JRPG Journey 2021: Final Fantasy XIII + Final Fantasy XIII-2 (April)
Spring bonus game: Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past
May’s game: Tales of Berseria
Final Fantasy XIII was developed by Square Enix and released in 2009 in Japan and in the West in 2010. Hoo boy, this game has quite the reputation. Every game can be considered divisive, since not everyone likes everything, so I’ve tried to nail down an average opinion as best I can from looking at critic and user scores on review aggregators.
Overall, critics liked Final Fantasy XIII, but it didn’t get anywhere near the praise that other recent Final Fantasy games have received. Considering the older games also tend to get lots of praise, that indicates that XIII is considered one of the worst in the series by critics. Let’s look at Metacritic user score to get the fans’ perspective. On Metacritic, a swing of even a few points in is significant, and FFXIII comes in four points below Final Fantasies XII and XV, perhaps the two other most hated games in the series — at release, anyway. Clearly, fans didn’t love XIII either.
The top complaints seem to be that the game is a bunch of long hallways, the game plays itself — what with the auto battle and all — the story is a confusing mess, and the voice acting is bad. On the positive side, it’s known for great music, great visuals, and that’s about it.
The game is a bunch of long hallways, and that’s a valid criticism. The devs even mentioned in an interview that it’s because it would have taken too long to make more open areas, which is a lame excuse. However, lots of games have this structure and aren’t criticized for it. Any brawler, for example, is basically the same. Run forward and fight until you beat the game. Even Final Fantasy X fits this style.
So what’s the problem here? The key difference between XIII and, say, Final Fantasy X, is a lack of NPCs or any other content besides running forward and fighting. I mean it. There is nothing else to do in the game, even after it opens up in chapter eleven, and this is understandably gonna turn some fans off no matter what. It’s not many players are looking for in a JRPG. Some sections drag on longer than necessary as well, with copy and pasted assets that feel too long, even for me.
Personally though, I don’t mind any of this. I enjoyed the combat enough all the way through to make up for lack of other content, and I can throw on a podcast when a section of gameplay starts to get a little boring and get through it just fine. This doesn’t detract much from my overall enjoyment of the game, but I understand that it might for other players.
And frankly, in XIII I rarely went the “zone out to a podcast” route this since the music is so good. The game frequently changes up the music you hear in battles, not always sticking with the main battle theme but sometimes using music from the area you’re in, when it wants to invoke a certain feeling of dread or excitement. This goes a long way toward making battles feel less repetitive. And that battle theme… man is it good. It starts with that classic Final Fantasy feel, like you’re marching into war, reminiscent of FFVII’s Fighting theme or the standard intro of the early Final Fantasy battle themes. Then the main melody starts until eventually those intense strings kick in. I can’t get this song out of my head. Nearly all of the tracks are fantastic, and XIII continues the series’s tradition of having standout music.
It also helps that the visuals are spectacular. They look great even now in 2021, and the game looks better than many PS4 games, even Final Fantasy XV. Call me a simpleton, but I could run through hallways all day if they look as pretty as they do in FFXIII. Now, graphics alone don’t make a game good, but Square clearly made them a priority here; it shows; and I love it. This is one of the best looking games I have ever played, particularly the sequences that take place at the fireworks festival and the beach. There’s so much detail even in locations that are only used once, which many players might run right past and never explore. I enjoy taking my time here and seeing all the beautiful assets Square designed. It’s a simple pleasure that only video games can offer.
Finally I’ve often heard, both as as positive as a negative, that the game gets good once it opens up after about 20–30 hours. (It took me 25 hours to reach this point.) This is a tough claim to dissect. I enjoyed the story and gameplay throughout, so I can’t agree that it “gets good” at this point, but it does change. You’re suddenly able to explore a relatively open, FFXII-style area with roaming monsters, many of which are too strong for you to defeat right away. This is a welcome change, and I spent a good fifteen hours exploring during this chapter alone, but there’s no added mechanics or quests aside from fighting more monsters. It was enough for me, but I can understand how it doesn’t offer enough for some players.
The next criticism on the list is that the game plays itself. This one is not so valid. Since combat is my favorite part of JRPGs, I’m gonna spend awhile on this point. The auto-battle mechanic is similar to Final Fantasy XII in that the challenge is in setting up your party appropriately. Sure, in the first few hours you’re basically mashing X to do the same attacks repeatedly, but the game quickly introduces new enemies that require different class setups, or paradigms, to take down in a reasonable amount of time. Regular enemies will start wiping the floor with you, or battles will start to take forever, unless you engage with the paradigm mechanics and seek to understand the intricacies of each class. It’s by dying to seemingly easy enemies that the game teaches you, through the gameplay itself, how to improve. This is a smart way to avoid the kind of handholding that many players complain about in other JRPGs. It’s a deep system that appears simple at first, and the combat is more fun the more effort you put into it.
I’ve heard some people say that it’s necessary to input commands yourself for some of the harder bosses, but I rarely found a need for this. The game does an exceptional job at choosing the right commands when you elect to auto-battle, and that’s the strategy I’d recommend for almost the whole game. The only time I found it useful to select commands myself was using Esuna to get rid of status effects instead of healing my party, which the game tends to prioritize when you’re a Medic, and the ATB system gives you plenty of time to do this.
Otherwise, let the auto battle do its thing, baby! The game is designed to push you away from micromanaging attacks and instead focus on the macromanagement of which paradigms you use for any given situation. Setting up these paradigms and switching them at the right time is the primary appeal of the combat, and there’s other strategies you can use to make battles go even faster, such as initiating your attacks before the ATB bar fills up all the way in certain situations to kill enemies faster. XIII plays a bit like a real time strategy game in this respect, and while it’s a far cry from previous games in the series, it’s fun in its own right. Fans of series with more passive combat like Xenoblade should find a lot to like here.
Party AI is exceptional, always doing what I wanted them to for any given paradigm and situation. I’m impressed by how useful buffs and debuffs are as well. Unlike many Final Fantasy games, most bosses are vulnerable to a variety of status effects, and the Synergist class does an excellent job of prioritizing which buffs they cast. Haste is always first, then whatever defensive buffs are useful against the enemy you’re righting, and finally offensive buffs. When using two Synergists, the AI is smart enough to choose different and complementary buffs for each character, and you can quickly beef up your entire party appropriate to the situation. Bravo, AI designers.
With all that said, I do have a few complaints of my own about the combat. The first paradigm shift in battle takes too long, and it’s not handled like a cutscene — enemies are still able to attack all the while, and it’s bizarre that later paradigm changes in the same battle take less time. I would have preferred an option to make all paradigm changes instantly, and this wouldn’t make the game any easier, just faster and less annoying. The difficulty itself seemed about on par as other Final Fantasy games, which is to say, easy. As long as you’re fighting every group of enemies you come across, you’ll quickly get to the point where most battles are simple if you have a good paradigm setup.
Eidolons, or EiDOLons—it’s pronounced both ways in this game, for some reason—are this game’s version of summons, but they’re almost useless in combat, not dealing nearly as much damage as you might expect. They have.. some relevance to the plot, but not enough, although the battles against them do provide challenges that are unlike any other fights in the game. Overall though, It seems the developers felt like they had to include Eidolons for some added spectacle, and spectacle alone. They could have been cut without losing much.
Also, leveling up weapons and accessories is presented as an important mechanic, but you don’t get enough materials to level them up much during the entire main game, unless you grind excessively, which isn’t practical or otherwise useful until the postgame. The same is true for the shop. It’s ever-present throughout the game—you can access it at any save point—and seems like it should be important, but aside from buying some potions or phoenix downs, you never have a reason to use it unless you want to take on the postgame content.
Speaking of the postgame, it wasn’t appealing enough for me to bother. This is typical for me and JRPGs — I’d rather move on to a new game instead of putting dozens of hours into a game I’ve already finished, but FFXIII’s is especially underwhelming. It consists only of doing more missions in the open area you first visit in chapter eleven, and every mission is nothing more than a fight against a tough enemy. That’s it. There’s no other quests, no NPCs, no actual content, just cookie cutter monster fights. While I enjoyed these, and did about two thirds of them during chapter eleven itself, I had my fill by the time I was ready to see the game’s ending, and I’m not going back.
Alright, let’s talk about the story. Possibly the most common criticism of Final Fantasy XIII that I’ve read is that it throws you into the action, uses a bunch of terms that don’t make any sense, and the plot is confusing as all heck. I can’t disagree with this more. While made-up terms like l’Cie, Fal’Cie, and Cocoon are used early on with no explanation, the characters are presented as the initial hook for the player, then the strange terms are explained later on when they’re relevant to the plot. And the game does a good job of this. It’s never necessary to understand these terms the first time you hear them. When I’d hear a new term like “l’Cie””, I’d remember it and wonder what it was, but I was focused on learning who these characters are first. It would never be too long before the terms were explained, and once they were, it recontextualized what I’d already seen in the story.
This is the good kind of mystery box storytelling, since all the mysteries are actually explained, unlike in, say, films by a certain director that use a similar technique. Furthermore, these mysteries are often explained in flashbacks that add interesting context to who the main characters are and why they’re each motivated to go on their journey. The game spends a lot of time on backstories and character development, more so than any other Final Fantasy I’ve played, and for the most part, it works. These bits of character building are interspersed throughout the game and are welcome breaks in action, much like visiting a new town might be in other JRPGs. So, while yes, the gameplay consists of nothing but running through hallways and fighting enemies, the game overall has a lot more content to offer. Some of these flashbacks are even playable and let you walk around, soaking everything in. In a game this beautiful, I think that’s worth more than some give it credit for.
As an aside, you can also read data logs that explain terms earlier than they’re explained in-game, as well as provide worldbuilding. These are always optional, and they’re not long at all, despite some complaints I’ve seen. It’s essentially the same as getting an info dump from an NPC, only streamlined in menus, and acts as a break from all the hallway running. I don’t understand players not wanting to read these, when JRPGs often have lots of NPC text to read, but it’s not gameplay, so I suppose it’s a fair enough criticism. On the other hand, I don’t often hear anyone bashing Mass Effect for putting so much of its worldbuilding into the Codex, and there’s orders of magnitude less to read in Final Fantasy XIII, and all of it is relevant to the plot.
Anyway, I won’t get much into the story itself, but I’ll say that I have a high tolerance for what I call “Japanese bullshit”, and I often enjoy the cheesy, over-the-top nature of how many JRPG stories are told, including Final Fantasy XIII. The story takes itself so seriously and has that classic Japanese earnestness that I couldn’t help but get into it, despite a few plot holes or unexplained aspects. For the entire main story, I wanted to see what happened next, and the plot overall was more interesting and made more sense than most JRPGs I’ve played. That’s impressive.
I’ll finish by addressing the criticism I disagree with the most: the voice acting being bad. I don’t see it. I thought the voice acting was solid to great all the way through, and I even liked Vanille. Yes, Vanille, the ditzy magical girl whose voice actress was instructed to imitate all the little grunts and other odd vocalizations so common in Japanese media. What can I say? I love how she sounds. It’s cute, and this might be my inner weeb showing through, but I enjoy Japanese bullshit like this. It’s charming, and if I wanted to play a Western game, I could do that. This kind of quirky, exaggerated speech is one of the reasons I like Japanese RPGs. This is all subjective though, so I don’t have anything else to add. I’ll end by saying I understand this criticism even if I don’t agree with it. This style is not for everyone.
So… does Final Fantasy XIII deserve its reputation? I’d say no, but I understand why it gets the flack it does. It’s a big departure from previous Final Fantasies, but if you go into it without preconceived expectations, you might be able to appreciate it for what it is. This game has a lot of fans, and for good reason. But its detractors aren’t crazy either. If you’ve never played it, I hope you give it a try and form your own opinion.
Despite the fan complaints upon release, Final Fantasy XIII sold well. Well enough to get a sequel, and I couldn’t help but check it out as soon as I finished the first one.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, released two years later. It’s less controversial than its predecessor, which was the most reviled Final Fantasy upon release. XIII-2 has a better reputation overall, and most fans agree that it’s pretty good, if not great. This might be because most players who hated Final Fantasy XIII didn’t bother with the sequel, which is fair enough. On the other hand, I’ve heard a lot of people say they didn’t like XIII, but gave XIII-2 a shot and ended up loving it. I suppose it’s hard to resist a new Final Fantasy, even if you didn’t like the last one. In short, I really liked XIII in spite of a few problems, such as extreme linearity and lack of side content.
XIII-2 fixes all the things I didn’t like about XIII, but it’s a little rougher around the edges. Okay, a lot rougher For one, the visuals aren’t nearly as good. The intro cutscenes look fantastic, but the rest of the video sequences are a noticeable step down. There’s nothing here that’s on the level of Final Fantasy XIII in terms of visuals. But hey, this game was made in 18 months, and I don’t think anyone was expecting another visual feast like XIII was. And overall, XIII-2 still looks pretty damn good.
Voice acting, too, is a little shakier in this one, but there’s also a lot more of it. Every town has plenty of NPCs with voiced dialogue, which adds a lot of personality and charm to the world. It’s almost like… it’s a real JRPG! I kid, I kid — not all JRPGs have to be the same, but XIII-2 feels more like the standard Final Fantasy experience that many players were hoping XIII would be, which leads me right into talking about the sidequests.
This is another huge improvement on XIII. Most locations have several sidequests given by NPCs, again, like a standard JRPG. While many of these are fetchquests, they’re not the painfully boring “gather 5 of this item” style, but more the “find the specific item they’re asking for somewhere in the environment” type. These give you a reason to explore the various areas, fight enemies, and, you know, play the game. Sidequests are also optional and never very long, which is nice.
XIII-2’s pace is much slower than XIII’s because of how the plot is set up. It’s a time travel story, and it’s done in a way where you’re never in a rush to get to the next story beat, since the story takes place across hundreds of years. Your goal is to fix what the game calls “paradoxes” in each area to unlock the next area. What exactly a paradox IS still confuses me, but you can think of them as time anomalies, things that shouldn’t be present in the current time period, such as a giant monster. Regardless, there’s no hurry to fix them, which is a nice reprieve from the fast-paced story of XIII. The sidequest rewards, called fragments, also tie into the plot in a way that makes it reasonable for your party to go after them before fixing paradoxes. I like when an RPG explains its more “gamey” mechanics through the story — it’s not necessary, but it adds to immersion.
The last major fix from XIII is in the combat. Switching paradigms, which are basically job setups, on the fly in combat is much faster now, and while it sounds like minor thing, it was a big annoyance for me in FFXIII. Other than that, the combat works the same way, with the same systems. Although you can’t cast Haste in this one for some reason. I’m a fan of XIII’s combat, so this worked for me, but this time around, there’s only two major characters. The story focuses on Serah, Lightning’s younger sister who spent the first game in crystal form, and a new character named Noel, a time traveler from the future with ties to Lightning, who’s vanished. I gotta admit, I like Serah much more than Lightning, who I thought was a flat, uninteresting protagonist for most of XIII. She is pretty cool, especially her visual design, but Serah is more bubbly and more fun, which fits this style of game better. Noel is surprisingly fun as well, and I liked how he played off Serah. They’re both kind of goofy.
Your third party member is — surprise — any of the monsters you encounter throughout the game. That’s right, XIII-2 has a monster capture system, and it’s done pretty well. There’s no fancy mechanics — you have an automatic chance to capture any monster you fight, and a couple of ways to increase that chance, but nothing too involved. Sometimes I’ll ignore this mechanic in JRPGs, like in Dragon Quest VII where it felt like a needless waste of time. But since monsters are your only option for a third party member in XIII-2, it’s vital to use them, and almost every monster is viable since you can level them up using their own crystarium. Overall, the combat is a straight-up improvement over XIII’s, but it’s not gonna win over anyone who didn’t like it in the first game.
The music is.. wild. It reminds me of Final Fantasy X-2, in how the tone shifted to something more light-hearted, more jazzy, more.. fun. Like X-2, XIII-2 doesn’t take itself very seriously, even though the story is serious, and this works well for a Final Fantasy sequel, just like it did back then. While some fans were unhappy with the direction X-2 took, I loved its zaniness, and a lot of that is present here too, such as the goofy shopkeep Chocolina or the crazy casino world. In addition to being more jazzy, there’s a heavier rock feel, especially in the main battle theme. While it’s not one of the stronger battle themes in the series, I never got tired of it, as usual with Final Fantasy.
Alright, a few more thoughts before this Quickie is done — I was initially hesitant about the retcon to XIII’s ending, but I don’t see how a direct sequel could have worked, so spinning the story off into a whole new direction was the right decision. The way Square Enix was able to reuse areas from the first game while keeping the experience feeling fresh all the way through is admirable, and unlike in most JRPGs, I wanted to go for 100% since I was having so much fun. I ended up getting all of the optional fragments except the super grindy ones at the casino, and seeing the alternate endings was worth the effort. The game’s overall structure was a nice change of pace from XIII, and I’d recommend any fan of that game check this one. Even if you weren’t so hot on XIII, you might find a lot to like in XIII-2. All in all, a pretty damn good sequel. I’m gonna need to take a break before playing Lightning Returns, though.
Stay tuned for next month, when I’ll finally discuss Tales of Berseria. I’ve been wanting to play this one since it came out, but got distracted by many other JRPGs since. It’s about time I got to the latest entry in the Tales franchise.