When Final Fantasy XIII was released, I read the reviews and decided to wait until I could get it used for cheaper than its launch price. In a world where games were just starting to show how big they could get with massive open worlds that we hadn’t ever seen before, the fact that Square Enix decided to go with a hallway simulator was really weird. Final Fantasy XIII was beautiful, and had a really interesting combat system, though the game had little to no exploration to present to the player, besides one chapter VERY late in the game. All the tutorials and hand holding leading up to that late chapter didn’t help things, either. It just didn’t feel like the right kind of game to launch with the new 7th generation of game consoles.

I purchased it a few months after release, and had much of the same experience that many others had already had. It was a boring romp through an endless hallway with an incomprehensible story featuring very important plot elements that all had names that were way too similar to each other. Fal’cie, l’cie, Cieth. What kind of lame writers came in to work on this? The characters were all either moody or cheesy and not very fun to trek along with. The world was greatly pared back compared to Final Fantasy XII, which I LOVED despite some people not enjoying it.

I was thoroughly disappointed, and shortly after forcing myself to chapter 11 where the game environment “opens up”, I put down the controller and didn’t attempt to play it again until recently. The good points I found in the game were the gorgeous graphics, the amazing music, and the really interesting combat system. The paradigm shift system was a really interesting and strategic take on traditional turn based combat. I didn’t like it nearly as much as the MMO inspired gambit system from Final Fantasy XII, but it was still kinda fun to mix and match character jobs to find the right combination to stagger and kill enemies.

The strategy involved in the battle system IS a lot of fun.

The strategy involved in the battle system IS a lot of fun.

The thing is: I really enjoy video game music. Like, a lot. Like, I usually listen to more game music and game music covers these days than in years past where I was a pretty big fan of hard rock and metal. There is just something about good video game music that makes me want to revisit the games they come from. When I listen to tracks from Chrono Trigger or Donkey Kong Country, I usually feel a huge draw to play those games again. While Final Fantasy XIII’s story didn’t do it for me, the music did. The game has an AMAZING soundtrack, and I continued to listen to it even though I hadn’t ever finished or really enjoyed the game. So eventually I finally broke down and bought Final Fantasy XIII during a Steam sale and started playing it again.

The graphics are good, the music is good, and I liked the combat system, so I thought I could get around the bad story and lack of exploration and maybe…POSSIBLY…enjoy the game. What happened surprised me. I’m really enjoying Final Fantasy XIII. I JUST reached chapter 11, the point where I quit last time around, but this time I didn’t feel like I forced my way here. I’m genuinely enjoying all aspects of the game; story, characters, and hallway maps included.

Hallway Simulator to the extreme

Hallway Simulator to the extreme

Why am I enjoying the game now when I didn’t initially? I have some theories. The story and the characters didn’t draw me in the first time I played the game. I didn’t really understand what was going on. The world of Cocoon is controlled by fal’cie, powerful beings that care for humans by producing food, clean air, water, and other necessities. When a fal’cie has need of human interaction, they mark humans with a brand, turning them into l’cie. The task that a fal’cie gives a l’cie is known as a focus. If the l’cie completes their focus, they turn into crystal and live forever. If the l’cie does NOT complete their focus, they become a monster known as a cieth, cursed to roam the land obsessing over the task they did not complete. The player’s party members all become l’cie by a fal’cie from Cocoon’s mortal enemy, the world of Pulse…or Gran Pulse. The characters then escape capture by Cocoon’s government, known as the Sanctum, and struggle with finding and completing their focus.

This is all pretty confusing when spoken through dialogue in game, and without looking up a plot synopsis before playing, makes the whole thing a confused mess. Admittedly, the story isn’t written well. It’s still pretty hard to follow even if you do know what’s going on, but having some idea of the plot before going into the game helps a lot.

The characters really make the story more enjoyable. For some reason, the characters didn’t really resonate with me the first time I played the game. Snow came off as naïve and annoyingly upbeat. Hope was a whiney and angsty teenager. Vanile was just way too perky and happy, strutting around like a caricature of a dumb blonde. Lightning was cool, if really aloof and grumpy. Sazh was also very enjoyable, being a nervous and almost cowardly goofball who acts as a self-imposed father figure to the group. And to round out the group, Fang was just kinda there.

This playthrough, however, I’m not irritated by the characters weird quirks or fatal flaws. The voice acting is excellent, and each actor does a great job of bringing their character to life. While Snow still seems like a naïve hero, he has depth. He’s fighting because he lost the love of his life, Serah, and he still struggles internally with how to complete his focus and his actions that led to the death of Hope’s mother among other civilians. Hope is understandably crushed by the loss of his mother, and when he finally comes to terms with her death, reestablishes a relationship with his father, and forgives Snow, he becomes a likeable young man who wants nothing more than to help his new found friends. Vanile is still way too perky and happy, but she does have her moments of doubt, showing that her upbeat demeanor is a mask to hide her inner turmoil.

Lightning is more of a badass than Cloud. I said it.

Lightning is more of a badass than Cloud. I said it.

Characters that I didn’t have as much of a problem with before are even cooler now than before. Lightning is a bad ass. At first she’s dead set on seeking revenge for her sister’s crystallization, but she softens up and learns to accept her party’s help. Lightning becomes incredibly likeable, especially with her big sister like relationship with Hope. Sazh is still a goofball, but his struggle with the loss of his son to the Sanctum fal’cie shows an incredible depth of character. Fang, who I didn’t notice anything interesting with before, is very concerned with Vanile, in what seems like a (possibly) romantic and protective connection much the same way Snow was with Serah.

The only reason I can think of that I’m enjoying the characters this time around is that I’ve spent more time analyzing things like this over the course of the last few years with my work at Retroware and Gaming Rebellion. I’ve been focusing much more on story and character development in video games and have come to appreciate these elements to a video game more than I had before. Where I just wrote characters off as annoying before, I’m now paying more attention to their dialogue and finding out what makes them tick. I’ve been watching a lot of anime (for me anyway) in the last year, so maybe Japanese created characters are a bit more palatable for me. Additionally it just could be that I wasn’t paying attention before because other aspects of the game turned me off so much…like the lack of any real exploration.

When I had first voiced my problems with Final Fantasy XIII to my good personal friend, he didn’t really agree. You see, he’s not a fan of super explorable or open world type games. He loves his story and he doesn’t like having to get side tracked by extra quests. He enjoys getting to spend a lot of time with the main characters. Final Fantasy XIII really provides that. It’s a story heavy game that doesn’t deviate a lot in terms of side quests or extra chores to tackle that elongate the experience. At the time the game was released, I didn’t really appreciate that kind of approach to game design, especially after the more explorable world in Final Fantasy XII and the vast open world of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Right or left? I'm SO LOST!

Right or left? I’m SO LOST!

Being able to explore was my jam, but years later, when game after game after game have these open world mentalities, it’s gotten a bit stale. Revisiting Final Fantasy XIII as a shorter, more focused gameplay experience is kind of refreshing. This isn’t a game that I’m going to have to pour 100 hours into so I can feel like I’ve seen all there is to see. I’m going to put about 40 to 50 hours into this when all is said and done and all the loose ends will be tied up nicely. Sometimes having a concise experience in a game is preferable to a vastly open game that you’ll never really finish.

Final Fantasy XIII still has its flaws. It’s far from perfect, but in today’s world of expansive open world games, it’s a fun and focused RPG. I’d recommend anyone who had problems playing this game years ago to try and pick it up again. Just read a synopsis of the plot beforehand, and keep an open mind about some of the more annoying characters. You may change your mind.