Pet the Black Sheep: Final Fantasy 13

The thing about liking games nobody else likes is that you end up feeling frustrated a lot.  It can be incredibly dispiriting to realize that you’re one of maybe two or three people on the planet who actually saw the potential and the fun of a game that’s widely disliked. It’s extra frustrating when the game is disliked for the wrong reasons, when the flaws that people cite are just parroted from some big name video (or, in this case, a circlejerk of them all quoting each other) rather than being derived from their own experience.  When those flaws are actually total bullshit, and the game is unironically very good.  When the reason people don’t understand a game is due in large part to sexism, or the cultural conditioning that men endure thanks to patriarchy.  That’s like the extra spice on the meatball.  Gets me heckin fired up, I tell you what.

So many people work so hard to make games, and they’re almost-universally underpaid and underappreciated for what they do.  That work ethic and lack of appreciation is doubly true of a game like Final Fantasy 13, made by a truly massive Japanese studio as the next big mainline entry in their flagship series.  I’m gonna be honest with you: FF13 is the black sheep game I’m the most passionate about, hands down.

With Tenchu Z, the TLDR there was something along the lines of “yes this game is deeply flawed but it appeals to my own sensibilities and if you’re willing to overlook X Y and Z then you’ll have a good time.”  Not so, with FF13.  Here, I’m going to show you why this game is actually really great and you’re basically an idiot if you write it off as bad.  Only the hottest takes here, folks, get your asbestos oven mitts cause here we go.

So, let’s start with what actually isn’t so great about FF13, to get that out of the way.  The game starts in media res, and it throws a TON of characters, specialized terminology and jargon at you immediately.  It takes a good while to come to grips with everything that’s happening, and you’re basically required to read through encyclopedia entries in the datalog to come to grips with all this stuff, which is the only break in the action you get.  The opening is extremely similar to the opening of FF7, which also began in media res with a focused soldier-type on a dangerous mission and not much info given to the player.  You’re meant to just be wowed by the spectacle and go along for the ride.  However, by ramping up that spectacle to the insane degree that 13 does, and by using far more specialized terminology than 7 did in its intro, the player can easily be overwhelmed and taken out of the experience.  Plus, 13’s intro goes on far longer than 7’s did, and the pace is rapid fire with no room to breathe.

There’s not a super simple fix for this, given the story of the game and how it’s all set up.  As it stands, the whole first 2-3 hours of the game, up through the defeat of Anima, feels like the best compromise they could cobble together while keeping the story they wanted to tell intact.  My verdict on a first playthrough was that it’s a bit confusing and feels too “huge”, overall, and needs to just be gotten through as quickly as possible.  On returning to the game to write this review, however, I don’t think there’s any easy way to improve what’s there, given the burden that the intro bears as far as exposition and setup for what comes later.  Essentially, the intro is just okay, and it gives the wrong impression as to what the rest of the game will be like.

I also feel that, given how intense and difficult battles can be in 13, the victory screen could’ve been handled better.  The victory theme is an iconic part of FF games, and 13 really lacks a good one, just a few notes that get cut off into an ambient … thing.  The star rating system and scoring feels silly and tacked-on, as well.  It almost feels like they wanted to cut any sort of victory screen entirely for immersion, but then someone made them put something back in hastily at the end.

Finally, I feel that the eidolons could have been handled a bit better.  Not their visual design, that’s fantastic.  It’s more that they’re quite underpowered for their cost of use.  For the cost of most of your TP bar and a great deal of time, you get to temporarily miss out on all of the party abilities you’ve been putting time and crystarium points into.  In exchange, you get some underwhelming physical and magic attacks without much stagger potential, and then a single big nuke.  Given the visual spectacle of these attacks and the eidolons themselves and how cool they are, it’s disappointing that they seem to have been designed for extremely niche use that’s a bit at odds with how the rest of the combat system works.  I’ll get more into that later, because the combat system in 13 is actually quite good and needs a full explanation.

So, those are my only three complaints about Final Fantasy 13.  Let’s get into why it’s actually a fantastic game.

At this point, I’d wager 99% of you are incredulous.  “But what about Lightning clopping down endless hallways?  What about how she sucks because she doesn’t even have a character?  What about all these shallow other characters and how everyone just sucks in this game?  What about the terrible combat, how can you say it’s good?  What about the awful story?”

I think a good way to get started on this is to address all the usual complaints individually.

Complaint 1: The game is super linear.

I know every game that comes out now is some open-world thing, but like, linearity in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It’s not an objectively incorrect design decision.  Plenty of great games have linear design.  Even classic games that appear open-ended are actually intensely linear.  Without sequence breaking, Super Metroid and Castlevania SotN both have a linear intended order in which you need to collect items in order to progress.  They guide you toward that path with no small degree of grace, to the point that it’s invisible and you feel as though you’re exploring on your own.  But make no mistake, these are linear games, no less than Castlevania 1 or Mario.

Final Fantasy 13 is, it’s true, less graceful about its linearity.  This is especially true in the opening chapters, when you’re still on Cocoon, and even more so in the intro before the Anima fight.  There are plenty of sections where you’re just running down hallways during those parts, yes.  However, I put it to you that this isn’t a bad thing.  The combat system in FF13 is intense, and enemy encounters are a big fucking deal.  This battle system requires a level of tactical and strategic thought and care that most other games in the series don’t even begin to touch.  The hallways are there to give your mind a break for a second between battles, to maintain a rising and falling rhythm of action.  I do have some sympathy for players in the very early game, before the combat gets really interesting and intense.  But the early intro is again, not representative of most of the rest of the game.

Furthermore, once you get out of Cocoon, the game opens up considerably, letting you not only explore wherever you want, with tons of incredibly dangerous enemies everywhere, but also giving you a long list of side quests to undertake and optional bosses to fight however you want.  Nobody ever includes how the game looks and feels once you hit Pulse in their analyses and opinions.  I put it to you that this is because they’re impatient flailing idiots who probably didn’t even make it to the Anima fight.

In actuality, 13 is just as open-ended as any other game in the series, and also just as linear and restrictive in places.  But I don’t hear anyone complaining about the linear progression of 7 before you get out of Midgar, do I?  How about the entire first disc of 8?  Or just about the entire game in 9?  Everybody loves those games, but they still hate 13.  Hypocrites.

Complaint 2: Lightning is bad.  She has no character / she’s a less-interesting Cloud. (also Complaint 2a: 13 has bad characters generally)

So, before I dive into the actual critical response here, I would like to take a moment to say fuck you if you think this.  Such a shallow, surface-level reading of her really pushes my buttons.  In the post-GG era, it also reeks of sexism on par with people who hate The Force Awakens because “Rey is a Mary Sue” or whatever.

Okay.  Deep breaths, Applebaps, let’s address the actual issue at hand here.  The heart of the issue is this: FF13 is better appreciated by women.  It’s accidental, I think, and it’s for cultural reasons, not biological ones, but it’s true.  It’s this that I blame for a lot of why people have the particular complaints that they do about the game, and why a lot of gamer boys miss literally the entire point of the game.  I recognize that this is an extraordinary claim, so let’s lay the foundation.

FF13 came out first on the PlayStation 3.  This was an era of gaming where the ability to animate realistic facial expressions fluidly was relatively new tech.  There was talk of this kind of thing during the PS2 era, but one of the major selling points of the PS3 was this big upgrade to the power of the “emotion engine” that let developers better simulate realistic faces.  And 13 has some really fantastic work in this regard.

One of the reasons so many men think 13 has bad characters is because a lot of what goes on in 13 concerning people’s inner thoughts and the subtext of their conversations is written plain as day on their faces, and in their non-verbal cues.  However, men are notoriously bad at reading these things.  It’s rare for the dominant gender or ruling economic class in a society to be good at reading non-verbal cues and hearing the tone of a conversation, because they don’t have to be good at it.  For women, the ability to read the tone of a room and discern subtle changes in social atmosphere or a person’s true intentions is a survival skill, it lets us avoid potential violence at the hands of men.  And it leads to cultural stereotypes that are relevant to the relative enjoyment of FF13 by men and women.

This is a game with tremendous detail and thought and processing power put into people’s faces and their posture above all else.  And it has absolutely phenomenal voice acting.  These things were very high priorities during development, and it wasn’t because 13 was some tech demo.  It’s because it’s the first game in the series where you can actually watch people have conversations and read them like real people.  You can draw inferences from not only what people say in this game, but how they say it and what their face looks like when they’re talking and reacting to each other.  That effort to pay attention to the game in this way actually does pay off narratively and in character arcs.  Because this game was the first one to try this, I don’t think people really understand how important these things are to fully understanding these characters.  That is absolutely fascinating to me, and it should be to you as well.

So! Let’s turn now to Lightning herself.

The simple truth is that Lightning fucking owns.  She’s not a Mary Sue, either, she has a ton of nuance.  She’s a cop, a soldier, a straight arrow type.  She’s rigid, and doesn’t trust easily.  However, to those she does care about, to those who earn her respect, she’s very open and even warm in the way of a big sister.  She’s a fully grown, mature person with her own goals and ideas, and she’s incredibly capable, competent, and driven.

I’m gonna be up front with you: I relate a lot to this lady.  I can very easily see myself in her shoes.  There are obvious, verbally-expressed and not at all subtle beats even early on in 13’s story that should have hooked in even people who don’t identify with her so strongly, such as her ditching Hope when he’s being a whiny little baby, and then later growing to respect and relate to him more and trying to train him to be a more effective person.

The thing is, though, a lot of her character is non-verbal.  She just doesn’t mince words.  What she says has a lot of weight to it, and she sticks very clearly to a life philosophy that works well for her.  You pick a goal, you move toward it.  You do what you have to do to get the job done, and fuck the rest.

However, the real meat and nuance of her character is in her expressions as she reacts to the rest of the party.  It’s in the way she glares off into the distance when Hope reacts like a fawning puppy to a small compliment.  It’s in the way her mouth twitches with disgust when Sazh starts making excuses that will lead to him lying down to die, even if he can’t see it yet (spoilers, though, he totally can and doesn’t care).  It’s in the way she looks sidelong at Snow, trying to gauge his personality and see if he’s worthy of marrying the sister she loves so much, and coming up empty.  It’s in the way her eyes dart about at the slightest prospect of seeing Serah again, nervous and excited and bearing the full burden of that love and what it means to people as doomed as they are.  It’s in the way her voice shakes almost imperceptibly as she makes the decision to go after Eden, hoping that the others will stand with her, knowing she’ll probably die but doing it anyway.  This is a woman who holds herself and others to a very high standard, and constantly grapples with having those standards disappointed by those around her.  And she’s a survivor, first and foremost.

She grows and changes as the game progresses, of course, I’m just trying to paint you a portrait of why you should like her even at the start.

It’s not just Lightning, either, all of these characters have incredible depth and nuance that’s largely found outside of their spoken lines.  I’ll spare you the thousand paragraphs as to why each of them is worth the attention.  Eventually, the story beats and character arcs all do come together in ways obvious enough that anyone can enjoy them.  But if you’re not paying attention to non-verbal cues in this game, you’re missing out on probably 80% of what makes these characters interesting.  That people then turn around and go “oh Lightning has no character she’s just stoic” or that they react with outright hostility to such a cool and powerful lady, that shit pisses me right off.

Complaint 3: The story is bad.

Basically, if you think 13 has a bad story because it uses a bunch of technical words that it made up, you’re stupid as hell.  Nobody gives Tolkien shit for using made-up words.  If you think the story is pointless or that the literal events that occur aren’t interesting, guess what, you’re also pretty dumb.  13 has probably the most interesting theming in the series.

As I admitted above, the game does throw you in headfirst into the deep end, and it can be initially confusing.  However, once you find your footing, the story is both interesting in and of itself, and also kinda secondary to the character development and interpersonal interactions.

At its heart, 13 asks questions like: “What does it mean to be a character in an RPG?” “What even is a ‘quest’?” “Does being the protagonist mean that your actions are justified?” “What if you had to choose between saving the world and saving those you love?” As it explores these ideas, it deconstructs tropes and themes that the series has almost universally taken for granted up to this point.  And it does all this while also offering up some meaty character drama as well!

To help make things easier for you, should you decide to play this game, here’s a general overview/summary of the literal events of the early plot:

Lightning is going bam whooshy kapow to try and save her sister Serah.  Serah is engaged to Snow, who is also trying to rescue her with a bunch of his friends who have a monster-hunting group called NORA (although they don’t matter very much).  Serah is slated to be “purged”, which is exactly what it sounds like, because the government of Cocoon purges anything that may have come into contact with anything from outside Cocoon, namely the world of Pulse that Cocoon floats above.  They’re purging the entire town that Serah and Lightning and Snow used to live in, in fact, because they found a powerful Pulsian being there, so in their view the whole town is potentially tainted.  One of the people who’s supposed to be purged is a woman with a son named Hope.  She takes up arms with NORA to try and fight the purge, and immediately dies.  Hope is really sad and blames Snow, who leads NORA, for her death.  He’s just a regular kid, after all.  Another of the people who’s caught up in the purge is a sad lady pretending to be happy named Vanille.  Her whole backstory isn’t important until much later, but then it’s REALLY important.  There’s also a random civilian pilot guy named Sazh there.  He’s just kinda a regular dude (for now), and he follows Lightning and gets in her way because he’s a doof (or so it seems).

Those godlike beings are called Fal’Cie, and they can come from either Pulse (the planet, an unknown, wild, natural place) or Cocoon (a technologically-advanced human settlement, above the planet).  Cocoon Fal’Cie run the government.  Pulse Fal’Cie want Cocoon destroyed, generally speaking.  Fal’Cie have the power to curse someone with a geas that the game calls a Focus.  Basically, you have to do something on behalf of the Fal’Cie, and there’s a ticking clock on it.  Once you’re given a focus by a Fal’Cie, you’re called a l’Cie (“luh SEE”).  Being a l’Cie is lose-lose.  If you complete your task, you get turned into a crystal statue and it’s unclear whether you’re alive or not.  If you fail to complete your task within the time limit (which is also unclear) you turn into a Cie’th (“seeth” with a soft “th”), a monster basically.  To make matters worse, your Focus isn’t just told to you outright, it’s given in a really vague vision that’s open to interpretation.

During the attempted rescue, Lightning, Snow, Hope, Vanille, and Sazh all converge on Serah at the moment she turns into crystal.  They barely get to say goodbye before they’re thrust into battle with the Fal’Cie recovered from their hometown, Anima, who turns them all into l’Cie and gives them a vision that everyone but Snow thinks means they need to destroy Cocoon.  Snow is convinced that their Focus is to save Cocoon, though, and stays behind on his own to mourn his fiance and get his head on straight.  Everyone else takes off to run away from the military, who’s coming after them now for being l’Cie and fighting against the purge.

There are a few other miscellaneous terms, but honestly you don’t need to worry about things like the differences between PSICOM and the Guardians, or the particulars of the War of Transgression, or like half the other stuff the game throws out there (for instance: does it really matter if people “can’t use magic” if they have technology that emulates magical effects? probably not).  Let the game take you along for a ride, and know that it DOES explain itself eventually.  If there’s a point you’re confused on, just make a note of it and wait a bit.  There’s a lot that becomes clear in flashbacks or through character arcs and other revelations that I don’t want to spoil.

Anyway, that’s just where the story starts.  So, if you can figure out how to get all those ideas across in a better way than 13 does, be my guest.  Comment below with your ideas.

To return to my main point: if you’re not engaging with the story on a thematic level, you’re missing out on one of the most mature and engaging stories that Final Fantasy has ever told.  Only 8, which grappled with themes of loneliness and the redemptive power of intimate relationships, has even come close.  And surprise, surprise, everybody hates that one too.  Fucking gamers.

I hope that you can see the thematic elements emerging just from my literal plot summary.  There’s a lot there that the series has historically dealt with, all brought back at once for a big deconstruction.  You’ve got magic and nature versus technology, terrorism, the Other, ignorance and tribalism, you’ve got loss and grief and coping, you’ve got the hero who wants to save everyone, you’ve got soldiers and rebel groups, orphans, etc.  The thing about 13 is that, after throwing all this stuff together into a big ol meaty thematic stew, it proceeds to pick through it and dump a lot of it out on the ground, gesturing to it and asking pointed questions about how those things actually work and what they mean.  The rest of the series takes these things for granted, but 13 asks what they’re even doing there, it explores the implications of those things.  That makes it well worth playing.

Complaint 4: The combat sucks / I get what you’re saying but I hate the mechanics.

Okay, but you’re still wrong.

Every entry in this series has different combat mechanics.  They change that part of them up every time.  At a completely surface level, however, you generally choose what to do from a list.  And the focus has generally been on micromanagement, on turn-by-turn decision-making.  The main skill you cultivate is the ability to read and react to situations in very small time increments.

Let’s go back in time a bit and talk about Final Fantasy 12, and gambits.  In 12, you could still choose what to do from a list, but they introduced the ability to essentially program your party members to act automatically according to certain conditions.  You could actually do this to the extent that grinding became a matter of running around with the left analog stick, and watching as your party automatically killed monsters, healed, used buffs and debuffs, etc.  A lot of people hated this, but I found it fascinating, because not only did it take a lot of the tedium out of the inevitable FF grind, it also laid bare something essential about how FF combat systems worked up to that point.  It revealed that actually, the whole idea of what combat is in these games is largely pretty samey and played out.  The surface-level changes could no longer disguise the core thrust of what combat in a Final Fantasy game was.  A series of micromanagement decisions vis-a-vis dealing damage, healing damage, etc.  That never changed, whether we were dealing with materia, desperations, espers, whatever.

Now, keeping that in mind, know this: FF13 fundamentally changed the purpose and required skills of its combat system.  Even if you don’t like change, even if you don’t like what they did with it, you have to admit that that’s really interesting.  Why would they do that, after 13 games (counting X-2)?  That kind of experimentation is cool, in and of itself.  It’s bold of them!

So, let’s talk specifics.  How is 13’s combat essentially different from anything that came before?  You still choose actions from a list, you still deal and take damage, right?  It’s kinda like a combination of 12’s gambits and 10-2’s dresspheres, with a sprinkling of 10’s sphere grid for advancement, right?  Well, sort of.  On a surface level, yes, those are the elements.  However, taken as a whole and looked at in the context of a game that also questions what it means to quest in an RPG, we find a very interesting picture of what combat and progression should be in an RPG.

First: A lot more of the game is hands-off when it comes to the micromanagement.  There’s no longer even a semblance of turns, everything is real time and very fast.  You can choose a slew of actions to queue up and perform automatically if you want, and your non-leader party members just do what they’re going to do without any direction from you.  The pace is such that if you don’t act and think quickly, you can be very quickly wiped out as the battle’s momentum leaves you behind.

Second: Every enemy has a stagger meter, and HP that’s orders of magnitude higher than any previous game.  They take miniscule damage normally, but while staggered take obscene amounts of damage.  The meter is constantly falling, and different attacks and roles boost it in different ways, which influences how you think about party composition.  Enemies also deal some truly insane amounts of damage.

Third: Your characters are healed fully after every fight, for free.  Potions and other healing items are vastly reduced in both number and complexity.  This reduces the attrition element of combat, and basically eliminates the need for healing item shopping unless you’re seriously terrible at the combat.  It shifts the role of healing items to a much less central position, and lets you focus on the fights themselves.

Fourth: Your characters have no level.  Instead of XP, you accrue crystarium points, which are used to grant small bonuses to stats, of which there are only 3: HP, strength, and magic.  Enemies reward substantial CP, enough so that the need for grinding (while not completely eliminated) is much reduced, compared to other games in the series.  The focus is now on the story.

Fifth: Characters have roles/jobs, which are similar to dresspheres in that you can switch them on the fly in battle.  However, you don’t do this on an individual basis.  Instead, you switch your entire team to a different “paradigm”, which is a combination of roles.

The various roles have different purposes that go far beyond different dresspheres, however.  They’ve dropped the classic FF job system entirely, and re-thought what each role’s purpose in a party should be.  Commandos have attacks that keep the stagger meter stable and make it decrease more slowly, as well as dealing higher base damage and being able to handle groups of smaller enemies.  Ravagers boost the meter much more quickly, but their attacks cause it to fall more rapidly.  Their magic is more formidable, and they’re suitable for hitting elemental weaknesses during the stagger phase.  Medics heal, and they’re capable of doing it quite rapidly, which helps because enemies can deal incredible amounts of damage now.  Sentinels take less damage and have taunting and counter abilities, which are absolutely required to withstand the bursts that bosses and some regular enemies are capable of dishing out.  Saboteurs cast debuffs, and Synergists cast buffs, all of which have had their effectiveness significantly increased.

Swapping paradigms, if done with proper timing, refills everyone’s action bar, giving them essentially another “turn” for free immediately.  However, the animation to switch takes about 5 seconds or so, which in terms of the pace of 13’s combat is GLACIAL and agonizing to watch when you time it poorly.  Knowing when to swap is crucial, as is proper setup of your paradigms prior to battle.

Sixth: Enemies don’t drop much in the way of materials.  However, the main way in which you get stronger quickly is by upgrading your weapons, which requires tons of materials.  Most of which can be bought at the various stores you unlock, all of which can be accessed via online shopping from any save point.  You’re no longer going shopping at towns in between dives into combat-heavy forests or caves.  Now, the game is one long hard-charging mission, and you make your own breaks in hallways and at save points.

Upgrading is done on a back-and-forth swing, where you use organic materials first to boost the XP the weapon or accessory will get from throwing mechanical components in for a big payoff.  There are upgrade trees branching out from several base weapon archetypes, and going down them is required to obtain 90% of the weapons in the game, and 100% of the actually good ones.  If you ignore upgrading, you will very quickly fall behind in your ability to cope with the combat, and repeatedly wipe until you eventually give up.

All of this combines to create combat that is frenetic, difficult, intense, lengthy.  It is involved in a way that no previous game has managed to be, and removes much of the tedium that characterizes “grinding in a Final Fantasy game”, by de-emphasizing some elements and heavily emphasizing others.  The player’s primary skill is as a strategist, rather than a tactician; you make decisions based on the rhythm and flow of how the battle is going overall, and your decisions must be made quickly and precisely.  You have to have an eye for where things are going, rather than what’s just happened.

But hey, it’s way different and that’s bad I guess.  You just don’t like the mechanics, they’re bad mechanics.  It’s better to repeatedly choose “attack” and then use a bunch of potions after every fight.

Finally, I’ve heard from some people that the game “lacks visual personality” or that it’s somehow a step backward in aesthetics.  I really don’t know how to answer a claim that’s so obviously wrong on its face, to be honest.  All I can say is that the game does have its own visual and design aesthetic?  It doesn’t have any easy touchstones in Western art that we can compare it to, like some previous games have had.  But that doesn’t make it “generic”, far from it.

Look, so, I’m exhausted here.  I’m basically done.  I hope this has convinced you to give Final Fantasy 13 a fair shake.  The game is much maligned and has been since its release, but it doesn’t deserve any of this.  It’s great.  So don’t be an idiot, okay?  If you like Final Fantasy games, just please play this fucking game.

3 thoughts on “Pet the Black Sheep: Final Fantasy 13

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