Final Fantasy XIII
PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: March 9, 2010
Pros: Stunning Visuals, Interesting and unique story, Paradigm Shift keeps gameplay fast-paced and adds a great depth of strategy, Environments are incredibly detailed and breathtaking, Summoning never gets old
Cons: First hour of actual gameplay is drawn out, VERY Linear worlds in first half of the game only opening up after about 18 hours, No option to kick Vanille whenever she squeaks above a high C-note
Final Fantasy is one of those few series that has managed to stand the test of time with games that were never dependent upon each other. Each game possessed the same elements, but always managed to throw in a great story, interesting cast of characters, and satisfying JRPG gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII continues that trend, offering not only a compelling story, but some fast-paced gameplay and a truly grand presentation that is unmatched by previous installments. Though the typical fan base may find the new approach a bit too closed off...
If I could explain the entirety of the story in this game, it would take five more pages. The basic idea is that there is a huge Utopian city in the sky named Cocoon, ruled by The Sanctum. Civilization is blessed by the "fal'Cie", or god-like creature that protect and sustain the population. However they also discovered hostile fal'Cie from the outside world known as Grand Pulse. Fal'cie have the ability to choose a servant by branding them l'cie, slaves to the fal'cie's will. Successful completion of their task turns them into an immortal crystal....unsuccessful completion turns them into an abomination...win, win right? Any contact with a Pulse le'Cie warrants a "Purge" or nice way of saying genocide to ensure the world remains in order.
That's where the game picks up, where the latest Pulse fal'Cie has tainted a district that is being purged. Our heroes are all involved in some way, whether they are leaders of a resistance against the purge or simply victims that got on the right train with our female lead, Lightning. They all eventually head to the same place and embark together under dire circumstances. The plot is ten times more complicated that what I just summarized, offering truly deep and interesting characters that we learn are more connected than one would have previously thought. There are plenty of twists, turns, and truly emotional moments in the game that make for another solid story that drives the player forward. Though initially, you will be confused as to what is going on around you. It takes time to get used to the new vocabulary of l'cie and fal'cie, but luckily the "journal" element of the game is plenty length, summarizing key events for those thoroughly confused.
The first thing you notice as soon as the game fires up is the incredible level of detail the developers took in creating the worlds and characters. This game is seriously up there as far as being one of the best looking games of the past decade. Character models look just as good in pre rendered scenes as they do in actual gameplay. You are able to notice distinct feathers on Chocobos, shiny and sparkly textures of a city, and even great detail on facial hair and of course...Sazh's fro.There were a multitude of moments where I stood in awe of the worlds in the game, panning the camera a full 360 around me just to take it all in. Summoning your trusty eidolon never gets old to watch as the pretty lights and colors will captivate you. This detailed look to the game makes traversing worlds and battles a sight that rarely gets old.
The cast of characters at your disposal are all unique in their own right. Even though some elements seemed borrowed from past games (Pole-arm girl = Freya from FF9?), the character's voice work is what truly brings them to life. The developers took time in the US port to fix lip syncing not only in gameplay, but pre-rendered cutscenes as well to match English dialogue. This further enhances the experience as the relationships and interactions between characters are high points of the game. Voice acting is top notch, boasting some of the best I have heard in the series. Vanille is the only real complaint for the game, not in her dramatic scenes so much as just in game squeals. She has an incredibly bubbly personality and mainly sticks with a high pitched voice. Think Navi from Legend of Zelda...but more Australian. That being said, she still is just as interesting in her background and involvement as the rest of the cast.
The soundtrack for this game is pretty decent, though I do not feel it holds up with previous installments like that of Final Fantasy X. This is mainly due to the decision to add lyrics to most of the songs. I do not know if you listen to much pop music....but this is what I ended up listening to as I roam the halls filled with monsters. They even put lyrics to the chocobo theme, a theme that really needed no words at all. That is like adding lyrics to the Jaws theme, it just kills the mood. Still the battle theme and boss battle themes remain the high point of the soundtrack.
The battle system for the game has been overhauled. You only control one character. While that may seem like it could be easy to do, the system adds complication pretty quickly. You gain more Active Time Bars, around 4 or 5, as you progress. You can manually stack the attacks you want, wait until they all fill and unleash them on an enemy or simply cut it off early to throw a few quick hits in. There is a handy "Auto-Attack" button that weighs enemy weaknesses and uses whatever moves are most efficient. It is much like the Staples Easy Button....except more deadly and with less office supplies. You actually find yourself using this button quite a lot, with a few exceptions in fighting groups more tactically, it will be the go-to attack method.
About 2 hours into the game you unlock the most interesting aspect of the game: Paradigm Shift. This is a way to control the party members by assigning them roles. You are given a preset of these to use for the first half of the game, but can customize them much later on. Basically a character chooses a role like a Commander that is focused on attack, Ravager that focuses on magic, or Medic for healing. If I want a balanced attack method, I will shift so each person has a different role. If the enemy is guarding attacks, I can unleash all I can by assigning a Ravager, Commander, Ravager role to shift to that will hit them hard. While this starts out pretty basic, in the latter half of the game you are constantly switching paradigms to fit the situation. This keeps you on your toes, and makes the battles incredibly fun to engage in. Boss battles in particular require quick thinking and continual shifting to adjust for devastating attacks and buffing your party for the fight.
Combat has a few other elements to vary the fighting further. There is a "combo" meter for each enemy, where if I continually lay damage into them I can "stagger" the enemy. Once staggered, every hit on the enemy deals critical damage and I can even launch them into the air for some added effect. You will also slowly unlock Eidolons. Summoning these dismisses the other party members but allows you to build up a gauge to unleash devastating attacks with an always satisfying finisher.
Fights get you items and crystarium points which you use to level up much like in Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. You level up the roles of your party adding new moves, additional accessory slots, and upgrading general stats along the way. The weapons and accessories you gain can be upgraded with components from fights. This becomes tedious as you find new weapons and accessories every five minutes and upgrading these can be costly as they stack up. You also gain gil at certain areas, but the first half of the game leaves you so broke that you can not even afford anything you want and the things you can afford are items you already possess. You will usually only be able to buy potions or a few additional components to start. That is like giving me five bucks and telling to me to pick something out from an electronics store. So many cool things, but I will walk out with gum.
Besides combat you will be wandering the world, which is where the game may throw some fans off. The first half of this game is very..very..very linear. It sets you on a path and you go forward for a lot of it. Though the occasional branch off can be found for an item in a corner, you will always go one direction. There are no towns to trade at, no added minigame for a break in combat, no inns to rest at...just moving and fighting. While they try to mix it up by letting you gain the upperhand and sneak up on enemies, this linear feel lingered on far too long. You do not get to start "leveling up" until about 2 hours into the game. You do not get to customize weapons until about 3 hours into the game.You do not get to select your party until about a good 15 hours into the game. You do not even get the ability to use most of the fun gameplay elements until the latter half of the game. I understand the need to hold my hand to start, but I am pretty sure I already know not to attack if my health is flashing red after 2 hours. It almost has an element of repetition were it not for fight approaches; Walk down path, fight monsters, fight boss, switch parties, repeat.
This is where the game becomes a test of the long-time Final Fantasy fan. In practically all the previous games it was side missions, mini-games, and towns to explore that put a nice break in the typical path. Without that break, the game mainly appeals to the combat enthusiast and story-driven gamer. The game seemed to shift the series from a huge exploration feel to a small trail of predestined experiences. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but this new approach may leave many scratching their head as to the fate of their beloved towns. Halfway through the game you do eventually make it to the plains and are free to engage in side missions. The new approach is not really a bad thing. You never really get lost or turned around on where to head. In a sense, the first 15 hours of the game feel like one very long tutorial, slowly easing you into the workings of combat and leveling while pushing through the story....very...very slowly. A huge positive is that you regenerate health completely after each fight and if you die, you can be put outside the path and try again without reloading my save. This allows you to experiment with different techniques and tactics to find the most efficient method of combat.
Though the first half of the game can be a bit tedious to some, the latter portion and overall presentation of this game are the high points. Combat is increasingly enjoyable as you progress and offers some truly memorable boss battles. It is the look and the story of this game that is truly driving me, with epic fight sequences and surprising confrontations. If you are finding the game repetitive, I implore you to press on as the difficulty and strategy increases at much later chapters of the game. Do not let the few complaints or bothers with the new approach fool you, this is one very solid RPG title and a great addition to the series.