I will freely admit that I have been playing a whole lot of Final Fantasy (and Final Fantasy-like) lately. It’s a testament to my devotion to the series that no matter how many times certain games in it are remade, or how far new entries deviate from tradition, I will still play them. And, really, I will also admit that I still enjoy the series, no matter what direction Square-Enix has decided to take it. Final Fantasy was my first RPG, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that the series has been with me through pretty much the entire course of my life. That doesn’t mean that I can’t see the obvious flaws that it shows sometimes, but I wouldn’t call the series ‘dead’ like a lot of publications are doing at this point in time. Overall, I’d say that my experiences with it remain primarily enjoyable.
I’ve had quite a few discussions over the past few days with various people regarding the trilogy of games that Final Fantasy XIII unexpectedly turned into. After parsing some of that material in my mind, I realized that I had enough there for a proper retrospective on the games. So, I figured that with the Final Fantasy XIII cycle of games being recently completed, I would give that chapter in the series a proper send off and share with you my reflections on what I did and did not like about it. These points won’t be in any specific order or anything, as the conversations that have shaped these thoughts have sort of meandered around, and really, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are all subjective anyway in the end.
Also, I will try to talk in broad, general terms, and will do my best not to reveal any major plot points from the last half of Lightning Returns. However, there are some things I’ll talk about that may constitute spoilers for the other two games. So consider this your Spoiler Warning for if you have not at least finished Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2.
So what are my thoughts on the FFXIII games, anyway? Well…
The battle system and character progression are actually really good. I will admit that some people were put off by how different it was than anything that had come before, but personally, I really enjoyed FFXIII‘s battle system. And while it really did seem like the first half of the game was basically tutorial, the one thing I really did like was the presence of a leveling cap for the different segments of the game. It meant that it was impossible to out-grind the bosses, and it also meant that the developers knew exactly what the maximum party skillset for each encounter would be. This let them craft the bosses into specific challenges that forced the player to adjust their strategy instead of just going back and leveling up until the strategy wouldn’t matter anymore. The removal of the leveling cap in FFXIII-2 exposed the cracks in the system, though there were still some bosses that demanded strategic thinking. And the removal of the party and complete alteration of the system for Lightning Returns made people have to use reflexes and adjust strategy on the fly. All in all, each game has its mechanical strengths and weaknesses, but it’s clear that FFXIII was the most tightly balanced of the bunch.
There is constant forward momentum. From the very beginning of the opening scene of FFXIII, there is a constant focus on moving forward. The game starts out with a confrontation on a train, which itself is careening toward a battle zone. And while it’s true that you eventually, over the course of several flashbacks, get an explanation of how the characters got to that point, there is very little else in the way of development in regards to the world itself. Now, for about two-thirds of the first game, this actually does a lot in its favor. The idea of all these characters being chased, driven together, and constantly antagonized is a fairly major plot point, as during that segment of the game each character gets pushed past their breaking point in very personal ways. After that, however, it would have been nice to see world development that matched the character development. And yet, there is a refusal to reconcile the future with the past, and a stubborn determination to shed the past entirely.
This doesn’t stop with the end of the first game, either. I know that there wasn’t supposed to be a second game, per se, but even given that, that complete focus on some eventual future remains. Anyone who is not being pushed forward in time, in a very literal sense, is left behind and never heard from again. And in Lightning Returns, the entire game is on a timer, making the whole experience feeling even more frantic and leaving the player very little time to explore, and try and make sense of, what the world has become.
This leads to a woefully under-developed world. I know that these characters and their conflicts inhabit a rich world with lots of history behind it, and yet none of that history is adequately explained. Again, this sort of makes sense for most of the first game because the story is intentionally presented from a very limited point of view. However, at the point in the game that the world opens up for exploration, it would make sense for the narrative to do the same, and yet it doesn’t. The party faces down the antagonists with the player barely knowing what their motivations even were, much less the world events that led up to those motivations. Or even anything at all about the antagonists themselves, half the time.
And when the one game got expanded into three? There was plenty of opportunity there to expand on the world and give glimpses into its past even as its occupants started to build futures for themselves. Instead, all of that potential development was jettisoned in order to bring in a new plot from out of nowhere and tell a time travel story. I would go so far as to say that there are very few items that are present in both the list of things I wanted to know after FFXIII and the list of things that were explained by FFXIII-2. Almost none, actually. And then Lightning Returns completely sheds the continuity of history that is developed through that adventure as well.
As mentioned before, this also leads to a lack of supporting characters who actually stick around. Sure, I mean, Lightning Returns does go through a lot of trouble to make me care about the random quest-givers, but at that point the reason that the quest-givers were random was that the series did not actually carry any of the supporting cast forward to that game. At some point, it seemed to have been forgotten that the supporting cast is called such for a reason: they support the plot. They make the world more interesting, and they give the main characters opportunities to develop through interaction. After FFXIII, I wanted to know more about the NORA gang. I wanted to know more about the Guardian Corps, about PSICOM, about how the Academia was eventually formed. And I wanted to know more about how these characters would come together to move the world forward, and instead all of that was sort of skipped over and handwaved. Because time travel, that’s why.
But most of the time it’s actually not that bad, because the main cast is so great. I really, really enjoyed the main cast of FFXIII. They’re just regular people, with flaws, and personality conflicts, and unreasonable expectations for themselves. Some of them were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s literally the only thing that got them caught up in being hunted down. You get to see each of them at their very worst moments, when the weight of everything that’s going on crushes them and drives them to their emotional breaking point. And you get to see them at their very best, when they each help each other through their personal crises and come together to save their friends and family.
Which makes it really, really annoying when they stop being regular people. Like how in the second game, everything is recast as Norse mythology, and again in the third game as Judeo-Christian theology. As the characters become gods, myths, and legends themselves, they really lose a lot of their credibility as human beings. They become sort of static entities that lose real opportunities to develop.
And on a related note, certain relationships are focused on a bit too excessively, and in the wrong ways. Yes, I know that in the first game, Serah was sort of the central driving motivation behind the party making a lot of the choices they made, because she was so central in the lives of both Lightning and Snow. However, the fact that she continues to be a driving motivator after that leads to some very unfortunate plot decisions; namely, the complete neutering of two other relationship-based plot threads for what amounts to no reason at all. All of the interesting dynamic that Hope and Lightning have together in the first game, as well as all the obvious amplification of Hope’s feelings as he grows up and becomes a capable and intelligent leader in the second game, are instantaneously lost at the beginning of Lightning Returns and, in my opinion, are never quite regained. And it didn’t have to happen that way. Sure, there is a notable age difference between Hope and Lightning in the beginning, but the relationship potential really only comes around after he grows up about ten years anyway. And besides, his interactions with Lightning are way less forced than, say, those between Anakin and Amidala in the Star Wars prequels.
And then there is Fang and Vanille. Even though their relationship isn’t quite reverted in the same manner, we never quite get a confirmation on what their relationship to each other actually is, even though it is pretty obvious that it extends quite a bit beyond friendship. I know that the presence of a romance that is not heterosexual is still something that most games shy away from depicting, but somehow I expected at least a little more from Final Fantasy.
Not that the new characters introduced in FFXIII-2 are bad, by any means. Even though he doesn’t have quite the same ‘everyman’ feel as the party from the first game, Noel is a great addition to the story. Once his plotline gets properly kicked off, it is a pretty good one that really meshes with the overall plot of the second game. His adversary, Caius Ballad, is a powerful, charismatic villain with motivations that are far better explained than those of either the first game’s Barthandelus or the eventual villain of Lightning Returns, as well as the horror-movie-esque ability to live through absolutely anything.
In fact, I firmly believe that Noel, Caius, and the seeress Yeul deserved to have their own game, completely separate from Final Fantasy XIII, or at least not directly tied to it. There still could have been connections, it’s just that, well..
The most interesting ideas in the overarching mythology of the games were either delayed or outright cancelled. The whole mythology of Final Fantasy XIII is called Fabula Nova Crystallis, and it was intended to encompass several games in parallel worlds: Final Fantasy XIII, Type-0, and Versus XIII. Each game would explain a part of the story of the world, and between all of them, would have painted a complete picture of the pantheon of gods that governed it. However, Type-0 was never released anywhere other than Japan [EDIT: until it was], and Versus XIII was delayed repeatedly and then renumbered to Final Fantasy XV. If they had kept that mythology intact, it would have been entirely possible for FFXIII-2 to have existed in a parallel world that was not Gran Pulse, and therefore not muck with the continuity as much as it did. As it was, FFXIII-2 felt too much like a non sequitur, and seemed to take quite a few ideas that could have been used to make a pretty awesome Chrono game.
The music is really, really good. I’ll admit that for about the first 20 minutes of each game, I didn’t care for the soundtracks. But then I heard tracks like this. And this. And this, which I will admit is one of my favorite Final Fantasy battle themes in the entire history of the series. Each game has a unique style, even when several common themes are present in all of the games. Even if I enjoyed nothing else about the series, I would still love the music.
And so, I leave you with my final thoughts. Is this a perfect period in Final Fantasy history? No, not by a longshot. But it has its merits, and each game is definitely some level of enjoyable. While I would have loved a little more explanation and worldbuilding (and for Type-0 to have gotten a Western release), I will admit that I also like it when stories leave things to the imagination, and sometimes, the limited viewpoint the story is told from really, really works. My biggest wish is that the series would have continued to focus on the characters as normal humans instead of essentially deifying them, as I think that would have been a more meaningful story.
However, I think that the FFXIII games prove that it is possible to like a flawed thing. I think this is something that is lost on a lot of people these days, especially in the gaming community. It seems that things have to be either one extreme or the other now; either great or horrible. But really? Some of my favorite games are things I love despite their flaws. Xenogears has a list of problems several miles long, but it is still probably my favorite JRPG ever made. Why? Because it means something to me. There is something about the idea of people carrying on in the face of something far, far bigger than them that resonates with me, and probably a great many other people, too, and I think it’s that same idea that makes the good parts of FFXIII so very good. It’s just that sometimes, there is a whole lot of coal you have to dig through in order to find the diamonds.