Final Fantasy XIII is Heathcliff and Other Tortured Analogies
In which Heathcliff is Final Fantasy X, Catherine is Final Fantasy XIII and Nelly is, I don’t know, Chocobo Mysterious Dungeon or Final Fantasy Mystic Quest or something. This is the end of the literary analogies. (Ehrgeiz is Isabella)
Almost three years after its initial release the received fan criticism of Final Fantasy XIII has never really abated. As is the manner of rose-tinted nostalgia, it is still viewed as a milestone marking a plummet in quality for the series by game players of a certain age, much in the same manner Final Fantasy II/III/IV/V/VI/VII/VIII/IX/X/XI/XII/XIV was the beginning of the end for the once always glorious series (hint: it never was that glorious). Isn’t it time for a reevaluation?
I admit, in my haste, I too wrote off Final Fantasy XIII. In my usual nuanced analysis, I used the Caffeine-Fueled forums to state “It’s just shit.” As criticism of a game title goes it’s about as poorly thought out and meaningless as it gets without me calling the people who did enjoy it blind fanboys who want to marry “Squeenix” (you see that’s not the company’s name so it’s very cutting to call them that, much like typing “Micro$oft” instead of “Microsoft”) and give birth to a multi-headed hydra consisting of belt buckles, Dragon Ball Z character designs and characters called Edge Maverick and Fayt Leingod.
Replaying the title earlier this month, however, allowed me to see plainly what this game is. It’s Final Fantasy X, pretty much. It’s all pretty simple and I know I’m not the first person to say it but here we are.
“If you’re considered a beauty, it’s hard to be accepted doing anything but standing around.” – Cybill Shepard
“The prettiest corridor scroller you’ll ever see” is the backhanded compliment used to smack around the title. It condenses every stereotype about the series into one implication: Yeah, it looks pretty but it’s coasting on legacy and FMVs. Playing just to see the next rendered movie as if it’s still 1998. Some of the charges stick to some titles better than others. I don’t think it really applies to either of the games I’m discussing here.
The same charges were once laid at Final Fantasy X’s feet and the aesthetic similarities between the games is quite startling. From the frozen lakes featured in both titles to the blue glow tinted forests in Spira and Cocoon, the linearity of the titles weighs second to the physical similarities. Even the aesthetic of the “remnant buildings” in both titles, the cloisters of Final Fantasy X and the Pulse Vestiges of Final Fantasy XIII, is eerily similar.
You traverse linear paths through exotic locations for most of the game, eventually stumble into some settlements for further plot advancement and around about the final third or so of the game, you come into the game’s big open area; the Calm Lands in Spira and the plains of Gran Pulse.
Of course, all this matters only if you harbour some sort of fondness (or burning hatred works too) for Final Fantasy X. Still, the functional similarities are striking. Even the way NPCs and cities are designed and interacted with feels similar. Functionally, there’s little real difference between putting a shop option at every save point and plonking down O’aka XXIII down regardless of plot relevance beside the save beacon, unless you feel that O’aka and Wantz’s go-nowhere backstory about their sister is the very heart and soul of Final Fantasy X.
“You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.” – Leon Trotsky
I think it’s pretty clear that Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium System is inspired by the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. If not, here it is: Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium System is inspired by the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. It constricts the field considerably in order to avoid overpowered characters for most of the game but the idea of buying stat upgrades and abilities on nodes through accumulated ability points in the absence of traditional level ups is something we’re familiar with by now.
The battle system, on the other hand, owes more to Final Fantasy X-2, which is the James Arnold Taylor fake fake laughter to Final Fantasy X’s slightly less-annoying James Arnold Taylor real fake laughter. Both games feature a focus on rapid role/job switching in mid-battle within a battle field that places some vague, and mostly uncontrollable, importance on positioning and chaining.
Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is not a mess. It has clear boundaries and definitions, much like Final Fantasy XII’s that will, inevitably, chafe against the received wisdom of what an ATB system should do. Taping the confirm button won’t be enough to get you through a lot of random battles. This is a good thing. The downside is that the lack of job versatility allowed to the player shackles the chance for any real experimentation with the battle system.
If we accept that Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII share some similarities, we can at least arrive at the beginning of some sort of potentially constructive comparisons. It’s not so much that liking the earlier game while loathing its modern counterpart is hypocritical but it helps to demonstrate that even if Final Fantasy X is not universally beloved, neither is it treated as some Eldritch abomination that will drive normal RPG fans mad with the acknowledgment of its existence unlike its comparative partner. Although Final Fantasy could always use some more Lovecraftian references.
“If you’ve heard this story before, don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again.” – Groucho Marx
The biggest difference between the two games is in their plot. Both have a very tenuous connection to the idea of distrust at a religious governments motivations to some slight pontificating on the cycle of death and life but here’s where Final Fantasy XIII really excels.
I’m trying not to say this in a negative way, but the reaction of the main cast in Final Fantasy X to revelations about Yevon, Sin, the Calm and so on is very JRPG in its nature. Your party kind of staggers for a few moments, someone is going to mutter “no, it can’t be…” under their breath and then 30 seconds later we’re all pumped up again to take down The Man. Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us! It’s all very cathartic wish fulfillment I’m sure, but as a story that is ostensibly about six main characters and their interactions with a mainly monocultured fundamentalist theocracy it’s pretty lacking. The world is happening around these characters and they can manipulate it but it doesn’t manipulate them beyond pointing the way to the next story scene.
Final Fantasy XIII is different. Its soul-crushing government is tolerated and respected because of the security it ostensibly provides its citizens. The Sanctum’s temporal power does not exist just so as to provide a wall for bouncing concepts off.
The cast of Final Fantasy XIII react to each betrayal in a much more realistic manner. Yes, eventually some semblance of hope is restored because it’s a story but the characters still change. If Snow is chipper and self aggrandising, it’s because deflecting scrutiny of his half-molded personal code through purposeful hyperbole allows him to keep his dismay at bay. He’s not just the chipper character who takes everything in his stride. He can’t be. Snow’s pain, or Vanille’s pain, or Sazh’s pain isn’t there for the “deal with this character’s prerequisite” section of the game. It informs who they are, all the time.
None of them can be the emotionally boisterous yet fundamentally well balanced and honest character archetype that infests JRPGs. Every party member in Final Fantasy XIII suffers from repeated betrayal, shattering their views and their concepts of morality and self. Betrayal from their government, from their pseudo-deities, from their armed forces, from their purported allies, from their fellow citizens and from each other, several times. The characters are still recognisable as the game continues, but the cracks are visible. The cracks in the masks that as human beings we all wear and change dozens of times every day to deal with different people and situations.
That is not to say that Final Fantasy X has no character development. Tidus, for all the knocks he takes, is a very different person at the end of the game than he was at the start. The other party members too go through growth, to varying degrees, albeit in a more traditional RPG manner wherein your party goes to the “Lulu place” and we get her development and next it’s the “Khimari place” and so on.
Final Fantasy XIII is more organic in its character growth. Yes, events happen to each of the characters and they react to them but they also talk in between them. They share information and show personality clashes and views that aren’t there necessarily to be the characters growth point or future Aesop. There are still big events, such as Hope’s return to Palumpolum but it’s different in that it isn’t “The Big Hope Development Segment.” Hope developed before that point and will continue to do so after his homecoming. The same goes for each member of your party. None of their stories is done until the end. When Tidus declares “This is my story.” it also (mostly correctly) implies that the other stories are over.
“You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!” – Robot Devil
While Final Fantasy XIII tries something outside of its own comfort zone as regards narrative structure, it would be foolish to pretend that it accomplishes its goals perfectly. Concepts sometimes are not clearly defined and the facial animations are not yet accomplished enough to portray the kind of deep thought and emotional broadcast Square-Enix obviously wants the game to have.
The shift of this emotional content out of stilted dialogue is a welcome addition, even if vestiges still remain in the infrequent character narration segments. Due to the physical limitations of the characters, however, that content is increasingly shifted to the in-game summary of events. Lightning’s “I’m troubled that my well intentioned words have resulted in a dangerous situation” face is the same as her “contemplating eating a ham sandwich” face. Anger, happiness, sadness are all cromulently displayed but the nuances don’t always travel well and while taking such exposition out of the dialogue does wonders for the flow and naturalism of the script, shifting it into an in-game recap file is a stop-gap solution at best.
The fact still remains that well received or not, objective good or not, Final Fantasy XIII represents a tangible effort by Square-Enix to push the JRPG storytelling medium forward. Perhaps in incremental shifts such as learning Fira rather that some sort of Kefka-esque transformation from the World of Balance to the World of Ruin but it shows that right now, at least, Square-Enix is aware of problems affecting the JRPG market and is willing to leverage its overwhelming clout to shift things.
Final Fantasy XIII’s gameplay is not an abomination, or at least no worse than any other previous game . Its flaws are clear, yet its story provides real spark in a genre seemingly forever content to gnaw at whatever remains of its tail, an Ouroboros ground down to the nub. At this time, with the low prices you can find the game for, it may just be worth a shot if you’ve resisted until now.