Review by DDJ
"Check your expectations at the door."
Review in Brief
Game: A character-driven turn-based/action RPG hybrid set in a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy world.
Good: Incredible atmosphere; visually stunning; incredible cast driving a strong plot; a fun and unique battle system.
Bad: Overwhelming sense of linearity; weak plot justification for gameplay direction; some poorly designed systems; some significant battle system annoyances.
Verdict: It betrays a lot of Final Fantasy conventions and thus gets a bad rap, but it's still a very good game.
Recommendation: Great for anyone that likes non-traditional RPGs, including (and perhaps even especially) those that don't usually like the Final Fantasy series.
"Check your expectations at the door."
To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes from the game reviewer Yahtzee: to say that Square-Enix overuses the moniker Final Fantasy is to say that Justin Bieber over uses terminology typically reserved for referencing human infants in his songs about girls. We've got the main series, Tactics, Mystic Quest, Crystal Chronicles, Dissidia, Brigade, Theatrhythm, Fables, Adventure, Legend, Type-O, the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, the Chocobo games, Legend of the Crystals, The Spirits Within, Unlimited... you get the idea. They slap Final Fantasy on everything with good reason: because it's a surefire way to make sure people buy it, regardless of whether it's good or not.
What makes that ironic is that it is perhaps the fact that Final Fantasy XIII is, itself, a main-series major-release Final Fantasy game that accounts for how poorly received it's been by so many gamers and outlets. Square-Enix is never shy about slapping the Final Fantasy moniker on a game and while that surely is at least 95% responsible for the incredible sales of Final Fantasy XIII, it may also be responsible for the poor reception the game has received.
That's because Final Fantasy XIII is good, very good in fact, but not good for a Final Fantasy game. That's not a back-handed compliment suggesting that it doesn't meet the high standards of the series, but rather it's a more qualitative assessment: Final Fantasy XIII is a very good game, but it's not a very good Final Fantasy game simply because it does not closely resemble a Final Fantasy game at all. Many of the things that are most characteristic of the Final Fantasy series are absent, and that's what leads to the poor reception. It's as if Microsoft released Halo Wars as Halo 4.
Thus, the only way to gain a true appreciation for Final Fantasy XIII is to check your expectations at the door. Forget for a moment that it's a Final Fantasy game. Give it a clean slate. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Final Fantasy XIII is a perfect game -- it does have several substantial flaws, and it should not have been anywhere near any conversation about the 2010 Game of the Year (Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, or Super Mario Galaxy 2 trump it easily). But that doesn't mean the game isn't still very good.
Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy XIII is a RPG hybrid. It's menu-driven like a turn-based or real-time battle system, but those menus drive actions in a much more fast-paced action environment. You control the leader of a team of three and determine your strategy and approach through choosing a "paradigm", which determines which one of the six jobs each of your three characters will assume for the moment. From there, they fight relatively automatically within their job type. With the character you're controlling, you can choose specific attacks, although generally it's best to let them fight automatically as well. Outside of the battle system, the system assumes a fairly standard RPG structure of exploring a world and moving from scene to scene.
Plot-wise, you're thrown into a world suspended above a larger world. Cocoon, the top world that you reside in, is civilized and technologically very advanced, but constantly fears attack by the lower world Pulse. The society in the world is governed by borderline mythical beings called fal'Cie. These extraordinarily powerful beings are basically responsible for actively creating all the "natural" phenomena in the world, such as weather patterns, the day/night cycle, food growth, etc. Mankind is dependent on the fal'Cie for these systems, but generally the fal'Cie let mankind govern itself. There are fal'Cie on Pulse as well, and the fal'Cie of the two worlds are enemies, and sometimes will take humans as servants to use in their war against each other, branding them l'Cie and giving them a task. If they complete the task, they are given eternal life, but if they fail the task, they are sentenced to eternal torment. But, since this is a Final Fantasy game, there's certainly more to that than meets the eye...
Generally speaking, what makes Final Fantasy XIII good are the various "literary" or "artistic" features of the game: the story, the characters, the atmosphere, the graphics. That's been used against the game almost as a criticism by some, accusing it of being more movie than game, but that's not inherently a bad thing -- it's just a matter of taste.
The thing that I think is more pervasive and most positive in Final Fantasy XIII is the overall atmosphere of the game. More so than any game I've played in the series, Final Fantasy XIII creates an extremely cohesive, tight, and unique atmosphere. Atmosphere plays into nearly every element of the game world's overall creation; it touches on the accents characters have to the outfits they and NPCs wear to the style of architecture to the color schemes used to the music to the monster design to... you get the idea. It's incredibly difficult to take all those various things and tie them together so closely and so neatly, but Final Fantasy XIII manages to accomplish that absolutely flawlessly. The best way I can describe that is this: I feel like you could show me something from the game that I hadn't seen, but I'd be able to place it as a Final Fantasy XIII set piece or song simply from how recognizable and cohesive everything about the game's atmosphere and presentation happens to be.
Enhancing that is the incredible contrast given between the two worlds. Cocoon is depicted as a thriving, futuristic, urban world nestled within a natural habitat, combining sci-fi, fantasy, and steampunk motifs into an incredibly tight and solid world. Pulse, on the other hand, is depicted as a wilderness. Wild animals roam, there is no civilization to speak of, and the landscape is entirely dominated by natural landforms. Within the limitations of the game's linearity, it also manages to give a more wide-open impression of that area with the cinematics and background visuals. The contrast really brings out the uniqueness of the two worlds, but there's also similarities in style between the two as well, in a way that emphasizes the relationship between the two worlds.
It's that attention to detail that I believe is one of the major elements that makes Final Fantasy XIII pretty special. No element is left untouched in the pursuit of making the entire game fit together seamlessly. Throughout the game, I found myself thoroughly enjoying just the overall structure of the game world. That's augmented as well by an extremely thorough backstory. The previous two Final Fantasy games made an attempt to have an interesting backstory, but in Final Fantasy XIII, it's taken to an entire other level. There's backstories at various levels, from ancient wars and conflicts to theories of creation to the days leading up to the events of the game itself. The game supplies a datalog that not only logs the events and characters for easy reference later, but also gives the player an enormous look into the history and dynamics of the world they're playing in. There's political intrigue, interpersonal intrigue, and while it might seem strange to put all these things in a section on atmosphere, the atmosphere is what ultimately benefits from this thoroughness. Because the backstory is so complete, thorough, and interesting, it makes the world come even more alive, and thus makes the atmosphere feel even more realistic. The only thing the game was missing was a map to see how all the cities fit together (although such a map does exist in the promotional materials).
The realism is actually responsible for some of the things that have plagued Final Fantasy XIII on the review circuits as well. Any forum member is familiar with the "no towns?!" meme, and to a certain extent, it's true -- Final Fantasy XIII doesn't have any towns in the traditional sense. The reason for that, though, is one of realism: did towns like Kalm in Final Fantasy VII ever really make that much sense? What kind of town has twelve people in it? Instead, Final Fantasy XIII definitely has cities, but you're directed through the cities by the plot just as with any other section. Yes, it limits your options for exploration, and I'll talk more about that in The Bad, but it does help the realism quite a bit. I've seen criticisms of the inability to talk to most NPCs as well, but I disagree: the ambient conversations are much more realistic than walking up to a random person and getting some random bit of dialog.
As mentioned... somewhere else in this review that I can't recall since I'm not writing it linearly, the fact that Final Fantasy XIII is a highly cinematic game has actually been used as a point of criticism by some. Some say that it's so cinematic that it forgets it's a game. I understand the criticism, but I think it's a difference of tastes -- but more importantly, even if you think being visually spectacular distracts from the gameplay, it's tough to deny that Final Fantasy XIII is visually spectacular. The game takes the cinematic focus that was introduced with Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII and brings it to a whole other level. At times, you really do feel like you're watching a movie -- the framing, graphics, and writing are all that good.
It doesn't just come in the cutscenes, however. What astounds me is that Final Fantasy XIII is visually spectacular everywhere you go. Every single area is a complex and vibrant work of fully three-dimensional artwork. Nothing is phoned in, nothing is hand-waved over, everything is executed to its full glorious majesty. There are times when you can't help but just stop and look around at the environment you find yourself in because of how atmospheric and stunning it is. One might even say it suffers from Uncharted syndrome (that is, scripting the plot specifically to afford for visually spectacular locales), but whatever the reason, it works.
It goes beyond just the cutscenes and environments, though, in ways I couldn't have anticipated. Not only does the world look visually stunning, it feels alive as well. That plays into the atmosphere, but I think it better serves the visual majesty of the game. In one area, there are enormous monsters roaming around -- and by enormous, I mean 30 times the height of your character. You don't see them from afar, though -- you walk right up to them and can look up at them. Yet, they still fit right into the world, taking your breath away while further contributing to the game's incredible atmosphere. And the full involvement of the visuals doesn't stop there. Various things are consistently going on in the environment around you, further enhancing the perception of the world as real and alive. Visually, I've not played a game quite like it since Baten Kaitos, and that used only 2D environments. If there were artistically-motivated video game awards, Final Fantasy XIII would deserve a prize. If there's one weakness to the visuals of the game, it's that the environments are all so breathtaking that none of them stand out, while so often the environments we hold most dear from other games seem spectacular because of the contrast with other areas.
Incredible Cast and Strong Plot
With Final Fantasy 10, Square-Enix introduced us to voice acting and movable faces, two things that, theoretically, should strengthen any cast by adding to the humanization of the characters. In effect, in Final Fantasy X, it gave us a bunch of characters whose voices were so annoying we could barely listen to the game, and in Final Fantasy XII, it gave us characters flatter than a month-old keg. In Final Fantasy XIII, though, they finally deliver a cast of six characters that are both remarkably engaging and fantastically acted. Unlike its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII's main characters are all very different. They each come with unique backstories that actually get fleshed out a good bit, and they all have very different personalities. This franchise may have given us some of the most popular gaming characters ever, but it hasn't given us an excellent one since two consoles ago, but they finally deliver here. All six character are three-dimensional, conflicted, at times unpredictable, and relatable. Oddly enough, my personal favorite character ended up being the one that people are most prone to criticizing. Maybe I just have bad taste.
Those character are further augmented by a strong plot that delves deep into the characters of each individual. The flat cast of Final Fantasy XII was made worse by a flat plot that equated to glorified item-collecting, but the cast in Final Fantasy XIII plays a key role in the plot -- or, stated better, the plot makes a particular emphasis on elaborating on the characters. It supplies us with complex character backgrounds and cutscenes that explore their personalities, priorities, and histories, and, if that wasn't enough, it also gives us a thorough datalog that provides even more information. You find yourself actually wanting to learn more about the characters; they have mysteries that the player is eager to solve.
It's true that at times the plot does not make a ton of sense, and there are definitely some plot holes that could have been explained better. And, as with its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII does suffer from the tendency to allude to really interesting plot interactions and developments that the player never gets to see. However, unlike its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII makes up for that because the emphasis of the plot was never on the big events and conflicts; those are framing devices for telling a character-driven story about the personal conflicts of your six party members. It's true that the plot lacks many of the peaks and valleys that make a good plot, and that there is something of a dearth of particularly memorable moments (although a few definitely come to mind), but that's somewhat absolved by the focus the game puts on the characters. It thoroughly explores the inner thoughts and histories of each of the six characters, as well as establishing strong interactions between every pair of characters. The supporting cast, too, is as strong as any I've ever seen in a Final Fantasy game. The minor characters are strongly animated and acted, but they also have their own unique and thoroughly fleshed-out backgrounds as well. That connects back to what I said about the atmosphere as that completeness helps the player feel like the game world is a real world.
And, most importantly, the game has a satisfying ending. I obviously won't tell you what it is, but I assure you that it's satisfying. With RPGs, the focus on plot means that I put a particular focus on the ending, and Final Fantasy XIII's strong ending is what earned it a 7 from me rather than a 6. It's touching and emotional, surprising without being completely out-of-nowhere, and, perhaps most importantly, it has a subtle little twist ending that, for me at least, I never saw coming.
Good Hybrid Battle System
One of the criticisms I heard about Final Fantasy XIII going into it was that you could play the entire game just by pressing X. That criticism isn't true, but it's true that the battle system requires much less active player intervention than previous Final Fantasy games. Let me describe the system a bit and describe the controversy surrounding it before I describe why I, personally, count it as a strong point of the game.
Final Fantasy XIII operates on a job system. There are six jobs: "Commando", a physical attacker; "Ravager", the black mage; "Medic", the white mage; "Synergist", for positive status effects; "Saboteur", for negative status effects; and "Sentinel", for 'tanking', pretty much (attracting enemies' attacks to one strong character). As you gain EXP points, you level each character in one of their three jobs, gaining stats and skills (incidentally, the level-up system is awful, but I'll explain that later). Then, in battle, you dynamically choose what jobs those three characters are going to do at any given moment. You might go into all-out attack mode with a Commando and two Ravagers, or move into a conservation mode with a Saboteur, Medic and Synergist. At any given time, you control your party leader, while the other two characters fulfill their jobs according to their own AI. Similarly, there's an "autobattle" choice for your party leader that goes ahead and lets them operate according to the AI they'd be using if they weren't under your control.
It's that "autobattle" option that's responsible for the perception that you can play the game just by pressing X. However, that's because even though you have the option to, your main job as the player isn't to control the party leader, but rather to manage the party as a whole. It follows the Final Fantasy XII mold to a large degree in that respect -- in Final Fantasy XII, your job was to strategize what your team did rather than control each action. The same is true in Final Fantasy XIII. And it's certainly not true that you can play just by pressing X -- you have to intelligently manage the jobs to succeed.
In order for this system to succeed, it relies on one major, major concern: the AI. The AI has to be good for this to work; if the AI is subpar, unreliable, or annoying, the entire system will fall apart. The good news is, the game AI is actually remarkably strong. For example, if you have a Synergist in your party besides the leader, you can't control what buffs he casts and when. However, the AI does a great job of deciding which buffs are most appropriate; generally, he'll always cast Haste first, followed by either offensive or defensive buffs depending on the enemy and your other characters' current jobs. Ravagers, similarly, will automatically attack the elemental weakness of the enemy. The AI basically disappears into the game and you can completely rely on your other characters to do their jobs right. That's no small feat: that one thing makes the entire rest of the battle system work. And, to be honest, I love this effect. I describe it as having an "ambient" mage. Whenever I played traditional RPGs, I rarely took the time to cast buffs or debuffs just because it was a time-consuming hassle that usually wasn't necessary -- but being able to assign a character to do that in the background while I take care of the fighting is a huge enhancement to that.
There's one other major portion of the battle system, and that's the system of chaining and staggering enemies. Basically, each enemy has both an HP count as normal and a 'stagger' gauge. A stagger gauge represents how much damage you have to do in a consecutive period of time to put the enemy into a temporary 'weakened' state. That dynamic actually lends a deep strategy to the game as many enemies are nearly immortal in their non-staggered state; your strategy is dictated by staggering them rather than just defeating them.
That leads to something quite profound that, to me, represents the second major selling point of the battle system: battles remain strategic throughout the game. Whenever you encounter a new enemy, you need to figure out its strengths, weaknesses, and style of fighting and react accordingly. In most RPGs, you get to a point where you can just throw your strongest spells at any monster, heal occasionally, and do fine. In Final Fantasy XIII, that doesn't work. Every enemy requires some type of strategy, even if it's just a matter of choosing which strategy you've used in the past to apply here. It also means that the game can increase difficulty without just increasing enemies' levels or stats. There's one type of enemy, for example, that is extremely easy to defeat on its own, but once they send a pack of three after you, your strategy for defeating them has to completely change. You can still win, but not in the same way. That's arguably what impressed me most about the battle system; it never got stale. There were boss battles in the game that literally had me on the edge of my seat with excitement, and breathing out a sigh of relief when they ended. I don't remember the last time I played an RPG that had a boss battle that intense without just feeling like the enemy was overpowered or cheap. The game also throws in battles that you encounter early on but can't win until later in the game, a dynamic I've always enjoyed in games. There's few things more satisfying than encountering a physically imposing enemy that can hand your butt to you on a silver platter, then later returning and conquering it (the Midgar Zolom enemy, so to speak).
The third excellent feature of the battle system, though, is unrelated to the actual gameplay, and is more about the visual element. The battle system is an hybrid of traditional turn-based and action RPGs; like turn-based ones, your characters' actions are menu-driven, but like action RPGs, your characters are free to move around and interact. The fact that you're not the one controlling how they move, though, is important -- it lets the game script visually stunning and interesting battles. Your characters run around and interact with the enemies in realistic ways, and the battle actually looks like more than your characters slashing at the same in front of the enemy. The camera pans around to show a good look at the battlefield, although it still keeps the relevant information (enemy HP and stagger level, mostly) visible at the right times. It's hard to keep track of things at first, but you get the hang of it after a little while, and at that point it becomes good that you're more of a manager than an active controller -- the battles are too fun to watch to get overly caught up in choosing the next command.
As that section indicates, there's a lot to love about Final Fantasy XIII. So why does it take so much flack? There are still significant flaws to it, but perhaps more significantly, the flaws put it directly at odds with what many of us expect a Final Fantasy game to be at all.
Overwhelming Sense of Linearity
You've heard this argument before, but I'd urge you to read this section anyway -- what I'm going to say about this is actually different than what most people say.
The most common criticism I heard of Final Fantasy XIII leading into it was that it was overly linear. It was described by some as one long narrow corridor. Others said you beat the entire game just by pressing X over again (more a comment on the battle system, but still). Yahtzee described it once as a series of cutscenes separated by long tunnels. They're right to a certain extent -- the game is extremely linear. At times, it feels like it might as well be called Follow the Waypoint 13, since the vast majority of the time you're just walking to the next marked point on your map.
Here's my problem with that criticism though. Nearly all RPGs are extremely linear. All Final Fantasy games are certainly very linear. In Final Fantasy VII, you're essentially running from cutscene to cutscene, waypoint to waypoint, fighting battles or playing minigames in between. Each cutscene tells you where to go next, whether it's Aeris saying, "Let's go ride the gondola next!" or Cloud saying "We have to go to Nibelheim". The game can't progress until you go there. And sure, you can bring up sidequests, but sidequests are dead-end divergences available only at specific places during the plot. They're basically little side tunnels off the main tunnel.
The thing is, linearity isn't inherently a bad thing, either. I'd regard it as a necessary evil. Stories themselves are linear, and RPGs more than any other game genre rely on a strong, driving story. Therefore, RPGs are to a certain extent handcuffed to a certain modicum of linearity. The idea of creating dynamic, non-linear, emergent plots that are still interesting is a significant field of research in the academic community; it hasn't been realized yet, so as long as we want good stories, we have to be willing to accept some level of linearity.
So, if I'm suggesting that linearity isn't bad, why is 'linearity' down here in the section boldly labeled The Bad? Final Fantasy 13's linearity isn't bad; it's the sense of linearity that's bad. Other RPGs are linear, but they take efforts to disguise it, or give the player the illusion of freedom. Take Final Fantasy VII again, for instance. You've just left Mt. Nibel, emerging on the other side of the pathway. In theory, you have a significant segment of the world view you could wander around in. However, the game's plot isn't going to advance until you go to Rocket Town. And sure, there are sidequests, but let's not pretend those are great parallel paths or long branches: those are the macro-level equivalent to a little tunnel that leads to a hidden treasure chest. You can pursue them at certain points of time, but you have to come back to the main line to complete the story.
The problem, though, is that at least Final Fantasy VII and other RPGs give that sense of non-linearity. They do it in two ways: first, by giving the player vast areas they can explore even though there is only one next place they must go to; and second, by marking the 'waypoints' with plot dialog. Cloud says, "Let's go to Nibelheim", so you go to Nibelheim because that's what clearly the plot indicates, even though you're really complying with the underlying linearity of the game.
Final Fantasy XIII doesn't give that sense of non-linearity, and it misses it in two perpetually-visible ways. First of all, the "walls" of your linear tunnel are always visible right there on your minimap. There are very few sections of the game where your minimap doesn't show you a pretty linear path. Without changing the path at all, the game would have felt significantly less linear if the walls weren't so readily apparent. Second are the waypoint markers. Whereas other games give you dialog to tell you where to go, Final Fantasy XIII just plops a waypoint on the screen and has you walk toward it. There's no plot justification for the minimap or its waypoints, which makes the linearity, once again, very apparent.
So, the problem with Final Fantasy XIII's linearity isn't the fact that the game is very linear; nearly all RPGs, especially JRPGs, are very linear. The problem is that Final Fantasy XIII makes no effort to hide the fact that it's very linear, and in fact, gives several always-visible indicators of just how linear it is. Of course, that problem is exacerbated by the next negative element...
Weak Plot-Gameplay Relationship
If you've read my reviews, you know one of my soapboxes is on the relationship between plot and gameplay: plot should justify and explain the gameplay, and the gameplay should serve and drive the plot.
What does that mean in the context of Final Fantasy XIII? It could mean several things, but the main place it crops up is with the question, "Where am I going and why?" The game, as mentioned, is a series of cutscenes separated by long stretches of linear running -- and, like I mentioned, you could probably describe any RPG in that respect. But what needs to happen is that the plot needs to make it clear why you're doing what you're doing in the game. The plot needs to make it clear where you're going and why so that you at least feel like the decision to go there is the characters' own.
Instead, in Final Fantasy XIII, it often feels like you're running forward just because you know you're supposed to. Early on it's made clear where you're running, but as the game moves forward, it's rarely if ever clear where you're going -- or, when it is clear, it's not clear why. This crops up even more toward the end of the game, when the characters insist on running toward a place that the plot suggests they might be better served staying away from.
That actually exacerbates the previous problem mentioned with the linearity of the game because it means the literal layout of the areas becomes the most significant driving force behind where you're going and when. You don't always feel like you're going somewhere because the plot said to or because there are pressing matters at hand, you feel like you're going there because that's the only way you can go. The plot could have helped overshadow and distract from the linearity, but it doesn't. That's not to say that the plot is weak; as mentioned in the above major section, I think the plot is extremely strong, arguably the strongest since Final Fantasy VII. However, the plot doesn't solve this particular problem as well as it could have.
The relationship between plot and gameplay crops up in other places as well, although those are typically more minor and easier to suspend disbelief about. For example, save points in this game come branded as products of the world government, but yet they're still around even when you're in places where the government certainly doesn't have a presence. Still, that's not a hard problem to mentally deal with. The game also doesn't make much effort to justify the level-up system with the plot, but I'm hesitant to criticize that because that system has other problems...
First, to define what I'm talking about, I use the word 'systems' to define what are often termed as 'RPG elements' when these features are ported to other significantly different genres. The skills level-up system is the most prominent example, but I also use it for systems regarding how weapons are bought or developed and how summon spells work.
Final Fantasy XIII actually has fewer systems than most RPGs I've played, and that's actually a good thing. One of my main criticisms of Final Fantasy X was that there were so many systems to learn that it got relatively overwhelming, and inevitably the player ended up neglecting some. Final Fantasy XIII comes with four main systems: the battle system, the summon system, the level-up system, and the equipment upgrading system.
The battle system is obviously the main one, and as I described in the major section above, it's pretty good overall; it takes some flak, but I think a lot of it is undeserved, and it does a good job of marrying active and menu-driven battle. The other three systems, however, are something of a mess. All three have major flaws that stand in the way of them being particularly useful. I'll start with the most minor: the equipment upgrading system.
To put it in a nutshell: every piece of equipment can level-up. Leveling it up increases it stats. It can be leveled up by feeding it items you find in the world or buy in a store: organic items level it a little, but increase its EXP multiplier, while mechanical items level it a lot, but decrease its EXP multiplier. When equipment reaches a certain level, it can be converted into an entirely newly-named piece of equipment with even better effects through using a "catalyst" stone.
When you first encounter it, the system seems complex, but it's actually relatively simple. And, truth be told, it's rather enjoyable as well. The problem, though, is money. Money is extremely sparse in this game. I saved up all my money and money-making items throughout the entire game and didn't use them until the final boss, and even then, I only had enough to make significant improvements to a handful of pieces of equipment. Had I been pursuing that all along, that would've meant meager gains to a lot of equipment. Sure, you can grind for gil or items to make more upgrades, and that's fine -- but in a good system, it should be useful if you play without grinding, and grinding should just make it even more useful. Instead, grinding is necessary to make this system useful at all.
Second, the summon system. This one's just a weird mess. The way the summon system works is that each character gets a summon spell of vastly different strengths. They can basically only use it once every few battles (it's tied to something called Technical Points, similar to MP, but recharges on its own very slowly). Once it's summoned, initially it fights alongside you, before you enter a "Gestalt" mode and fight together, choosing strong attacks until the summon's strength runs out.
There are several things wrong with this. First of all, you can only summon the party leader's spell, meaning that you'll spend the majority of the game only using one. If you play as the game's most primary character, it's the weakest summon, meaning that it's rarely useful at all. The relationship between the normal battle and Gestalt mode is strange (the more damage the summon causes before entering Gestalt mode, the more attacks it can make after entering), and Gestalt mode itself is hard to understand. You have five or so attacks to choose from, but chances are you'll just go with the auto mode since there's no good way to remember what each attack does. Overall, the summon mod is clearly there more for spectacle than usefulness or skill.
Those two issues can be largely ignored, however. You never have to use summons, and you'll do just fine without upgrading equipment. The third one, though, can't be glossed over. The level-up system is incredibly boring. Remember the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X? It's that, but without needing spheres to activate certain nodes. When you get EXP, you go to the "Crystarium" and apply it to your path along one of the six aforementioned jobs. As you go along, it unlocks nodes that grant stat increases or new skills. You only have two decisions to make, ever: which of the jobs to apply your latest EXP points to (called CP points, but let's be honest, they're EXP points), and whether or not to pick up the off-the-main-path nodes when you come across them. There's no customization at all, and moreover, it's a stupidly contrived way of representing something that's actually very simple. The interface is wonky and hard to navigate, the loading animations are slow... overall, it's just awful. Honestly, they could have just changed the visualization of it such that at any time, you choose which job gets your EXP points, and it grants you the skills and stats automatically. That would change nothing about the end result, but it would save the player an hour of fiddling around with the interface. On the bright side, though, every character picks up EXP when you fight, so you don't have to worry about underleveling a character.
Battle System Annoyances
Aside from those major criticisms, the game does have some other minor issues that, when taken together, represent a fairly significant count against Final Fantasy XIII. The majority of these come in the battle system. As I said before, I like the battle system in Final Fantasy XIII, but I'll admit that it took some time for it to grow on me, as well as that there are several issues that should have been resolved. The first, and easily most annoying, one is that you get a game over if your party leader dies. Period. No chance to revive them (there's no re-raise spell) even though chances are one of your other party members was a Medic right then and there. It makes no plot sense, and it lends itself to the creation of enemies that are unfairly difficult. There are a few enemies I encountered in the game who are relatively easy to defeat, except they have one attack that can destroy a character in one hit. There's absolutely nothing you can do to protect your party leader from that. At least half the times I died in the game were against enemies that, realistically, were not hard to defeat, but I'd lose some of the time just through pure bad luck. If those enemies choose to attack anyone but the leader, I'm fine, but if they attack the party leader, I'm screwed.
That's the main issue I have with the battle system, but it's not the only one. There's a few annoyances with the paradigm system -- for example, you're limited to six paradigms (sets of three jobs) for your characters, which artificially limits how creative you can be in battle. I like the idea of characters switching between jobs, but why limit it to changing all the characters at once? Why not allow the player to change each character's job individually? On top of that, there's an animation that plays when you change paradigms, and every time you change paradigms for the first time in a battle, it takes longer -- but the battle doesn't stop, meaning you take damage, enemies heal, and other stuff happens while waiting for the animation to stop. Plus, with the variety of enemies and strategies in the game, it's prudent to switch your "starting" paradigm fairly often; switching what paradigm you start in, though, requires four actions (Menu -> Paradigms -> Customize -> Choose new default), whereas ideally you'd want to be able to change it quickly between battles.
Unrelated to the paradigm system is a second set of skills called 'Techniques'. As mentioned above, Techniques draw from a set amount of TP that recharges over time. The TP system, though, is the most annoyingly contrived and artificial way of limiting your power I've seen. You can have up to 5 TP, and the techniques use between 1 and 3 TP. They recharge over time as you win battles and execute attacks, but it takes a twentieth as much time to go from 0 TP to 1 as it does from 4 to 5. Going from 1 to 2 is pretty quick as well, but there's a big jump for 3 to 4. Basically, this is the game's way of saying, "We don't want you using the most powerful spells very often." That's fine, that's the way it should be -- but this is a ridiculously artificial way of going about it. It might as well just put a timer on each skill that prevents you from using it for X minutes. Every game has some way of limiting your most powerful skills, but usually it's through MP that can be restored or something that can be strategically managed. TP is just very artificial.
I don't know what to title this section, and admittedly this is something of a personal soapbox more than a major knock on the game, but I think it's significant enough to mention. Final Fantasy is a long-running series with several long-running motifs, and generally, I tend to like those motifs. I like the fact that there's usually many of the same summons, like Shiva and Odin (although other common ones like Ifrit are conspicuously absent here). I like that Biggs, Wedge, and Cid often make appearances. But a problem arises when these motifs are featured too prominently. Biggs and Wedge are fine in Final Fantasy XIII, given that their only appearance is in the name of a shop title (their most minor role to date, I think). But the problem is that when common Final Fantasy motifs are featured too prominently in the plot, the baggage that comes with the name distracts from its particular role in this story.
In Final Fantasy XIII, the main guilty party of this is Ragnarok. You've seen Ragnarok before. It was a weapon in nearly every game from the original Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy XII, as well as occasionally a summon or other character. More notably, though, it appeared as the airship in Final Fantasy VIII. It had a major starring role in that game, and as a result, every time I heard its name, I was jolted out of the immersion and reminded of all the other times the word has been used, Final Fantasy VIII's airship chief among them. It's a crude analogy, but it's kind of like if your girlfriend had the same name as your sister. There's a certain part of you that's always going to feel weird with her name (or so I'm told by my fiancée, whose brother shares my name as well). When those old motifs appear in minor roles, the effect is minor and counterbalanced by the charm of the long-running motif. But when those names are used in major ways, they can get very distracting. Another playable character named Cid, for example, would be pretty distracting, but fortunately that hasn't happened quite yet. Motifs are fine when they relate to the battle system, gameplay, or other elements like that, but when they play a major role in the plot, problems can arise.
But there's one other theme that occurs again in Final Fantasy XIII that's getting very, very old. It was the major motivator in Final Fantasy X, it returns as the major motivator in Final Fantasy XIII, and it's arisen in different places in every Final Fantasy that I've played (Final Fantasy VI through Final Fantasy XIII, except Final Fantasy XI). That theme is the good old, "This world is broken, put it out of its misery, people will be better off dead" idea. It was Seymour's main motivation in Final Fantasy X, and nearly every other baddie has said something to that effect at some point. The idea of "death's release" has gotten old and stale in the Final Fantasy world, yet here it is again.
As always, ignore the fact that my The Bad section is about five times longer than The Good: it's much easier to write about negative elements than positive ones, but that doesn't mean the negative elements carry more weight.
In this review, I've heaped praise on Final Fantasy XIII and given it a relatively high score (for me, anyway). I think it perfectly embodies GameFAQs' description of a 7: "Good - a few problems, but worth the time to play". So why does it take so much flak from so many other people? As suggested in my review title and introduction, I think it's because the flaws in the game and battle system so directly fly in the face of what it's meant to be a Final Fantasy game for so long. The game feels linear in a series where the increasing linearity has been lamented for the last two instances already. The battle system is basically an action RPG in the series that popularized the turn-based RPG. There's only one sidequest in the game in a series that first triumphed the importance and value of having a variety of sidequests. In short, in my opinion, Final Fantasy XIII is lamented and criticized not for being a bad game, but for being a bad Final Fantasy game -- if it's really even a Final Fantasy game at all.
But, in my opinion, that criticism is misplaced. It's akin to criticizing an excellent steak dinner for not being lobster. It's judging the quality of an orange on a rubric created for judging an apple. The criticisms are largely a matter of different taste, not objective lack of quality. The problem, in reality, is that because it's branded as a Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy fans comprised its main audience whereas people that didn't like the series before didn't give it a chance. Realistically, though, I'd say the audience that would most enjoy Final Fantasy XIII is removed from the series' long-time fans, and while there might be some overlap, its standing as a main-series Final Fantasy game lost it a lot of potential fans -- as ironic as that might be.
If you're a fan of anything in the RPG genre, even if you don't usually like Final Fantasy games, I'd highly recommend Final Fantasy XIII. It's got a great cast and story, great overall environment, and the battle system is consistently fun, strategic, and engaging. While it departs from the Final Fantasy formula a lot, it doesn't depart so far that it'll appeal to people that hate RPGs, and at the same time, it's definitely not a game for fans of "purist" RPGs. But if RPGs -- JRPGs especially -- are ever a genre you enjoy , Final Fantasy XIII comes highly recommended.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 02/20/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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