Final Fantasy XIII (Xbox 360)
Final Fantasy. These two words combine to represent what has become the standard bearer for role playing games for the better part of two decades. As the post-title number incrementally rose with each new release, gamers were treated to vast worlds, ever more complex plots, and increasingly stunning visuals. Despite the fact that each Final Fantasy set a new standard for production values, the series’ core foundation remained the same.
But the times, they are a changin’, and with it, so has Final Fantasy. While Final Fantasy XIII continues the tradition of stellar visuals and story, not much else about the game resembles anything previously seen from the FF franchise: gone is the overworld map for the party to traverse, replaced instead by a series of corridors; gone is the turn based battle system, now a mix of the ATB system infused with combat classes; and in a manner of speaking, gone is the old sense of adventure. This is not to say that the game is bad, as a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s just that FFXIII doesn’t try to be like past games in the series, nor does it want to be; FFXIII is a completely unique experience and is a “Final Fantasy” in name only.
If you have the option to play on an HDTV, do it. FFXIII is nothing short of the most breathtakingly outstanding visual experience I’ve ever had in a video game. Hyperbole? Not so. Allow me to elaborate. While watching the opening cinematic for God of War III in HD, the only sound I could udder was “meh.” This is not a knock on GOW3, but rather a tribute to how amazing FFXIII looks. The in-game character models are rife with facial detail; during cinematic segments, you will oftentimes forget that you aren’t actually watching FMV because the character models are capable of such dynamic facial expression. Environments are treated with just as much care as the character models; forests are lush with vegetation, cities are brilliantly illuminated, and in one of FFXIII’s open ended segments, you are treated to a wide open wild plane whose vastness and massive creatures make you feel as tiny as you have ever felt.
While I entered FFXIII expecting the CGI to be top notch, I never would have imagined how incredible it turned out to be. The full motion video sequences are literally steps away from film quality, and the staging and action are cinematic in every sense of the word. Additionally, considering how much CGI there is in the game, they may as well have made a movie.
If there is any complaint I can find with the visuals, it is that the 360 version of the game (which my review is based on) had issues with its video compression, so CGI sequences would occasionally pixelate in intense areas. Nitpicky, I know, but when the problem occasionally came up, it was a little annoying.
FFXIII’s story, while confusing at first, really comes together thanks to the cast, not despite them, as in other FF games. Up until now, every FF game featured at least one character that seemed to go out of its way to ruin the game: Cait-Sith, Quina, the entire cast of Final Fantasy X, etc. FFXIII, however, opts not to go down that road.
Citizens of Cocoon have been told their whole lives that an impending attack from the world of Pulse can happen at any moment. When a Pulse fal’Cie (a gigantic magical entity from Pulse) appears on Cocoon, the people freak out and the government responds by executing the purge, a mass deportation of citizens near the fal’Cie to Pulse. Snow Villiers leads NORA, a grassroots organization to fight against the government and resist the purge. Caught up in this city-wide battle are the hard-headed and determined ex-military member Lightning and Sazh “I’m the only black man on the planet” Katzroy, who is just along for the ride. Hope and Vanille, two children that were under the care of NORA, are pulled into the fray as well.
These characters meet at the structure housing the Pulse fal’Cie and run into Serah, fiancée of Snow, sister of Lightning, and le’Cie, a human marked by fal’Cie to complete a Focus or else be turned into a monster. Serah, having completed her Focus, turns to crystal. Enraged, Snow attacks the fal’Cie with his new acquaintances, and while victorious, he and his comrades become marked as Pulse l’Cie, and are now doomed to become enemies of their homeworld Cocoon. So begins their journey.
While at the start, it appeared as though Snow and Lightning would take over the lead roles, they never actually do, and that might be the best decision that Square Enix made in designing FFXIII. By allowing all six of the heroes equal screen time, FFXIII is truly about the ensemble performance, not just one guy as in past games. Introducing this group element really goes a long way in fleshing out the tale, and makes you become attached to each character as an individual (yes, even Vanille, the one with annoying voice). Without giving anything away, I can tell you that FFXIII has some astoundingly arresting moments, one of which will make you quiver in your seat. The ending will also pull a little on your heartstrings, even if you don’t want to admit it.
The battle system is the best that the Final Fantasy series has ever seen. As much nostalgia as we all have for a turn based battle system in which you can control all your characters, it really doesn’t come close to what FFXIII has to offer. The Paradigm system seems overly simple at first, but even over ten hours into the game, you will still be given tutorials for new layers to the combat, it’s really that complex.
At any given time, you are allowed a party of three characters, each character having three battle modes (more can be unlocked later in the game). The battle modes are as follows:
Commando – Physical Damage
Ravager – Magic Damage
Medic – Healer
Synergist – Support Spells/Buffs
Saboteur – Debuff Spells
Sentinel – Tank Class
When a character is set into his battle mode, he can only perform the abilities of the mode; a Medic can’t attack, a Ravager can’t cast anything outside of damage magic, etc. Therefore, in order to be successful in combat, you have to constantly switch the party’s battle mode, which FFXIII refers to as Paradigm Shifting.
The Paradigm configurations that you set are of vital importance, as you need to ensure that your party can be effective in a wide range of situations. Since a single battle class can only do one job, every Paradigm Shift is a very deliberate action; a change from one specific goal to another. So while you technically only control the actions of the party leader, with the Paradigm Shift system, you have more control than you ever have had before, the game engine just streamlines the process to make the battles fast paced and exhilarating.
Additionally, the battle system is very demanding. While using a high damage Paradigm alone will work out alright in the early chapters, as the game progresses, you absolutely cannot fall asleep at the wheel. If you intend to beat this game, you will need to navigate the battle menus at lightning speed, be able to quickly read and react to fluctuating battle situations, and have a good understanding of each battle class.
Characters level up by gaining crystal points which can be spent in the Crystarium, which operates in a manner similar to FFX’s Sphere Grid, only more streamlined. As you spend points, you guide a light along a track where at milestones, you earn bonuses for your stats as well as new attacks and spells. Each battle mode has a Crystarium with its own unique abilities, so prioritizing your needs is a must here as well.
In short, the battle system is absolutely deep, and might just be the real star of FFXIII.
Despite the prowess of the visuals and the character driven story, FFXIII suffers greatly from pacing issues. What is surprising, however, is that these issues do not stem from the plot; they come from the gameplay itself. Instead of dungeon crawling and an overworld, FFXIII opts for an incredibly linear corridor system. Travel is a straight line from point A to point B, and there are no explorable towns for you to discover. Essentially, FFXIII can best be described as one giant hallway filled with monsters, monsters that for the most part, you cannot avoid, so you will be fighting constantly.
Unfortunately, the lack of freedom kills the sense of adventure. As great as the plot is, you are more or less watching from the sidelines instead of truly feeling involved, as any gameplay you experience is mere glue that holds together a series of cutscenes. Since there is no option for you to travel the world as you see fit, your experience of FFXIII will not be unique from anyone else’s.
Additionally, there is very little that you can control in FFXIII, for the better part of the game, it decides for you what character you control, and who that character is paired with. Most of the game is actually played with just two member parties. If you think this has a negative effect on the flow of the game, you are absolutely right. It takes a long time to get completely comfortable with each party and Paradigms, and the moment you do, you are whisked off away to another group. Even more unfortunate, some of the required party configurations early on have anemic damage potential, dragging out the length of fights and making the game stall even more.
On the other hand, these “couples” parties are, in a way, a stroke of genius. In one segment when Hope travels with Lightning and Vanille with Sazh, the story turns into, amongst a million other things, a tale of how two different adults affect the lives of children in different ways. These two person parties give you an intense view into the cast’s interpersonal relationships and go a long way in setting the foundation for a fantastic story.
While the battles may be difficult with only two members, these segments force you to learn the importance of each battle class as well as prepare you for one aspect of creating custom Paradigms you will need to focus on later: creating Paradigms that can be effective when one party member is KO’ed. And trust me, that will be important because…
A few hours from the end of FFXIII, the game goes through radical changes. At around the 25 hour mark on my playthrough (chapter 12), FFXIII went from an incredibly linear progression to a completely wide open zone rife with sidequests and goodies for you to explore. As fun as this location is (and you will want to go back after you complete the game to clear the content there) I felt lost and confused. For a game to completely and utterly change its foundation is beyond comprehension, but then again, I think I know the reason this section was created.
The final stages of FFXIII are brutally hard. Over the course of the game, I never skipped a single battle that was presented to me because I assumed that would put my party in decent condition for the endgame. This is simply not true. Enemies suddenly have a major spike in HP and damage output, and you will have to grind quite a bit just to survive normal battle encounters, much less the final boss. This forces the game to last much longer than it should, and can easily become annoying if your only goal is to complete the main quest.
Despite these issues, FFXIII is truly a stellar game and deserving of the title of “Final Fantasy.” The complaints I have about FFXIII, while numerous, did little to impede my enjoyment of the game. Fans of the series might be disappointed about FFXIII’s foray into new territory, and I will admit, some of the experiments (corridor dungeons, for example) attempted did not work out. However, at the end of the day, FFXIII is in every sense a “new” Final Fantasy, and can take its rightful place alongside the best in the series.
This review was based off a retail copy of the game.