Looking Back to 2010 and the Focus-fuelled Final Fantasy XIII

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Let’s get something straight; Final Fantasy XIII may be one of the most divisive of all the Final Fantasy’s. But for those looking forward to reading a ‘Looking Back…’ piece that rips it apart, I’ve got some bad news for you: I’m a massive fan of Final Fantasy XIII, and for what it’s worth, the sequels as well.

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Final Fantasy XIII celebrates the tenth anniversary of its Western release – the Japanese release was a few months earlier in December 2009 – when the overall series itself was 22 years old. So, some quick maths tells you that in the first 22 years of the series there were 13 mainline numbered releases of Final Fantasy, excluding sequels and spin-offs. Since then however, in the ten years since, we’ve had two main releases. Something doesn’t quite add up there.

Released on 9th March 2010, Final Fantasy XIII centres mainly around Lightning Farron, a former soldier who winds up being branded as a l’Cie along with five other members: Sazh, Hope, Snow, Fang and Vanille. All standard Final Fantasy names.

Being branded a l’Cie gives the unfortunate recipient a mission – known as a Focus – to complete within a certain amount of time. It isn’t explicitly given what must be done, but the person instead experiences ambiguous flashbacks that must be interpreted. Complete the mission, and the person in question is ‘gifted’ eternal life by being transformed into crystal. Fail in their mission and they mutate into mindless monsters known as Cie’th.

In the early hours of the game, Lightning’s sister and Snow’s fiancée Serah – already branded a l’Cie in events leading up to the start of the game – completes her Focus and transforms into crystal. It is never explicitly implied, but it is suspected her Focus was to bring together Lightning, Snow, Hope and Sazh to the fal’Cie Anima. Fal’Cie are considered the omnipotent mechanical structures that inhabit the world of Pulse and Cocoon, providing it with all the resources the world needs, and choosing servants to become l’Cie.

At this point, it’s worth bringing up one of the biggest criticisms of Final Fantasy XIII: the confusing story. I don’t think the fact that so many of these made-up words – fal’Cie, l’Cie and Cie’th – all sound so alike and are used so frequently throughout the game that it helps the situation at all. For all the criticisms, this one would be hardest to argue against; only after a second playthrough do things start to make more sense.

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Fang and Vanille – having just returned from a period of crystallisation – are once again branded l’Cie’s in a different moment to the rest of the party. Throughout the story it was implied that they share the same Focus as the others, but their outcome was slightly different. This was where Final Fantasy had one of its cooler moments. Spoiler alert – when Fang and Vanille complete their Focus and turn to crystal at the main story’s conclusion, the once floating sphere Cocoon is falling into down to crash into Pulse. By becoming their crystallised form, Fang and Vanille create a pillar to hold the sphere in place. But the pattern they create in crystal around Cocoon also happens to be the game’s logo; there it was staring players in the face the entire game on the box art and title screen and the very last image of the game is that logo, allowing things to finally make sense.

Another highlight – and one of my personal highlights across the entire franchise – is when Sazh and Vanille arrive in Nautilus. Now, Vanille was poorly received by the community when the game released, for being ‘annoying’, for lack of another word. Sazh, on the other hand, is a very underrated Final Fantasy character; he perhaps has the most on his plate as not only is he branded a l’Cie, but his son Dajh has also been branded too.

Upon arriving in Nautilus, Sazh learns that it was Vanille (and Fang) that indirectly caused his son Dajh to be branded. In his anger, Sazh tried to kill Vanille, but is unable to. And then, wrought with guilt, tries to kill himself. It’s tough to watch, and an incredibly powerful moment.

If you need any further proof of how good a Final Fantasy character Sazh is, he has a chocobo chick that lives in his afro. He keeps it there as he bought it for Dajh just before he was branded and kidnapped and is looking after it until they are both reunited. It’s enough to melt anyone’s heart.

Another major criticism thrown the way of Final Fantasy XIII is that it is very linear until you arrive at Gran Pulse, some 25 hours into the game. I won’t argue that it isn’t, but will instead try and explain why this shouldn’t be used as a criticism.

Firstly, this isn’t the first Final Fantasy game that is mainly linear: Final Fantasy X is a very similar set-up, and this was recently voted the best Final Fantasy game of all-time in a Japanese poll. For reference, Final Fantasy XIII was 14th on the list, one place higher than Final Fantasy XII in 15th.

And secondly, this is a story-driven JRPG. It is almost required to be linear for the player to get the most out of the story; anytime it diverts from the main path you dilute the story. The urgency, drama and pacing just isn’t as impactful in less linear games.

Final Fantasy XIII also tried new things as well, not least in the battle system. Remaining turn-based, this version of the Active Time Battle (ATB) assigned characters various different roles in the battle and selecting the correct role for the situation is where the difficulty came. The roles were: Commando – acting as your basic Warrior-type role, Ravager –  a black mage role that was crucial in increasing the stagger gauge of enemes, Medic – a white mage healer-type role, Synergist – buffing up player characters, Saboteur – applying debuffs to enemies and Sentinel – very high defense and able to taunt enemies into attacking them, keeping pressure off other party members.

But it wasn’t just a case of being able to pick and choose each one at any point. You first had to create a paradigm; assigning a role to each member of your party of three. You had six slots for different paradigms, and your main emphasis in battle was changing the paradigms – known as a paradigm shift – to suit the moment in the battle.

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This mainly consisted of raising an enemy’s stagger bar, before launching an all out offensive when the enemy is in a staggered state. By staggering, an enemy is susceptible to far more damage for a brief period.

The battle system felt like you were managing the team rather than actually battling. By that, I mean you weren’t always telling the characters what attack to use, but you were selecting the formation and tactics by which to battle with. Criticism came because players felt you weren’t actually battling; this may or may not have been compounded by the main option in the battle menu being called ‘Auto-battle’; a poor name for something that was far more in-depth and engaging. Had this been called something different, the battle system may have been much better received.

One part of Final Fantasy XIII that was universally applauded was the soundtrack. There is always an element of trepidation when Nobuo Uematsu isn’t the main composer on a Final Fantasy soundtrack, but Uematsu-san hasn’t headed a mainline Final Fantasy game since X (he returned to spearhead the online MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV), and the soundtracks have remained consistently brilliant since then.

The music of XIII was all done by Masashi Hamauzu, who had previously worked on Final Fantasy X and Dirge of Cerberus. He did an excellent job bringing in lots of different genres to come together and produce a wonderful soundtrack. He also received no help; this was the first soundtrack to not feature any original compositions from Uematsu-san, but Hamauzu-san did such a good job that you never really missed the Victory Theme, Chocobo Theme, or any other soundtrack hallmarks. They returned in the sequels, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 in particular had a very bizarre – but very likeable – heavy metal version of the chocobo theme, even giving it lyrics.

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Currently, Final Fantasy XIII is only available on the previous generation of consoles. Some fans have been asking for a remastering for current consoles. I think if that was to happen, this and the trilogy as a whole would be better received, much like the recent remastering of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age suddenly opened up everyone’s eyes to a previously overlooked Final Fantasy game. Until that happens though, there is the future prospect of this arriving soon on Xbox Game Pass. No firm release date has been announced yet, but we have been told it is on the way.

Final Fantasy remains a controversial entry in the fabled franchise. Almost everything splits the player base down the middle – characters, story, gameplay, battle system etc. – but it is one of my favourites. The sequels expanded on the lore of the game and after almost 200 hours with this band of misfits, it’s perhaps the most emotionally invested I’ve ever been in a Final Fantasy game. It certainly holds a special place in my gaming memories.

What are your memories of the 13th instalment? Are you waiting for them to arrive on Game Pass to give it a go, or maybe even return to the game after ten years? Either way, hit us up in the comments as we celebrate ten years of Final Fantasy XIII.

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