FINAL FANTASY XIII. It’s a game that hardly needs an introduction, even four years after release. It was hotly anticipated. Wildly hyped. And, in the end, deeply controversial. In the thirteenth year of the new millennium, it’s only appropriate that we take undertake a retrospective review of one of the PS3’s most defining games just as Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII prepares for launch.
Originally announced at E3 2006, some six months before the PS3’s launch, Final Fantasy XIII suffered from a troubled development. As the first Final Fantasy title to undergo development for a high-definition console, its costs were exorbitant and its development cycle almost ludicrously extended.
As the years ticked by nary a whisper was heard of Final Fantasy XIII or its sibling Versus XIII; and the fate of the Fabula Nova Crystallis project that Final Fantasy XIII was meant to spearhead seemed to be anyone’s guess. The game’s producer, Yoshinori Kitase, would later comment after the game’s release that: “…Final Fantasy XIII, was obviously the first game, and personally I think we took a little too long getting it out. When you think of Western triple A titles like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Assassin’s Creed, they seem to work with a lot shorter turnaround – they make a new game in 1-2 years. That is something we need to follow up, because that seems to be the best way to keep our fans interested and attracted to the franchise.”
But, after almost five years of anticipation, was Final Fantasy XIII worth the wait?
Final Fantasy XIII is the flagship game in the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology; a shared mythology that underlines the Final Fantasy XIII games, Final Fantasy Type-0, and Final Fantasy XV.
In it, the god known as Bhunivelze has crafted fal’Cie (described as sentient machine-gods) like Etro, Pulse, and Lindzei. In turn, the fal’Cie mark humans as l’Cie that are destined to die unless they complete a specific task and, even then, are cruelly rewarded with a lifetime spent in crystal stasis.
Floating above the wilds of Gran Pulse is Cocoon, a utopia, a paradise, onto which the last strands of humanity absconded centuries before. The fal’Cie of Cocoon maintain and preserve it for their human companions but when a fal’Cie from Pulse is discovered at the village of Bodhum, Cocoon executes a mass purge of Bodhum’s populace.
Final Fantasy XIII proclaims itself as a saga of people fighting against fate. When Lightning, Snow, Vanille, Fang, Hope, and Sazh are marked as l’Cie they are met by contempt and rage from Cocoon at large. Justifiably so, since their Focus is simple: to destroy Cocoon once and for all.
I have consider the story to be Final Fantasy XIII’s strong point. At the very least, it’s unique, and given that 2006’s Final Fantasy XII was a retread, in one way or another, of every other Final Fantasy’s storyline, this game's narrative was refreshing.
Final Fantasy XIII’s emphasis on a new mythology and willingness to actually emphasis on the divides between our cast of heroes was great fun and while many others decry the narrative’s effort to separate the characters for more than half of the game, it still provided a visceral tale. Plus the myriad of terms that the game introduced, be they fal’Cie, l’Cie, Coccon, or Pulse—are now common parlance seven years later.
Final Fantasy XIII’s ambition didn’t end with the story. Announced on the heels of Advent Children, Final Fantasy XIII endeavored to incorporate a similarly rapid and visually stunning battle-system. Individual characters can develop certain roles through the “Crystarium” system and arrangements of said roles, labeled “Paradigms” can be set between battles. In the course of thirty seconds, Lightning can switch from Ravager to Healer to Commando—similar to Final Fantasy X-2’s Dress Sphere System (developed by the same team, incidentally)—and chaining along the right combination of Paradigms is essential to a fluid victory.
It’s an accomplishment and certainly stands out as one of the most inventively structured systems in Square Enix’s repertoire, but it has quirks. Firstly, as I noticed through several boss fights, cycling through the right Paradigms during the right segments of combat is utterly crucial and Barthandelus comes to mind as the most irritating boss encountered throughout the game.
Gameplay, in my opinion, also encapsulates design and Final Fantasy XIII is utterly breathtaking in cinematographic and photographic value. This game shines out in the wild in the crystalized reaches of Lake Bresha or the expansive wilds of the Archylte Steppe. There’s enough beauty in Final Fantasy XIII to gawk at when the game allows it and my primary gripe here is that, while we were given plenty of time to explore and adore Gran Pulse, players received very little in the way of exploration on Cocoon.
And that, unfortunately, brings us to the main complaint leveled against Final Fantasy XIII. In a series acclaimed for exploration, quests, and free-roam narrative Final Fantasy XIII is a decidedly backwards step. For nearly two-thirds of the game the party is, essentially, running a straight line through Cocoon’s various locales. Not only that, but the party is divided and access to the Crystarium is repeatedly gated; meaning the game forestalls your advance to keep you from getting too powerful. These alterations, all too often, fly in the face of what the Final Fantasy brand inherently means to a majority of gamers. Is it an unwelcome change? Not necessarily. Relying on linearity allows the game’s makers to tell a sharper story but past Final Fantasy titles have achieved a delicate balance between story, exploration, and gameplay with modest concessions.
The deciding factor on whether XIII’s gameplay is a win or a loss is the player; internet forums abound with as many lovers of Final Fantasy XIII as there are haters and as far as I’m concerned, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII’s gameplay but didn’t necessarily love it.
Final Fantasy XIII is the second flagship title to not have acclaimed composer Nobuo Uematsu at the helm of the game’s soundtrack. Final Fantasy XII reveled in its mediterranean sound as composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto (of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story fame) that served as an audible background to the geographically largest Final Fantasy title to date. Originally, Uematsu was slated to provide the game’s theme (just as he did with Final Fantasy XII’s “Kiss Me Goodbye”) but his involvement with Final Fantasy XIV precluded that leaving Masashi Hamauzu with a full plate.
Final Fantasy fans will recognize Hamauzu’s name from a number of Square Enix games. He was, most notably, a co-composer on Final Fantasy X. He went on to compose the soundtrack for 2007’s Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII.
Hamauzu crafted an orchestral masterpiece with audible throw-backs to ‘80s scifi that mixed with contemporary high-fantasy to create a unique soundtrack befitting Final Fantasy XIII’s reputation. Early in the game we’re treated to “Defiers of Fate” and “Blinded by Light” but my personal favorites are “Lightning’s Theme” and the penultimate track, “Fabula Nova Crystallis.”
Final Fantasy XIII’s soundtrack is an uncompromising triumph that explores the sorrows and joys that accompany the myriad of experiences that a journey encompasses. Hamauzu captures the sensation of despair and loss as experienced by outcasts in “This is Your Home,” while elaborating on the frantic, exploding tones of “Eden Under Siege” and Hamauzu gives Uematsu’s “One-Winged Angel” a serious contender with “Born Anew.”
Final Fantasy XIII’s Official Soundtrack persists as one of the series’s greatest as well as one of the best to appear on the PS3 and 360. Hamauzu left Square Enix shortly after Final Fantasy XIII’s western launch but returned to co-compose the soundtrack to Final Fantasy XIII-2 and will contribute to 2014’s Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
For its many connections to the Final Fantasy franchise and lore, there was no way that Final Fantasy XIII would be an inherent failure. It sold well over 1.5 million copies at launch, spawned 2012’s Final Fantasy XIII-2 and the upcoming Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Likewise, its many compromises and extended development precluded it from being an outright critical success. Nonetheless, Final Fantasy XIII is a stalwart of the evolving JRPG market and a critical indicator of the crossroads that the genre stands at as Western developers are no longer abiding by the industry tone but setting it outright.
Is Final Fantasy XIII flawed? Yes. Is it gorgeous? Absolutely. Is it a game that should be played at least once by fans and newcomers alike? Without a doubt. Final Fantasy XIII is a game that experimented with the established formulas and frameworks of the franchise and was a fitting, if divisive, Final Fantasy installment for the HD generation.
Final Fantasy XIII was released in Japan on December 17, 2009 and internationally on March 9, 2010 for PS3 and Xbox 360.
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