"Like Greased Lightning, You're In For A Shock"

Return of the King

If sales promotion were any indication, then Final Fantasy XIII would be the God of War. Square has relentlessly been plugging away at pitching the first installment in its Fabula Nova Crystallis series (read: cash-exploiting monolith), bombarding Japanese people with TV ads, online promotions, tie-ins, trailer-sized billboards (one even right outside Shibuya Station's Hachiko Exit) and promotional junkets galore. As if the world didn't already know Final Fantasy 13 was in the future, it sure does now. It does, of course, have huge shoes to fill, for so many of the mainstream RPG fans, there has never been another fantasy so fantastic as the 7th installment: no one has ever come close to matching the menace of Sephiroth or the clout of Cloud. The most recent installments don't even compare, with FFX being more of a vacation in Okinawa rather than a cyber-punk adventure, FFXI being a joke (i.e. an online installment that had no business being numbered), and FFXII being an offline MMORPG with sparse narrative despite arguably having the best character in the history of the series (all hail Balthier). Helmed by many of the key staff members responsible for the sacred Seven, Final Fantasy 13 provides so much content and polish that one need not even question why it took ages to complete a game that was first unveiled publicly over 3 years ago. For better or worse, many people have been keen to note that FF13 is written "XIII" which, when read differently, can actually be X-3. In light of the glaring issues with this game, that is indeed what ti is.

As the digital "d-day" has now passed, it is thus time to take a look at the "other" RPG titan...

Glitz and Glam to Gore

Without question, Final Fantasy XIII is one of the most graphically breathtaking games ever created. Everything you see, everything you do, everything that exists is painstakingly detailed and full of emotion. It's particularly interesting as, in many respects, Mistwalker's "Lost Odyssey" was very much a "Final Fantasy" game in terms of its graphical grandeur and obsession with CG. At the time, I actually remember thinking that it would be difficult for the REAL FF game to surpass it's visuals. And yet, perhaps as a factor of time, it does. The product actually feels less like a game and more like a movie given how good it looks. Explosions blasting roads as hundreds of helpless humans plummet to their doom, gigantic fields that sprawl as far as the eye can see, even small particles dancing in the air are filled with an inexplicable amount of attention to detail.

Though I will avoid spoiling anything, suffice to say that early on, there is an in-game "re-enactment" of a certain Dead Sea-type event that will delight fans of Chrono Cross. In fact, while playing 13, there are dozens upon dozens of situations wherein you will end up recalling some old-school era game and wishing that Square could remake it today with these kinds of visuals. The battle scenes are equally fantastic; bits of cast magic remain lodged on the field, gigantic summon monsters animate with all the grace and fluidity as any real-life creature might, as do the characters and monsters. You will easily find yourself with bated anticipation to see what comes next and to be sure, the game never disappoints.

Unfortunately what DOES disappoint however, does so on three fronts:

Flash in the Pan

As good as the graphics are, there is something a bit unsettling about them. It seems as if Square went a bit too far with the detail and design, as for all of the superb sights, you can't actually make out what is happening in a lot of them. Cut scenes in particular, gorgeous as they are, are often so jam-packed with action and movement that your eyes have trouble taking all of it in. And the camera pans too fast thus creating a situation that, while fluid, leave you with only a general sense of what's going on. It's a bit ironic, but the massive scope of detail in this game actually serves as a detraction from the visuals. The environments themselves are equally at fault as their overly complex nature can prevent you from actually taking them in. It's as if your brain actually turns "off" because there is no way for it to take in the minutia of complexity. Now before anyone attacks this comment, consider that I've been playing games for over 15 years now and this is the first time I've ever encountered something of this nature.

Sin-ful Scrummaging

Those players who loved Final Fantasy X will instantly feel at home here, as for better or worse, XIII returns to the same "Tunnel-Vision" map system that plagued Yuna's pilgrimage. It's so similar to FFX that you might actually consider this Final Fantasy X-3 (especially with the "Dresssphere type gameplay mechanic-more on that later). Square created gorgeous, sprawling locals almost reaching FFXII-calibre expansiveness and brimming with tons of detail and depth, yet lo and behold you are usually prohibited from exploring 80% of it. The game is literally "boxed" as you can't even explore nooks and crannies that your characters can technically fit in; the game just outright prohibits any exploration outside of the clearly delineated space. This makes for great annoyance as there are hundreds upon hundreds of little alcoves that are screaming out for you to explore them, yet all you can do is look and fancy what it would have been like...

Granted many will argue that Final Fantasy 12's gigantic DQ8-sized areas were somewhat lacking in the design and detail department, but at the same time their being gigantic ensured that you could do a whole lot of exploring. With FF13, however, the only real exploration you can do is towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, there are some exceptions to this rule, but the utter fact that you spend much of the game traveling in a more-or-less linear line is a bit vexing, especially as this comes after the offline MMORPG before it and thus represents a step backwards. It's also quite frustrating as, when you finally get to said "open-ended" area, you quickly realize that it is the exception, not the new standard.

Terrible Towns

To put it bluntly, Final Fantasy 13 doesn't have towns. To explain it truthfully, it does. Confusing? Indeed; For all intents and purposes, this game doesn't have a real town in the sense that RPG towns accomplish three things: (1) providing new information about where to go, (2) providing places to shop, (3) peppered throughout the adventure to break up the dungeons. Given the criticism raised in the previous topic, it should come has absolutely no surprise to anyone that there is never a point in the game when you don't know what to do, especially since the game's auto map is ALWAYS marked with an arrow pointing towards the correct direction. Shops are gone entirely; you first wake up to this sobering reality a scant one minute after you start controlling Lightning as no sooner do you reach the save point than you notice a new option.

Yes, that's right: you save and shop at the same place. It came as a huge surprise to me; were this Biohazard then I could overlook this issue, but for an RPG to have shops stationed at every save point (which, I might add, is like 2 minutes worth of traveling) it's really unusual. I do like the manner in which you collect new "hyperlinks" to shops thus expanding the list as the game progresses and allowing you to buy more and more items. With respect to the third "town requirement", the game plays like an action movie with dungeon after dungeon after dungeon; it's not towns that are interlaced to stave off the tedium of the game, it's incessant cut-scenes every few minutes.

So, what do towns actually do in FF13? The "plethora" of towns that exist (read: utter sarcasm) are little more than dungeons lacking monsters and serve as no other point than to introduce different scenery really. Then again some of the dungeons are actually set IN towns, just without NPCs.

So Long Story...

While I won't give any story spoilers, it doesn't involve any kind of grand scheme or uber-political plot like Final Fantasy 12 featured. In fact, FF13 really doesn't have a story so much as it just follows the characters as they try to struggle with their fate. This means that, for all those expecting it, FF13 is already "broken" for not having its own Sephiroth, Kuja, or Kefka. In the first half of the game, there are a number of characters that you think might become the "big boss" or that could be a main menace (a la the Judges) however such is not the case. Unfortunately the story that is there is rather nonsensical with tons of over the top details and situations such that it becomes a total joke about 1 hour in; it takes itself way too seriously. To sum up the plot, it's about six individuals being "cursed" and their subsequent struggle to change their destiny. Quite simple really.

One of the things that annoyed me the most about the story is that, similar to the "Orphanage" situation in Final Fantasy 8, there is a similar "coincidental" event in the backstory of Final Fantasy 13 that is constantly being alluded to. It's so cliched and unoriginal that all of the main characters happened to be in the exact same place at the exact same time, even if they did or didn't know about each other.

Frantically Fun Fighting

The one area where Final Fantasy 13 really shines is the new combat system, though given it's mass-scale changes to the series, and to the genera as a whole, it is sure to enrage countless RPG fans.

Forget everything you know about the FF-series staple battles, because they are now rendered obsolete. As with the previous installment, all monsters are visible on the playing field. Final Fantasy 13 introduces a brand new ATB system: all actions, be they attacking, casting a spell, or using techniques, cost "time"; as a result there is no more MP. The game operates on a system such that as the full ATB bar fills up, you can split its content into different actions (the bar is thus broken up into set pieces). Thus, every action taken in battle costs "points"; standard attacks require only one charge bar however more advanced tactics require 2 or more. While waiting for the ATB bar to fill, you are thus tasked with selecting the desired actions and the subsequent monster to target, after which (when the bar fills), the assault will automatically commence. While the game starts with only 2 "Charges" per character, as you progress their bar will increase to 3, 4, and so on. To provide a basic illustration, say you want to use the "Attack" command with say, the magic Fira. Attack costs 1 bar and Fira 2. So to use both of these in a single ATB "phase", you must wait for the bar to fill all three units. But what if you are impatient or change your mind and don't want to wait for the entire bar to charge before attacking? No problem; push the Triangle Button at any time and the charge time will cancel prematurely and whichever attacks you have enough stock to use with initiate. Thus, if you decide to attack with only 2.5 of the bars filled, your character will commence the "Attack" command and the Fira magic will be cancelled. However, as you had 2.5/3 bars filled, that remaining 1.5 of ATB time will carry over to the next phase and thus you will start with 1.5 bars filled. Do note that when I say phase, I just mean the cycle of the bar filling and then emptying; fighting has no pauses whatsoever and no turns, thus if you sit and do nothing your PC will get slaughtered. (Yes, that's right, you are only in control of whomever is the main character at the time; the game will take control of the other 2. And yes, if your player character dies, it's Game Over even if the other 2 computer controlled characters are still living).

While it takes a few minutes to get use to initially, the system is polished to perfection and ensures that fighting is once again fresh, fun, and...fast! Those of you who dislike fast-paced battles are in for a sharp wake-up call: Final Fantasy XIII's fights are on par with FFX-2, if not even faster: trust me, that's a good thing given how frequently you will be fighting. You must remain constantly on your proverbial toes as even a few seconds of pause can result in life-or-death. Newcomers will be pleased to know that the ATB system can be toggled in the Configuration screen to allow more time for their decisions and command input.

Another aspect of battle is that, similar to Final Fantasy XII, it's truly in real time. Despite the characters automatically carrying out their selected commands, their actual ability to do so is largely dependant on what is going on on the battlefield. For example, if you input the Fight command, your character will do just that. However should the target move too far away, or should you get attacked in the process, the command is carried out (or cancelled) and the target remains unscathed. Properly timing your attacks is pivotal for success, as it plays a large part of what follows:

Tearing a page out of the Xenosaga playbook, FF13 introduces the "Break" system. All opponents have a life bar and a break bar. While the former is self explanatory, the latter may be quite new for those unaccustomed to Zarathustra and KOS-MOS. The Break Bar serves as a type of stress meter; each attack you launch on an enemy causes the bar to fill; after it reaches maximum capacity, the opponent will "break" and thus remain docile (save for the more difficult monsters) and let their guard down thus allowing for major damage opportunities. Note that the bar will begin to empty immediately after the attack connects, though it has a "holder" such that, if you execute another attack before the bar empties completely, the subsequent damage will continue filling the Break bar where the last blow ended. Physical Attacks cause the Break Bar to fill slowly, but the "rebound" to empty quite slow; Magic Attacks on the other hand, cause the bar to shoot up quickly, but with split-second emptying. Thus you need to combine both physical and magic attacks to properly break the bar. This is key, as many monsters are almost invincible should you not break them.

It's also worth mentioning that, if you score a Preemptive Strike, your main character will not only attack all the enemies before battle begins, but also have full ATB stock AND, most importantly, all of the monsters will be near break status.

Curiously, your HP is restored at the end of each fight, thus restorative items and spells may only be used during battle. I am ultimately not sure what the outcome of such a huge change is: on the one hand it allows the game to flow much smoother between exploration and battle, yet at the same time it eliminates much of the challenge as who among us can not recall a plethora of situations wherein we were nearing 0MP and low on healing items, and plugging away at the given game praying for a heal spot or Level Up; that kind of tension is sadly absent from the game. Equally curious is the obscene nature in which you can procure Potions; the game practically hands them out like candy (some fights can yield an excess of SIX as victory spoils). Equally questionable is the issue that potions, when used, heal everyone instead of just one character.

Those who played the FF13 demo will be interested to note that the final version allows for command overrides. This is to say that, in the demo, if you selected commands that exceeded your bars, the battle engine prevented the input. In the final version, the most recent command input will override the previous prior to selecting the target. (To use the prior example, if you selected Attack and Fira, that would use 3 bars. But if you then selected Firaga that might use 3 bars, it would cancel the input of Attack and Fira and replace it with Firaga).

Also "lifted" from the Nietzschean world of Xenosaga is the "Strategic Engagement" element. As you explore the game's environments you will come across a variety of items that, when used on the map, allow the use of a smoke screen to guarantee preemptive strikes, or other items that can boost certain magics or whatnot.

Crystal Spheres and Optimum Options

Each character takes on a set role in battle, and that role is determined by you. The "Optima" system is much like the Dress Sphere system employed in X-2 and consists of the following roles:

Attacker: Focuses exclusively on melee attacks. Can use a wide variety of automatic abilities when attacking.

Blaster: Focuses on Attack Magic and Magic Attacks (the latter being melee attacks that are enhanced by magic.)

Defender: Focuses exclusively on defensive abilities; can not deal damage to the enemy except for "Revenge" charges.

Enhancer: Focuses exclusively on party-supportive status magic such as Protect or Haste. No offensive abilities whatsoever.

Jammer: Focuses exclusively on enemy-related status magic such as Curse, Bio, or Dispel. No offensive abilities whatsoever.

Healer: Focuses exclusively on party-supportive restorative magic such as Heal, Esuna, or Raise. No offensive abilities whatsoever.

Each of these styles, or Optimas, has its own unique crystal board where you can develop your skills. Each style starts out with a single learned function, but as you battle and earn CP (Crystal Points), the points can be spent to learn a new ability, with each subsequent one requiring more CP. (More on this shortly).

The catch is that you must select the proper Optima to match the given battle situation, as you are basically "equipping" the style and all abilities contained therein. This is similar to the gameplay mechanic found in Star Ocean 4 wherein you level up a "Class" however said class bonus features only apply when you are using it. Thus, if you're up against a tough monster with thousands of HP, it's necessary to switch one (or two) characters to the role of Healer so that they can repair damage. Likewise, if you're pitted against a lot of cannon fodder, its best to change everyone to Attacker and make quit work of them. Fortunately, initiating an Optima Change is as simple as hitting the L1 Button and selecting the desired configuration. Similar to the Gambit System in FFXII, you can mix-and match your own Optima Change configurations to create a variety of party combinations, and then save them for pre-set use in battle. If you want the short version, think evolving Dress Spheres. Of course the down side is, obviously, that you will constantly have to change Optimas, as a party of 3 Healers, Jammers, or Enhancers are literally unable to attack.

Because the AI controls the other 2 battle characters, it's sometimes important to make sure that they are assigned a proper role, with your leader character having the most important role. This lies in the fact that the computer, while most of the time successful, can be unpredictable and use magic that is of lower value than you want (i.e. Fire instead of Firega) or heal everyone evenly when you want it to focus exclusively on you (since it's game over if you die).

Crystal Chronicles

The best way to describe this game's character development system is to imagine a combination of Final Fantasy X and X-2 with a touch of 12's Licence Board system. The Crystalium Board works much like the Sphere Grids, with each Optima "Class" having its own board to develop. The boards, then, have a clear starting point consisting of the first ability and you then expend CP to move to the next node. As one might expect, the content of the individual nodes is strictly dependent on which of the Optima classes you are evolving; while the Attacker boards will deal with damage, the Healer will deal with restorative magics. In addition to command abilities and automatic abilities for use in combat, these boards also contain HP, Attack, and Magic power bonuses.

While the Crystalium System does introduce some new abilities, such as the attack spell "Rune", it also sees the removal of some others that fans might consider "staple". The other issue sure to draw the irk of a number of fans is the lack of any sort of balance in the board's CP cost structure. After a certain major event early on in the game, when you first gain access to the development system, you will notice that the nodes require very little CP to activate. After about 2/3 of the game however, when you reach the final nodes, there is extensive grinding necessary to activate them given their huge CP requirements. Granted monsters give more CP than earlier in the game, but the fact remains that much of the latter portion of the adventure is not spent adventuring, but rather spent fighting. Additionally, while each character is limited to 3 "jobs" at first, later in the game they gain access to all the different classes, however activating any nodes on the "non-preferred" board comes with a huge CP cost as well.

It is also important to note that, although the status bonuses are permanent, all of the Command Abilities are restricted to their associated class. This means that, realistically, two of the characters will never actually use a physical attack as their roles are supportive in nature (in addition to Attack Magic) and thus you will actually have to grind like mad just to allow them the use of their weapons as melee objects.

The only down side is that, at least in the early parts of the game, you wind up with a huge surplus of CP even after you have maxed out the available boards. It's frustrating because the game thus impedes your ability to develop your characters until specific points wherein the "limiter" is removed.

Ranking Reality

At the end of each battle, you will receive a detailed screen informing you of various battle aspects, including the elapsed time, your "score", the amount of awarded CP, and your TP bonus (TP is akin to a special tactical abilities such as Libra that have their own usage gauge). And...a star ranking. The game ranks each fight out of a possible 5 star maximum that is determined by your performance. Unfortunately this system is horribly broken, as the game awards a perfect ranking way too easily. It's so bad that you actually find yourself annoyed that when you do pull off some great combination or finish the battle in record time with no damage, the score is no different than when you played half as good. IMHO a system more similar to Namco's Tales of's "Grade" score would have worked much better here, wherein the game would award your skill with a number as opposed to a set delineation. Nonetheless, it's a nice change of pace from the typical "Earned EXP/Gold/AP" fare that was so common in the FF series.

There is no Gil earned from battles. In fact, money is utterly pointless. To earn currency, it's necessary to sell battle spoils from to the "Save Shops". These shops carry only those items and weapons that you've already obtained 99% of the time, and thus it's highly likely you will go through the game without buying anything save for swapping the Gil for weapon customization items.

Stupid Summons, Pointless Powers

Square would have you believe that the Summon monsters in Final Fantasy 13 are hot stuff; all of the promotional material released after the Spring 2009 Japanese demo features them as did the print advertisements, TV commercials, etc. Countless pictures were shown of the diverse line-up and the "new" idea that you can drive the summons ("new" as in ripped straight out of Transformers). In the end, the Edolions are a total throw-away that serve no other purpose in the game other than to (1) create an infuriatingly difficult battle to get them, (2) increase each character's ATB gage stock by one, and (3) heal everyone's HP after they leave. Similar to the Guardian Forces in FF8, if you actually know how to play FF13 then there is absolutely no need to ever use a Summon. But I digress...let me start from the beginning:

After a major plot point early in the game, all of the main characters will have eventual access to their own summon monster. Eventual is the key word as it's entirely dependent on the story and thus, you will indeed wind up some 30 hours into the game and still not have all the summon monsters. During a key story sequence for each character (read: pointless melodrama), their summon power will awaken and you must subdue it to continue with the game. A battle thus ensues wherein you are automatically under Death status and have roughly 2 minutes to find the summon's weakness and exploit it enough to allow you to tame it. These are arguably the hardest battles in the game, in no small part because your optima configuration may or may not even be configured to allow you to use the abilities that will actually subdue the opponent. As a result, you will have to die and then choose the restart option just so you can access your menu to add the required Optimum Change to your list. Once you finally subdue the beast, that character gets an additional ATB stock gauge and can then summon the monster whenever they have at least 3 Tactical Points or more. Since it takes between 5-10 battles to accumulate enough TP, suffice to say that the summons are only for dire situations.

When summoned, the monster will replace the other 2 battle members and act on its own. It's life is timed and will rapidly decrease until reaching 0. The objective is to raise the summon's "energy" via the abilities you used to subdue it, then switch to Driving Mode. Driving Mode is Square's pathetic attempt to be cool and let players actually control the summons. The monster will transform into a vehicle and you then have a set number of action points to use for attacking the enemy. There are a number of different attacks, each of them costing a different number of action points. You can also let the game automatically decide which attack to use (Auto-Drive) and opt to expend all of your points for what would normally be considered a "Limit Break". After the action points reach 0, the summon disappears and your 3TP are gone.

Unfortunately the summon system is horribly broken. Normal monsters are too easy to kill to warrant the use of summons in light of the TP consumption, and difficult monsters have such absurdly high HP that the extra power has little to no effect. The only real reason to use a summon is to take advantage of the free restore that you get when it leaves: all your characters status and HP will be restored. Additionally, the fact that you won't get the final summon until quite far into the game means that roughly half of the characters in the game are of less value given that their ATB bar will be 1 less than the other 3 until their "crisis" calls their beast.

Music to Make

Ask any Final Fantasy fan about their favorite aspects of the series and chances are likely the word "music" will be somewhere in the answer. The series is known for its memorable themes, catchy battle tracks, and even the occasional waltz or two. Though staple-series composer Nobou Uematsu has long since parted ways with the FF universe, one should rest assured knowing that FF13 continues in the same tradition of upstanding, memorable pieces. Scoring the music this time around is veteran Square musician Masashi Hamauzu who contributed to the Final Fantasy X OST, as well as Brave Fencer Musashi 2, Unlimited Saga, Dirge of Cerberus, and Sigma Harmonics, to name but few of his works. What he accomplished with FF13 is nothing short of brilliant, especially in creating what might possibly be the best battle music in the entire series. SO good is the music, in fact, that it's actually incorporated into several other tracks and serves as a quasi-theme to the game itself.

At the same time however, there are a number of tracks that are reused too often, especially some of the poorer tracks. It's kind of like "what's good is good, but what's bad is always there." There are a handful of tracks that, in my opinion, truly hurt the quality of the score and are tracks that Uematsu would never have bothered with had he composed the music.

As with every modern FF game, each area has its own theme, each character has their own theme, and many battles have their own theme. Suffice to say that the game's score will take up 4 discs when the OST releases in January, one of which is the game's theme song, and the subject of a minor controversy as, for the first time ever, Square has opted to totally replace the theme song between the Japanese version and the English/foreign language versions. "Because You're Here" is the soft ballad sung by Sayuri Sugawara (the game also features another song by her, "Eternal Love"). The foreign version will feature the song "My Hands" by British singer Leona Lewis though from the get-go the reaction to such a change has been teeming with venom among the die-hard fans.

The voice acting (for the Japanese version, obviously) is excellent as par the course with Japanese voice actors, and the sound effects are also fitting and at times, fantastic.

Creating Crappy Characters

For all the things Final Fantasy XIII has going for it; for all the time and effort it took to make such a brilliant game; I can't for the life of me, understand why in the world the developers settled on what might be the worst set of characters in an RPG ever. Allow me to approach this from a triangular approach:

A. Character Design

Testuya Nomura, whom I use to love for his once-lively and fresh designs back in the PSOne days, continues in his relentless attempt to rehash each and every tired cliched character from the past. We've seen much of this before: Snow (i.e. Zell Dincht), Lightning (whom Nomura was actually told to design as a "female Cloud"), Vanilla (i.e. Selphie Tilmitt) and Fang (Paine dressed as Kimahri). What we haven't seen we really had no need for thanks to the terrible character designs: Hope and Sazh, the former a pathetic little chaos-looking wannabe, and the latter of whom annoyed me in particular; why must the series' second character of African decent be so horribly stereotyped, even down to the idea of something stuck in his "must have" huge afro (in this case a baby Chocobo). Japan really needs to wizen up to the fact that people of African decent are of a diverse composite and thus stop the stereotypical cliches that are so frequently depicted with respect to said race in Japanese pop-culture.

On a side note I will say that the CG models look worlds better than their in-game counterparts. Square had once claimed it would eliminate the gap between the two yet this game proves that there is still a LONG way to go. Lightning in particular looks awful in the in-game scenes for 90% of the time, as do does the fact that everyone has the lips of a pre-teen Japanese girl.

B. Characterization

Trite garbage. To say that this game reeks of cliched melodrama is an understatement. Whereas Final Fantasy X had its fair share of "acting" peppered throughout the sad story, save for Tidus it never managed to lower itself to the banal existence that Final Fantasy 13 achieves. This lies, in no small part, in the fault of the characters themselves, namely:

Zell...I mean Snow, is hands down the worst character in Final Fantasy history. Like an overgrown 7-year old, you will constantly hear about how he is "going to protect everyone" or "protect the world" or "protect what is important" or "protect [his] friends". It's difficult remembering a single cut-scene that transpired wherein he did not use the word "protect" or "hero". It's cliched, it's annoying, and it's pathetic, right down to the "thumbs up" he gives. It's also amusing how Lightning (the main character) even makes fun of him at one point. Where the writers got the idea that ANYONE would like this kind of looser is beyond me, though perhaps for the majority of anti-social otaku who worship this game series, to be such a "dynamic" character is their life's dream. Then again considering that the programmers were so in-love with Snow as to specify his shoe size (33cm for those not in-the-know) it might be their charismatic lust as well. Snow is, in a very real sense, the epitome of what makes normal people embarassed by videogames and what makes them ashamed to let someone else watch.

Hope is equally infuriating with his tired-and-true "tween-meets-emo" appeal. Are we suppose to feel sorry for him admist all his whining and running away and moping around? Give me a break. At least Squall Leonhart managed to be edgy with his angst; this louse seems to have no other purpose than to have dramatic outbursts. Listen up Square: no one wants to play a 40 hour game with an annoying Shinji Ikari in-tow, especially when you obviously designed him to look like chaos and we all know how chaos was really something special. No one wants kids in their videogames, especially when they are annoying and especially when you make a point of showing their cliched maturation from "child" to "adult" that happens in all of a days' worth of time.

Honestly speaking the only character I actually found myself liking was Lightning, perhaps in no small part because she is so different from the other party members. She is angry, violent, and unpredictable. She alone saved this game from being a total write-off in terms of the characters and content, though after a certain point she (as with Squall) suddenly looses her actual appeal and becomes another nobody. Thus it's the battle system that really saves this game.

Now I'm sure that many people will love the cast of characters and adore the banal Japanese "ningen drama" that reeks of anime like nothing else. Thus for those of you who will disagree with me on this aspect, the game is that much more enjoyable for you. It's just my opinion, but I'd much prefer more mature characters whom I could care about rather than this band of bothers.

C. Usefulness

I could look beyond the problems with the various party members if they had a clear and sufficient use. Frankly speaking however, the only three characters you ever need are Lightning, Fang, and Vanilla. While I give Square credit for trying to make all of the characters balanced and useful, if you are anything like me then you will pretty much play 95% of the game with the aforementioned trio, using a Optima such as "Furious" or "Rush Assault" (both emphasizing all-out melee or magic attacking) and Vanilla occasionally changing roles to serve as a Healer. I found no use whatsoever for the Defender role, the Enhancer role, and the Jammer role other than the occasional uber-difficult enemy. I'm sure that many players will disagree with me, but I have no doubt that these are the very players who prefer tedious, slow battles and who will be equally angry at the computer AI controlling the other 2 characters. The fact of the matter is that this game is designed for fast paced, quick battles, and thus using any configuration but an Assault based one is wasting your time. To this end, Snow, Hope, and Sazh have no real game related function whatsoever, rather they are mainly present for "story" reasons.

Odds and Ends

Some people claim that FF13 features roughly 9 hours of cut scenes: the best way to describe the balance of FFXIII is to think of FFX, and then add in all the hours and hours of cut-scenes from Metal Gear Solid 4. There are so many times when you literally do nothing but watch a cut-scene, walk a few steps, and then watch another. Add this to the aforementioned drought of towns to sparse up the adventure and you might question whether this is an RPG or an action game with turn based battles.

Additionally, the game has an "Auto Clip" system that is best described as a combination of FFXII's logbook system and Xenosaga's encyclopedia. This menu option is where you can find tutorial information as well as tons of content about the game's story and characters...all things that IMHO would have been better suited in the game as opposed to reading about it. Suffice to say, however, that Square went to town when it came to fully realizing the world.

Let's see...what else. The game is actually told in Chapters, there are a variety of trophies to acquire for use with the Playstation Network, the game has oodles of different save file icon variations, you will be jumping around the environments like Yuna in FFX-2, you can only equip a weapon and accessories (no armour), Lightning carries her sword like Fate Linegod, each character has a 2 second FMV that plays when you access their Status or Equipment screens...ah there are such a myriad of details it's impossible to list them all.

Final Focus

In the end, the real question is not whether you will buy FFXIII, but if you will enjoy it as much as the next person; the game has so many strong points, but also some very prominent shortcomings. In addition to the opinions expressed above, there is the fundamental issue of whether you (the reader/consumer/FF fan) will feel the same way. Perhaps some of you will loathe the battle system, for example. For better or worse, Square has continued its merging Final Fantasy with the mainstream gaming market and along with it, the benefits and the detractions. It's actually worth pondering what Final Fantasy XV will amount to as without a doubt, the feedback from this game (as well as the in-house related discussions) will strongly affect the next installment. Also worth wondering, what will come out of the other two planned projects; Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII; how will these two products fit into the universe? Will there be any overlap? Will we see cameo appearances (that is all but assured given the level of fan-service this company stoops to)? Final Fantasy 13 is truly the opening to a brand new universe: just make sure that once you step through, you don't forget your way back to the rabbit hole.

Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/18/09, Updated 01/04/10

Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (JP, 12/17/09)

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