Final Fantasy XIII is bold and reckless. A beautiful disaster. A hi-tech rollercoaster going so fast it’s always dangerously close to going off the rails. Many declare it one of the worst in the series, others their favorite, but mostly we can agree it gets a lot better after the nearly game-long tutorial.

The first 15-20 hours are a slow drip-feed of the battle system as you funnel down a linear corridor pausing only for battles and cutscenes. There are no friendly NPCs to interact with and breathe, only enemies to evade or attack. This fits narratively as Lightning and the ensemble are not only fgutiveis, but eventually learn they are racing to complete a mysterious objective before their time runs out and they become a horrific zombie for eternity.

The core of the story is brilliant. The character-based interactions that explore what it means to face certain death and be thought of as the enemy of your home are riveting. But that core is smothered by too many layers of complex lore. The Fal’Cie and L’Cie are a simple enough concept, but the various types and their roles relative to each other distracts from the overall point of the story.

There’s also a lack of a clear villainous presence for much of the game as the focus keeps shifting. I suppose the real enemy is time and the group’s fate. Knowing what the group is running from is important, but it would add more tension to know what they were running to was equally dangerous.

I’ve been mostly critical so far because the first portion of the game can be so off-putting, many won’t survive to see the beauty lying beyond the horizon, fittingly, when you finally arrive on Australia (Gran Pulse).

To Coccooners, Gran Pulse is a hell-hole filled with dangerous monsters. To Final Fantasy fans it’s a glorious open map of side quests and secrets. At this point of the game the combat is finally completely unlocked (it’s really the longest tutorial I’ve ever experienced). For the first time you are able to roam freely and choose from several interesting and rewarding paths. There are plenty of optional side quests to accept that are entertaining and rewarding. New enemies and creatures appear around the corner, providing surprise and a genuine sense of wonder as you discover massive beasts that could one-shot you in battle.

The only thing it’s missing is people, as it’s a bit lonely to never come across a new person. Friendly NPCs and their mini-stories tell you about the world and flesh out the narrative. A farmer in trouble with his local government paints a better picture and lets you look at the environment in a different way, allowing you to imagine your own ideas about the game world.

The closest you’ll get to that are the C’ieth Stones that function as the quest-givers. Each stone represents an un-met character that fell to the same fate your team is trying to avoid. If you avenge their death by completing their original mission, you gain the usual experience points and/or money. These are simple, but feel the most Final Fantasy to me.

The Beautiful Dance

I’ve never felt more alive while cycling through menus. Final Fantasy XIII’s combat is a lightning-quick Active Time Battle that is action-packed as real-time while maintaining the strategy of controlling several characters and even more roles (attacker, healer, buff, tank). You directly choose the actions of the leader but are also in charge of which roles each member is currently playing. Which combination of roles and the timing of switching is a wonderfully satisfying art form. The possibilities of strategic combinations are vast. Six characters and six roles allows a lot of room for creativity. There are a few optimum strategies when it comes to min-maxing, but there are plenty of successful alternate choices. A highlight for me when streaming the game were the strategies we developed from every loss, slightly tweaking the formula when we were close, and discarding when too far off.

To that point, I’ve never enjoyed failing as much as I did in FFXIII. Like Hearthstone, every defeat was a lesson on what could go better next time. The evolution of strategy became the most entertaining part of the game.

With such an enjoyable combat system – the only one I would actually enjoy grinding (though I didn’t) – it’s wonderful that Square Enix included such a meaty end-game. Veterans can pour hundreds of hours and still fail when facing the most dangerous post-game challenges. Leveling up secondary abilities to create more combinations can easily add another hundred hours for those that love to put their noise to the grindstone.

Overall, my first full playthrough of FFXIII transformed it from one of my least favorite Final Fantasys to near the top. FFVII was my first love of the series and I felt it held up in 2016 (especially with 3x speed), but I put up with the battle system in VII while I always enjoyed XIII’s, especially the puzzle-like bosses. 

It’s a shame many will never see the beautiful view of FFXIII because of the brutal hike to reach it, but I completely understand that a game should never require so much frustration to reach the fun.

A flawed fantasy, but one I love anyways.

 

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