I recently wrote a piece on why FF13 is actually great. I do still hold to that opinion (mostly), but it needs some qualification and revision.
I have to confess: when I wrote that piece, and when I held that opinion of FF13’s unqualified goodness, I had not yet beaten it. I had gotten as far as doing about 40% of the missions on Pulse, had reached Oerba and explored around a bit, unlocked chocobo riding, and felt like I had a handle on the game as a whole. Since we’re on the subject, I don’t usually fully complete games prior to forming an opinion on them. I decide how I feel about a game as I’m in the process of playing it, and can usually pinpoint and express a good set of reasons as to why I feel the way I do about something. This has so far only bitten me in the ass on a few rare occasions, and it’s how I prefer to think about things. I’m not a professional reviewer, I just like games and words.
It turns out, FF13 goes downhill pretty sharply in the home stretch. It’s not quite as bad a drop-off as Subnautica was, but it’s pretty dramatic. I can’t really look at my previous article any more without feeling vaguely ridiculous as a result. Rather than shying away from this or just deleting what I wrote, however, I think it will be more instructive to examine just what the heck happens in the last stretch of the game that made me change my mind to such a degree about a game I was super positive on.
Second confession: I actually still haven’t beaten FF13. I gave up on the first phase of the Orphan fight, after 4 game overs. Part of the reason why I didn’t go the distance pertains directly to why I felt I had to revise my opinion on the game. But if you feel like this fact invalidates my opinion on its own, best to stop here before we go down a rabbit hole and I waste a bunch of your time. I watched a video on Youtube of the final battles and ending, so I’m prepared to talk about that stuff as well. I’m only slightly ashamed of this, as by the time I finally called it quits, I was fucking done with FF13. I needed it to just be over, but it kept going and going. If I’d kept on beating my head against a wall for another week or so and done what it would’ve taken to beat it, I don’t think I could’ve salvaged my opinion of the game at all. I’d be hating it right now, instead of just conflicted on it. Even though I’ve written at length on the subject of several games I despise, I don’t actually enjoy disliking things and picking them apart. I’m not that kind of person. I like to have fun with fun things, believe it or not!
So, to get started, let’s talk a little bit about grinding and pacing in JRPGs.
I’ve been playing these fuckin things for decades. I’m old enough to remember the very first Final Fantasy on the NES, which remains pretty high on my list of timeless classic games. Just take my word for it, I’m old as shit. Not just Final Fantasy, either; I’ve played all kinds of JRPGs, from Star Ocean to Eternal Sonata to Lost Odyssey to Dragon Warrior to Bravely Default and everything in between. I even played fuckin Enchanted Arms. I’ve put thousands upon thousands of hours into JRPGs over the years, so if there’s a genre I know pretty well, it’s this one. I’ve seen me some JRPGs.
Obviously these games are all very different from each other in terms of surface mechanics et cetera blah blah. However, they do share a lot of commonalities in terms of their pacing. In 90% of these games, there comes a time when you have to just sit down with them for a couple hours and run in circles fighting monsters until you level up enough to get past the next big fight. Usually, in the better examples of the genre, the game will telegraph this moment to you in like big neon letters. It’s Time To Grind Now, My Child.
Usually, you have a rhythm that gets established where you have action and you have downtime. You’ll have to go into a forest, say, and there’s a big boss at the end that you can’t quite take, so you run around in the forest until you can take him. Then, on the other side of the forest is a town where you can rest, have some character moments, buy some new gear, all that good stuff. Then you head off for the next forest, or whatever. Now, obviously this got played out really quickly, so I’d say most games don’t treat this nearly as straightforwardly as I’ve just described it. You’ll have multiple dungeon sections, or a bit where the game turns you loose on the world map, or you’ll have character moments in the middle of the dungeon. But that’s the formula we’re working from here, the cheat sheet common to all games in the genre that they can either adhere to or deviate from.
Final Fantasy 13 is weird in this regard. Very weird, actually. The entire game is one long combat mission that takes place over about a week of in-game chronology. Your downtime doesn’t happen in towns. Instead, they made it so that the hallways between fights are your downtime. There’s not even any shops, you do your shopping at save points. There was this huge concerted effort to just tell a small, focused story about a small group of people in one particular time in their lives, with very little else in there to interfere. How closely they stuck to that vision in the end, I don’t know. Part of why people dislike 13 is that its story is convoluted, particularly in the very beginning when not a lot is clear or well-defined.
And that’s great, and everything? But it gives 13 a unique problem to solve that it doesn’t handle very elegantly, in the end. If the whole game’s story is meant to funnel you from one action setpiece to the next, how does the player know when they need to take a break and grind? The answer is, they actually don’t need to do that in 13 until the last stretch of the game, when the party returns from Gran Pulse to Cocoon and all hell breaks loose. Rather than the game gently lifting you upwards in power and challenge from start to finish, instead there’s an exponential curve happening. Most of the game is pretty easy, then there’s a jump in difficulty as you get to Pulse, then another big one when you return to Cocoon. And to be fair to the game, here, you do get warned about the requisite points of no return. However, the structure of the game around those points of no return does nothing to clue you in to the jump in difficulty, or how it’s going to work. The game even kinda actively works against itself in several ways.
When the difficulty jump happens upon reaching Gran Pulse, the party is simultaneously turned loose on a new world. You naturally want to explore, and enemies give insane amounts of CP (which you use to get stronger). You also get crystarium expansions that contain pretty huge stat bonuses compared to what you’ve been getting. So, with minimal and natural exploration in service to the story, you get strong enough to proceed pretty quickly. The opposite is true on your return to Cocoon. You’re put back on a linear path again, and every single enemy is not only as strong as anything you had to do a special mission to hunt on Pulse, but they give jack shit for CP and usually don’t drop anything. There’s no indication there, mechanically speaking, that you should be grinding out these fights, because every single one of them takes like 15 minutes and rewards basically nothing for your time.
Let’s talk again about the combat system. After having played 13’s last stretch, I have to conclude that Square didn’t really understand what they had, here. Because it gets so mis-used, so bent and broken, in the final stretch of the game, that I can’t imagine they had any idea how to make fights really challenging, how to explore the implications and potential of the system they invented. Too many of these final fights drag on for way too long. Too many of them feature enemies that are impossible to stagger, or enemies like behemoths that heal themselves to full and change their form and need to be killed again. Or bosses like the Proudclad, which is fucking immune to status effects after the game has spent the whole time incentivizing their use heavily, and sheds its stagger meter every time it changes forms, making staggering it impossible.
You’ve got 3 party members. If enemies hit so hard that I have to constantly run a medic and a sentinel in every single encounter, how am I supposed to enjoy just whittling enemies down with a Commando as my only damage dealer? I can’t stagger anyone like that, I can’t deal decent damage, so I just have to sit there. It’s incredibly tedious, because often, the Solidarity paradigm (Com/Sen/Med) is just a little too safe. Fights become foregone conclusions in favor of my victory, but I also know each one is going to take 15-20 minutes, minimum. If I drop Solidarity for something more damaging, I get immediately wiped.
And after a whole third of the game where I can freely dodge fights I don’t want to engage in, I’m now back in narrow corridors with enemies that take up the entire room and can’t even be pre-emptively struck. And I’m looking at a very very long corridor where I can see every enemy in advance and I know exactly how much time they’re all going to waste. It’s demoralizing.
I mean, for chrissakes, the game keeps on giving you weapons right up until the final boss. This is a game where upgrading your weapons requires millions of gil, and enemies don’t drop any; how am I supposed to switch weapons somehow in the middle of the process? Ridiculous. There even exist weapons that make staggering enemies impossible, but several bosses including the final boss require you to stagger them to deal any damage. They even give you one immediately before a boss where if you equipped that weapon, you would be unable to win. Wrap your head around that for a second. I’m all for trying new and different things in what is a very staid and ancient genre, and I love so much of what 13 tries to be. But mis-steps like this are ultimately pretty damning. I spent like 3 whole actual in real life days just sitting on the couch making my way through the final Cocoon run and last dungeon. To put that into perspective, the longest final dungeon in the series to date, FF3’s World of Darkness, can be done in an afternoon easily.
Yes, the game lets you go back to Pulse if you want prior to facing the last boss. I know that. But, faced with a choice between spending another week grinding up enough CP to get measurably stronger (when each node was taking like 20k to unlock) when I was already getting burned out on the combat, or beating my face against the last boss until I lucked into being able to try its next form… I chose to put down the controller and go to Youtube. At my level of strength, Dies Irae (its strongest attack) had a decent chance to one-shot Lightning, which meant instant game over in the final phase of the fight. I also had 2 unlucky game overs from not being able to get a Deshell off of her in time, and she took a stray magic hit and died instantly. Every game over felt like utter bullshit. Thankfully, I was frustrated enough by this point to have searched online for what to expect in the final boss, and knew to have fully upgraded Death resistance charms, so I never had a wipe from that. But my poor Medic just couldn’t keep up with the damage; I had to keep burning TP on Dispelgas and Renews just to make it through even that far.
Also, side note, Orphan is a fucking visual mess. It’s like a big … sword? tablet? thing? With Picasso art jutting out of the side. It’s a mess. What am I even looking at, here? I get that the Fal’Cie are kinda abstract looking, and I dig that, but like… come on.
Anyway, to summarize: 13’s pace and low difficulty encourages you to fly through, and by the time you realize you needed to stop and grind, it may be too late for you to enjoy the process because you’ll have to do it all at once.
So much for the combat, let’s talk briefly about the story and then call it a day, here.
13’s story has a lot to recommend it. I talked about a lot of this in my Pet The Black Sheep article on the game before, and I won’t rehash that now. But I ended up a bit disappointed with how it all wraps up. To make this short, basically, shit goes off the rails once Barthandelus is defeated. Nothing about Orphan is explained, it just kinda comes out of nowhere. And some very weird shit happens in the between-battle cutscenes involving Fang and what turns out to be a Fal’Cie illusion. It feels like character motivations kinda fell by the wayside in favor of a quick resolution that plays more into the literal events of the plot than into the thematic/character reading. There’s a lot of spectacle that consequently feels a bit hollow, and things wrap up extremely neatly and extremely quickly. I know they were probably over budget by this point, and my feelings were already dampened by my bad experience in the final dungeons, but I couldn’t help but be like, “um, is that it?” And then it’s just over. Also, the song that plays at the end isn’t The Main Song that plays throughout, it’s some other random pop song. It all just felt very out of place and like it was hurrying to be done.
The ending also leaves me with questions: can Fal’Cie also have a Focus, then, since Orphan talks about having two conflicting ones? Follow-up question on that one: what the fuck? How does that work? Is it supposed to be Lindzei giving them theirs? Or the Maker? Or what?
Also, I don’t usually get nitpicky about stuff like this when a thematic reading exists, but since the game leaned so heavily into the literal plot at the end, I gotta know: what’s the deal, in the end, with whether you turn into crystal or a Cie’th? What the fuck even was the Focus that the main group got? That Serah got? Did Fang/Vanille/Ragnarok literally just tell everyone to wake up and they turn back from being crystals like 10 seconds later, or did a bunch of time pass? If they did just wake them up like that, how do you explain that they could do that? What’s even the stakes or the point, here, then? How could Barthandelus resurrect Cid and make him a puppet like he did, how does that even work? Nothing else in the story can do that, why does a regular-ass Fal’Cie get to do that? Or is he not a regular-ass Fal’Cie because he’s like, part of Orphan somehow? And finally, if the Undying exist, who cares if you turn into a Cie’th? The main party especially would have good reason to believe that they’d probably end up as Undying, not quest-giving Cie’th stones, right? So who gives a shit?
So! That’s Final Fantasy 13. My final take on the game is deeply conflicted. I feel like it’s a setting with a ton of potential that falls short of being fully realized. I like the characters (mostly. I mean, who actually gave a shit about the NORA people? Did they really need to come back?), but they stop developing once you go back to Cocoon, and then start acting hella weird. I like the story, but it goes off the rails at the end. I love the combat, but the enemy design in the final bits makes it feel like a slog and sucked all the soul out of me.
Also it turns out my 13-2 disc has a scratch on it that renders it unplayable, so this has just been kind of a downer day! But that’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.