Final Fantasy XIII was rather divisive. While its gameplay and combat system were superb, the story was a bit over pretentious and it was extremely linear, with the player simply going from place to place on a pre-set path. The characters were wonderful though, the combat was intricate and completely customizable, and there was a level of difficulty — especially during the boss battles. You had to think quick on your toes with the paradigm system and be able to quickly switch your player’s roles in order to survive. It is the best Final Fantasy battle system yet, but fans are so hung up on the game’s linearity and complex story that the game gets so much unwanted hate from fans of the series, who actually prefer story over gameplay.
Final Fantasy XIII also must be praised for the diversity in its cast. There are a multitude of different portrayals of female characters, not simply “tropes”, who show toughness and vulnerability at the same time. There is a balance of male versus female characters (playable), with three of each, and although Lightning was marketed as the main character of the game, she is merely a part of an ensemble of characters and isn’t actually the main character in any of the titles until the third installment. One of the nice things about Final Fantasy XIII as well is that one of the main characters is black. Sure, he has an afro, and some may look at this as being stereotypical, but for a major Japanese franchise to portray a black man in such a positive light and highlight them as one of the main characters of a storied franchise is a huge step forward for racial diversity in Japanese video games.
While the middle of Final Fantasy XIII did open up for a bit of exploration, it was still an incredibly linear game. The game was still a lot of fun though, and it was able to balance its cinematics and gameplay quite well (for a Japanese RPG at least), as it was a pretty long game (I think I originally logged almost 70 hours on my play through?). It was a strong entry in the series, although I think that the five-year development cycle and the move to high definition left fans with an incredible amount of hype which simply couldn’t be satisfied. There are a lot of fantastic elements to the game though and although not perfect, it was fun.
Its sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, fixed a lot of the linear problems of its predecessor. The story is time travel-based, and includes traveling to various times and alternate timelines in order to prevent global catastrophe. Each area can be revisited too, which gives the game a certain amount of replayability. The title maintains a highly similar battle system compared to its predecessor, and as there are only two playable characters, you are able to capture monsters to use in your party to round things out, giving the game a Pokémon-like element. The two main characters, Noel and Serah, are incredibly interesting. Serah is the seemingly weak younger sister of Lightning, but she is the heart of the story and it is only because of her strength and determination that the story works. Noel is an interesting foil to Serah; he is the last human in the distant future who has lost all hope after the loss of his beloved Yeul. The game may be a bit confusing to follow story-wise, but it is the best entry in the saga and is a lot of fun, especially the time travel aspect. There’s a great balance of story and gameplay and some characters from the first installment return in interesting ways.
The final installment in the XIII saga, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is the first game in this series of games to actually feature Lightning as the main character. There is no party in the game; you play solely as Lightning. Because of the effects of ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the world is on the brink of destruction and “God” has chosen Lightning to be its savior and guide souls to a new world that He intends to create. The game lacks any kind of linearity and there is a real sense of freedom to be had, although quests must be completed in order to extend the world’s existence until the 13th day, in which the world ends.
The battle system is a mixture of the system found in the previous two games with real-time combat. It took a bit of getting used to but I truly enjoyed it. Lightning can be equipped with a number of different outfits that allow her to perform magic, become a mighty warrior and more. Even her gear (like weapons) can be bought and equipped, making her classes completely customizable. The game was not critically praised, but I found it to be a wonderful conclusion to the XIII saga, even if the ending was a typical Japanese trope about killing God (who is actually just another deity within the mythology of Fabula Nova Crystallis). The combat and gameplay are solid, and you have a whole world to explore and so many quests to complete with incredibly compelling characters. All the characters from the previous titles return in unexpected ways, and it really is a great ‘last hurrah’ for the XIII series. Lightning’s character arc is finally put to an end, and it is one of the most dynamic and introspective arcs in the entire Final Fantasy series.
Are the Final Fantasy XIII games perfect? Definitely not. Are they masterpieces? No. Are they the best Final Fantasy games? Of course they aren’t. But they are incredibly enjoyable with fantastic characters, taking place in an alluring world with an intriguing mythology and a compelling story, with some very dynamic character arcs that take place over the course of three games. There are also some incredibly strong female leads, something that is improving in the industry but still lacking. They are unappreciated titles simply because of the perception that they don’t live up to the Final Fantasy games of old. I would argue that in some respects they do, but they are definitely a different breed of Final Fantasy when compared to previous installments in the series. That’s okay though.
At the end of the day, these are three very enticing and enjoyable games which just so happen to have Final Fantasy in their titles. What’s wrong with that?
It will be interesting to see how Final Fantasy XV will be received when it comes out later this year.