming auto-battle and not paying attention to your paradigms and the stagger mechanic is sometimes passable for certain normal enemies, but usually a far cry from the most efficient, rewarding, and most importantly interesting method. Of course you're going to feel like battling is a chore if you just mindlessly attack. XIII is surprisingly challenging when it comes to some of the bosses, and even normal enemies!
The best example of the battle system really "clicking" with me is an encounter with a somewhat late game enemy known as "Vetala". This enemy was a "Cie'th", a type of being the story makes you believe is bad, bad news. This tough baddie was highly resistant to all forms of attack because it projects a barrier. It attacks with high level spells like Thundaga. On top of that, the darn thing can Multicast, which can really hurt your party in the blink of an eye! I figured out that when it's staggered, its barrier is destroyed and you can damage it normally. The thing has way too much HP though, so fights with it lasted really long. Upon further examination, I discovered that it was most vulnerable to physical damage and immune to most debuffs save for Imperil and Deprotect, which make it take more damage from elemental magic and physical attack respectively. So, I enter the battle with two ravagers and a commando. I stagger Vetala as fast as possible, then switch to Saboteur, the debuffing role. Once Vetala was successfully inflicted with Deprotect, I switched in two commandos to wreck shop and what was once a five minute battle quickly became almost a one minute battle. This was easily the most memorable eye-opening moment I had with the combat.
Another aspect they changed up to play more into the "puzzle battles" were experience points and levels. Characters earned crystogen points whenever you won a battle, which in turn can be used to advance their Crystarium, a simplified version of Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid. It was an easy way to level up, but the crystarium had a limit and would only expand after key moments in the story, meaning that your party strength was ultimately set to the developers' will. The game wanted players to solve battles through mastery of the various mechanics rather than brute forcing through with enough grinding. This all comes to fruition during the eidolon battles, which will usually have you retrying once or twice. At the beginning of an eidolon battle, the inevitable instant kill spell Doom is cast on you, and you have to figure out how to tame the eidolon before you meet your end. I considered these battles to be tests, as they flat out demand that you demonstrate you grasp the battle mechanics fully.
XIII really needed to make sure that players were eased into it as best as possible because the battle system was so different from previous games. The game does a good job of it, but some argue that it does too good of a job. A little over half of the game is essentially the tutorial, where the game goes through great lengths to show you how each mechanic and paradigm role works. One of the most infamous aspects of XIII, aside from its linearity, is how slow the game reveals the intricacies of its battle system to the player. A lot of people are quick to claim that the combat is incredibly dull, and that's because they were exactly like me - they quit far before the battle system opened up.
Ultimately I believe that it was a good choice that each early character segment introduced a new mechanic, but it came at the price of stretching the segments too far. Certain areas became non-stop gauntlets where there are enemies left and right while you've already mastered the technique they taught you. This problem was compounded by some of the regular enemies having an outrageous amount of HP, making battles slow to a crawl even when you've figured out their weaknesses. For every interesting puzzle battle, there were also a handful of lazy "fodder" battles with the enemies presenting little to no strategy, which only serves to fuel the "mindless button mashing" argument many have against the game. The weapon and accessory upgrade system was also unnecessarily complex, with the game explaining very little.
Approaching XIII with a different mindset will reveal some answers as to why they designed the game the way they did, again for better or worse. Of course, parts of the game are still pretty weak and some of the indifference it garners is somewhat justified. It's not perfect, but it's not a bad game either. Final Fantasy XIII strove to deliver a full-length epic on much different terms than we're used to, and while some choices fell flat, I prefer to remember the game for all of the cool new things it tried.