What Final Fantasy XIII Taught Us

No entry in the Final Fantasy series is as much maligned as the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy of games. In the years since the first game launched back in 2009, the games under its banner have been extensively (some might even say “wrongly), criticized not only as the weakest in the series, but also as downright bad games. I can’t say whether or not they’re truly bad or just good with the caveat of being widely misunderstood. What I can say though, is that the games taught us something valuable even as bad entries in the Final Fantasy series. Simply put, they taught us to recognize what we want from a game published under the Final Fantasy brand.

I have a feeling that the original Final Fantasy XIII was meant to be an experiment of a sort. At the time of its release, it was not only going to be the first Final Fantasy on an HD system, but it was also the game that was going to inject some much-needed vitality into a series many felt had grown stale over the years. It was going to feature a new battle system to replace the now-tired ATB system that series traditionally employed. It was going to present its story in a new way, in a gorgeously-realized HD 3D world. Basically, Square-Enix built this entry in the series to be a game-changer meant to show us that Final Fantasy was still a strong and relevant series. The funny thing is that it did exactly that; it just wasn’t accomplished in the way that Square had intended.

For many Final Fantasy fans, Final Fantasy XIII was a game changer in all the wrong ways. Its beautifully rendered world felt like nothing more than a series of hallways. Its original story felt flat under the combined weight of uninteresting characters and a difficult-to-follow plot. Not even its battle system escaped criticism, as it eventually came to be known as “auto-battle”. While it did, and still does, have its defenders and fans, it’s probably safe to say that Final Fantasy XIII was not the sort of revival most fans were looking for. Although both sequels did much to fix these issues, it wasn’t enough to keep the entire trilogy from becoming an example of how not to make a Final Fantasy game. Still, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes the best reminder of the best aspects of a game series is an entry that falls flat on its face. Final Fantasy XIII made changes in the places that we all thought were the most important (battle, the story, and visual fidelity) and completely neglected the elements that drive those features (player agency, characters, and feeling like we’re in a living world). The reaction to the battle system showed us that we value having direct influence over our characters. Having to endure a convoluted story in which our “heroes” were only along for the ride reminded us that we value clear and character driven narrative. Finally, we were reminded that even the most lovingly rendered world would feel empty and dull if there was no way to interact with it. The game may have failed in many ways, but it did succeed in showing us what it was that we enjoyed about Final Fantasy in the first place.

In a way, Final Fantasy XIII‘s status as a “failure” in the series makes it even more value than otherwise better entries such as “Final Fantasy IX” or “Final Fantasy XII”. The other two might have been better, but they’ve quickly passed from memory and thus have much less influence over the future of the series. If Final Fantasy XIII had turned out the same, I doubt anyone would still be talking about it, and the upcoming Final Fantasy XV would likely be that much more doomed to failure since the lessons of Final Fantasy XIII would never have been learned. As it stands though, those lessons have been learned by both fan and creator alike, so now we can all look forward to the series’ newest entry with a bit more excitement and optimism. Final Fantasy XIII may have presided over what some would call the lowest point in the series’ history, but I believe that said series, its creators, and even its fans are much better off for having endured it than they would be if it had never happened.

In an age of astronomical development costs, it’s worth noting that Square-Enix is still willing to take risks with its games. More on that to come next week.

Until then, what are your thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII? Do you see it as a necessary lesson, a good game that’s misunderstood, or an utter waste of time that nearly killed a gaming institution? We want to know, so please share!


Image by Flickr user: Smith190 (cc)

8 thoughts on “What Final Fantasy XIII Taught Us”

  1. That is true, a less successful trilogy of games such as these definitely teaches us what matters in a Final Fantasy game. Interesting environments mean nothing when the characters are boring and lifeless, plus I’d much rather the traditional battle systems to one where my characters fight without me even needing to be in the room. I just don’t know if Square is going to learn from this. I know people are excited about FFXV, from what I’ve heard, anyway, but I just don’t think it’ll have the same charm as the older games. I don’t see the series achieving its former glory, but I guess it all depends on if Square successfully identifies where XIII went wrong. If so, maybe there is hope for the series, after all.

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    1. It would be hard for Final Fantasy to ever reclaim its former glory, even without the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. Still, who knows? Like you said, if Square actually has learned the right lessons, the series might just find itself back at the top of the JRPG genre.

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    2. It was a financial success but it’s merits were contested by a vocal minority. I personally, enjoyed the Command Synergy Battle system, and for those who truly believe it’s an “auto-battle” system, I don’t think they’ve actually played the game in it’s entirety or even tried, because you cannot get away with spamming “X” on every battle. I mean give it a shot against a Long Gui, no way, José!

      The battle system, IMO, was the winning point in the game, and I definitely think SE was heading in the right direction with it, but I think the major drawback of the entire trilogy was lack of depth in both the story and characters. I can definitely, understand the public flak in this regard, considering FF games are widely known for their compelling stories and characters, so it’s no surprise FFXIII and SE were criticised for falling short in what they were expected to deliver, especially after all the hype.

      I think, what it boils down to, in terms of the public response to FFXIII, was that the bar was set incredibly high for the game, as the first installment of FF on 7th gen consoles. It would be no surprise to me that the expectation was set incredibly high, given the success of the first FF game installment on the 6th gen console – FFX, it would only follow that the next game should top that. Though, the expectation was not exceeded, I don’t think FFXIII is a bad game at all. I think the author was right in terms of it being an experiment, and you can see it as such, given the tweaks made in the battle system throughout the trilogy. I can comment that with each installment in the trilogy, came progressive improvements in the battle system.

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  2. Balanced take on it–well done. Personally I hated XIII so much that I returned it and told the Gamestop guy precisely that, that I was returning it because it was terrible. I didn’t bother playing the other two entries.

    I’m a bit of an anomaly among FF fans in that I really stopped playing the series with VII. I bought VIII and played it a bit when it was released, but I found the story and especially the characters to be so underwhelming (not to mention the magic system) that I never finished it. I passed on IX and X altogether, and didn’t seriously pick up a FF game again until XI. That game I actually did (and do) like a great deal, with the exception of the main protagonist. Vahn annoys the hell out of me. But I never finished that game either. Partly it’s because the old RPG model doesn’t hold my attention anymore, but that’s more on me than the developers. I actually preferred the (admittedly junky) Kingdom Hearts games (just the main entries), not because they were compelling stories (they definitely weren’t) or offered groundbreaking battle systems (they didn’t, really) but because they had the right mix of action-driven gameplay and nostalgia-fueled, er… nostalgia.

    The problem with FF in general, and XIII in particular, is that the series has become a parade of incremental changes and annoying gimmicks, primarily in the battle systems, rather than offering any kind of real innovation. Square-Enix seems to feel that to be a FF game, a title has to feature clunky battles that arbitrarily limit player actions as a sort of spiritual reference to the turn-based battles of yore. I’m as much a fan of nostalgia as anybody, but I don’t think they’re approaching it right.

    There’s also the generic, convoluted narratives and uninteresting characters, as you mentioned. And frankly, since each new entry is a new world with new characters anyway, I’d be just as happy if they let the franchise die, and worked instead on creating an entirely new IP that offers something worth caring about. I’d be totally happy with a generic real-time RPG engine a la Mass Effect or even, again, Kingdom Hearts, provided there’s a gripping story and that sense of a living world that you described.

    I’m actually pretty worried about what they’ll do with the remake of VII. I’d like a true remake as much as anybody, but I have a feeling that they’re going to gimmick it up, throw in some new half-assed battle system that’s still turn-based but LOOKS like it’s not, add a few extra zippers to everybody’s clothes, and call it a day.

    As a sidenote, I’m living in Japan now and it’s funny to me to see physical Louis Vuitton ads at a local department store featuring a photorealistic Lightning wearing awful designer clothing. I think it’s clear what Square-Enix’s ultimate concern is, and regardless of negative reviews, they’re getting paid.

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    1. I can’t talk about FFVIII – XII because, like you, I haven’t played them. That said, I think you make a good point in regard to their rolling out a new gimmick with each entry in the series. I agree that that’s kind of where the series lost its way. In the games up to VII, they kept building.

      They would introduce a feature in one entry, and then build upon the idea in the sequel. It’s what made the gameplay of VI and VII so interesting and compelling. To their credit, they sort of did this in the XIII games. The battle system was kinda clunky in XIII, so they improved it in XIII-2 and added an ally system. That didn’t work, so in XIII-3 they stripped the system down too its bare essentials and put more control into the hands of the player. Both sequels inherited all of the other problems of the first XIII game though, so there wasn’t really any way to save them entirely. Still, credit where credit is due. They learned from past failures and did their best to address them.

      I’m not really looking to defend them here or anything, this is just what I’ve observed. It actually gives me hope for XV and the FFVII remake. They’ve had 3 games to learn what does and doesn’t work, as well as what their fan base wants from a Final Fantasy game. The future of their flagship series rides on the next game, so I’m thinking that they’re going to do everything they can to show us that they do care about their fans and products. If they don’t, then they might as well end the series as you suggested since no one will be interested in buying a Final Fantasy game anymore.

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      1. I hope you’re right. I felt pretty burned with Kingdom Hearts, when they kept releasing half-assed spinoffs and handheld versions. The fact that it took them twenty years to listen to fans’ direct requests to remake FFVII really indicated to me that they DON’T particularly care, because they know people will keep buying their products no matter what. But I want to believe that that’s too cynical, and that you’re right. FFVII is too beloved for them to ruin it, Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core notwithstanding.

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  3. I think Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core (and the Advent Childrenmovie while we’re at it) failed because they were expanding on a story that didn’t really need it. We didn’t need to know what happened immediately after FFVII, just like we didn’t need to know what led to Zack’s demise. All those loose threads were tied up pretty well.

    Cloud and the gang were alive at the end of VII and went on to live their lives. (My only issue with FFVII’s ending was that 500 year flash forward where it looks like humans have completely disappeared from the planet.)

    Anyway, agreed with Kingdom Hearts. All of those mobile spin-offs were obnoxious. They only served to muddy what was once a fairly simple plot.

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