Final Fantasy XIII has some of the best gameplay the series has ever seen. Combat is fun, engaging, and thrilling. The compliments start and end there… FFXIII gets almost everything wrong about Final Fantasy games.
I thought I’d write something up myself, because XIII was my favourite modern Final Fantasy, which is a bit of a controversial opinion – I don’t think many Final Fantasy fans feel the same. Thirteen took all of things I disliked about the rest of the series and either extremely streamlined them, or did away with them entirely. It made the world entirely linear, and completely decoupled the plot line from gameplay. While I can understand why many fans thought this was a mistake, for me, it completely refreshed the series and allowed me to focus on the game like almost no other entry in the series. When I first played FFXIII, it was my personal game of the year.
Follow the road
Thirteen is incredibly linear. There are very few branches in the path, and no dungeons to get lost in. There’s not really even any open areas, until you reach the largely optional, breathtakingly beautiful post-game area of Gran Pulse. You follow the path, fight what’s in the way, and when you reach a checkpoint, you’re rewarded with a cutscene.
Occasionally you open a chest or press a button to unlock further progress along the path. You don’t directly interact with anyone; even during the cutscenes you rarely see anyone who isn’t in the party, or their immediate antagonists. This is a massive departure from the guided wandering of the earlier games in the series, but it’s one I welcomed. I always hated the town sections, wandering around talking to a bunch of irrelevant townsfolk until you found the one Mystic Old Sage who would finally advance the plot one text box of conversation at a time. Worse though, was finding the Mystic Old Sage or the exit out of the dungeon before you’d discovered all the side stuff. I was always vaguely anxious of leaving behind treasures unplundered or sidequest details uncovered, so having that worry removed was actually a bonus. Having the plot delivered one cutscene at a time with no interaction was perfectly acceptable for me – it’s not like previous FF games were actually open, anyway. Yes, you could (eventually) explore the world and visit locations as you pleased, but the plot itself was fixed. These aren’t Bioware style RPGs where you can influence the outcome of the story. So drip feed me it at intervals, interspersed with…
Dance Dance Final Fantasy Paradigm Revolution
The combat and character/team building aspects of the series are what I love most, and I really think Thirteen delivered with the paradigm system. I like only being able to control one character. It makes the decisions you make about they do – and what role they’re covering – all the more meaningful, and furthermore, lets you concentrate on controlling the party as a whole, shifting the focus of the battle. You’re no longer micro-managing every member of the party, but instead guiding them as a team and trusting them to do their job as individuals. Particularly in boss battles done efficiently, the game becomes almost like a rhythm game, with a flowing beat of paradigm switches to anticipate incoming spikes of damage, apply status effects, and push your opponent’s stagger meter. I loved that. It can feel – like all of the Final Fantasy series – that you start a combat, win, receive your rewards and then move onto the next in the endless grind of turning monsters into XP and gil. But Thirteen adds another element by grading you after each fight, with a five-star rating and against a par time, so there’s always room for refinement; especially evident in the missions of Gran Pulse and against the repeatable final boss; Orphan.
It’s ridiculous to think that SquareEnix made Thirteen just for me, but they might as well have done. It’s all the things I like best about an RPG boiled down and then wrapped in a series that I love:
Team-based combat with a grading system that lets you learn its intricacies over the course of the main story, then lets you loose on the real optimizing challenges.
No wandering around aimlessly searching for the Magical Doohickey of Plot Advancement, just crunch then storyline, one after another.
All the trimmings we’ve come to know and love, like a new godawful rendition of the chocobo theme, familiar spells, summons and abilities.
Characters that are, on the most part, tolerable. Snow (“Brofist McTrenchcoat”) was pretty irritating, but hey. There’s always an annoying character or two. We don’t have to like everyone all the time.
A Final Fantasy plot line that’s no worse than any of the others in the series, which follows the usual pattern of taking a group of reluctant heroes from an immediate threat to facing a philosophical or metaphysical antagonist.
I can see why the removal and distillation of so many cornerstones of Final Fantasy alienated a lot of fans, but for me, Thirteen was a real joy to play.