Final Fantasy XIII is not a great game.
The story is confusing, the level design is the definition of linear, and the characters are annoying.
But for some reason, I really love it. And I’ve been struggling to figure out why that is.
Final Fantasy 13 released in Japan on 2009, but it had been in development for a long time. The game began on the Playstation 2 but after a successful tech demo for Final Fantasy 7, it moved to the Playstation 3. While this resulted in a beautifully impressive game, it also meant delaying the project and dealing with all growing pains of working with a new platform. They simultaneously created an entirely new game engine called Crystal Tools which, as we’ve seen before with Metal Gear Solid V, slowed them down considerably.
The game was first announced at E3 2006 and showcased a completely artificial demo. Nothing playable had been developed yet, so everything shown was just a concept of what the game might look like in the end. It was very dynamic and impressive, suggesting a cinematic, free-flow combat system, but the final game turned out a bit more static.
The reviews at release were generally favourable, but not everybody was happy. The biggest complaint was how suffocatingly linear the game was. All you need to do is take a look at a few of the maps to see that you are almost literally running in hallways for most of the game. And that didn’t sit well with people familiar with a series known for its depth and fantastic worlds.
The first map of the game. It doesn't get better than this for a long time.
I got the game with my father when it released and we lasted no longer than an hour before putting it down. We were really excited for a new Final Fantasy game, but that first bit of gameplay and silly story managed to take all that excitement away.
I tried again a year later with my friend, starting from the beginning and pulling an all nighter to see how far we could get. We got to about Chapter 4, The Vile Peaks, before putting it down. It seemed interesting, but we were so confused about what was happening and who anybody was. Characters just keep throwing made up words around and talking about things with no context and it’s really hard to follow. We had no concept of where we were, or what Cocoon even was, and it seemed that if we actually wanted to understand the story, we would need to study up.
We didn’t, and we never played that save file again.
It wasn’t until a couple years ago that my curiosity for the game grew again. I don’t remember how I got there, but at some point I found myself reading about the story of the game online. Up to this point I had been convinced that the story was complete nonsense and not worth thinking about, but whatever I read was enough to get me onto the Final Fantasy wiki and reading as much as I could. Finally, I understood what Cocoon and Pulse was, words like fal’Cie and l’Cie and Cie’th. I learned about all the religious imagery and the symbolism used in boss designs, especially the final boss.
And so, now armed with a good understanding of the lore behind the game, I took another stab at it. And finally, after three attempts over five years, I played through and finished Final Fantasy 13. And really enjoyed it!
I think there is a great game here, with beautiful environments, an engaging cast of characters, and a really interesting story to tell that explores a world where Gods live among men.
But before we discuss any of that, let’s talk about the one core part of the game that I think alone makes Final Fantasy 13 worth some of your time. The combat system.
For years, Final Fantasy has been the king of turn-based combat. It has been the core of every game, and while it’s certainly loved by fans, it was also needing some new innovation. There have been small tweaks to the formula over the years, like the introduction of the Active-Time Battle meter around Final Fantasy V. But it was still very “turn-based”, even by the seventh game.
The goal with Final Fantasy 13’s battle system was to try to make combat more dynamic. They make three big innovations on the formula that they call the Command Synergy Battle system, and it’s the farthest away we had come from turn-based battle while still, at its core, being based on turns.
First, every character has their own ATB gauge that fills up over time. The gauge has multiple sections, and each one can have an action loaded into it. As the ATB meter fills you can flip through your combat menu and load up a chain of actions. Once the meter is filled completely your character will carry out those commands. You can also decide to act more immediately before letting the gauge fill out, giving you more control for when your character makes their attacks.
This results in a battle that is actually pretty fast paced. Characters are making actions at different times. making battles feels more organic than they have in past games. Because of this fast pacing, you only control one character—your teammates are left to the whim of the AI. Thankfully, this doesn’t really cause any problems and your teammates will be capable of healing, defending, or whatever you set them up to do.
Characters in the game have access to a small handful of specialized roles, and your role in combat completely dictates the abilities you have available. So if you’re in the Medic role, you can heal but can’t attack the enemy. Not being able to control your teammates in this kind of rigid system would leave you at a disadvantage, and so the game introduces a second mechanic called Paradigm Shift.
At any time you can Paradigm Shift into a different set of roles for you and your team, completely changing your abilities. You set your paradigms outside of battle, giving you an opportunity to think about your combat plans ahead of time. Maybe you want to start the fight guns blazing, but have a defensive/healing paradigm to switch to when you’re low on health. Or maybe you want to start the battle by casting buffs on your team before attacking.
So while you can’t control your teammates directly, you DO control their behaviours. This leads to battles that require quick thinking and a lot of action to overcome.
The last mechanic that I think really makes this whole system shine is the Chain gauge. Every enemy has this meter that builds up as you attack them. This percentage is a damage multiplier. It starts at 100%, but can be raised higher and higher as the battle goes on. The meter goes down when the enemy isn’t taking damage, encouraging you to press on the attack and not to wait around too long without making any actions.
Once this gauge completely fills up, the enemy will enter a staggered state. They will become vulnerable with the chain meter multiplier rising even faster than before. This staggering often leads to a shift in the tide of battle, and many enemies will actually undergo some physical change in this state. Maybe they will lose their protective shells, or become paralyzed. Once staggered the meter will deplete over time so you only have a short window to deal some real damage and possibly end the fight.
Your types of attacks will also affect this meter differently. Attack types are split into physical and magic attacks. Generally, physical attacks will not increase the chain meter very much, but they slow the rate that the meter depletes while you’re trying to build it up. In contrast, magic attacks will increase the meter a lot, but will also increase how fast it depletes. This necessitates a mix of physical and magical attacks to keep the chain gauge rising while not letting it fall back to the beginning while you’re waiting between attacks, because it if reaches 0 then the gauge starts from the beginning and you lose all that progress.
All of this creates a real urgency to hit the enemy hard and fast, while discouraging rigid gameplay strategies like trying to brute force fights. Battles are mainly about managing these chain gauges, sometimes between multiple enemies, and you will find yourself needing to constantly switch between paradigms to maximize your chain buildup without losing all your progress—and keeping your team alive. I find it actually becomes less important what specific attacks or spells you use in a fight and more important to just focus on the chain gauge. Of course there are elemental weaknesses or immunities you need to watch out for, but your teammates will be good at using only the most effective commands they have available.
I think these are the reasons why they introduced an auto-battle button. Choosing this option will automatically load a mix of attacks that best suit the enemy. If you’re fighting against someone weak to lightning, the game will load up a bunch of lightning spells to cast. Later in the game you have many spells to choose between so this becomes pretty convenient. Like I said, it becomes less about your specific attacks and more about managing the chain gauge by switching paradigms; being able to quickly load effective commands helps you keep up with the battle.
But here I want to give you my first major tip to enjoying this game. As soon as you start the game, go into your settings and change your default command OFF of auto-battle. Late in the game this option makes sense. But early in the game with only two or three commands to choose from, this button completely sucks the fun out of the game.
I have a theory that many of the problems of Final Fantasy 13 relate to the game removing your player agency from the experience, so anything you can do to reclaim that agency will help you in the long run.
Yes, the first handful of battles you can get through by just button mashing this auto-command. It makes it combat boring. And by comparison, doing it manually might seem redundant as you are just loading up “attack” three times over and over. But trust me, do it manually for the first chunk of the game and you will get a good appreciation for the flow of combat. New abilities come in slow at first, but once you get access to more spells, buffs and debuffs, you’ll start to see how many options you have in combat and, hopefully, really enjoy it.
Now let’s talk briefly about some of the roles and attacks you have, because they can seem a little weird at first. The physical-offensive role is Commando, and you first get access to a basic weapon attack and Blitz. Blitz is an area-attack, so it’s pretty useful when you’re in a crowd of enemies or when you’re trying to maintain multiple chain gauges at once. Once you get access to spells, you will see a third ability here called Ruin. This is essentially non-elemental magic. It’s treated as “physical” damage, so it will slow down how quickly your chain gauge depletes like your regular attack. But when calculating damage the game will use your characters Magic stat, not their Strength stat.
The opposite to Commando is Ravager, your spellcasting role. Here is where you will find spells like fire, lightning, wind, etcetera. Like mentioned before, all of these attacks will really push the chain gauge up, but will also speed up its depletion rate. You will also see attacks like “Firestrike” and “Lightningstrike” here. These are the opposite of the Ruin attack. These are treated like magic attacks, but they will use your characters Strength stat to calculate damage, not Magic. These variants are useful for when you have a character in a role that doesn’t mesh well with their stats. If you have somebody high in Strength playing as a Ravager, they will be better off using these Strike attacks.
Another cool quirk to combat in this game is that your character’s physical position in the battlefield matters. You can’t directly control where your characters move, but depending on what attacks you use you will see you and your teammates moving around to different positions. This means that you can be positioned in a way that the enemy misses you entirely when they attack the rest of your team! Or, if there are a group of enemies clustered together, you can hit them all with area attacks or spells.
Sometimes this can get frustrating. A situation I often found myself in was where I was trying to heal our team while my teammates aggrovated the enemy and drew their attacks, but my character was standing right in front of them. So while they were supposed to be buying me time to heal I was still getting hit and cancelled out of healing. The type of attack you do dictates how your character moves. Physical attacks or the “Strike” attacks will have your character run up to their targets, but the more typical spells and Ruin or Cure will be done from where they are standing. So you can kind of coax your character to different positions but it’s hard to manage.
And finally, one last big problem with combat in this game is again related to the game taking away player agency, and that’s team composition.
The first good chunk of this game, maybe about 14 hours, are very narrative heavy. Characters are moving in and out of the party, or splitting up, and that dictates who you have available to play. But even when you have some possible choice among your party, you don’t get to choose your combat teams. You also don’t get to choose what character you’re playing as. Some sections you’ll be playing as Lightning, others you’ll be playing as Hope, and you just have to deal with that.
I can imagine a few reasons why they’d do this; it forces you to play with all the different people and with different team compositions so you can explore the different combat styles you have available. Maybe this helps keep players from just sticking to one character and team composition the whole game. Sure, maybe. This problem also isn’t unique to 13. Final Fantasy 7 had about 5 hours of linear gameplay with predetermined teams before the game opened up and allowed you to choose your composition. But this goes on for way to long in Final Fantasy 13. And it’s really frustrating because every time the game switches the team on you, you need to rebuild your Paradigm Deck.
This is one of the main reasons why the game feels like one long tutorial. It is a while before you actually experience player freedom and it seriously hurts this game. Again, I think this is a problem of a lack of agency. They had a story to tell and I get that, but it really gets in the way of the game and it’s a shame.
If they had allowed players greater freedom in how they want to play the game earlier on, more players would have been able to see what this game has to offer. The battle system is a lot of fun, and I think it’s worth pushing through all the other shortcomings of the game for this reason alone, but it’s really easy to miss this when you first start playing. When I went back this finish this game, I almost had put work in to make the game fun for me. The early chapters are very easy and don’t really require you to take advantage of all the systems you have available.
But if you experiment with paradigm shifts, different types of attacks, different role setups, and working up enemy chain gauges as effectively as possible, there is a lot of fun to be had here.