Looking Back – What Did Final Fantasy XIII Do Right?

I’ve been thinking back on Final Fantasy XIII lately, with the recent new information on Lightning Returns and with the recent abundance of JRPGs I’ve been going through… and I wanted to talk a bit about it… but I wanted to focus on something that often gets overlooked: What was good about it? You can find a dozen discussions about how linear it was, or how terrible the characters were(hell I even wrote something about this one), or how hard it was to care, or how there were no towns(although this one always baffled me)… but Final Fantasy XIII had a lot going for it. There were a number of things that were utterly fantastic about this title, a number of things that I truly loved about it. For me, Final Fantasy XIII was a success – I enjoyed it, and I wanted to take some time to reflect on what they did right.

Pulse And Coccoon

I cannot praise the World in which Final Fantasy XIII was placed enough. It is unlike nearly any other world I’ve seen before, it offered an experience that can truly only be described with the word ‘awesome’. It really is a statement on how talented SquareEnix’s art and sound design teams that these regions can stick with me for so long. Even years after I play I still remember the absolute and utter amazement I felt stepping into certain regions. The art direction, the sound design, and the quality of graphics presented within Final Fantasy XIII all aligned with one another in a way that many games don’t manage. And, for anyone who didn’t like the game, take a think back to it and tell me that there wasn’t a part of you that begged you to keep going just to see and hear more of it. I don’t think many of you will be able to. And it isn’t just ‘beauty’ – because in a real world, not everywhere is beautiful. They managed to successfully make every single area utterly awe-inspiring.

But it is more than just that… the dichotomy between the terraformed Coccoon and the utterly natural and abandoned world of Pulse is utterly fascinating. They created a world that featured points of interest everywhere. It was creative, it was unique, it was new. It felt manufactured, but it was supposed to. It was a world that truly WAS manufactured, and that was part of what made it so intriguing. Obviously nobody else can reproduce the exact world, but the attention to detail, and the sheer quality of graphic and audio, and most of all… the commitment to vision are all elements that I sincerely hope people can take away from.

The Premise

Regardless of whether many of the characters were terrible… regardless of whether you felt the story wasn’t terribly good… the premise of the story at its core is a brilliant thing. The concept of a civilization that has been made so paranoid and so brainwashed that a small mark on someone’s body can turn them into a fugitive so hated and feared that everyone turns their back on them. The concept of a world whose creators are also captives within it – captives who chafe at their bonds and their servitude, but are unable to not do it. The premise, marred though the execution may be, had a world of potential.

If someone were to approach you and say that they had a game about a group of characters forced together by circumstance, but each with their own reasons to hate and distrust each other, sent on a quest that they really don’t understand and forced to save a world that now hates them… don’t lie, you’d be interested. If they then told you that this entire world was a manufactured entity and the godlike beings that are responsible for it were trapped within and forced to maintain it but secretly wanted nothing more than for it to be over… that sounds like the basis for one hell of a story doesn’t it? When I think back on Final Fantasy XIII’s story, it’s hard not to be disappointed – not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because when you think of it this way, it could have been so incredible. The sky was the limit and unfortunately, they just never reached it. What they created out of that potential wasn’t bad but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near what could have been.

The Combat

Final Fantasy XIII’s combat, as I’ve said time and time again, is the most enjoyable combat system I’ve ever experienced in an RPG in my entire life. It is an almost-perfect combat setup. Why? Because it truly is an example of output equalling input. It offers you the option to complete the game relatively easily using a setup of 3-4 paradigms that you never change and never care about. If you want to just get through it as fast as possible, you can do it. And it’ll be relatively easy, and you’ll probably not have much fun, but hey – you just wanted it finished and the game accommodated you so you should be happy, right?

But if you do as I did and explore it, play with it, create your own setup…. you’ll find a system that is truly and utterly rewarding. It is dynamic, with tons of possibility. It is engaging with high action, a lot of factors to pay attention to, and a lot of visual reward for success. I mean, “Army of One” felt like Omnislash in glorious glorious HD… and even if it wasn’t necessarily the strongest skill, you felt good just using it. Watching combat unfold as you masterfully weave paradigm shifts and maintain buffs/debuffs and break the chain gauge was completely enthralling. I literally could not put this game down – I played it for 13-14 hours a day for 3-4 days straight and never once cared that I was going down a corridor because I just wanted to get to the next fight – the combat system really was that engaging. But only if you really let yourself go with it. And that, I think, was SquareEnix’s greatest success with Final Fantasy XIII: they created a combat system in which you really do get just as much out as you put in.

Final Fantasy XIII may not be the most successful or popular game of the current generation… but it certainly did have some really fantastic elements. It’s too bad that they were hidden behind such controversial flaws. Would have been fascinating to see how it could have played out had the great design decisions they made been given the chance to shine.