I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Final Fantasy XIII has always been disproportionately maligned amongst the gaming community. While it’s easy to chock a lot of it up to the growing influence of personalities across game-related sites and YouTube at launch, there’s still this strange stigma that’s stuck to the game over the last ten years. As a strong supporter of Lightning Returns, as well as the FFXIII trilogy as a whole, I figured I’d look back during its tenth anniversary to explain exactly what makes me remember Final Fantasy XIII so fondly, even after all this time.
Final Fantasy games, and JRPGs as a whole, are not exactly known for their thrilling or engaging combat. While there can be a lot of fun character building and interesting moves to fiddle around with, much of the FF series has revolved around mashing the same one or two skills on each character over and over again, with little to no nuance. While the job-based games like III, V, or X-2 definitely make this a little more complex, you’re still swapping those same two buttons to something that usually means similar things across games. With Final Fantasy XIII, the creators sought to work alongside this style of gameplay that had become synonymous with the series whilst making things a little more exciting.
This led to one of the most widely criticized aspects of Final Fantasy XIII: the Auto-battle button. This button lets you use generic attacks to deal with rank and file enemies rather quickly, but it’s the button your cursor defaults to in-battle, so most people would reasonably assume that it was just the way you played the game. While many people have complained about this, saying it makes the combat brainless or effortless, I was always thankful for it, based on how most Final Fantasy games have played out. Instead of having to cycle through the same specific spells to quickly defeat easy random encounters, I can just press the same button and deal with it much quicker, and with more impressive visual flair than I would’ve in say, a Final Fantasy X.
Though you can deal with much of the earlier game slowly and clunkily just by using the auto-battle, over time the game makes it clear that if you’re heading into some hard fights, you’re not gonna wanna touch that button at all. Bosses all have specific weaknesses and quirks, so until you know exactly what you can get away with, you’ll have to think about your moves quickly and individually. I never understood the main complaint with this mechanic, specifically because it always tracked as a quality of life improvement to me. It’s way cooler to watch Lightning burst into explosive spells and sword twirls on her own at the touch of a button, instead of cycling through menus to use Edgar’s bioblaster once or something.
The complaint that I do understand, however, is that the game simply spends far too much time letting you get away with auto-battling as your sole means of play. Because of the long playtime of JRPGs in general, by the time most video games would be running the credits, XIII is still holding your hand and trying to tutorialize. No matter how warped my brain may become from JRPG love, I will always understand the value of time, and for many people, it’s easy to see why they might become frustrated by the brute force option feeling like the right way to play for such a long while. However, if given time and an open mind, the combat system is easily one of the best in the series, and only got better with later iterations.
The main crux of XIII’s combat is the Paradigm System, which lets you change your various characters’ classes on the fly. With the press of a button, you can quickly alternate between various sets of classes you’ve had set up depending on the situation you’re currently facing. Want to shred through enemies really fast? You can set up a group of two mages and a tank to protect them. Want to beat down that now defenseless enemy? You can turn a couple of your characters into offensive classes with another to cast buffs and just go to town before the enemy recovers. Being able to switch between all of these classes on the fly gives the combat a level of depth and bombast the rest of the series had been lacking, and was one of the first things that a faster paced character action game fan like me was stoked about when I played.
While most Final Fantasy games have given you plenty of optional status ailments or augments (unlike Persona or Tales games), XIII takes it to another level by actively encouraging and dedicating entire roles to these mechanics. Fights in the game can become much quicker and cleaner with the right application of debuffs on the boss and protective shielding or other buffs across your party. Since you can use the Paradigm system at any time, you’re also not railroading one specific character into just being a supporter like in most class-based games. You can quickly pop on the buffs and debuffs, and just as quickly go back to doing just as much damage as anyone else. This makes combat a rapid-paced game of who does what and when, and after you get to the more difficult encounters in the later areas of the game, it all really shines.
I know this is a hot point amongst Final Fantasy fans, but I actually really appreciated being given an exact idea of where I’m supposed to go and why at all times in XIII. In a lot of FF games, if you take a break and say, don’t exactly remember where you were supposed to go, it can be really difficult to figure it out when you’re given an entire globe and an airship to jet around it in. Plus, even if those earlier maps were more open and allowed for the illusion of exploration, it was just that, an illusion. Heading to areas before the story wanted you left you with an empty cave with overleveled monsters you can bash your head against for no reason, or they might not even let you in at all. While I can understand missing a classic feature like a world map, the complaint of XIII being a “Hallway Simulator” always seemed like a weird aspect to harp on.
Even Final Fantasy X, a much more beloved entry in the series, follows the same linear structure that XIII did, albeit with some towns and NPC-stocked shops. For a lot of people this difference might make or break a game, without any sort of side quests or plots involving these NPCs, but I didn’t really see them as anything but fluff. Dungeons and exploration areas in X are basically a straight path, broken up by some side paths that either leads to a single treasure chest or some sort of scenic view. Since XIII is much more technologically advanced than X, it makes sense that the increase in graphical fidelity and the Open-World boom of the late 2000’s would paint this same format in a more critical light. Yet even to this day, X is continuously held to a much higher standard than XIII. While there are plenty of reasons this might be, I believe that these lopsided opinions come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the design ethos of Final Fantasy XIII.
XIII is the story of running away, and then taking control. As the characters are dealing with their own issues, as well as their own status as fugitives in the eyes of the world, they are constantly on the move, never looking back. The character of Hope is trying desperately to focus his mind on a specific goal after the death of his mother, ignoring everything else. Lightning is trying to rectify her role in a fascist system that has ultimately led to the practical death of her sister. Fang is trying to run away with Vanille, and Vanille is trying to run away from everything. Everyone has their problems, and until they each meet their inner turmoil and resolve to face them, they cannot see the world as anything but a race to the finish.
This is why the game starts to open up once your party has acquired all of their character-specific summons and gotten away to the lower world of Gran Pulse. With time and experience, they’ve come to realize the world was bigger than they had thought, and they have the means to make amends and try to set things right. As the party becomes resolved to take the main threat head-on, things become linear once again. The nuts and bolts of the plot may be trite for sure, but translating these notions into the gameplay loop is something that I’ve always found fascinating as a critic. Gaming as a medium has so much potential to intersect and tell stories in ways that films or books could never, and utilizing the traditional format of a JRPG in this way is a fantastic example of it.
Final Fantasy XIII follows its predecessor XII’s precedent for gender representation, with a group of three men and three women. It was also the first in the series to give the spotlight to a female lead since Final Fantasy VI way back in 1994. While it may seem like something to barely consider, this is actually one of the main reasons I love Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning, Vanille, and Fang are all a great demonstration of how far female characters had come in those sixteen years. While VI’s Terra Branford wasn’t the worst example of women in gaming, the only other woman in the story, Celes, featured a narrative entirely about her own failings and reliance or love for the men in the foreground.
While there are just as many men as women in XIII, their stories don’t take precedence over each other. Characters like Sazh have arcs that intersect with the other members of the party, but they don’t take over and assume complete dominance over what happens throughout the game. Lightning’s story could’ve quickly become focused entirely on her brother-in-law Snow, but instead, she focuses on how that works alongside her relationship with her sister, as well as the actions that she has taken throughout her life. She even works as a more modern and considered take on Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife, with a lot more care and thought put behind her. Obviously because of the nature of women in games, Lightning has received a lot of criticism and accusation, but if you compare her to most of the other beloved main characters of Final Fantasy past, she has a lot more going on.
There’s also Vanille and Fang, who are heavily lesbian-coded. Seeing both of them actually grow and evolve with a story that relies on both of them together is something that the series had barely done at that point either. Vanille is actually one of the deeper characters that FF has had in general even for a party member. She feels very reminiscent of Vivi from FFIX, and Fang is like if Auron was a lot more personable and empathetic. Final Fantasy has pretty much always been obsessed with romance, but in a heavily heteronormative society, this largely meant the women of the story ended up as fodder for the male leads development. Getting to see two women in a video game love and nurture each other without the necessity of a man was incredibly impactful to me, and something you’d definitely not have seen in many big-budget games back in 2010.
While I’ve talked a lot about why the women matter to me, most of the men in XIII are sort of….frustrating. Hope is a character with goals and reasoning that could have been utilized in a much more interesting and dynamic way, but he’s instead boiled down to a one-note misplaced revenge story that just sort of gets swept away at some point because there’s like absolutely nothing they could have done with it anyways. The target of his revenge, Snow, isn’t much better either, with his obsession towards trying to save the life of his wife and be a real hero largely playing out exactly as you’d expect. Both of these characters get better arcs in future games, but in the original narrative of Final Fantasy XIII, they just sort of drag things down in the most predictable ways.
Sazh, however, more than makes up for the other two men’s failings, and that’s not just because he has a Chocobo chick in his afro. While his arc is sort of by the books, a single dad trying to do right by his son, he manages to be the real human and emotional heart for the rest of the cast. Unlike everyone else, he has no interest in warfare or world-ending matters. He’s just a dude hanging out with two guns doing his best. As the more mature member of the group, his character growth wraps up a whole lot quicker than everyone else’s, which means he’s able to teach and work alongside the other members of the party in a way that’s invaluable, especially in comparison to Hope or Snow.
The core story of Final Fantasy XIII might be a little bit of an obtrusive mess that was re-worked one too many times, but it still does a lot for the characters involved. I think the overarching narrative gets sort of messy as XIII quickly became a trilogy, but what happens to all of these characters serves as great set-up for the ridiculous nonsense they throw them up against further down the line.
Final Fantasy XIII’s soundtrack was composed by Masashi Hamauzu, with a focus on a more futuristic fantasy. The songs in the game manage to cover a variety of genres, yet maintain a connected feel despite their wildly different tones. The battle themes feature heavy percussion and string instruments, while most of the overworld music is soft and vocally driven with a synthesizer and piano. Though most Final Fantasy die-hards will swear by Nobuo Uematsu’s work, it’s Hamauzu’s soundtrack that first made me realize just how wildly different the FF series could get if they stopped relying on him so much. It’s not like Uematsu himself wasn’t experimental (listen to X’s “Otherworld” if you want a taste of that), but he still had his ticks and biases just like any musician, so getting to hear a wholly unique take in a mainline entry was something really cool.
Though I love pretty much every song in the score, the standouts to me are “The Sunleth Waterscape”, “Blinded by Light”, and “Pulse de Chocobo”, and each couldn’t be more different from the other. “The Sunleth Waterscape” is an upbeat remix of XIII’s main theme “The Promise”, with soft vocals and a killer backbeat. When I played Final Fantasy XV, the second I could play this song in my car it was all I did, it’s an earworm you can listen to again and again without losing its charm, which is perfect for a zone you spend a lot of time in. Similarly, the more dramatic and bombastic “Blinded by Light” serves as a great standard battle theme, with peaks of speedy violins and more mellow horns to build up to them. “Pulse de Chocobo” is just a jazzy take on the classic Chocobo theme, and it really kicks ass!
Final Fantasy XIII was released during what can most kindly be called a drought in video game art design consideration. Even a few years into this new era of HD gaming, many developers were unsure how to utilize more powerful graphics outside of recreating oversaturated or “realistic” brown and grey environments. While there were games like El Shaddai or countless indie hits that were using a broader palette, you were hard-pressed to find a high budget game that wasn’t mucked in brown and washed out darker tones. It’s not like every game was ugly or anything, but compared to the vibrant nonsense that games on previous consoles had managed, there was a lot left to be desired.
Square Enix has always had a strong focus on the presentation and art design of their games. Whether it’s the title cards done by Yoshitaka Amano, the trademark over-the-top character designs of Tetsuya Nomura, or the outrageously well-done cinematics that accompany each major release, Final Fantasy has always oozed style and XIII is no exception. While Lightning would later become famous for her appearances in Nissan and Louis Vuitton advertisements, every member of the party has unique aesthetics and attire that really make them stand out in their own unique ways. Snow dresses like the shitty brother in law you know means well but you cannot stand to be around, Hope looks like his parents still dress him, and Fang and Vanille both represent a more tribal aesthetic in different and practical ways.
XIII also had plenty of bold and unique takes on some of the more classic iconography and concepts inherent to the Final Fantasy series. Each traditional summon was part mythical deity, part vehicle or machine, meaning Bahamut the Dragon is also a fucked up future jet that can carry everyone around. There’s some choices that are questionable, like ice summon Shiva being two incredibly horny women that fuse into a motorcycle for Snow to drive, but at the very least the concept of summons being made into a means of traversal is a real change of pace from the apathetic character binding system that VI had made tradition. It also works great as a support to the biomechanical god/steward aesthetic of the Fal’cie that pushes forward XIII’s plot, painting this sterilized future where even magic has become another tool for gentrification and profiteering. Though it’s subtle, the usage of classic character names in branding like “Gilgamesh Inc” or “Moogleworks” also further solidifies this world as less whimsical, and more confining.
That world of XIII isn’t particularly crazy in fantasy media, but the duality of the hypertech’d up planet of Cocoon looming over the undeveloped and forgotten wilds of Gran Pulse is still a really compelling dynamic. Though several locations on Cocoon seemingly defy conventional logic, they manage to make what another game would have left sterile and silver into vibrant locales that make me understand why the more linear pathing might’ve let people down. Bright yellow crystals peering out of pastel lit walls, bio-luminescent flora covering militarized training grounds, steel frozen over with light blue ice. No matter where you go on Cocoon (except maybe the garbage dump), there’s plenty of fascinating sights to see, even if you’re just running right by.
When you get down to Gran Pulse later in the game, the beauty becomes more natural and subdued. After hours and hours of purely futuristic environments, wide open plains filled with all sorts of creatures and critters makes it really feel like you’ve gone to another world. As the field fades out to the sea, you find more familiar and modern sites, like a highway sunk into the sands of a beach, or water and windswept homes filled with trinkets of another time. Getting to explore the town of Oerba for the first time with the soft inaudible vocal track playing, and the bright sunset blasting over you was mind blowing for me at the time, and manages to remain gorgeous even to this day.
Final Fantasy XIII has flaws, just like any other game, but even still it’s easily solidified itself as one of my favorites in the series, and of all time. I might be more partial to the entries that followed it, like Lightning Returns or XIV, but those games are able to exist because of the things that XIII was able to accomplish. I know that there’s been quite a cavalcade of conversation for years in the gaming community, but if you have the patience to deal with a longer JRPG, I really recommend giving it a try! It might not be perfect, but ten years later, I’m still thinking about everything I love.