I had my doubts about Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XII had appealed to me tremendously with its realistically-motivated characters and politics-driven storyline. From what I read about Final Fantasy XIII, the game was a deliberate step away from all of that.
Early trailers deepened my concerns. The main character, Lightning, felt like she was created to reflect Cloud and Squall, the moody and angst-ridden protagonists of Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Combat was overly frenetic and busy, spectacle for the sake of being spectacle. Environments looked like they were designed to show off the power of the PlayStation 3, and not for the sake of supporting the game itself.
Still, my enjoyment of Final Fantasy XII made me want to give the series the benefit of the doubt. And that's just what I did.
It's easiest for me to talk about Final Fantasy XIII's opening by contrasting it with other Final Fantasy openings (skip to 2:45 to bypass the introductory credits).
- Final Fantasy VIII's opening had its own flaws, but one thing it did capture well was the notion that the conflicts had highly personal elements: Squall against Seifer, Rinoa against Edea. Without that personalization, the story has as much drama as a little kid kicking over action figures - which is what the fighting in Final Fantasy XIII's opening feels like.
- Final Fantasy IV's opening had Cecil troubled by his actions in forcibly taking the Crystal from the Mysidians. This inner conflict gave Cecil dimensionality, something noticeably absent from the cinematic above.
- Final Fantasy XII's opening managed to neatly tell a complete story of its own, efficiently parceling out details both great and small without overwhelming the viewer. By its end there's a firm grasp of who the major characters are and what their motivations might be. This clarity is distinctly missing from Final Fantasy XIII's opening.
The Rest of the Story
In the interests of saving the Internet from yet another rant, I'm going to summarize my overall impression of Final Fantasy XIII: a muddled over-produced mess whose characters feel like they were individually designed to be 'cool' rather than relatable.
That being said, there are some positive aspects to the story. I'll describe two of them.
The first is the character of Sazh.
Before the game was released many people thought of Sazh as an unfortunately stereotyped joke character, inserted for loose comic relief and nothing more (note: there is a chocobo chick living in his afro). I shared this same dread, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found him to be the most fully-formed character in the game.
My daughter was four years old when Final Fantasy XIII was released. The other protagonists in the game fight for freedom, or vengeance, or some simplified notion of justice. Sazh fights to save his young son (please don't ask me "from what?") and I found his single-mindedness and desperation and self-loathing at the prospect that he might fail to be emotions that I innately understood. He expresses this all while still being the comic relief of the group, and that jagged mess of feelings, both light and dark, is something that is very real.
The other thing that impressed me about FFXIII? The sheer weirdness of the villains. Check out the boss fight at the midpoint of the game, when the curtain is drawn back on the full scope of the story.
It is here that it is revealed that the antagonists of the game are not a powerful and corrupt human Empire, but the gods themselves. And it is here that the over-designed nature of FFXIII really works in its favor, producing a divinity that is horrific in its ineffable strangeness: I remember starting when Barthandelus's true form was revealed (2:00 in the above video), and again when he revealed his strongest attack (5:50). True gods would not be like us; they would be foreign and alien and awe-inspiring and terrible, and Final Fantasy XIII captures that well.
But overall? The game was a tremendous slog to get through. And I remember thinking: this is it. This is the last Final Fantasy I'll ever play.