Square Enix’s 2010 installment in the long running series is a game much maligned within such a beloved franchise. The expectations that come with the “Final Fantasy” name are almost impossible to live up to, with a general consensus being that if games such as XV and XIII didn’t have the “Final Fantasy” name, they would have been received a lot better. Final Fantasy is almost plagued by the nostalgia effect with many fans crying out for the battle systems of old and a more traditional approach to what is, in gaming culture, defined as “fantasy.”
Despite the criticism, there was clearly enough fan interest in XIII for it to receive the first ever Final Fantasy main series trilogy. Over the years, I have seen both sides of the coin for Final Fantasy XIII: the deep disdain and the absolute obsession. It seems as though you either love it or hate it, with very little in between.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Personally, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII and the two games that followed. I felt it was a really fresh approach after XII, bringing a new battle system and, at the time, some really awesome graphics and an aesthetic that was less traditional fantasy and more futuristic civilization. Delve a bit deeper and there was a really intriguing story below the face value that continued over the trilogy. This was one thing that I felt many players didn’t realize. They saw the main story of Lightning trying to save Serah and overcoming the odds, but were oblivious to the overall plot for which the seeds were planted in XIII. This is the first thing I want to talk about.
Speaking of characters, the protagonist, Lightning, has been slated for being a “boring, unemotional” character. People forget that she’s a mercenary, and even so, in XIII she shows plenty of emotion. In any case, instead of just labeling her as boring and lacking in joyous emotion, ask yourself why she’s like that. She is a character absolutely consumed by guilt that is looking to release this emotion in any way she can. She does so through anger and contempt towards those around her. I don’t expect Lightning to be a bubbly, energetic and humorous character. This is a young lady who has seen both her parents die, is an experienced mercenary at the age of 21, and has had to look after her sister who she sees having no problems or burdens and just lives her life seemingly stress-free. This is what creates Lightning’s initial contempt towards Serah when Serah approaches her in her time of need. There is clearly friction in this relationship; Serah is afraid to talk to her only family member in fear of being scorned or abandoned. Lightning has had a tough life, and the way she acts reflects this in a believable way.
Despite all this, when Serah is truly in trouble before Lightning, Lightning is visibly emotional. She is angry, upset, and becomes irrational. Lightning sets out to save Serah — even if it means abandoning everything she knows and turning on those she once obeyed. There are key moments in XIII where we see Lightning have a breakthrough, like during her ark in Palumpolum with Hope when we see her almost maternal instincts at times. She regularly scorns Hope similar to how she scorns Serah, but notices his willingness to improve and take on her criticism. It takes a while, but Lightning remembers that he is just a child, similar to Serah. It is in this understanding where Lightning truly begins to see how much she wronged her sister in assuming her to be as “tough” and “grown-up” as she is.
Another moment, shared with Snow on Gran Pulse is where Lightning finally stops giving Snow a hard time and realizes that this is a man who is willing to do just as much as Lightning to bring Serah back, and she finds solace in that. Up to that point, Lightning was caught up in a fierce competition of “who’s gonna bring Sarah back?” with Snow, rather than working with him in harmony.
In terms of Lightning being unemotional, this is definitely the case in XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. However, at this stage in the story Lightning has literally become Etro’s protector (basically a God’s bodyguard) and has been granted immense power while having all emotion stripped from her being. This is to make sure she is not clouded by emotion in times of great stress or in the midst of an important battle. This is an act of one of the Gods of XIII’s underlying plot, which really comes to fruition in Lightning Returns. For people to criticize this as “lazy” or lacking effort in character design is ridiculous. People are entitled to not like things, but give the character a chance. Don’t just take what you see at face value and roll with that. Seek further information and understanding — it’s there if you look for it.
The overall character development of Final Fantasy XIII, I thought, was extremely underrated. Snow over the trilogy sees a drastic change in character. Fang and Vanille throughout have their own agenda, which becomes blurred with the agendas of the other characters. Hope goes through an incredibly painful period and grows up as a result. Sazh who starts off as something akin to comic relief turns out to be someone with a dark backstory and he struggles and continues to struggle throughout the story. Integrating individual stories for six characters and bringing them all together is not an easy thing to do, and honestly, I feel like Square did it about as well as they could have.
Another issue I see people complain about — and this is the most popular complaint about Final Fantasy XIII — is linear gameplay. While it’s true that there’s not much exploration until Gran Pulse, and the game does set you on a pretty linear path, it really didn’t bother me. I felt like it suited what was going on, as the game almost always has a sense of urgency. That said, I would have loved some more exploration myself. It’s one thing about the first game that I can’t really defend, though I do feel it’s exaggerated.
I love when game developers try to take a fresh approach when creating a new entry in a long-running franchise. Not only does it show a lot of bravery, but it shows that they care. Do you really want a Final Fantasy that has the same aesthetic, the same themes, the same battle systems, and same stories told over and over? Or do you want the devs to apply the same sort of creativity to newer titles that made the classics you feel such nostalgia for so great? I know what I want. A lot of people want the same things over and over and that’s fine, but you have to appreciate the fact the developers behind the series are trying to keep things fresh rather than simply recycling the same games and easily making a ton of money off them.
Final Fantasy XIII is a polarizing title, to be sure. If you haven’t played it, I would strongly advise it. I’m sure it’s going to get the 4K Remaster treatment soon enough, so I would suggest playing the trilogy and forming your opinions then.
I feel that XIII is extremely underrated. It has been undermined by the expectations of Final Fantasy and the nostalgia of die-hard fans, despite being a strong entry in the series. It’s got some great characters, an emotional story, and some really memorable moments. Sure, it’s not perfect, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find something that is. I feel like XIII deserves more of a chance, as those who embraced it seemed to love it. Let go of any expectations and just enjoy the game for what it is and you won’t regret it.