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March 29, 2013

Post #300 -- Our Final Fantasy

And here we are again.

I was thinking about skipping this “oh, hey, I reached a new milestone!” post, seeing as how this one coincides a little too neatly with the 1-year anniversary of the site.  It’s really awkward positioning, and tooting my own horn isn’t something I’ve ever been in the practice of.  So maybe from now on, this’ll be the last time I ever make note of a benchmark in the title of a post -- maybe I’ll make a mention of it in the first line or two of my virtual spews, but that’ll be it.  We’ll see.

But enough of that.  If the last milestone post (and the one before it) are any indication, then this is going to be high on the rankings for a while yet…which I find inexplicable, but who am I to argue with the logic of the internet?  All I can do is put out content and hope that it doesn’t inspire divine rage. 

I doubt that’ll be the case for this post -- probably because it’s got a bit of “real talk” within it.  Or at least real-ish.  Real in accordance with my skill set.

…So yeah. Not very.

If you’re just joining me here for the first time on Cross-Up, then I should start by saying that I like video games.  But even more than that, I like writing, to the point where I would rather become a “writing hero” than get in too deep with the games industry (especially in its current, less-than-savory state).  Still, I can’t stress enough how important video games have been to me in the past and present, and how they’ll keep being important to me in the future.  No matter what an episode of George Lopez may suggest, games are a legitimate medium with lots of untapped (and tapped) potential -- and of course, they’re more than just a chance to rack up points by beating down ladies of the evening.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that games inspired me to make my own tales.  Heroes, and worlds, and adventures that could put smiles on people’s faces; it felt like something that I wanted to do, and something I could do (more so than programming thanks to my severe lack of tech-savvy…and laziness).  But until proven otherwise, there’s an argument to be made that the game that gave me that nudge off the cliff was none other than Final Fantasy 7.  I’m not even going to pretend like that game is absolutely perfect, or that it’s a prime example to follow, but if nothing else it put the ideas in my head. 

There were other games that helped (and still do to this day -- again, tapped potential), but still…I can’t help but imagine that the Final Fantasy games played a part.  Granted I’m nowhere NEAR an authority on the franchise -- given that I’ve only finished three of the main series’ games on my own and watched my brother play through a couple of others -- but I always feel like I can look at that franchise as something worth observing.  And really, that’s been the case for a long time.  Final Fantasy started out as a last-ditch effort to save an ailing company, and in the years since the franchise turned said company into an absolute titan.  In the world of role-playing games, few names are as well-known.  Multiple titles in the series could, and probably have, made it into some semblance of a gaming hall of fame.  And there’s no doubt that all those spots are well-deserved.

Now, let’s be real here.  If you know games -- Final Fantasy in particular -- then you know that things have gone wrong.  When did it happen?  Was it a gradual slide, or an all-out drop?  Who’s responsible?  We can all sit in a circle and argue about those points until we’re blue in the face, and gain little more than sore throats, bruised egos, and a few tears.  So let’s leave that aside for now.  What’s important at the moment isn’t necessarily “where it all went wrong”, but proof that things have gone wrong.

And nowhere is there more proof than with this so-called “Lightning Saga.”

Final Fantasy 13 should have been the definitive statement on how to bring role-playing games into the HD generation.  It should have put everyone’s fears to rest, and reminded everyone of why they loved the franchise -- and games in general -- in the first place, no matter when, where, or how they first got into them.  So of course, the game’s release brings with it not only resounding outcry from wronged fans, but JUSTIFIED outcry.  A world that might as well have been painted onto a cardboard box.  Gameplay that turns your controller into a telegraph, and the player into a distant, mouth-breathing stalker.   Characters that are, in general, inoffensive at best, nonexistent on average, and shameful at worst.  A story that can’t even give its cast proper -- or consistent -- goals and motivations.  Some fifty to sixty hours of drama strung together by art assets, and incapable of telling even a single joke…on purpose at least.  The sheer amount of accidental humor is unreal.

It’s worth noting that I happened to stumble upon a Let’s Play of FF13 a while back -- and while I was making some content for I Hraet You, I figured I could give it a listen.  Background noise, so to speak, and a reminder of what I’d shoved out of my mind…or even a chance at redemption.  Looking back at the occasional cutscene crammed between the monotonous madness, I actually found a few moments that I liked.  And indeed, it IS possible for me to look favorably on that game, if only because of what would immediately follow.  Would I ever play it again?  Not a chance.  But with some chronological distance between me and 13, I’d say that the wounds have started to heal…if only by a little bit.

That still doesn’t make the game any less stupid.

The problems of FF13 can be explained with a single word: phones.  In what is supposedly a futuristic world with no shortage of flying machines, shape-shifting weapons, and gravity control devices that either reject the laws of physics or give their users superhuman abilities, not once is the possibility or even existence of phones ever discussed.  There are a couple of cutscenes where some phone-like devices are used, but there’s no explanation of what they are or, more importantly, why no one ever uses them.  Because of that lack of definition, MASSIVE patches of the plot are made either pointless, contrived, or some mix of the two.  Entire events are based on a lack of common sense -- and the implication, I’m guessing, is that many people died or would die as a result of not taking the most obvious action.

It may seem pointless to zero in on phones, but that’s just emblematic of the major issue with 13 -- there’s no explanation of anything in the context of the story.  Sure, you can stop the game and dive into the menus to read text entries in the “datalog”, but why aren’t details like that properly mentioned in the game?  Why are so many cutscenes devoted to stretching out angst-riddled conversations and creating pointless conflict between these people when so many world-building details are left unmentioned?  

It’s not just a matter of fleshing out the setting (though that helps, obviously), but helping to guide the characters and determine what their next action should be.  If they HAVE phones, they should USE phones.  If they DON’T use phones, explain why they CAN’T use phones.  Otherwise it just comes off as a plot hole that strains the story’s credibility.  Even beyond that, why wouldn’t you want to make your world as enticing as possible?  Why would you want to alienate your audience, and have them focus instead on characters that can’t sort out their issues with one pow wow and one conversation?  What is so important in this game that the “plot” has to keep shuttling us forward?  Flashbacks?  Killing off what few (and potentially important) side characters there are in the game?  Angst-activated death machines? 

While I’ve gotten over (most of) my issues with 13, and I do admit that there are a couple of bright spots, I can’t say I have a single pleasant memory of the game.  You can chalk most of that up to bias; thinking back, Final Fantasy 13 has to be the first time I’ve ever been or felt genuinely betrayed by a game.  And according to The Laws of the Internet, I’m not allowed to use the word “betrayed” without linking to this:     

It is, in my eyes, a terrible game.  There are those that enjoyed it, yes, and I don’t think they’re wrong for believing that.  In the end, it’s just my opinion, and a wound that I can’t forget.  To think that one game could drive me so much in the past, and then infuriate me so much in the future is downright astounding.  Granted the series has changed hands several times over the years, but I’m still baffled by the level of ineptitude here.  And even though my opinion is my own, there ARE those who’d agree with my every word.  There are those who might have been similarly-wronged, and shoot out even more bile than I ever could.  I don’t blame them.  And I know they’re out there; I’ve seen the comments on a Final Fantasy-related article, and I’ve seen the points made against 13.  All valid.  All true.  All offering proof that, yes, something has gone wrong and there’s no point in arguing when it happened anymore.  Here and now, we all know that something is amiss.

Unfortunately, there’s even more proof.

There is no doubt in my mind that as of this post -- and for months to come, I bet -- Final Fantasy 13-2 is the WORST game I’ve ever played.  The badness on display here is -- no, it has to be impossible.  I can’t believe that a game that should have been an apology for one incredibly-divisive (and terrible, in the eyes of many) turned out to be as bad as or even worse.  If Final Fantasy 13 was a runner in a relay race, it would be someone who tripped at the starting line and fell on his face -- and rather than pick himself up, he just decided to roll with it and drag his head the rest of the way.  But even then he’d still be a better runner than 13-2, who not only does the exact same thing once he gets the baton, but also runs around in a circle with his shorts around his ankles and singing “Danger Zone” off-key.

I’ve been making posts about its faults week after week for a while now, to the point where the Word file I keep them in is roughly the length of a novella.  Granted that’s partly because I say in twenty words what can be said in three (“This game sucks”), but the fact remains that a lot has gone wrong.  A whole lot.  If I kept playing the game -- or even reviewed what I had gone through survived -- then there’s no doubt I’d find more problems, faults, and issues.  It’s worth noting that the Let’s Players who did a playthrough of the original 13 started one with 13-2…and they couldn’t bring themselves to finish it.  They didn’t even make it as far as I did, though I can’t say I blame them; if you watch the videos, the optimism and cheer they show at the start slowly gives way to confusion, anger, and even despair.  And if my guess is correct (judging by the laughter and screaming in some of their videos), a bit of mania.

I would have figured -- no, expected better from professionals behind a franchise as storied and famous as that.  I shouldn’t be able to point out every fundamental error the game makes, both in terms of its story and its gameplay.  I shouldn’t be able to scroll down to the comments section of any given article of a FF-related post and find people joking about how its leads have no personality, or wondering if the next game’s story will make sense…or the fan favorite, asking when the long-MIA Final Fantasy Versus 13 will come out.  But here we are.  And here I am.

For all my issues with 13 and 13-2 (and inevitably, the unwanted sequel Lightning Returns), I think I’ve managed to pinpoint the biggest problem with The Lightning Saga.  It’s something I was vaguely aware of for a while, but the videos I’ve seen and the posts I’ve made have brought the problem to the forefront.

The Lightning Saga is a vacuum.

I’ve forgotten huge chunks of the original 13 -- but after watching and listening to videos to catch up, I’m starting to realize I didn’t miss too much.  It’s not just the characters that are aimless, but the plot; it gets lost for huge swaths of time forcing the player to drag his/her feet through a solid hour of tedious gameplay before continuing a conversation that should have ended in one go.  The pace is simultaneously glacial and manic, creating the illusion that things are happening and we need to get to the next area quickly, when in reality the player is just waiting for something to happen. 

Contrivance plagues the game from start to finish forcing conflict either through absurd character relations/development, or more silliness that could be solved of these people tried to think.  If I sit down and play a game, and then get up a few hours later to grab something to eat, then in the span of those hours I need to feel like I’ve progressed.  Like I’ve gained something.  Like I’m on my way to the endgame, and the end of the tale.  I DID make it to the endgame, but I did so as little more than a bloody stump.

But that’s still more than can be said about 13-2.  In some twenty-plus hours of gameplay over several weeks, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished a damn thing.  I haven’t seen any progression in these characters, hero or villain.  I haven’t seen the effects of my actions, either on the plot or the world at large.  I haven’t gotten a sense that I’m even in a world, but instead just a mass of art assets…COPIED art assets.  I haven’t felt like I’ve been challenged, either intellectually or skillfully.  I have no idea if the end of the game is right around the corner, ten hours, or twenty hours away.  And that’s likely because I have no idea if what I’ve done so far has had a positive effect, ESPECIALLY in regards to throwing a wrench in the villains’ plans. 

I don’t know if I’m even ready to go up against the last boss, because I can’t tell if I’ve made any progress in building the ultimate team, and because the sheer number of trash mobs in my path are so piss-easy to beat that I’d assume I’m still at the start of the game.  Not once have I gotten the sense that this is a world that needs to be saved, or an adventure I need to go on; I feel no stakes, no tension, no fear, no drive, no zeal, no joy, nothing.  Everything is based on garbage designed to waste your time and create the illusion of the much-touted “player-driven” world.  But it’s not a player-driven world -- a puddle, maybe, or a saucer full of milk, but there is no way that this game has a world to explore.

So.  I guess this is how it ends, then.  Not with a final hurrah, or a tearful goodbye, but with me turning my back on it all.  The game.  The saga.  Maybe even the franchise as a whole -- at least the franchise in its current state.

And you know what?  I’m actually okay with that.

In a way, you can think of Final Fantasy as a teacher of sorts.  FF7 was the game that helped me realize the possibilities that exist -- the roads that can be taken to create a fist-pumping, tear-jerking, laugh-sparking, heart-warming tale.  It’s not the greatest game, or even my favorite game, but I respect it; now more than ever, it’ll hold a place in my heart.  And in a twisted way -- in a way I’m horrified to even consider -- Final Fantasy is still my teacher.  The Lightning Saga has taught me how NOT to write a story.  It’s taught me what to focus on, what needs to be considered, and what to avoid in my own writing adventures.  It’s no longer something to admire, but it does offer one of the most harrowing cautionary tales I’ve ever seen.  It’s a rival rather than a role model -- a case of the student striving to surpass the master.

Putting some distance between me and Final Fantasy isn’t something I ever thought I’d do, but if this vacuum is destined to keep on growing, then that might be the only way to escape alive.  And besides, there are plenty of other games to gravitate towards.  I know, because I’ve tried them for myself -- and I’ve been influenced and inspired by them more deeply than I ever thought possible.  So in that regard, I think I’ll be all right.  I’ll be fantastic once news of Persona 5 starts hitting the rounds, but that’s neither here nor there.  The important thing is that I’m going on my way.

On the other hand, I can only wonder what’s left for FF and its masterminds at large.  Squeenix is not doing very well at all these days, and it’s a fact that’s been noted by people on every level of the industry…up to and including the company’s employees.  It’s easy to assume that the lack of a strong FF title this generation is the biggest problem, and that’s likely an issue -- not the ONLY issue, but a major one.  Whatever the case, they need to figure out what to do so they can stay afloat, and of course take the brand out of its Lightning-carved rut.  Can they do it?  I can tell you right now that it’s not going to be with Lightning Returns.  And it’s just as likely that the rejuvenation won’t come as early as Versus 13, or even FF15.  Not while that air of hubris is still choking the company like smog and the fumes from burnt tripe.

Whatever the case, there’s a lesson to take away from all this.  Gamer or not, writer or not, critic or not, there’s one thing that we all want whenever we have a moment to ourselves: a good story.  Once upon a time, gamers like me could count on Final Fantasy to deliver -- maybe not the best story ever, and maybe a story that pandered to certain tastes, but it could at least satisfy when the need arose.  That was something we had -- and no matter who you are, that’s a feeling you probably know as well.  A book, a movie, a game, a show, a comic, whatever; there was (and still is, I bet) something out there that spoke to you, either drawing out emotion or driving you to action.  It was something you held dear in your heart.

And in the end, that may be the biggest takeaway from all this.  All of the franchise’s bumbles, all my ranting, and all of even traces of common sense.  What’s out there now may not be what we really want -- it may not be OUR Final Fantasy -- but then again, maybe there doesn’t have to be.  Maybe it’s up to us to make our own fantasies.

And that’s just what I intend to do.

Well.  That’ll just about do it for now.  I’m not going to do any more talking about Final Fantasy for a while.  I’m done with The Lightning Saga, and unless there’s some huge push from recent news, I won’t be making any comments.  No more ranting.  No more hate.  I need to let it go, and stop picking at the scab.  This is a wound that I need to let heal.  And I will.  I’ll heal, and I’ll move on.  I’ll find something even better to admire.  Maybe someone, if it comes down to it.

But don’t worry.  I’ll still be here to rant about other games.  Maybe a couple of TV shows, or movies.  Maybe I’ll work on the stuff in some of these other tabs; they’re getting kind of dusty if you haven’t noticed.  And who knows?  Maybe someday, you’ll be reading my own Final Fantasy here on Cross-Up.  Who’s to say, really?  Anything can happen if you’re willing to explore the possibilities.

Till next time, then.  And...thanks for everything.


  1. Right on! Keep walking the path of the Writing Hero!

    Final Fantasy - you know, I would honestly read a book about what happened with that franchise over the years. I've played most of them - played the very first one when it was released, and I think all of them that launched on major consoles here in the States. (Some, like the ones that only ever made it here on DS or Gameboy or PSP, I've only played little pieces of).

    I've found fun in nearly every one of them along the way - some more for story, others more for mechanics - but 13 does mark a point at which my excitement for new entries is gone. There are elements of the battle system that might, with time and innovation and polish, become truly interesting. But that's all that's in there - squandered potential, incoherent story, and pretty CG.

    I wish that someone who could actually write was involved. Now I mostly look forward to Atlus titles instead; they have always excelled at thought provoking JRPG gameplay.

  2. That's probably a fair assessment. I have an idea of what happens thanks to comments around the internet, but I honestly can't be bothered to know what leads up to it and what the consequences are in full. So I'm pretty "meh" about the game and whatever details surround it.

    Though I've found that the best way to enjoy the game is to listen to a group of Let's Players have a go at it...and laugh their asses off every step of the way. Clearly I've been playing the game wrong all this time.

  3. I started Ni No Kuni a little while ago, and so far so good -- bit of a slow start, to be honest, but I'm more than a little eager to keep on playing and get in deep with the (incredibly beautiful) world. I've just been sidetracked by other games -- the new BioShock, most recently -- and need to get into the mindset to play it. I'm ready for a magical adventure!

    In any case, thanks for the well-wishes. I do what I can, and I've got some more stuff planned for the future. Too early to say if I'll be able to follow through on my plans, but let's just say I've got some "revisions" in mind...

  4. If you're looking for more info on "what happened", then I'd STRONGLY recommend looking at Pitchfork's "The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy" series. It's part of what inspired me to take as close a look at this game as I did, and his work is a lot more in-depth and well-researched than mine. Give it a look...though he stepped away from the series before tackling 13-2, and it's likely he never will.


    But in any case, I'm with you. Atlus gives me what I want with almost freakish regularity; their games keep offering thoughtful and meaningful content, while FF (and Squeenix at large) have completely stagnated. The company that was once the leader of the pack is now struggling to play catch-up, and the gap is widening with each quality release by the competition. Even if Lightning Returns is the dream come true that we're all hoping for (and I doubt it will), there's still a long, long, looooooooooooong way to go.

    But like I said, that's all right. The new generation must always surpass the old -- and there are guys and ladies all over who'll gladly step over Squeenix's tired, slumped body.

  5. ...The horns have been raised high for this one. It makes my heart overflow with voltage!

  6. Congrats on your 300th post! I've only been a reader for a short while, but I've come to really admire your blog and the work you put into it.

    This was quite the touching post. This post is proof that we can learn things through our experiences in games, both the good and the bad.

    The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy is a very good article. I've come back to it on several occasions. It even inspired me to write my own mini article on the FF series with titles that did things to alienate fans.

  7. Hey, thanks. Good to know that I'm not just writing this stuff for an imaginary audience. Though of course, being able to put a smile on even one person's face is a reward in itself. (Still wouldn't mind a squadron of readers, though, but hey, gotta crawl before you can walk.)

    Anyhoo, it is true that games can teach a lot if you're willing to take a closer look at them. Really, being able to engage with any story critically is a blessing. A mentality like that can do some real wonders...with the side effect of raising one's standards to an unreasonable level, but whatever. Just more of an impetus for devs to raise their game, yeah?

    In any case, I'll be looking forward to seeing your FF article. I just hope I spot it up on my blogger dashboard when it's ready. Or you can just drop a comment on one of my posts. Tell me when it's up, and I'll come a-running. Digitally speaking, of course.

  8. Woo, 300th post! Grats! In the last 8 months or so, you've definitely made me a fan of your work and your posts always inspire me to be a lot less cut and dry with my own writing. You have a unique way of keeping it interesting and knowledgeable without coming off as long winded and TL;DR. I always look forward to new posts, Volt. Keep 'em coming.

    As for the FF series as a whole, I lost interested after FFX. I thought the combat in 12 was done quite well, but the storyline picked up at a snails pace and the characters were as interesting as someone you'd been on Craigslist. 13 was a complete train wreck and I'm convinced that Square isn't coming off the "no, no, you're supposed to like Lightning!" mentality any time soon.

    The glory days of Squeenix are over, and that's something I've come to terms with. Some of the better team members went to Mistwalker and the ice titan of Square is basically a melting snowman at this point. Thankfully there are a good amount of other fantastic JRPGs from elsewhere and I, myself, can't wait for Persona 5 to be announced.

  9. Thanks for the link! This looks like a fantastic read.

  10. I hear you on the whole "like Lightning" mentality. Every time I have to say or type out "Lightning Returns", a part of me dies. Why couldn't they just call it 13-3 and be done with it? We all know that's what it is. Also, are they still going to pretend that Lightning is supposed to be a female Cloud? Advent Children Cloud, maybe; the GOOD Cloud, not a chance.

    But I'll go ahead and stop here before my brain bursts from the stress. In any case, thanks for the support. I'm just doing what I can, and it's good to know that I'm managing to have even a tiny effect on the internet.

    So yeah, good to have you around. Just as good as the announcement of Persona 5. (I will have a damn heart attack if it's got a metal-laden soundtrack.)

  11. "In some twenty-plus hours of gameplay over several weeks, I don’t feel like I've accomplished a damn thing."

    I don't have the game, but after seeing this and the ending you get for 100%ing, I'm highly tempted to spoil it for you after seeing this.

    Bit I doubt you'd care anyway. XD

  12. "And in the end, that
    may be the biggest takeaway from all this.
    All of the franchise’s bumbles, all my ranting, and all of even traces
    of common sense. What’s out there now
    may not be what we really want -- it may not be OUR Final Fantasy -- but then again, maybe there doesn’t have to
    be. Maybe it’s up to us to make our own

    And that’s just what I
    intend to do."

    Have some awesome Power Metal on me for that one:


  13. Congrats on 300. You've put in quite a bit of hard work, and it's shown. As for your thoughts on the Final Fantasy series, I'd love to disagree with you, but I can't. I think that I've been burned by JRPGs too much in the past. It's a shame really, since they used to be my favourite genre until Xenosaga II's atrocious battle system turned my right off.

    I'm hoping to start Ni No Kuni soon, maybe that will get me back in the swing of things. Of course, for that to happen I have to stop playing MGR first ... so not for a while.