No entry in the Final Fantasy series is as much maligned as the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy of games. In the years since the first game launched back in 2009, the games under its banner have been extensively (some might even say “wrongly), criticized not only as the weakest in the series, but also as downright bad games. I can’t say whether or not they’re truly bad or just good with the caveat of being widely misunderstood. What I can say though, is that the games taught us something valuable even as bad entries in the Final Fantasy series. Simply put, they taught us to recognize what we want from a game published under the Final Fantasy brand.
I have a feeling that the original Final Fantasy XIII was meant to be an experiment of a sort. At the time of its release, it was not only going to be the first Final Fantasy on an HD system, but it was also the game that was going to inject some much-needed vitality into a series many felt had grown stale over the years. It was going to feature a new battle system to replace the now-tired ATB system that series traditionally employed. It was going to present its story in a new way, in a gorgeously-realized HD 3D world. Basically, Square-Enix built this entry in the series to be a game-changer meant to show us that Final Fantasy was still a strong and relevant series. The funny thing is that it did exactly that; it just wasn’t accomplished in the way that Square had intended.
For many Final Fantasy fans, Final Fantasy XIII was a game changer in all the wrong ways. Its beautifully rendered world felt like nothing more than a series of hallways. Its original story felt flat under the combined weight of uninteresting characters and a difficult-to-follow plot. Not even its battle system escaped criticism, as it eventually came to be known as “auto-battle”. While it did, and still does, have its defenders and fans, it’s probably safe to say that Final Fantasy XIII was not the sort of revival most fans were looking for. Although both sequels did much to fix these issues, it wasn’t enough to keep the entire trilogy from becoming an example of how not to make a Final Fantasy game. Still, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Sometimes the best reminder of the best aspects of a game series is an entry that falls flat on its face. Final Fantasy XIII made changes in the places that we all thought were the most important (battle, the story, and visual fidelity) and completely neglected the elements that drive those features (player agency, characters, and feeling like we’re in a living world). The reaction to the battle system showed us that we value having direct influence over our characters. Having to endure a convoluted story in which our “heroes” were only along for the ride reminded us that we value clear and character driven narrative. Finally, we were reminded that even the most lovingly rendered world would feel empty and dull if there was no way to interact with it. The game may have failed in many ways, but it did succeed in showing us what it was that we enjoyed about Final Fantasy in the first place.
In a way, Final Fantasy XIII‘s status as a “failure” in the series makes it even more value than otherwise better entries such as “Final Fantasy IX” or “Final Fantasy XII”. The other two might have been better, but they’ve quickly passed from memory and thus have much less influence over the future of the series. If Final Fantasy XIII had turned out the same, I doubt anyone would still be talking about it, and the upcoming Final Fantasy XV would likely be that much more doomed to failure since the lessons of Final Fantasy XIII would never have been learned. As it stands though, those lessons have been learned by both fan and creator alike, so now we can all look forward to the series’ newest entry with a bit more excitement and optimism. Final Fantasy XIII may have presided over what some would call the lowest point in the series’ history, but I believe that said series, its creators, and even its fans are much better off for having endured it than they would be if it had never happened.
In an age of astronomical development costs, it’s worth noting that Square-Enix is still willing to take risks with its games. More on that to come next week.
Until then, what are your thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII? Do you see it as a necessary lesson, a good game that’s misunderstood, or an utter waste of time that nearly killed a gaming institution? We want to know, so please share!