Final Fantasy XIII is a smoking hot mess of a game. For everything it well or exceptionally well, it does another thing either poorly or fails to do it at all. The game has one of the most well-realized main casts in the genre paired with a plot that never even tries to make sense, as well as a complete lack of a supporting cast. It streamlined plenty of the tedium that plagues JRPGs but also loses many useful or necessary conventions in the deal. Playing FFXIII is like watching a play through a telescope; you see some things in magnificent detail, but it is nearly impossible to form a context for what you’ve seen due to the tiny field of view.
Final Fantasy XIII odd dual identity is easily seen in its story. FFXIII main characters are a well-rounded, engaging group. Sure, some of their characterizations fall back on the usual anime tropes, but there is more depth to them than the majority of video game casts. Lightning tries to be the stoic badass, and is for the most part, but in becoming that badass she has forfeited her connection to her sister. She is out for redemption, to atone for not being there for her sister when Serah needed her. Sazh, apparently a favorite of many though not me, is a father out of his depth trying to save his son. Fang and Vanille have a relationship that echoes Lightning and Serah’s, an older sister trying to protect the younger. Hope starts as a whiny brat and matures into a somewhat less whiny brat. He faces the trauma of seeing his mother die in the opening minutes of the game, and must process that grief and grow beyond it. Snowe, while not one of my favorite characters, is certainly an entertaining one. He is the peppy JRPG hero, like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia or Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia, in a game that has absolutely no use for him. He wants to protect his love Serah, but fails. He tries to find meaning in their becoming L’Cie, but there is none to be had. He is forced to confront the wreckage inadvertently left in the wake of his can do attitude. Unfortunately, there are virtually no supporting characters. The game starts to build up some villains, but they promptly disappear after a few scenes, with the exception of Barthandelus. Any other supporting character is lucky to get so much as a name and two scenes. The plot, to put it nicely, is an indecipherable mess. The party is made L’Cie at the start. What exactly being a L’Cie means is never clearly explained. The player must infer it from the small amount of context available. The important thing is that people do not like them. The must obey the fal’Cie, which again are entities with no clear explanation, just that they are powerful beings. There are mentions of Cocoon and Pulse, but for the longest time no explanation of just what those two are. Countries? Cities? Planets? Once more, though never all, becomes clear the party finds a new goal. (Big Spoilers) The villain wants them to kill the fal’Cie powering Cocoon, but they refuse. Then, they kill it anyway and everything works out. Because it does.(End of Big Spoilers) The story game plays out in blunt, yet effective character bits intertwined with often visually amazing but nonsensical plot scenes. It is baffling how they got one part so very right, yet flubbed the others so very badly.
The rest of the game is the same way. The battle system seems to be another take on many of the same ideas that power FFXII’s battle system. Individual attacks are automated, but the player gets to choose what actions the characters can take. The control is another step back, with players making sets of classes for their party and switching class make up on the flay to handle dynamic battle situations. While the lack of direct control can seem off putting at first, once the game lets the training wheels come off it is rather entertaining and there is more strategy involved than most games in the genre. All other parts of usual JRPG gameplay are gone. There are no real towns to visit, no shops, nothing but tunnels to run through. Some of the losses are good. The genre, led by FFVII, had become bloated with mini-games and tedious sidequests. Those are all gone. Their loss helps streamline the game. But the loss of towns and shops hurt, making it harder to get a sense of this world and the people in it. Everything is done by a computer that pops out of save points. Despite the very real characters, the world of Final Fantasy XIII feels the most artificial. This world exists just to tell this game’s story. The crazy tunnel land suddenly ends when the player reaches Gran Pulse, a wide open plain full of strong enemies and optional missions. Instead of being a welcome change, at first is feels crippling. The game has held the player’s hand for so long that the sudden lack of direction is almost overwhelming. After a little bit of hesitance, though, Gran Pulse shows itself to be the best part of the game. The battle system has a near perfect combination of fluidity and strategy that running around fighting monsters is actually fun.
It is initially hard to get past FFXIII’s obvious terrible flaws. But the core of the game is very very good. That with the fine level of polish helps keep Final Fantasy XIII entertaining. I’d put it near the middle of the series in terms of quality, there with the other middle of the road Final Fantasies like 7 or 8. It is a flawed gem whose flaws are all the more obvious due to how large of a gem it is. It is not my favorite, and with what is essentially a 20 hour tutorial to start I can’t see myself replaying it soon, but I really did like this game.