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‘Not so Final Fantasy’ – Linearity isn’t XIII’s Biggest Problem

Not so Final Fantasy is a new, tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.

When outlining the problems with Final Fantasy XIII, detractors tend to focus on the game’s linearity, suggesting that, more than anything else, the severe lack of free-form exploration in the early stages overshadows any other issues the game might have. And, given that director Motomu Toriyama felt it necessary to defend XIII’s narrative structure in an interview shortly before it released in the West, it’s easy to see why this argument has gained traction in the intervening years.

However, although I, like many others, rank FFXIII as one of the worst in Final Fantasy history, its more restricted brand of storytelling actually has very little bearing on my overall opinion of the game – not least because basically every Final Fantasy title, not to mention the bulk of JRPG’s in general, almost always favour a linear narrative structure for the first two-thirds or so of the adventure.

For me, there are other fundamental issues that prevent XIII from achieving the universal acclaim of its predecessors. Four, to be exact.

Setting

The thing that springs to mind almost immediately, is the game’s twin setting: the artificial, moon-like celestial body of Cocoon and its larger, Earth-sized cousin Gran Pulse.

Neither are overtly bad as fantasy settings go; indeed, there are a number of individual locations that I actually rather like. Cocoon’s Sunleth Waterscape, for example, is really quite beautiful, while the sweeping vistas of Pulse’s Archylte Steppe, complete with the image of Cocoon’s crystalline shell suspended high up in its atmosphere, are similarly eye-catching. But for all their visual splendour, there’s a sense of emptiness that pervades these worlds – both literal and metaphorical.

Cocoon’s assortment of futuristic cities, amusement parks, and areas of outstanding natural beauty, though striking to behold, feel like they exist in isolation; a collection of lavishly appointed rooms connected only by a series of narrow, plain, and uninteresting corridors. You could argue this is only natural in a game that lacks a traditional Final Fantasy overworld map and thus that additional layer of context, but I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that. This particular feature is also absent in X and XII, after all, yet both succeed in creating an immersive, extensive, and convincing world for us to explore nonetheless.

This sense of hollowness is even more conspicuous on Pulse, where the only thing that breaks up the largely bare Archylte Steppe is a handful of dust-covered ruins and the occasional promontory or crevasse. In other words, though there’s enough Arcadian eye-candy to make adventuring through Pulse a mostly pleasurable experience, it fails to effectively convey the idea that this was once a densely populated area; home to a thriving civilization characterized by its blend of futuristic technologies and tribal heritage.

And, in light of the fact Pulse is supposed to be an Earth-sized planet on which life has thrived for millennia, this lack of variety is a wasted opportunity on Square Enix’s part to create what could have been another great Final Fantasy setting.

Story

Perhaps my biggest bug bear with XIII, tied for first place with insufferable party member Hope Estheim, is the game’s story itself, which manages to be almost as convoluted as FFVIII but only a fraction as interesting and quirky, and is also, crucially, far more derivative.

The dynamic between the various Fal’Cie (God-like beings), humans, L’Cie (avatars of the Fal’Cie), and the game’s two settings, while at first glance offering a story and setting capable of providing a welcome change from your standard JRPG yarn, quickly becomes a long-winded mess of competing, half-baked ideas that are never truly explained or adequately explored during the course of the narrative. Why the Fal’Cie don’t simply destroy Cocoon, for instance, if all they need to achieve their goals is the sudden extermination of the Moon’s human population (they exert total control over the planetoid, after all); or why the reward for a L’Cie who’s successfully completed his or her Focus is, essentially, a form of living death tantamount to an endless spell in cryonic suspension.

Still, needlessly complicated as the narrative and world building is at times, it wouldn’t be quite such an issue if the story itself wasn’t so run-of-the-mill. Strip away the God-like Fal’Cie, the technologically advanced society of Cocoon, the Cie’th and the L’Cie, and XIII is, at its heart, just another tale of good (a band of unlikely, youthful heroes tasked with saving the world) vs. evil (an all-powerful, ruthless villain hell-bent on destruction). Moreover, though it boasts all the usual Final Fantasy tropes – moments of profound personal revelation, pseudo-inspirational speeches, survival against impossible odds etc. – a significant part of the charm is missing. Something which says as much about the quality of the characters as it does the story and which, conveniently leads us onto my next point…

Characters

XIII’s cast is an interesting one. Though the party is comprised of only six characters, each of whom tend to get a roughly equal amount of screen time, the contrast between them is stark. Not just, it’s important to point out, in terms of their personalities, but in their ability to resonate with the player and distinguish themselves from the various heroes and heroines that have come before.

Protagonist Lightning, for instance, deviates little from the role of austere, uncompromising anti-hero with the heart of gold, while her soon-to-be brother-in-law Snow fits the bill of the relentlessly optimistic side-kick who, despite his formidable fighting skills, is as gentle and compassionate as Mother Theresa. To be fair, Sazh and Fang, two of the game’s more personable characters, offer something slightly different from the usual comic relief/battle-hardened warrior stereotypes. However, perhaps as an indirect consequence of Square’s attempts to create slightly more nuanced examples of these two stock characters, neither are particularly memorable. Fang a diluted version of VI’s Shadow or IX’s Amarant; Sazh the answer to X’s Wakka.

Then there’s Hope and Vanille. The latter half of this annoying duo isn’t bad per se, her problems stemming from the plethora of painfully saccharine speeches she’s lumbered with throughout the game rather than any specific character defect. Hope, however, most certainly is. Teenage angst, misplaced anger, and quasi-adolescent wisdom given human form, he might well be the worst character in video game, let alone Final Fantasy history, making it difficult to give even a single fuck for the trials and tribulations he faces during the course of the adventure: coming to terms with his mother’s sudden death; learning to accept his tragic fate as a L’Cie at such a young age. A shame, given that, on paper, his story is probably the most engaging of the entire ensemble.

That’s not to say I hate either the game’s story or its cast of characters, I hasten to add. As scathing as I’ve been of the XIII’s convoluted and at times derivative story, it’s certainly not boring, and, while many of the characters subscribe to common stereotypes or simply fail to resonate with the player, Lightning and one or two others do enough to keep the player invested in the narrative for the duration of the game.

Combat/Progression System

In Final Fantasy XII, during combat, the player controlled only a single party member at a time; the actions of the remainder of the party governed by the game’s signature Gambit system, which was configured by the player outside of battle in turn. It was a bit of a gamble on the part of Square Enix, seeing as how this essentially abandoned the tried and trusted turn-based system that’d served the series so well for over two decades, but one that ultimately paid off.

Presumably pleased with XII’s faster, more action-orientated battles, the team responsible for XIII followed a similar paradigm and decided to, once again, give players command of but a single character (the party leader) during combat. However, unlike XII and its wonderfully rich, tactically advanced Gambit system, players of FFXIII had little to no influence over the actions of the rest of the party, resulting in a relatively limited, simplistic, and, during the main campaign at least, often unfulfilling combat system.

It’s not completely terrible, by any means. The Synergist and Saboteur roles, along with the Stagger mechanic, provide some semblance of strategy in an otherwise straightforward system, and thus make taking on certain of the more difficult bosses and marks genuinely fun. All the same, XIII’s mechanics are, as far as I’m concerned, the weakest in the entire series; compounded by the lack of depth of its accompanying skill tree: the Crystarium.

The multiple layers of the aforementioned Crystarium certainly give it the appearance of a comprehensive skill tree similar in scope to X or XII at first glance, promising an array of exciting abilities and spells to experiment with. But in reality, it’s nowhere near as deep.

Each class has only a handful of abilities and attribute boosts at their disposal, reducing the number of viable tactical options open to the player during battle, and one unique ability which lacks both the bombastic thrill of VII’s Limit Breaks or X’s Overdrives, and their innate strength. Moreover, although each of the six party members can theoretically train in any of the six separate classes, the content differs from character to character. In practical terms, this means Hope, a healer by trade, cannot learn the full complement of abilities in the Commando class and, to make matters worse, the few he can learn are far more expensive to unlock than they would be for Fang, say. Simply put, a well-balanced party must include Hope (or at a push Vanille) for the majority of the end-game content, if they’re to stand a chance against the toughest enemies.

Clearly, Square thought this was a smart way of ensuring players spent equal amounts of time with each character over the course of the adventure; they’ve done it before. VIII and X, for example, forced us to use specific characters at specific points. The difference is, in these titles, it was left to us to decide who we’d like to use for the latter stages of the game.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, in my opinion, Final Fantasy XIII’s linear structure is a symptom, not the root cause of the game’s problems.

True, whenever you pick up an RPG, especially one with the words ‘Final Fantasy’ proudly emblazoned on the cover, you expect a certain amount of exploratory freedom. But, with the boundaries between genres becoming ever more blurred as time passes and the exact definition of what a video game actually is expanding with each passing year, we as gamers aren’t so stubborn as to reject a linear RPG out of hand; we wouldn’t now and I don’t think we would have then, either. Indeed, for all its issues, XIII is far from universally hated.

In my mind, the reason Final Fantasy XIII is considered a low point in the series by so many, is because it tells an unoriginal story, driven by a cast of largely forgettable characters, set in an uninspiring fantasy world, and supported by what are arguably the most simplistic core mechanics of any title in the series. And this is why, despite the structural similarities between XIII and, most notably X, critics and fans alike are that much more positive about the latter. With its superior narrative, cast of characters, setting, and gameplay systems, the player is able to forget or simply doesn’t notice X’s linear trajectory. Something that’s extremely difficult to do in FFXIII.

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9 comments

John Dunphy January 23, 2018 at 11:01 pm

I respect any opinions as they are ones own and it’s annoying when someone gets all huffy about something like FFXIII and says, “how you think is WRONG!!” For all its flaws, I have loved the experience of FFXIII, rather than the overall game, as I share similar concerns about linearity, non-sensical story, some characters in particular (why didn’t Hope do us all a favor and snuff out Snow already?!), etc. But, the music is simply some of the best of the entire series, the graphics remain gorgeous almost 10 years later, and there were just genuinely touching moments. I also enjoyed FFXIII-2, despite its even more idiotic premise. Lightning Returns? Now, there’s something someone should write about here. That is where all the rage and animosity others have expressed for the original go for me. Maybe it’s because by then people were moving on, but I personally feel much more displeasure should go there instead of XIII (almost EVERYONE is wearing the same clothes 500 years later? Noel is STILL pining for Yeul? Sazh is STILL whining about his son? Move on, people!). In short, even though I have a massive backlog of games to dive into, I would not be surprised if I did another play through of FFXIII.

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