After the ordeal that was Final Fantasy XII, the folks down at Square Enix bring to the populace the Thirteenth installment of the Final Fantasy series. With a brand new story, a new cast of characters, a fantastic soundtrack, beautiful graphics, and a new twist on the battle system, the game looks to bring some of the luster back to a series that has withstood the test of time. So, grab a potion or two, equip your sword, and charge up some teenage angst; here we venture off into Final Fantasy XIII! Be forewarned, like the game itself, this is a long one!
Title: Final Fantasy XIII
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Systems: 360, PS3
Here we have the Thirteenth installment of the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy, as a series, has been in existence for quite some time, and as per usual, it brings about a fantastic new tale that is almost completely unique in comparison to the Final Fantasies of the past. The story itself is new and unique compared to the other games in the series, the battle system has gotten another revamp, and the character building is in another new iteration. However, it also differs from games of the past as it is a LOT more linear in comparison. The game starts out, ironically enough, on a straight pathway after riding along on a train, and unfortunately, that is pretty much a big glimpse as to what to expect for a good 75% of the game.
XIII brings about a tale that takes place on the floating city world of Cocoon and the giant outerworld known as Pulse. Cocoon is where the majority of the game takes place, and it is led by the religious figureheads known as the Sanctum, who are the ones that are in direct contact with the deity-like creatures known as the fal-Cie. The fal-Cie, as the game eventually shows, are mythical beings that provide and care for the Humans that live in Cocoon. In the beginning of the game, the player assumes the role of the former security officer known only as Lightning, along with the civilian pilot known as Sazh, fighting their way through throngs of soldiers going through a bit of a military extraction known as the Purge. The game also cuts to a freedom fighter known as Snow, leading a local militia trying to fight off the military of the Sanctum. As the story goes on in the first chapter of the game, they eventually come into contact with a boy named Hope, and a bubbly young woman named Vanille. Eventually, they also add a no-nonsense woman named Fang to the party as well. As the story goes on, the party eventually finds out their role in a much larger scheme that intertwines them all with the fate of Cocoon, the mysteries of the religion that has led their lives for so long, and the mystery which surrounds the outerworld of Pulse.
Unfortunately, while the story itself is rather well developed and deep, there are numerous subliminal and unspoken details to the story itself that aren’t revealed in actually playing the game. This is a common thing throughout XIII, as while the cinematics and player actions do help gain a feel for the events in the game, it does require a lot of reading in the datalog in order to actually understand and comprehend the true context of the game itself. That is the major underlying problem with XIII, as if one wants to truly understand the story, they will find themselves reading tons of appendix data given in the provided datalog inside the game menu. There were many occasions which required spending a good amount of time reading the recap of the chapters and updated character data just to say, “Oh THAT’S what happened. It makes much more sense now!” So, if one wants to understand the story, expect to spend a lot of time sitting and reading the datalog.
The character system of XIII brings back the selectable Job system found in many of the older FF games, as well as having experience delivered more in terms of spendable ability points (known as Crystallium Points) rather than set EXP values. There are six Jobs (or Roles) available for each character total, with each character being more attuned to three roles for most of the game. The Roles available are the Commando (chain maintenance and direct attacks), the Ravager (chain boosting and very damaging attacks), the Sentinel (tanking and defensive abilities), the Medic (healing and status removal), the Synergist (party buffs and support), and the Saboteur (debuffs and afflicting status ailments to enemies). For the party makeup, the player can set what are called Paradigm Decks, where each member of the party has a specific role in each Deck. During the battle, the player can access up to six Paradigm Deck make-ups (set outside of battle on the menu screen), and the player is required to constantly shift between these Decks in order to effectively defeat foes throughout the game, as the roles are extremely specialized.
Character development consists of distributing the aforementioned Crystallium Points (CP) across multiple Role trees. These trees will give the characters various stat boosts across all roles, as well as allow access to different abilities specific to a given Role. This is what takes the place of the usual EXP level system, as the characters only increase in Role Levels through reaching the appropriate nodes in the specific trees. Reaching these Role Level markers allows for the specific Roles, when in use, to deliver an overall percentage boost to not only the specific character, but also to the abilities of the characters in the party during a battle. In comparison to other EXP models found in the previous games, this one is rather interesting, as it can allow for characters to become either well-rounded to fill numerous roles, but also the option to become super specialized in a specific Role to expedite the percentage boosting of that one Role’s abilities. When the Paradigm and Role systems become available, each character initially has access to three specific Roles, but as the game goes on, the characters eventually gain access to the remaining three roles, but in a somewhat lesser form. So, the option to make any character do anything is there, if one is willing to take the time and spend the high CP costs to fill them. After battles, the CP is delivered to ALL members of the team, not just those involved with the fight.
Final Fantasy XIII introduces another new battle system to the universe with a new twist on the ATB battle system. Like in FFXII, the battles are pretty much done in real time once again, and the positions on the battlefield will once again have an effect upon the how attacks and abilities are performed, and the effectiveness thereof. However, that is where the similarities end, as this system proceeds to improve upon that system itself to not only make it stand out on its own, but also to bring it back to a more turn-based system. Unlike in XII, XIII doesn’t allow the player to control the movement of the player in terms of position during the fight, as the selected abilities will constantly move them around as the battle progresses, giving it an overall better feel to the fight itself. The player also only controls one character during the fight, with the other members being controlled by the AI, and act according to their Roles. So, as mentioned before, the player will constantly have to shift Paradigms in order to reach full fighting potential in a given battle. “Is there a need for party buffs at a certain point?”, “Should I maximize the damage potential?”, and “What if I need a healer at some point?” are all questions the player will ask themselves when preparing the proper Paradigm for the party. So, the player will have to prepare the appropriate Paradigm Decks beforehand, and hopefully obtain the right balance of Decks in order to overcome any situation.
The battling itself is rather straightforward. The player can choose Auto-Attack, which puts in the supposed ideal combination of abilities given the current size of the ATB gauge; Abilities, which allow the player to choose the ideal combination of abilities performed; Techniques, which are the more specialized, and more powerful, moves available in a Role’s arsenal; or Items, which allows the player to instantly use an item in the fight. Abilities, whether they are magic or physical, do not require any special points in order to use, though Techniques use TP, or Technique Points. TP is restored through using normal abilities, and are also partially recovered after each battle. All of the abilities require a certain amount of the ATB gauge to use during a fight, and with each filling of the gauge the player can determine the ideal combination of attacks to be delivered.
The battle system also introduces an effect called “Staggering” the enemy. This status puts the enemy in a weakened form for a time, allowing the party to deliver not only an increasing amount of damage, but access to numerous special automatic abilities given the Role of the character. To obtain a Stagger, the players must completely fill an enemy’s combo gauge via effectively maintaining and boosting damaging combos. There is a specific Paradigm available which maximizes combo building, but it comes at the cost of having no healer, which brings up the need to manage the Paradigm Shift appropriately. However, many enemies come with strong defenses and high HP, so to be able to increase combo damage and eventually send them into a Stagger is a required priority to winning a battle quickly and easily.
The battles are also not random as they were in the past. When confronting enemies, they all appear outside of the battle on the land itself in full view of the player. This requires the player to have the option of strategically initiating the battle before the enemy notices the party’s presence. To deliver a preemptive strike by sneaking up on an enemy, the battle begins with the automatic filling of the combo gauges of all the enemies at the start. This gives the player a major advantage going into any fight. Another addition to the battle system is the Battle Rating system for after the fight. Depending on how the fight went, and how fast it was completed, the battle is given a rating of 1 to 5 Stars. These stars determine not only the number of extra CP given to the team, but also the items that are dropped. The better the battle, the higher the rating and the better chance of receiving a piece of rare loot from the enemies defeated.
Even with the improved battle system, and the intricate character development system, XIII is still somewhat far from perfect. As mentioned before, the story is very developed and in-depth, but the telling of it is somewhat lacking as it requires the player to spend time reading the datalog in order to understand it. The game itself also plays out in an extremely slow and drawn-out manner. While the game does eventually pick up near the end, and is rather enjoyable to play once that occurs, the majority of the chapters feel like they will never end, and feel like more of a chore than a challenge. The other issues would be that the game is extremely linear, even more so than Final Fantasy XII. For a good 75% of the game, the player has no control as to the character makeup of the party, and there is no ability to explore in terms of an overworld map. In fact, the game consists of hallway to cutscene to hallway to cutscene for 10 of the 13 chapters of the game itself. There is a high lacking of choice in terms of where the party could go and when, and while it is ultimately required by the story for this to happen, it is a tad disappointing for a series known for the ability to explore a vast world. The game breakdown is basically this; there is no access to the CP system until Chapter 2-3, party makeup control isn’t available until Chapter 8-9, and there is no ability to branch into anything close to a side-mission until Chapter 11-12. Even then, there is no true freedom to explore until Chapter 13, right before the final battle area. While the game does have many positive points… there are a lot of negatives which prevent it from becoming truly great.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII is a very deep game with countless hours of gameplay. The battle system has been improved from XII, and the return of the Job System will being smiles to fans of the older games. The graphics and cutscenes are done incredibly well, and for those fortunate enough to own this on an HD system will be treated to quite the visual show. That being said, the game does feel rather drawn out, the immense amount of linearity definitely hurts (being that it is a Final Fantasy Game), and some of the characters can get a bit bland and worn out quickly. However, if you can get past those issues, and are looking for a game with a metric ton of detail to play over a few weeks/months of time, Final Fantasy XIII is definitely a good choice.
Now for some numbers!
Storyline: 8/10 – This is a bit of a conflict, as there are some parts that are fantastic, and other parts that are abysmally bad. Starting with the good, the story itself is incredibly detailed, and when all the parts are seen, it’s one of the best stories found in the FF series. However, the way the story is presented, and the requirement of background knowledge on many of the terms and history really do prevent the story from being told well. To fully understand the story, the player cannot really obtain all the information needed from the cutscenes and in-game actions, rather relying on the constant reliance upon reading the datalog accessed via the menu screen. The game itself pretty much throws the player into the story itself without giving any info as to the world, or any background info thereof, so it is not far-fetched to expect the player to have an aura of complete confusion as to what is going on. So, while the story itself is well done, the method of telling it is not. Also, the story does get rather predictable in
some many parts.
Graphics: 10/10 – Not much else to say other than the graphics are beautiful, pure and simple. The Eidolons are gorgeous, the cutscenes are phenomenal, and the in-game engine is extremely fluid and detailed. There is no delay in the spells and actions, and an absolute visual masterpiece.
Controls & Gameplay: 9.25/10 – The controls are very solid and it doesn’t take too long to learn the nuances of playing the game. The battle system has definitely been improved from FFXII, and the character development system is rather competent. It will take a couple battles to get used to the controls and nuances, and there are plenty of tutorials to help expedite this process, so new players should be taking down foes and shifting Paradigms within a reasonable amount of time.
Sound & Music: 9.5/10 – Not too surprising really. From a series that is known for the music, this installment doesn’t disappoint. The symphonic soundtrack is quite beautiful, and it shows the effort put into the music which really does enhance the game itself. The only thing that I can say is that they do somewhat overplay the main theme throughout the game itself, so while it is a beautiful song itself, hearing the same thing over and over again may cause some distaste over time. But, the same could be said for all songs really. The voice acting and SFX are also very well done in this game, as the characters do have some live given to them via the voices, and none really hurt the ears in terms of annoyance, Hope’s whiny nature not included as the character actually is a 14-year old kid. So, the voices do suit the characters, and do give some depth to them just by that. So overall, the soundtrack is still quite nice.
Replayability & Fun: 7/10 – Another conflicting element is that while the game does have a rather interesting and intricate way of giving some replayability, the sheer length of the game is a bit of a discouragement to play through it multiple times. Considering that most of the things that gave other FF games staying power and the desire for replaying them are not really present in FFXIII until very late in the game itself. So, it is hard to see many people wanting to go through 50+ hours of gameplay just to reach the exploring section once again. While there are elements that could conceivably cause the desire to replay the game (Role trees, equipment leveling, etc), the sheer drawn-out nature will cause people to turn away. In regards to a Fun Factor, the game definitely has its moments, especially with the battle system. But, as stated before, there are numerous occasions where the game just feels like a boring chore rather than a fun challenge.
Overall: 43.75/50 – 87.5/100 – B+
Recommendation: While the game itself is absolutely beautiful in terms of graphics and the soundtrack, those looking for a quick game with a simple story will not find it in Final Fantasy XIII. The story itself is incredibly immersive and detailed, though for those who aren’t interested in reading an appendix of background details and information, the game may be a bit too confusing to really enjoy. As stated before, those who don’t want to read the datalog will end up finding themselves lost and confused throughout most of the game. So, the rating can be a bit deceptive depending on certain interests. But, for those who would prefer to read background info in conjunction with playing the game, as well as enjoying a game that will take a long time to play, then FFXIII is definitely one to check out sometime.