Final Fantasy XIII is ten years old today, which means that 2019 is officially running out of ways to remind us of our mortality. It was a controversial entry in the Final Fantasy series, shifting the series’ usual approach to combat and ditching old traditions to tell a techno-thriller story starring deeply flawed heroes. To this day, fans react dramatically at its very mention. Looking back a decade later reveals a game with scars, but one which also deserves a critical reassessment.
This piece was first published on December 17, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the ten-year anniversary of the game’s worldwide release.
I’ll make a confession: the first time I tried to play Final Fantasy XIII, I quit in frustration. While the world is evocative and the visual presentation stunning, the game suffers from a few glaring issues. I’m not going to debate anyone who says it is difficult to play through. XIII introduced a larger setting called the Fabula Nova Crystallis, so the game had to set up a lot of deep and detailed backstory and lore, most of which was explained through database entries. As a result, the plot’s core conceit, which involved god-like machines charging the game’s cast of characters with a seemingly impossible quest, was obfuscated behind jargon that often went woefully unexplained. What is a fal’Cie? What is a l’Cie? What was the exact nature of the Sanctum, the religious theocracy that pursued our heroes? These things were explained in passing, but it was easy to lose track of the plot. Between this and the beefy boss fights that stymied progress, it was sometimes hard to press onwards as context kept shifting and motivations were hazy.
Those are legitimate complaints about Final Fantasy XIII. Other complaints don’t hold up as well, such as the notion that its cast was whiny or ineffectual. The main protagonist, Lighting, might be taciturn but her arc is not fundamentally different from Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife. She is a soldier redefining herself in the face of an existential challenge. She is a sister, a maternal figure, a warrior, a confused young adult. Final Fantasy XIII is ultimately about deciding who you are and defining your own purpose in life. The god-like fal’Cie charge our heroes with a quest that they need to complete lest they be punished by transforming into crystalline monsters. The ultimate question of the game is whether or not to accept a status quo or radically redefine who we are. It’s a theme that plays out in several of the other characters’ arcs, as well. The initially clownish Snow Villiers brands himself as a hero, embracing his quest, only to eventually understand that he is acting more out of ego than responsibility. The young Hope Estheim vows revenge for the death of his mother, only to find that he cannot redefine himself into something he is not. Final Fantasy XIII’s cast struggles to take action, often finding themselves mired in despair or questions of the self. For fans eagerly awaiting heroics, it takes a long time before the cast stops reacting to things and start acting of their own accord.
Final Fantasy XIII is a story about messy people. People who lie to each other, people who are pushed to the brink. The most heroic thing each protagonist does is accept who they are, with all of the contradictions and messiness therein. This self-actualization is what grants each of them the powerful ability to summon Eidolons, spiritual saviors who also happen to be cool motorcycles and sword-lords. Each and every protagonist reaches a point of despair, and the solution to saving themselves (and ultimately the world) is to accept that they are flawed. And yes, they do ultimately save the day and forge their own path, but Final Fantasy XIII is less concerned with the raw plot actions that occur and far more interested in the personal processes that lead to its climax. It is an emotional game, which led many gamers eager for adventure to eschew what they perceived as navel gazing. Looking back on the game’s story, though, it’s clear to me that the Final Fantasy XIII cast acts in a deeply believable manner given their extreme circumstances.
Another frequent complaint I hear about the game pertains to its structure. Talking with fans about Final Fantasy XIII often elicits an accusation: it is an extremely linear experience. This is true only insofar as features like the world map have been removed, and the ability to backtrack is often cut off as the plot propels characters from one area to another or else splits up the party entirely. Yet, the common consensus is that Final Fantasy XIII is a game of corridors. A game where you press up on the control stick and occasionally battle in an overly automated combat system. Within the context of the series at that point, that is a somewhat perplexing accusation. Final Fantasy X, which I will suggest is among the most coherent and well put together role-playing games of all time, often features the same level design and corridor structure of Final Fantasy XIII. The previous game, Final Fantasy XII, had areas to explore and side-quests but often narrowed itself down. That game’s combat system stressed programming partner AI to play the game in a more automated way. From the sixth console generation onwards, Final Fantasy was constricting in structure. It wouldn’t truly break out of this until 2016’s Final Fantasy XV, but even that game similarly transformed into a “corridor”-laden adventure in the back half.
All of this is to say that while Final Fantasy XIII was so frustrating that I literally gave up playing it the first time, closer examination reveals that its greatest crime wasn’t a radical departure from the series’ norms. Many of its structural elements were beta-tested in previous games. The semi-automated combat is a slightly more active take on Final Fantasy XII’s autopiloting. The Crystarium leveling system, where players unlocked nodes granting bonuses, was not so dissimilar from Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. No, Final Fantasy XIII’s crime was not that it was somehow magically different from everything else. Its sin was that it simply wasn’t what gamers wanted.
The fact that Final Fantasy XIII was not Final Fantasy VII has followed the game ever since and colored conversation around it. Lightning was conceived by the game’s design team as a sort of “female version of Cloud,” and the game’s return to a science fiction setting after years of higher fantasy recalled Final Fantasy VII’s steampunk world. The idea of Final Fantasy XIII being a return to the days of the “best” Final Fantasy games was an intoxicating notion that didn’t quite happen. Fans took issue with the corridors, the cast—especially the women—and the combat. Why couldn’t Square-Enix give us our childhoods back?
Final Fantasy XIII is a rough game to play. Its ideas are half-formed, its heart larger than its ability to deliver an experience whose gameplay complements the story. It is very often, not “fun.” But from this maligned experiment, a much more satisfying trilogy emerged. When Final Fantasy XIII-2 released, it built upon the original’s world and added a slice of Chrono Trigger-esque time travel. Combat was faster and monster minions could be collected. There were multiple endings and a villain with a far more compelling and understandable motivation. Its own themes exploring loss and failure combined well with XIII’s story of personal responsibility. After all, one of the things people do more often than not—even after understanding who they are—is lose. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is also a story about growth, about figuring out how to respond to an ever-changing world and understanding the ripple effect of one’s actions. It is a tragedy to pair with XIII’s victory. There is still so much more to learn.
The final piece of the trilogy, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, is a budget title by the standards of the series. It elicits as strong a negative response with some fans as the original. What, they asked, is this fucking thing? This wild game where Lightning is some type of savior angel whose powers come from costume changes. Why are we doing the strange Dress Sphere shit from Final Fantasy X-2? You know, the girly one? What is this anime bullshit? This knock-off Majora’s Mask set at the end of time?
The answer is that it is the natural conclusion for the series. Expression, empathy, identity. These are the things that Lighting (and the rest of the cast) have sought for the entire series. Of course combat involves costumes. Lightning has been forced into role after role for the whole series. Of course our heroes are broken again; the greatest thing anyone can do is fall and then rise again. Lessons repeat, hearts break more than once. Lightning is given 13 days to solve the universe’s problems, problems which are the sum total of everyone’s personal issues. There is a scheming god to kill and a new world to create, but Lightning Returns posits that the ultimate battles are always against ourselves. Against the unfinished business we leave behind as we grow, about the words left unsaid, the obsessions we cannot let go without support. So she travels around the few shards of the remaining world, where time-displaced people contend with the fact that there is no more time. And she helps them. Helps them grieve for the lost, helps them admit their loves. Because that is heroism, as much as defeating a dastardly theocracy or fighting your rival in a sword duel. Underneath the flashy costumes, the titanic struggles, and the scenery-chewing performances, the trilogy’s thesis shines true: Heroism is nothing more than the act of extending your hand, and pulling someone up to their feet.
This has always been the lesson of Final Fantasy. This is why Rinoa is the one who saves Squall with her love and acceptance. This is why Zidane rushes back to be at Kuja’s side as he dies. This is why Edgar cheats on his coin toss. This is why Lightning’s time as God’s chosen savior involves so many errands. And this is why, ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII does fit within the rest of the series. When I think about it like that, I don’t really give a fuck about corridors.