Final Fantasy 13 was when it all started to go wrong for Square Enix. Coming off Final Fantasy 12, which was as divisive as it was beloved in many quarters, many hoped Square Enix would get back on track on the PlayStation 3. Instead there were delays. And more delays.
When Final Fantasy 13 finally released in North America on this day 10 years ago, it arrived with the weight of the Japanese games industry on its shoulders. Fairly or unfairly, it was seen as a litmus test for an entire section of the industry. Could JRPGs succeed in the HD era? Could Final Fantasy 13 single-handedly save Japanese games? These questions seem kind of laughable in hindsight, but coming less than a year after Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune declared Japanese games "finished", they seemed quite relevant.
Final Fantasy 13 wound up being every bit as divisive as its predecessor, and then some. While it won generally positive reviews, particularly for its sleek turn-based combat, it was criticized for its hyper-linear design, lack of towns, and bland customization. Lightning, the story's ostensible lead, was designed to be a "female version of Cloud Strife", which made her seem one-dimensional and derivative. When it's remembered at all, it's usually for having little exploration.
There's one thing everyone can agree on, though: Final Fantasy 13's battle system is still pretty great.
That is to say that it has a battle system, which is more than can be said for Final Fantasy 15, or even Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Both of those games have "systems", but at heart they're really hack-and-slash action games not so far removed from Kingdom Hearts. Those games have setpieces. Final Fantasy 13 has tactics.
As the final game in the series to feature something resembling turn-based combat, Final Fantasy 13's main innovation is to basically let you mix and match your party roles on the fly. Almost every encounter is built around utilizing the right skills for the job, and finding that mixture while staying alive is part of the challenge. The character that you control—you only get to control one out of the three party members—gets a finite number of attacks in which to do damage. The goal, ultimately, is to get an enemy into a state where they're staggered, at which point you can start rolling up huge amounts of damage.
Final Fantasy 13 is frequently derided for being too linear, but it's because of its straightforward design that its battle system works as well as it does. Because the designers know exactly where you will be and what skills you will have at a given moment, they can craft the battles accordingly. This makes every fight feel like a puzzle in a way. If you die, you basically reset right to the beginning of the encounter, allowing you to shift your roles around and try something else. Maybe magic is better for this fight. Maybe you need to set a Healer-Healer-Defender combo to survive a particularly powerful attack. Maybe you need a Jammer to break down their defense.
In hindsight, it's one of the better battle systems to come out of the franchise's latter period. Final Fantasy 7 was too simple; Final Fantasy 8 was too messy and broken; Final Fantasy 12 wasn't interactive enough. Final Fantasy 13 seemed to strike the balance—fast-paced, tactical, complex without being too complex. It evolved the standards of the series without sacrificing the strategic elements that made them special.
Even then, though, Square Enix was struggling under the yoke of menu-based combat. Final Fantasy 13 restricted the flow of combat and had you constantly making tactical decisions, but its constant movement made it seem as if it was actually an action game. "Real-time battles are the trend for games these days," Nomura would say a decade later. "While some may reject it, if we were going to make Final Fantasy 7 in today's generation, then we must steer towards real-time. We decided that from the very start of planning."
After Final Fantasy 13-2, the series visibly shifted away from the old turn-based combat that defined its formative years, and in the process it lost something. Old-school RPG fans were alienated. Action fans were put off by the RPG elements that remained. In trying to please everyone, it pleased basically no one.
It probably says something that the most popular element of Final Fantasy 13—the one part that everyone agrees is really good—also happens to be the element that connects most clearly with the series's early years. If there's one lesson to draw from in remembering Final Fantasy 13 on the 10th anniversary of its release in North America, it's that one.
Major Game Releases: March 9 to March 13
Here are the major releases for the week of March 9 to March 13. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps [March 11 for PC, Xbox One]: The long-awaited follow-up to Ori and the Blind Forest launches this week, and it will be "three times larger" than the original. It's a perfectly beautiful Metroidvania in 4K. You can expect our review on Friday.
- Nioh 2 [March 13 for PlayStation 4]: Team Ninja's ultra-hard Soulsborne series returns with customizable characters and a multitude of other additions. We had a frank chat about difficulty with Nioh 2's producer just last month. As with Ori, our Nioh 2 review will be up later this week.
- Call of Duty: Warzone [March 10 for PC, Xbox One, PS4]: After a long wait, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is finally releasing its take on battle royale tomorrow. Its biggest innovation will be a new "Gulag" system, in which those who are killed are taken to prison and given the opportunity to fight for their life with another player. It will be a free-to-play standalone release, but it will also be accessible through Modern Warfare, with all progress being unified between the two.
Five Things You Should Know Heading Into This Week in Gaming
Every week we list five things you should know heading into this week in gaming. This week: two classics celebrate their 25th anniversaries, we learn that Doom 64 will have a brand new chapter, and the new Nintendo PlayStation owner steps forward.
- We now know who bought the Nintendo PlayStation. And it's not Palmer Luckey. Instead, it's Greg McLemore, founder of the ill-fated Pets.com, which exemplified the dot-com bubble of the 90s. McLemore says he plans to make it part of a "permanent museum" for games.
- Panzer Dragoon and Chrono Trigger are celebrating their 25th anniveraries. These two classics spanned different generations, but they launched within a day of each other in Japan. We put Chrono Trigger at number one on our list of the Top 25 RPGs of All Time.
- Doom 64 will include a brand-new chapter. When Doom Eternal launches next week, it will include an updated port of Doom 64 as a pre-order bonus. We recently chatted with the devs, who revealed the inclusion of a new chapter.
- Call of Duty: Warzone announced after gameplay leaks early. Better late than never, right? As mentioned above, it will be out tomorrow.
- Phantasy Star Online 2 enters open beta next week.. It will be on Xbox One first and will require an Xbox Live Gold subscription to play. More info here.
Axe of the Blood God for January 6, 2020
Axe of the Blood God is our official RPG podcast releasing every single Monday. You can find subscription info here. We also put out an Axe of the Blood God newsletter every Wednesday, which you can subscribe to here. Here's this week's episode!
- It's a Mailbag of the Blood God this week as Kat and Nadia tackle all of your biggest questions! This week's questions include:
- Why do RPG protagonists always seem to use swords?
- What are the Blood God's commandments for succeeding in RPGs?
- Why are airships so awesome?
- Do we feel guilty over dropping an especially long RPG?
- What are some of our favorite examples of customization in an RPG?
- What JRPGs would we recommend to someone who grew up with PC RPGs like Baldur's Gate?