Escape a death sentence, get roped into a life-transforming quest. Work with a motley crew of fellow misfits, learn to become allies and even friends. Discover the truth about your society -- and discover you can't go back to the status quo anymore. Defy the powers-that-be, defy your fate: overcome both. Save the world.
Isn't that the theme of all Final Fantasy games? Alright, maybe not -- I haven't played many of them -- but that is the core of Final Fantasy XIII. It's the second FF game I ever started, and the first I played to the end. (My first ever was the famous Final Fantasy VII, which I played when it released on Steam. Let's just say that that experience was decidedly underwhelming.)
The FF franchise is known for syncretizing magic and technology in its settings, and XIII is no different. It's set in a technomagical world that looks modern, even futuristic, but also fantastic, fanciful and otherworldly. This "technomagical" style happens to be an aesthetic that really appeals to me, and XIII delivers the eye candy in spades. Landscapes and buildings and creatures are lushly designed, with locations calculated to wow the player. Combat has a lot of spectacle. There were many times where I just stopped in the middle of travel just to look at the scenery. Say what you want about the rest of the game, it looks amazing.
Combat is the other hallmark of XIII, which departs from the turn-based combat mechanics of previous FF games into a faster, more strategic version called "command synergy" battle system. First you pick a squad of 3 out of your roster of 6 characters (Lightning and friends), each of whom have distinct stats. Then you select a role for each member, out of 6 roles -- damage-dealing Commando, defensive Sentinel, healer Medic, and others. Each character can play every role, but each has access to slightly different skills, and some characters are more effective at certain roles depending on their stats and levelling. Now you have a "paradigm": your squad of 3 characters, each with a role. You build six different paradigms in total -- same squad of 3, different combinations of roles -- to make your "paradigm deck", which is deployed during combat. In real-time battle, you manage the skills of the squad leader, and can swap around paradigms as the fight dictates, but the other two squad members operate by A.I.
Gone are the tactics of past FF games such as VII, X, and XII, where you micromanage each character's skill/spell use in a blow-by-blow response to enemy action. Combat in XIII feels more like high-level strategy: building out your squad in your paradigm deck, and then managing them in real-time through effective deployment of paradigms. Instead of noting each enemy action and responding with a precise character action, I learnt to observe fights in gestalt and figure out the best paradigm for my squad to use, and when. It's all fast-paced and flowing, and a battle can be done and dusted in a matter of seconds. In fact, figuring out how to defeat a foe as fast as possible is integral to learning how to build and use the paradigm deck effectively.
In some ways this combat mechanic takes some agency away from the player during the fight. Furthermore, the character-levelling system that supports this is a big step away from "roleplaying": every character has a linear, non-customizable role progression. It's not a skill tree to explore, but a skill thread to crawl up, and it completely removes the player's ability to custom-build the characters. I gather that this high-level command synergy battle isn't everyone's cup of tea, and a linear levelling system breaks with time-honoured JRPG/Final Fantasy tradition of building characters to one's liking. Different combat, different levelling: different paradigm (pun intended) of what a FF game is meant to be.
That said, that boring levelling system was more than made up for by the diversity and sheer, moment-by-moment fun of battle encounters. I thoroughly enjoyed combat in XIII. The diversity of enemies and the challenge of getting a 5-star rating for each battle kept me constantly experimenting with my paradigm deck, putting characters and roles in every kind of permutation. It's incredibly satisfying to beat enemies and storyline bosses with 5-star ratings!
Graphics and gameplay were the strengths of XIII. What about the heroes and their epic story?
It's serviceable. Lightning and her comrades were decent characters and showed a bit of character development beyond their Japanime-trope surfaces, although compared to other RPGs and even other JRPGs, that's not saying much. The save-the-world story kept me invested enough to want to finish the game. Not a story that moved me, nor characters that I got attached to, but it was all interesting enough and did its job.
The pacing could've been better though. While I didn't mind the linear nature of the early game, the story felt quite disjointed when it split into three different subplot threads (from the time the characters split up after Lake Bresha), but it regained coherency when they all reunited in the Fifth Ark. I also experienced a bit of whiplash when the game moved from a focused, linear story in Cocoon to a huge exploration map on Gran Pulse. On the other hand, while I'm a completionist RPG player, I've never been a fan of FF's various sideshows. Mini-games, chocobo racing/breeding, confoundingly hidden bosses or areas, and that interminable grind for elite/unique gear... all feel like busywork designed to infuriate a less-than-laser-focused-obsessive player. So the monster-hunting missions on Gran Pulse felt like just the right amount of sidequesting, and I appreciated that XIII was a more focused story with limited diversions. (Or maybe those annoying secret activities were just that: hidden from me.)
Overall, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII on the strength of its fast-paced, engaging battle system that required a different approach to combat mechanics, the breathtaking graphics and fascinating aesthetic, and a decent story and characters. Whether or not it's a "good Final Fantasy game" is not a question I'm interested in answering. But is it a JRPG worth playing? --I'd say Yes.
Cross-posted at We The Players.