The following post contains vicious spoilers to FFXIII. Tread carefully.
The endgame came so suddenly. I thought Orphan’s Cradle would’ve been the turning point in the plot, the place where the Real Evil behind Dysley is revealed. It’s so common for the Final Fantasy games to have the supposed villain step down from the stage at some point of the plot to make room for the real villain. Or at least the villain to take a turn for the darker, more menacing disposition. But really, Dysley was the architect of evil all along and continued on a very linear vector of evil through the game, totally against my predictions. As much as a I disliked his wizened papal looks, I have to admit his battle modes were very impressive, and he was an interesting departure from the young(-looking) and pretty Final Fantasy villains of the past.
I was surprised by the way the game’s difficulty spiked in Chapter 13. Strategies that had earlier worked so well only brought up the “Game Over” screen. The enemies were way stronger than what I had seen in the previous chapters, and I found I was really struggling to make progress through all those Behemoths. It took a good few hours of playing to figure out that all the changes were because the game was winding up towards the end.
I’m of two minds about this. I was disappointed that “this was it”. The ride was coming to an end and not nearly all of my expectations had been met. The plot seemed like it could (and would!) go on a lot longer, the characters and their relationships seemed somewhat underdeveloped still (or maybe it was just me hoping for more character interactions which to my mind were one of the game’s stronger points), and though the difficulty had spiked, it felt like FFXIII’s battle mechanics hadn’t really had the opportunity to show their full potential yet.
But then again... If there is something in my RPG playing habits that carries over from game to game it’s my inability to breach the “This is the final dungeon. Are you ready to proceed?” point. I remember spending months grinding, breeding Chocobos and travelling around the world in FFVII before I finally flew to the Northern Cave to save the world. The same has happened in countless RPGs, both Japanese and western, and sometimes it bleeds to other game genres as well, GTA games being prime examples.
When the mode kicks in, my actions always follow the same pattern. I endlessly explore, obsess and stress about the game. It’s not that I lose interest. Quite the contrary, I actually get too interested. I have to see everything before it’s too late. I know I may never revisit the game so I want to wring every last bit of fun out of it while I still can. I also get paranoid about my equipment and experience levels: “I have to achieve enough levels to survive the final boss,” I think to myself and neurotically comb the world map for the optimal place to grind. I pore over FAQs and strategy guides and jot down all subquests I find useful or interesting. And so, I take forever in finishing a game that would realistically speaking be only a couple of hours away from the final cinematics. Often this desire to experience everything before the fun comes to an end leads to a situation where it all becomes too arduous and I drift apart from the game, sometimes taking years before coming back and finishing it.
All too frequently this habit takes a lot out of the dramatic impact of the endgame. When you insert a whole potpourri of activities (or a considerable pause from playing) right before the final climax, the narrative necessarily loses some momentum. And furthermore, persistent grinding often makes the final boss battles needlessly trivial and undramatic.
FFXIII broke this pattern by making the last parts of the game extremely streamlined. I arrived to the final dungeon before I even realized it for what it was. After I did, I quickly fell back to the old habit and warped to Pulse, expecting a weeks-long spell of grinding and all manner of subquests. But FFXIII wasn’t having any of that. I completed some of the missions, which felt surprisingly fun, rode the Chocobos (and with them gathered money in order to upgrade my weapons), spent a while searching for a good grinding spot, and actually found several, completed the default Crystarium paths for all characters and upgraded my party’s weapons and accessories to decent levels. All of that within something like a week. This from someone who can spend over half a year on a game and call it a quick playthrough.
The brief spell at Pulse was actually one of the more pleasant endgames I've played.
Pruning and remodelling the loose spell of game time preceding the final confrontation is not the most revolutionary of ideas, nor is it what Final Fantasy XIII will be remembered for. But it’s certainly a welcome change and a rather gutsy move in terms of JPRG game design conventions.
The endgame is actually a very good example of the whole FFXIII design philosophy: Everything is streamlined. There are no bumps, nothing to slow the player down. Even grinding felt like madly dashing towards the ending.
I believe this is the reason why the often-criticised shallowness and simplification of the game didn’t bother me. It’s obvious the game is designed to be a wholly fluid experience. It’s not that the game is simple (though I use the term very loosely here) because of lax design or accidental lack of content. All the trimming is clearly intentional.
The game design supports the new less-is-more paradigm in various ways. Players are limited to controlling just one character, and the extreme speed of the battles further underlines the player’s dependence on the auto-battle function that allows the battles to flow even faster. Also, the battles are often structured so that the player party actually suffers heavy handicaps if the foe is not dispatched fast. Clearly, speed and steadily maintained pace are of the utmost importance. And outside the battles streamlining can be observed in several design decisions. Lack of traditional JRPG towns with dedicated shops and NPC interaction, constructing the game’s settings almost exclusively of strictly linear paths (versus larger fields or more complex labyrinthine structures) and grouping routine actions like upgrading weapons and buying items together with save points are all products of an effort to make the game flow smoother.
But the story, too, mirrors this design philosophy. I’m sure the plot’s simplicity is in no small part because of developing costs, of course: It takes tremendous amounts of resources (mainly money and/or time) to craft a current-gen console game, and with JRPGs which are viewed as owing a lot of their charm to FMV’s, pretty graphics and a continuous stream of awe-inspiring setpieces, the development costs are even more punishing. But regardless of the realities of the current development economy, FFXIII’s story feels like it actually belongs to the game. It’s not a simple story in a complex game nor a sprawling story in a simplified game: It’s a relentlessly straightforward story in a game so exhilaratingly forward-facing that the players almost never have to worry about anything behind them. The focus is always on the present or on the immediate future. Final Fantasy XIII’s story is the perfect companion for the game’s mechanics, and while It’s obvious it could have been told better, I nevertheless appreciate the attempt at extreme fluidity. Additionally, in the light of how fast it flows, the story has some surprising depth and rich subtext, as noted by the ever-lucid Michael Abbott.
For all the flak FFXIII’s been getting (much of it for a reason), I honestly believe the game’s run for a smooth ride is something marvelous, and also something very ambitious. It’s not often that you come by an RPG so willing to bet everything on a full-speed dash towards the unknown.
(Related: There was a post by Leigh Alexander over at Kotaku about the mystical phenomenon of abandoning a game just before it’s going to end. It’s pretty good. You should read it if you haven’t already. I wrote this post way back when I was playing FFXIII but the points Alexander brought up in her piece feel eerily familiar. Seems like this finishing problem is a very universal thing among gamers.)