On December 17th, ten years ago, Final Fantasy XIII was released… in Japan. The rest of the world didn’t get it until March. While Famitsu gave the game a perfect score on release, it quickly became the most divisive Final Fantasy title (until the next one anyway).
I didn’t play this game on release, I bought it used a couple of years after it came out, as my first Final Fantasy no less. If you’re looking to get into this series I would not recommend following my example (though perhaps it does give me a unique perspective on the game, unfiltered by comparisons). It’s not hard to see why the game is divisive, there’s as much to love as there is to hate.
The issues that exist are frustrating to say the least. The game’s progression is infamously linear, the combat is interesting in concept but gets repetitive outside of boss fights, and while I find the story interesting the way it is presented is often dubious.
Still in spite of these issues I’ve found myself growing more fond of the game over the years, admittedly more for the game’s narrative than the game itself. I find the underlying story of the game and its world fascinating, there’s really nothing else like it out there, even if the execution is a bit of a mess and the dialogue generally ranges from not great to borderline memeworthy (this could be attributed to the English translation not being the best). I also love the characters, some of whom start off quite annoying but by the end of their character arcs I found each endearing, my favorites being Lightning, Hope, Sazh, and Fang.
Most of all though, my love of Final Fantasy XIII comes from its aesthetic. The game is absolutely gorgeous, in both a technical and design sense. I love the blend of science fiction and fantasy via maximalism taking equally from each genre, it all looks impractical but it looks so pretty I don’t care. All of this is supported by what is easily the best thing about this game, the soundtrack. Masashi Hamauzu’s music for this is a top contender for my favorite soundtrack ever. The compositions range from beautiful cinematic pieces, (FINAL FANTASY XIII – MIRACLES), Ambient atmosphere (The Gapra Whitewood) and naturally to battle music (Blinded by Light) and it all works so well. It feels like the perfect blend of classical film scores and typical video game music.
If I’m being honest I kind of wish this was a movie as opposed to a game, it almost seems like the developers felt that way too. The actual gameplay involves cycles of walking from one cutscene to the next engaging in repetitive mob fights along the way, occasionally fighting a more interesting boss. I went through it to get the story, but unlike say Kingdom Hearts I don’t think there’s enough that I’d want to revisit it just for the gameplay.
In spite of it’s divisive nature, Final Fantasy XIII ended up being successful enough to get TWO sequels which… didn’t quite do it as well for me, but we’ll get there. First I’d just like to point out the… interesting product tie-ins this had.
Man Lightning was everywhere for a few years there.
Anyway about those sequels. To their credit they actually tried to improve on the lacking gameplay XIII had. XIII-2 and Lightning Returns made strides to be less linear and improve the combat system, and I commend this!
Unfortunately this seemingly came at the price of what I liked about the game in the first place, to the point where I never ended up finishing either. XIII-2 was just a mess, I liked the new character Noel, but I didn’t like that all the previous main characters were pretty much ditched in favor of Serah, the less than interesting damsel from the first game, who even in the staring role was still bland. Worse though was the plot, which introduced time travel of all things. XIII was already convoluted, this just made things ridiculous. The soundtrack was full of bangers though, a bit of a jarring shift from orchestral to lots of electronic music and cheesy vocals, but hey I can appreciate both styles. Plains of Eternity is a bop, and I can’t help but love the amazingly awful lyrics of Unseen Intruder (which were cut for the American version)
After XIII-2 came Lightning Returns, which put Lightning firmly back in the protagonist seat, which I was pretty happy with. Otherwise the game just felt… oddly generic. It had an even more batshit plot than the last two (with an ending that I won’t spoil but seriously look it up this shit is wild), but aesthetically it feels like an asset flip of the last two games, even the soundtrack was a downgrade, I can’t remember a single track! The gameplay was fairly interesting, in retrospect perhaps the best of the series. It had a Majora’s Mask esque timed element wherein Lightning has a set amount of days (thirteen naturally) to complete the main quest. There’s plenty of main and side quests to do and the game doesn’t railroad you into doing anything for the most part that I remember.
The XIII series has largely passed over at this point, the trilogy completed, the fans and Square-Enix moving on to the somehow even more divisive Final Fantasy XV (which I still need to play). I won’t lie and say it was a perfect game, but in a lot of ways it is a game I admire, one that has inspired me creatively, and that I still think about a lot. It’s ironic I suppose, that one of the most memorable games of this decade (in US release dates) is one that I wish had been a movie instead. God bless this stupid beautiful mess of a game.