The Battle Within Begins: A Look Back At The Lightning Saga (Part One)

Posted by DonChipotle (2890 posts) -

I'm sure pretty much all of you are now thinking something along the lines of "Who gives a shit about Final Fantasy 13 anymore?" or something similar, perhaps something more hostile and/or vulgar. That's fine. Go ahead and think that. I won't stop you. Anyway, with the release of the third (and final?) entry in the Final Fantasy 13 series releasing here next month, I thought now would be a chance to look back on the much-maligned entry into the long running franchise. I'm probably not going to be saying stuff that is new or interesting, but hey, I'm trying. I've been replaying 13 and 13-2 in preparation for 13-3 and so these first parts will be all about the first game in the Lightning Saga. Since that's what it's called now I guess. Just so you know, this isn't going to be all about praising 13 even though I do like it, I'm going to be positive and negative.

Right out of the gate I'm saying this: Final Fantasy 13 is one of the better 3D Final Fantasy games. I think it is better than 8, 10, 10-2, and 12, and the spin-offs that don't count like Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core. To this day I don't understand why 10 gets so much love when 13 does a lot of what it does in terms of character leveling and progression better and has a better cast of characters. So I figure that's a good place to start. Comparing FF 10 to FF 13.

The reason being because the director of 13, Motomu Toriyama, was the event director for 10 and was largely responsible for the characters and events that happened in 10. Final Fantasy 13 is a more fleshed out and realized vision of what Final Fantasy 10 was planned to be: an interactive movie. Both of them contain similar features in regard to how the story advances and yet only one of them gets singled out for it. Linearity is a constant complaint about 13, how it's just a game of walking in a straight line and advancing to the next cutscene. While this is how the game is for the first few chapters, what made this a problem here but not in 10? A large chunk of Final Fantasy 10 is following a singular path to the big red arrow on the map with random battles tossed in. Sometimes, like in the Luca Forest, there will be a left or right branch to take to the red arrow, but generally you're going in one direction and pausing to engage in combat or in cutscenes. The exploration in 10 is broken up by the temples, but those are just dungeons without random encounters.

In 13 the same general design happens. There's a path to the end, sometimes there are branches but ultimately all roads lead to the goal and along the way there are battles and cutscenes. I don't think the linearity is the real problem, I think it's the environments. The areas you're running around in aren't all that visually interesting (outside of, say, Lake Bresha or the open air areas on Pulse) and generally run the gamut from steely corridor to pulsing lights because technology. Cocoon as a setting is bland and the blandness of the environments you're running around in don't help things at all. Comparatively, Spira is a much better realized world with appropriately varying environments. Besaid looks different than Luca, which looks different than Bevelle, which looks different from Gagazet, which looks different from Zanarkand, but at the same time each of those places feel like they exist in the same world. In Cocoon you go from a frozen lake to a junkyard to a techno-forest. None of the locations really feel like they belong in the same world, and it isn't really until you get to Gran Pulse where the various locations feel like they belong together, and that's because the areas on Pulse, much like the areas on Spira, are all connected to each other.

Nothing in Cocoon that you experience is connected to anything. You start out in some area that has a lot of train tracks, wind up in a frozen lake, and then you fly off and crash into a junkyard. Where is this junkyard? Somewhere. It exists somewhere on Cocoon but it doesn't exist in relation to anywhere else. What about Bodhum, the town that exists only in flashback? It's somewhere on a beach but is it near the Hanging Edge? Is it anywhere near Palumpolum, Hope's hometown? I would assume no since he and his mother were on vacation there, but for all I know they could be a simple train ride away. Cocoon feels less like a place where people live and more like a place slapped together with dungeons in mind first. It's not the lack of towns that make it feel lifeless, it's the way in which the player experiences the world. Because both FF10 and FF13 don't have an overworld map they have to sell their setting in other ways. FF10 managed to do this with the aid of its little on screen map showing your path as you entered a new area as well as having you walk everywhere. FF 13 doesn't manage this because nothing in its world is connected to anything and you're constantly flying around the world and hopping around between characters. Cocoon is a terrible location and a boring setting. Both games, meaning FF10 and FF13, are linear but FF10 masks its linearity by having a better realized world. It's a point to FF10s favor, but I still consider FF13 the better game despite this.

That said, despite the setting the game has the story and characters that inhabit it aren't boring. Well, most of the characters anyway. It's odd that Square-Enix is hinging so hard on the character of Lightning when she is the least interesting of the core group. She's not a bad character so much as she is a bland one. The main six characters all have their issues and personal conflicts they work towards. Hope has to deal with the reality of losing his mother on top of everything he knew about the world being flipped around, he's a confused and angry kid working through issues. Sazh is dealing with finding a way to save his son while also having to come to terms with being an enemy of the state. Snow is foolishly clinging to the idea of never having to take responsibility for anything while losing everything and everyone around him, from his fiance to the innocent civilians. Vanille is harboring the greatest secret but rather than finding a way to deal with it, she believes that running away will solve everything and that if she doesn't do anything, nothing bad will happen; a childish belief but it's all she has. Fang is..well she's not exactly fleshed out. But then there's Lightning. The thing with Lightning is that in contrast to every other character who we see grow and change over time, Lightning's growth and development is handled mostly through the datalog.

There's a part in chapter seven where Lightning and Hope are under the city of Palumpolum and discussing the fal'Cie. Lightning suddenly has this revelation about things and tells Hope that "Operation Nora is over". This causes Hope to have a moment of confusion and growth. But Lightning's sudden change of heart is barely touched upon and seemingly just happens out of nowhere. A trip to the datalog then reveals Lightning's motivations and thoughts behind this sudden act. It's a poor way to develop your character because there's no development actually going on. Lightning doesn't have a moment like the other characters do. Hope has his moment with Snow, Sazh has his moment in Nautilus, Vanille has her moments in Nautilus and with Fang, Snow has his moment with Hope. But Lightning doesn't. She doesn't have a moment that you can point to as evidence that her character has changed and developed. There's no arc to the character. She just suddenly goes from being a loner to watching out for Hope to suddenly not wanting to punch Snow anymore. And all of these developments are detailed not through the game itself, but through the datalog. Lightning is a flat character and I really doubt that'll change with 13-3, but that remains to be seen. And even if it does change, it's too little, too late.

Still, the characters of 13, not including Lightning, are better and more believable than the cast of FF10. Lightning may be a flat character, but she's not an utterly boring and passive character like Yuna and at least Hope gets over his parental hangups. The characters are interesting and flawed and just likable enough to get someone invested in their adventure.

Even though Lightning is flat, I think the other characters are handled much better. Snow and Hope get a lot of hate which is unearned in my eyes. I feel as if Hope is one of the better characters in recent Final Fantasies and Snow is barely a factor for literally half of the game. What I like about the characters and the way the story handled them was that none of them really wanted to work together. They each had their own goals and motivations and god dammit they were going to do them with or without anyone else. It's a much better approach than having a group of people each with a common goal. Ironically this approach to story telling and characters is what leads to the complaints that the game doesn't let you pick your party until twenty hours in. Yes, this is accurate, but I don't see how it's necessarily a negative. Until that point in chapter nine, the characters are not interested in working together and thus have no reason to stick together beyond the superficial. It may go against some unwritten JRPG code, but I never saw any problem with not being able to choose my party. Sure, that meant you never got to take full advantage of the paradigm system, but the game was tailored around the structure. There was never an instance where a third character was needed in regards to the battle system. You still had plenty of paradigm options and honestly, unless you spent a huge amount of time grinding it was unlikely that you would get the whole benefit of the paradigms with a full party anyway. It's not like the typical player was going to max every role with every character; it was more likely you'd stick to the main three of the characters.

While we're on the topic of paradigms, the battle system is a point of contention as well. Some dig it, some don't. I dig it because it is both fast paced and incredibly tactical at the same time. The essence of the battle system is all about finding ways to hit the enemy like a god damn truck over and over again. It's incredibly satisfying to stagger an enemy, launch him into the air, and keep him afloat like you're juggling fools in Tekken. People that just use auto battle are missing out. Sure, you can probably auto battle your way to he end of the story, but if you want battles to not take forever you'll be taking advantage of buffs, debuffs, chain bonuses, and on the fly paradigm shifting. It's kind of like swapping in characters in Final Fantasy 10 only instead of having to bring in Lulu to deal with an elemental flan, you can just swap to a magic using paradigm and go. I really like it when a game has boss fights that require you to use the mechanics you've learned in order to have the better chance at defeating them, and on that end FF 13 works. The penultimate boss can either be incredibly frustrating or less so depending on how well you use the paradigm system (hint: use poison). The final boss is unwinnable if you don't know how to best use your paradigms because you have a limited amount of time to stagger him and defeat him and he's immune to a lot of techniques. But it's a fun system and a satisfying one. It's not without its flaws (seriously, the fact that the game plays that stupid little animation whenever you first shift paradigms in a battle is fucking terrible, especially since the A.I. doesn't stop) but I'll take it over a traditional turn based system any day.

I suppose now would be the time to talk about the story, since a story is kind of important for these kind of games. The story in FF13 is odd, mostly due to how it is structured. The game opens in medias res and starts tossing in terms with no context. What's a fal'Cie? What's a l'Cie? Pulse? What the hell is that? What's even going on? Over the course of the game there are several flashbacks that attempt to fill in some of these questions and for the most part it's successful. The datalog exists to fill players in but it's not needed to understand what people are talking about. Sure, it takes time, but if you don't use the datalog the game makes it clear what a fal'Cie is and what l'Cie are through context. The problem I have with the story is that it essentially becomes the same as a number of any other JRPGS: Kill all deities. While not a parallel to religion as, say, Yevon in FF10, the central conflict in FF13 is between the six characters and the Primarch/fal'Cie. You're pretty much going up against the pope president who is a deity in disguise. What FF13 attempts to do is create the conflict between the characters rather than an opposing antagonist. Primarch Dysley, the main antagonist, is present early on but he doesn't factor into the story until chapter nine when he does his big reveal. Until then all the conflict is internal with the most overt one being between Hope and Snow.

This, to me, is what the game does well. When the characters are at odds with one another is when the story works best. Rather than having the characters band together early on, they stick to their original goals and branch away from each other. Lightning decides to attack Eden, Hope goes with her so he can grow strong enough to kill Snow, Sazh thinks Lightning's plan is stupid and does his own thing and Vanille tags along because she's running away from reality, and Snow stays behind because he's desperate to save Serah and protect her. There's no world to be saved. It's not a story about saving the world, it's a story about saving themselves. Time is not on their side and they don't have any clue how to prevent themselves from turning into monsters so they each have their own ideas how to resolve the problem. Some people think that the game gets better later on but I disagree. I think it gets worse after chapter nine.

Once the characters come together suddenly it becomes a save the world story. The six characters finally meet Dysley/Barthandelus who reveals that he's plotting to destroy Cocoon to summon the Maker. Suddenly the conflict of saving themselves is tossed out of the window in favor of a story of being friends and saving the world like every other JRPG. The sudden realization that the leader of Cocoon is a corrupt and evil god doesn't seem to faze them outside of a single scene at the start of chapter ten, instead the characters pretty much walk hand in hand skipping along to Pulse. With the exception of a single moment where Fang tells the others to fuck off and let Cocoon get destroyed (which was then resolved with a single eidolon fight) the characters are all buddy buddy now, all differences aside. The character development stops after chapter nine and the game is worse because of it. Sure, the game needed an antagonist, but the antagonist is introduced at the expense of character development. The game shoves all development into the front half of the game which had the unfortunate side effect of turning the early stages of the game into a game of 'find the cutscene'. Compare the first half (chapters 1-9) of the game with the second half (10-13) and the number of cutscenes is diminished drastically. It's not because the game has finally opened up (though chapter 11/Pulse is where all the side missions reside) it's because there's no longer any story for the characters to go through anymore. Once the six people land on Pulse the most that happens is Hope and Vanille getting their eidolons. Otherwise the entirety of the Pulse chapter is simply going through a mine, a spring, a tower, and Oerba with limited interruptions.

It's such a drastic change from how the early parts of the game are structured that it managed to trick people into thinking that the game gets better after twenty hours. They think that way simply because you're given the illusion that you've been taken off the rails. You haven't, it's just no longer a matter of being handheld in one general direction to find the next story bit. There's really little reason for the characters to go to Pulse other than because that's where the game wants the player to go. The story justification is that the l'Cie are training to get stronger in order to come up with some way to go against Dysley's wishes, but when they get to Pulse they stare at each other dumbfounded because there's nothing there and soon enough they are back on Cocoon anyway. The second half of the game is supposed to be when the fal'Cie plot comes together, they start up a civil war of sorts by making Cid into the new pope and having Cid's organization fight the government while the Pulse monsters invade but there's no reason that for this to happen the central six had to go to Pulse first.

The story gets worse after the party comes together because it suddenly makes less sense. The whole point of the game is Dysley wanting the l'Cie to destroy Cocoon because Cocoon gods can't cause direct harm to Cocoon because the Maker was a fan of the laws of robotics or some such shit. Dysley puts forth that he's been helping the l'Cie on their journey which is just blatantly untrue. The whole second half of the game is the characters wanting to save Cocoon by defeating Dysley and saving Orphan, but then the final boss is Orphan and they kill it and almost destroy Cocoon in the process with the hand waving explanation of 'Well if our purpose was to destroy Cocoon that must mean we can also save it'. This winds up happening but it's total bullshit and it's really just because Fang and Vanille were there to become Ragnarok again. The ending sections feel more like the characters don't have any idea what to do and got lucky which is a terrible way to have a story conclude. The whole time they were acting like they were going to do everything in their power to defy the will of Barthandelus and their Focus but they wind up doing exactly what he wanted them to do up until the crystal pillar happens. The villain was so close to winning. It's a very hollow victory and ending for the game.

Final Fantasy 13's story is half interesting. The earlier parts of the game are better because the conflict is much more personal and interesting and thus engaging. It just becomes boring and dumb in the second half, which is unfortunate. But then, the stories in Final Fantasy have rarely been above the passable level so I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been 10-2. All that said, I still think Final Fantasy 13 is a good game. It's not the best Final Fantasy but it is in no way the worst. It's got a good bunch of characters (Lightning aside), the battle system is fast paced and fun, the music is great, and despite its boring environments it's still a fun little adventure that lasts a solid thirty or forty hours. I really like Final Fantasy 13, probably more than most, but I totally understand and acknowledge the faults people have with it. But hey, in fifteen years when Final Fantasy 20 or whatever is out, people will probably look back on 13 with fondness. Because it'll probably be better than whatever the future of this series has in store.

Though the story becomes silly (sillier?) in the second half, it at least had a happy ending for the characters. But then the sequel came along.

In part two I'll talk about the sequel and how it is both a better game and a worse game all at the same time.

I'll see you then. Or I won't. Either way, thanks for reading or skimming or doing neither and saying how pointless this is/was. I appreciate it either way, and I mean that.

#1 Edited by Demoskinos (15369 posts) -

Im glad to see your excited. I'll have to give this a proper read through when I get some time later today. I should start jarring my memory and preparing for February. :)

#2 Posted by Hailinel (25205 posts) -

I have only skimmed this so far, but good show. You and I are of a similar mind on many points.

#3 Edited by TheSilentGod (93 posts) -

I think the entire FF XIII sage is the lowest point in the history of the main series (nothing can be worse than All the Bravest), but I appreciate your viewpoint and well written if long article. I look forward to your thoughts on XIII-2 and especially on Lightning Returns once it is out.

#4 Edited by GrantHeaslip (1640 posts) -

A few miscellaneous comments:

I think the reason they're focussing on Lightning is that she's more-or-less the main character of XIII, a fan favourite, and the obvious solo character of the group. She's a very adaptable -- and, I'll be honest, good-looking -- character design, which works well with the outfit/job system. She's also the only character in the saga that's really a believable lone badass. (Okay, technically Noel could be that, I do you really want to play Noel Returns?)

You're right that Lightning's arc in XIII was odd, but that aside, I think she was a really likeable character. It's been a little bit now, so I might be remembering with rose-tinted glasses, but it seemed to me that her defining struggle was constantly trying to keep up her cold, no-bullshit persona when she clearly had more going on emotionally. A lot of the character building came from what she didn't say, or when she said something she clearly didn't mean.

You make a good point about how disjointed Cocoon seems. It didn't bug me much while playing, but now that I think about it, I couldn't have drawn even a rough sketch of where things take place. Even a fakey Ocarina of Time-style map would have helped ground everything.

I liked the battle system, but I almost exclusively used auto-battle. There were times when it clearly wasn't optimal, but I found that I got more out of focussing on not missing the 2-cycle ATB insta-refreshes and keeping an eye on the situation than trying to micromanage individual moves. Manual entry also became pretty unrealistic when Haste was in the picture, and I ended up keeping Hope in my party most of the time. Skill seemed to me more of a product of higher-level time management -- spending as little time as possible healing, maintaining buffs and debuffs, keeping the stagger gauge from expiring, and making sure staggers were slowed down by a Commando before topping them off. To put it other way, I think I beat the final bosses on my first or second try without manually choosing abilities.

You're right in saying (at least about the first 2/3 or so) "it's not a story about saving the world, it's a story about saving themselves." This is the thing that frustrates me most about how people talk about FF XIII. Yes, the higher-level story is somewhat inscrutable early on (though it's not that hard to grasp), but it doesn't really matter at that point. Most of Final Fantasy XIII's about the individual characters coming to terms with each other and themselves. Which is why, as you say, it goes downhill once they're all on the same page and ready to save the world.

P.S. I think XIII is better than XIII-2 in almost every way. I've written enough already, but I'm curious where you come down on it.

#5 Edited by soulcake (348 posts) -

So lightning returns is not a remake of the the whole 13 / 13-2 story its the end of the trilogy, i am kinda confused i played 13-2 about half way and thought it was a oke Jrpg.

#6 Posted by DonChipotle (2890 posts) -

@soulcake said:

So lightning returns is not a remake of the the whole 13 / 13-2 story its the end of the trilogy, i am kinda confused i played 13-2 about half way and thought it was a oke Jrpg.

No, Lightning Returns is not a remake, it's the third part of the Final Fantasy 13 saga. 13-2 was a sequel (one that it didn't necessarily need) and Lightning Returns is following after the end of 13-2 to both bring the story to a close and return to the character of Lightning.

#7 Posted by Aetheldod (3828 posts) -

I dont think it goes downhill , like you say it just deals with the characters inner struggles sooner rather than later (unlike most FF were the big world event comes up first , then you go around wrapping up individual stories). Lighting its an awesome character and like @grantheaslip says , her story is done through her actions rather than big expository dialog. (or like he says , rose tinted glasses :/ I do need to replay the game). Still excellent write up and I wait to see the next one soon. ^^

#8 Posted by Dallas_Raines (2221 posts) -

Snow and Hope are generic anime archetypes with generic anime dialog. It's easy to be annoyed by characters you've seen a million times before.

#9 Posted by DonChipotle (2890 posts) -

Snow and Hope are generic anime archetypes with generic anime dialog. It's easy to be annoyed by characters you've seen a million times before.

'Generic anime' is a generic catch all term that means nothing but is supposedly insulting for some reason.

#10 Edited by cloudymusic (1312 posts) -

I'm in the process of playing FFXIII now (am currently in Oerba). Good points all around; you hit on a lot of my feelings on the game as well. It probably gets more hate than it deserves and many of the popular memes about it are untrue or undeserved.

That being said, it's still definitely one of my least favorite FF games. Some of the choices it made about linearity and gameplay constraints are totally valid and I can understand why they did what they did, but overall the game stripped away much of what I enjoy about FF games. No towns, no NPC interactions, no meaningful chance for exploration in peaceful environments, almost nothing whatsoever aside from noninteractive cutscenes and dungeons for the first 25 hours. Even FFX (which, as you point out, was pretty linear itself) had more stuff for you to do outside of dungeons.

#11 Edited by Bocam (3874 posts) -

I don't mind 13 and I enjoyed 13-2, but Lightning Returns is just bad.

#12 Posted by DonChipotle (2890 posts) -

@bocam said:

I don't mind 13 and I enjoyed 13-2, but Lightning Returns is just bad.

I'll have to reserve judgment on that until I play it myself.

That being said, it's still definitely one of my least favorite FF games. Some of the choices it made about linearity and gameplay constraints are totally valid and I can understand why they did what they did, but overall the game stripped away much of what I enjoy about FF games. No towns, no NPC interactions, no meaningful chance for exploration in peaceful environments, almost nothing whatsoever aside from noninteractive cutscenes and dungeons for the first 25 hours. Even FFX (which, as you point out, was pretty linear itself) had more stuff for you to do outside of dungeons.

I thought the no towns thing was fine, or at least it made sense in the context of the narrative. The characters are on the run from the government and their brands are constantly ticking away (yeah sure the brand never matters in the game other than the changes over the course of the story but still) so there's really no time to spend in a town. Just look at what happened in Nautilus, that theme park area. The PSICOM dudes were there almost as soon as Sazh and Vanille arrived.

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