Review by De Facto

"A paradigm shift to a solid entry"

Final Fantasy XIII takes on an intriguing new direction for the series, not unlike its prior iterations but it's a direction that will spark some flames. It's an extremely straightforward RPG with no towns, no MPs, very little to explore, and a save hub that also takes care of all your shopping needs. Doesn't sound very much like a Final Fantasy title, does it?

As it stands, I'm on the side that approves the game's somewhat rigid linear direction. This is not the first game in the series that followed this approach, as Final Fantasy X also took on a very specific path and even Final Fantasy VII took a lengthy stroll around Midgar before heading into the outside world. Come to think of it, the whole series in rather linear in general; sure, most of the early games have the players walk across the vast landscapes and discover new locals, but they're illusive on the objective to go from one town/dungeon to another town/dungeon. For most gamers like myself, the main quest is the prime directive and it can be easy to lose direction on where to go in a large landmass. With FFXIII, it was designed to be straightforward for the story to have a more grand focus, and the levels were tightly meshed to accommodate said focus, even at the cost of exploration.

HOW DOES THE GAME WORK?

It's easy for most people to put down on the game for its initial simplicity, not knowing that the game provides new features overtime. FFXIII has what I like to call "progressive gameplay". It started off with the basic features such as a map, a menu, and a save feature with a shop option, plus the characters' roles are constantly switched. However, throughout 13 chapters of the main game, more options become available such as the stats-improving Crystarium, selecting characters to form a battle team, upgrading weapons and accessories, and extra shops to purchase an assortment of items and materials needed for upgrading.

I. THE BATTLE SYSTEM

The battle system is also quite progressive. Early in the game, the battles are pretty rudimentary as I go into auto-pilot for most of them, and only the party leader can be controlled. Later on, the game introduces the Paradigm Shift system and how to use them in battle, eventually becoming one of the most intense real-time battle systems in the RPG genre. How the Paradigm Shift works is that each character has their own set of classes, which can be set up on the menu. There's the Commandos which deal with physical attacks, Ravagers who use offensive magic spells, Sentinels for defensive blockades, Synergists for buffing the party's starts, Saboteurs for weakening enemy's stats, and Medics are self-explanatory. Formations are set up in the menu for each member of the three-person party to select their own specific class, up to six custom formations can be used in battle, which from there can be selected using the L1 button.

Knowing which character's class to use and what formation to make is important, because the battles will become increasingly precarious. Gamers cannot just use an all-attack rampage for most of the fights and expect to win, and if anyone thinks a balanced formation with an attacker, a spellcaster and a healer will get through the whole game, they are sadly mistaken because some enemies and bosses can overwhelm you with brute wide-spread attacks and anti-status spells that can cripple the ability to recover. Sometimes, a class that appears totally irrelevant like the Sentinel can be very thing needed to succeed in a tough fight, so each class has a role to play and must be utilized. This is not an easy game to beat, considering that it's game over if the party leader is KO'd, and while healing after each battle and a retry option may seem like unnecessary additions for an RPG, I am rather glad to have those additions as well as the pre-battle items to increase defense or get an easy preemptive strike.

However, while it can be difficult, if anyone knows how to use the system probably, it can also be quite a breeze. One thing that encourages a stellar win is to stagger the enemies. How staggering works is there's a yellow gauge on top of the foes' health gauge, and if the gauge is filled with a good mix of normal and spell attacks, the enemies will glow as a sign of weakness for a limited time. That's the perfect opportunity to beat them down until submission or until the gauge is empty.

For each battle won, there's a score system to tally the performance. It's pretty useless in the beginning, but once the characters acquire techniques for summons and enemy intel that wastes technical points, then it's easy to understand what the score system is meant for. The faster you beat the battle, the more stars you earn, and thus more TPs are earned. That's incentive to be efficient as well as swift.

There are summons in this game in the form of Eidolons, although there's no real need to use them. A well-managed formation of the party can be more effective in delivering the pain than wasting TPs to summon a godly creature, which surprisingly doesn't do as much damage considering the visual flair of their actions. It's rather disappointing that once you have to "acquire" them by unorthodox methods, they're pretty much left by the wayside.

II. LEVELS AND UPGRADES

The Crystarium is a similar kind of leveling system to FFX's sphere grid, meaning you earn crystal points to level up each character's grid to increase stats and acquire new abilities. However, in this game, the classes for each character also have their own specific grid. While increased strengths and hit points (which are the only stats in the game) are part of the character's overall status, the skills are subjected to the class they are acquired from, so if a fire spell is earn on a Ravager grid, it can only be used as a Ravager. Don't expect to exploit the Crystarium system, because each chapter sets up a limit for how far a character can be upgraded. FFXIII doesn't allow a gamer to overpower their foes, making the Paradigm Shift system all the more encouraging using skill and tact to win battles.

Later in the game, however, one can upgrade equipment to remedy the Crystarium limitations. Winning battles can sometimes earn components, which can be used to either sell for gil (which is the only way to earn money in this game) or level up weapons and accessories. There are three types of upgradable components: organic ones which are low in EXP but might contain EXP boosting abilities, mechanical ones which has more EXP but can reduce the EXP boost amount, and crystalized entities that can evolve a weapon or accessory once they reach a level cap, thus becoming more efficient equipment. Or you can dismantle equipment for more components. Upgrading and dismantling is a bit complicated, since there's so many weapons and accessories to upgrade and most of them evolve to become otherwise useless items without knowing; the functionality of it should be less vague.

HOW DOES THE GAME LOOK AND SOUND?

Square Enix is no slouch when it comes to making excellent CGI. The game's FMVs look just as remarkable as the previous games in their point of time, and the in-game graphics surprisingly matches the quality of the FMVs pretty close. Some in-game scenes almost look like an FMV: from the design, the camera placement, the lighting, they were pretty convincing thanks to the Crystal Tools engine. The character models are of high quality, and thankfully the characters expressions are mostly not as goofy-looking as in the last few games. Personally, I'm glad this game goes back to the lush colors and out-of-this-world settings that's tradition for the franchise compared to the monochromatic brownness and medieval tone of FFXII. If I have a few complaint about the graphics, I thoughts the textures were pretty flat. Especially when I walk into the beautiful green landscape, I noticed how flat the grasses are; sure, they are few grasses sticking up here and there, but otherwise I'm walking on a green carpet. There are also a few pop-ups here and there when the graphics get too busy.

None of the graphical flaws are really worth bickering, because of how well the game manages to streamline everything and maintain a consistent visual quality. The load times are surprisingly quick for a PS3 title, and considering there's no need to install for such an otherwise large game, that's quite a feat.

The company is no slouch to music either, and while Nobuo Uematsu didn't compose this time around, FFX co-composer Masashi Hamauzu manage to deliver a great score. It was wonderfully orchestrated, with some synth BGMs for the traditional manner. Admittedly, the music isn't quite as excellent as those in VI and X: some orchestrated portions are overindulgent and there isn't as much subtle pieces to calm the tension, and outside the chocobo themes, it does lack the traditional FF prelude and prologue. Another issue with the score, and it's quite technical, some of the themes don't even loop properly; they just end and go back to the beginning, which is rather distracting. As for Leona Lewis' "My Hands" for the Western version, the song was quite fitting for its conclusion.

The English voice actors perform their roles with a good amount of panache. Some were quite excellent like the antagonist Dysley, and a few others were just bothersome to hear like Vanille. Overall, however, Final Fantasy continues to improve itself on this aspect since the 10th installment. What's more impressing than just the vocal work is that the game manages to keep the characters' lips in synch with the dialogue, with the exception of certain victory speeches.

HOW IS THE GAME TOLD?

FFXIII begins In medias res when Lighting are fighting soldiers in one group, and Snow is protecting his people in another, but both of them are looking for the same person in the same place. With the support of Sazh, Hope, and Vanille, they found the person only to be turned into crystal and confronted the ancient mechanized being called the fal'Cie. That resulted in all five members being branded as l'Cie, which grant them special powers but are also doomed to a vague scheme called the Focus. If they don't complete their Focus, they will turn into monsters, but if they do, they'll face the same fate as their crystallized victim; talk about stuck between a rock and a hard place. They're on a quest to protect their world called Cocoon while trying to find a way to escape their fate.

When it comes to melodrama in epic proportions, the franchise knows how to deliver them. Unfortunately, the way this story is told is surprisingly standard. No shocks, no surprises, no revelations that completely shift the plot into a different direction. While it does have a few twists throughout the tale, neither of them leaves much on an impact in terms of the overall goal and my personal impression. However, I do admire the game's use of flashbacks to further elaborate how each character reached their starting point, and if any point of the story is confusing, the menu has the datalogs to recap previous events (as well as including a bestiary among others).

The story is far from bad, but it did not exceed high expectations, which is unusual because it has all the right elements. I love when a Final Fantasy game focuses on the characters rather than the situation, and FFXIII does a fine job at fleshing out the characters. Each character has their own personal problems, and those problems affect not just the ongoing story but how the story began in the first place. They blamed themselves for their actions as well as blaming others in an attempt to find purpose. The game delves into redemption and atonement when the game's about the cast. Eventually they grew out of their unlikable traits and became capable enough to understand what's really important and what they can do to help.

That's the kind of character endeavor I greatly appreciate, but only if the characters are interesting. With the exception of Sazh and an exotic warrior named Fang, neither of the characters are compelling because they practically play their roles rather stereotypically. The villains aren't that prevalent in the game and thus aren't as intriguing, so the overall personal mood throughout the journey is mellow.

HOW IS THE REPLAY VALUE?

Game director Motomu Toriyama wasn't kidding when he said it takes 50-60 hours to finish the main story, but thank goodness it's not completely in the straight and narrow. While the game is lacking in exploration, it's not like there isn't anything to discover. There's a point in the game where there's a large area to take on side missions or even ride on a chocobo to dig for treasure, but that point doesn't occur until around 30 hours into the game, give or take. It can be quite tedious and soulless to go through a single road for most of the playthrough, since there's no town to visit and shop or anyone to chat with because of the auto-talk feature, so it's refreshing to take a side-trip when it's available. I wish there were more to do outside the main quest: I like the portion where I was piloting a giant robot across a junkyard, but that was a one-time deal; that could have been a fun mini-game.

Even so, the side missions add more hours into the game, plus when the game is completed, the Crystarium gets upgraded so there are more grids to grind if one were to take on a side mission boss that makes the final boss look quaint.

HOW DID IT GET AN 8/10?

While I do enjoy Final Fantasy XIII, I don't exactly love it. I respect Square Enix's decision to keep the game on a point-to-point basis, but playing through it can be a chore when there's only fights and rendezvous points. The story is competent, but it isn't the best that the series has to offer. However, the battle system was a lot of fun to play because it manages to be deep yet, more importantly, accessible for the masses; plus, no random encounters, which has already becoming a current practice for JRPGs. To me, this is still Final Fantasy for all its deviations because it retains the sense of adventure and spiritual beauty that Final Fantasy is all about.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/17/10

Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)


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