Mike Salbato
Fabula Nova Crystallis: A Retrospective
A look at the ambitious big picture that Final Fantasy XIII's three titles sought to paint and how they fare.
01.18.16 - 11:24 PM

Now that Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is available on Steam, you may be wondering if it — or the whole Final Fantasy XIII trilogy — is worth your time. As I finally managed to finish the trilogy myself late in 2015, I thought it would be a good time to discuss this series within a series. I'll avoid big details as much as possible, but there are still some spoilers for the series in here, so be warned.

Long ago, the stories say, a god named Bhunivelze ruled the world, and he created several god-like beings named fal'Cie to control different aspects of that world. Once Bhunivelze realized that his world was destined to die because of humanity or something, he planned to create it anew. He sought out his mother, whom he blamed for the eventual death of the world he wanted to rule, but she was hidden away in an unseen realm inaccessible to him. Until that fateful day came, he slept, relying on the fal'Cie he created — Pulse, Lindzei, and Etro — to discover a way to reach his mother and carry out their own duties in watching over the world, by any means necessary.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Final Fantasy XIII

If you played Final Fantasy XIII, you probably know almost none of that. Admittedly, you'll learn that the fal'Cie have a plan to cause a huge disaster that will cause "The Maker" to return (Bhunivelze is not mentioned by name), but not much context beyond that. Given that the backstory of Bhunivelze and his fal'Cie was shown in a video by Square Enix in January 2011 — over a year after the first game's release — you'd be forgiven for feeling confused. This is perhaps the best example of one of FFXIII's two key shortcomings: a wealth of story that's simply not presented well (or at all). The mere idea of "summoning" Bhunivelze contradicts the god's own plans, and it also implies he is powerless without his subjects; or maybe it's by design since a mere alarm clock wouldn't be enough to wake him up. Along with this Fabula Nova Crystallis video that explains the origins of the world, there was also a lengthy prologue novel that details more recent events, such as how XIII's cast came to be where they are at the start of the game. Like the video, this stuff was never officially released outside of Japan, but thankfully the dedicated Lissartranslated it all to English.

This is what's bizarre about Final Fantasy XIII. Obviously, a lot of thought and time were required to build up this mythos, the cast, and the world. It's not quite Tolkien-level world building, creating new languages and races, but there was a real effort to craft a fully-realized fantasy world. So why hide so much of it in supplementary content? If you've played the whole FFXIII series, you'll know that the world of gods and goddesses truly becomes relevant. But the near-absence of this stuff in the first game is strange, given that the plot revolves around the fates of those doomed by Bhunivelze's fal'Cie. Maybe this was on purpose: The concept behind Fabula Nova Crystallis was meant to cover several games within the same world. While the initial plans disintegrated — with Final Fantasy Versus XIII becoming Final Fantasy XV, and Final Fantasy XIII Agito becoming Type-0 — FFXIII was still followed by two sequels.

Knowing this origin story may have helped what plot there was in FFXIII, as it would have provided some much-needed context to the events that unfold. What we see is each of the protagonists becoming "marked" by the fal'Cie, turning them into l'Cie. This essentially makes them slaves to fate, as they need to complete their "Focus," a non-specified task. If they do not, they become Cie'th (essentially shambling corpses) as punishment, and if they do, they're turned to crystal. It's a death sentence either way, and since l'Cie aren't told their Focus at first, it makes the idea of turning people into slaves less than effective. A friend of mine describes the plot in a nutshell like this: "Whatever we do, we can't complete our Focus. We need to complete our Focus. The end." And he's not far off the mark. It's a bit questionable as a narrative, and you can't help but, well, focus on it, thanks to FFXIII's other major design flaw: extreme linearity.

Linearity in itself doesn't have to be a bad thing: If you're trying to tell a cohesive story, it's in your best interest to have events unfold in a certain way. However, the team behind Final Fantasy XIII was so committed to this "focus" that, for about 40 hours, traversing the world of Cocoon is hardly anything but walking forward in a straight line. There's no exploration, no towns, and rarely are there other characters to interact with (outside of cutscenes). Shops are soulless computer terminals littered along the road. Final Fantasy X may have started this trend, but the road Tidus and Yuna traveled on still had towns to break up the journey and reasons to revisit earlier areas to find secrets. The closest you get to "exploring" in XIII is that sometimes your straight line has a fork in the path, and after 5-10 seconds you find a treasure sphere, open it, and backtrack to the main path until the next cutscene happens.

Final Fantasy XIII

After the 40(ish) hour mark of walking that straight (albeit gorgeous) path, you find yourself on the forbidden surface world of Gran Pulse. Pulse was designed in stark contrast to Cocoon as an open area with multiple connected zones, unique and difficult monsters, and a boatload of side quests and monster hunts. Where was this the entire game? I stepped away from FFXIII in 2010 and didn't pick it up again until early 2012, committed to finishing it prior to playing the sequel. Had I reached Gran Pulse in 2010, I wouldn't have ever stopped. Exploring Gran Pulse was the gameplay I was hoping to see the whole time. I want story too, but plenty of games can weave a story without the linearity being literally a straight line. A recent realization I had was that it's quite telling what Square Enix felt was important when marketing the game. If you look through our gallery, which is mostly officially-released images, you'll find that gameplay portions generally show either battles or the open world of Gran Pulse. The rest of the game is shown in overhead concept screens and cutscenes, but they intentionally shied away from showing the pre-Pulse gameplay.

Thankfully, Final Fantasy XIII's battle system is one of my favorites in any game, a fact which kept me going despite the story issues and linear world design. It's lightning-fast, strategic, and rewards you for thinking on your toes. Each character can play certain "roles," similar to classic FF jobs but even more specialized. Bringing the right combination of roles into battle and switching paradigms (sets of roles) at the right time is the key to victory. You can easily die, especially during bosses, as you're meant to use buffs, be defensive, and "stagger" opponents to do any real damage. You just won't succeed by mashing "X" like in a more straightforward system. This excellent battle system is the core of combat in the sequels, as well.

Outside of battle, XIII's bland gameplay can likely be attributed to a disjointed game design process. I won't paraphrase everything from this great Gamasutra article, but it details the weird process that led to FFXIII being what it was. As the article states, certain feedback was gathered too late to improve XIII, but it could be used to make the next game better.

And boy, did it ever. Final Fantasy XIII-2's exploration revolves around time travel, so being the fan of Back to the Future and Chrono Trigger that I am, I was already on board.

Final Fantasy XIII-2

The Historia Crux tells you a lot about the different approach XIII-2 took to exploration. Not only do you have a time "map" of locations, many of these places can be visited in multiple time periods, and actions in each can affect the others. Couple that with the fact that each area is designed as...well, an area and not a straight line, and you've suddenly got an RPG that's much more interesting to explore.

I always felt XIII's cast was decent and could have been used better. Many of them have reduced roles in XIII-2, as the sequel shifts playable control to only two people: Lightning's sister Serah, and newcomer Noel. The story is possibly more convoluted than the original, perhaps a given once time travel is involved. It's in the sequel that we really dig into the mythology of the series, with Lightning becoming a near-diety in the aforementioned Unseen Realm, and a villain who wants to change the very cycle of life and death.

As far as the cast is concerned, Caius, Noel, and Yeul make this game. Having the hero and villain be deeply connected made for a much more interesting story than the bad guys being big, unseen gods. Caius' motives are also fascinating, as he's the rare villain who isn't committing horrible crimes just because he's, you know, bad and stuff. His desire is actually one you sympathize with, so while you don't want him to win...you don't really want him to lose either. In fact, he's one of my favorite villains in the series, for these reasons, and for being brought to life so well by Liam O'Brien.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Final Fantasy XIII-2

FFXIII's battle system returns in XIII-2, refined for a fixed party of Noel and Serah, who are joined by a host of monsters in the third battle slot. I wasn't at all sold on this idea at first. I wanted a real character there, and I didn't want to play Pokémon in my Final Fantasy (not that I mind Pokémon in Pokémon). Unlike your human party members, monsters have set roles. As you play, you'll find yourself wanting to recruit certain ones for their usefulness in those roles. And really, once I realized I could have chocobos of any color in my party, I fully embraced this setup.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 does so much right, and it fixes every issue I had with the original. The improvement is substantial enough that the game remains my first, and so far only, Platinum-trophied game. I won't cover details, but the game also ends on a shocking major cliffhanger — the kind you're used to seeing at the end of a TV season, forcing you to wait a few agonizing months to see the aftermath. It didn't go over well with some people, but I applaud Square Enix's decision to throw everyone off so drastically, setting up a third game years in advance that nobody expected was coming.

By the time we got Lightning Returns in 2014, the series had nearly done a 180: The final game in the trilogy features a huge open world, designed similar to an MMO. Not only is it filled with side quests, but the five main story quests can essentially be completed in any order. Take that, linearity! In a way, it's exactly what people asked for, complete with the drawbacks that come from the making things less linear.

One of those drawbacks is the visuals. Certainly, part of the reason the first game had such high-fidelity backgrounds was the fact that they could only be seen in a limited capacity and at certain angles. Without a free-roaming world and camera controls, the PS3's power can be focused on immensely-detailed small zones. XIII-2 was nearly on par, despite bigger areas. But I guess Lightning Returns' scope was so big that something had to give, and the result is a larger world that's less detailed and interesting to look at. Luxerion as the "city of light" is weird, as it's kind of a dump (see above), and the Dead Dunes is a big, hilly desert. The areas lack the awe-inspiring nature of XIII's Sunleth Waterscape or XIII-2's Valhalla, and are just..."fine."

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

There's a definite story being told in Lightning Returns, but since you choose the order in which you complete the story missions, they can seem a little disjointed. This is because they need to stand on their own, without the expectation that you've completed any others. Each story is interesting enough in how it contributes to the bigger picture (even if I think they botched certain relationships established in XIII-2), though the key story here is Lightning's journey, told at set points in the game's 13 days. There are a ton of side quests — not a Xenoblade-ton, but a lot. Despite being labeled "side quests," these missions are fully-voiced and treated as "main" quests, which is good as they will fill the bulk of your time with the game. Plus, completing enough of them within the game's set time limit will affect your results, and determine whether or not you can access certain content.

The time limit isn't as oppressive as I had expected, especially once you gain the ability to pause time for a period. What turned out to be overly-aggressive game design for me was the punishing combat. Setting up Lightning's roles is even more vital to success than in XIII, as nearly anything in the game can kill you if you don't play smart. Couple this with HP that does not restore post-battle and the ability to carry only 5 healing items, and you simply can't afford to be reckless. To compensate for this, you're allowed to escape any battle (even bosses) and start over, but I simply didn't have the patience to play this way and retry every other battle. I have no shame in stating that I switched to Easy, and I had much more fun as a result. But if you're a masochist, by all means, stick with Normal. There's likely an audience for the Dark Souls of Final Fantasy, but I am not in it.

Regardless of difficulty, there is a ton of equipment to collect, and since certain abilities and roles are based on equipment, an arsenal of diverse gear is key to victory. There's an immense amount of customization possible, and you'll be in the menu a lot — but not just to recolor gear as I may have done...constantly (see below). Setting up the right collection of schemata is essential to taking down all but the most basic of enemies.

One thing of note regarding enemies: There is a finite number of them in the game. To really sell the idea of the world dying, it's possible to hunt most species to extinction, with the last of each species offering an extra-challenging battle and unique spoils. Leading up to the point where you'll start seeing these "Last Ones," enemies across the game gradually grow in power as in-game days pass and the end grows nearer. It's one of the most interesting concepts I've seen in an RPG, and it goes a long way toward solidifying the sense that the world really has little time left.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Lightning Returns continues the series' tradition of convoluted storytelling, and it is highly dependent on your knowledge of Final Fantasy XIII-2. After playing for awhile, you'll likely have an idea where it's going. It takes a fair bit of time to get there, but the resulting battle and ending are immensely satisfying. The ending itself and the five main story arcs do a great job of wrapping up the series' many threads, so it's a highly satisfactory ending with a real sense of finality.

While, in retrospect, it is apparent that XIII is aware of the bigger story behind the scenes, I still feel it's not properly realized until the sequels, unless you happen to partake in the supplementary content mentioned above. XIII-2 and LR are so deeply intertwined, I could never recommend someone play one without the other. The first game is summarized inside XIII-2, so I feel you can easily skip it, given that its sequel is a similar but refined experience. If you like what's there, I also recommend trying Lightning Returns. It's not perfect, but it proves Square Enix's newfound willingness to listen to feedback and drastically change up its sequels. It's quite an experiment, to be certain. This trilogy may not be what Fabula Nova Crystallis was originally meant to become, but at least it reaches a conclusion, even if it stumbles a bit to get there at times.


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