Review by Lsnake

"The Fantasy finally comes to the PS3, but was it worth the wait?"

It took some time, but the next generation of Final Fantasy is finally here. Once again it appears to showcase the visual power of the new generation of consoles, just like it did with Playstation, Playstation 2 and now Playstation 3/360. (This version is tested on PS3). And let me just say it straight away. For the most part, this is one good looking game. It is like FFIV, FFVII and FFX the proof that we're now playing with the next generation.

But graphics alone does not make a Final Fantasy. Just like every single iteration in the series it's backed up by a grand story, a varied cast of characters, unique gameplay and exceptional sound. And while it's easy to be completely floored by XIII at first as the lovely presentation and production values add to the massive first impression, in reality the game turns out to be less true to it's namesake than one would like to hope. In fact, it might be one of the least Final Fantasy-like games in the entire franchise, where almost all core concepts have gone out the window, replaced by other hit and miss substitutes.

Don't worry. I'd still recommend going out and buying this game. It's an experience, and you'll remember it when it's over. It's by far one of the better RPG's this generation and sure to satisfy many hungry RPG-addicts out there, but it's hard to not think of it as a missed opportunity for something even better, and perhaps more true to the series. With the radical changes to almost everything the series is famous for, there's a risk it might just alienate those who have followed the series from it's early days.

Storytelling
Final Fantasy XIII follows the series standard of a small group of characters that hide secret motivations, reasons, doubts, fears and regrets behind their initial appearance, and as the story is slowly revealed through cutscenes, past events are revealed, future fates are sealed and lives changed in the process. In that sense, XIII does nothing to change the standard, and going in expecting something similar to especially FFX or FFVIII should give you a pretty decent idea of how the story goes. It's not a terribly deep story, but it's an effective backdrop to let the characters play out and grow on you as they struggle with the enemies and themselves. If you're new to the series, and chances are some might be because of it's first visit to the Xbox, the characters and ways they act and change might feel a little off, but for fans of the later game in the series this is pretty standard stuff. You know what to expect here if you've been playing anything from FFVII and upwards, that is, almost nothing is what it seems at first.

The plot of Final Fantasy XIII is hard to summarize without spoiling much, and less said in advance the better. This is a story to experience. And the game takes it's sweet time the first part of the game to build up the story and seemingly random fates that comes together. The core story is actually very interesting and plays upon several social aspects like the fear of others, oppression of government, discrimination, slavery, misuse of faith and other well known problems with the way the world works. There are plenty of parallells to the real world, and the characters deal with more realistic problems than the usual "One bad guy tries to destroy everything" situation that often drive these stories. However, the game starts to dabble too much with realistic issues that it suddenly stops telling a fun story, and just like FFXII the story fails to leave much of a lasting impression or even sense of world-ending doom. It's nice to be a hero with a clear goal when you're playing an RPG, in FFXIII the characters more often than not run around either confused, angry or sad fighting their own demons as much as saving the world.

It all feels very overdone. Much of the humor and charm from the previous games is completely missing, replaced by a ton of moments where each character goes through some personal crisis. With FFXIII, Square Enix seems to have forgotten that it's the little things that means the most, so everything has to end with someone crying, shouting or punching someone (Even their own friends). It becomes a little better further out in the game, but the game seems to try way too hard to make everything from a smile to a word sound and feel like a world-changing insult.

Maybe these stories play out better in Japan than in the western world, but it's easy to become a little annoyed that everything has to be complicated by emotions and personal issues. And when characters change as a result of the events, the change seems almost too radical and unnatural. One character in particular, changes from being an unsecure, whining and bitter person to rather quickly becoming your typical positive hero that always motivates and gives reason to keep on fighting. None of those sides work well with the character, and instead of growing on you, the drastic and sudden change feels so obviously forced and unbelivable that you might end up disliking the character even more. After all that whining, he just turns into an overdone wiseguy. These characters aren't afraid of turning 180 degrees around instantly, but most of it is all talk and no walk, and it becomes clear that the plot cries wolf way too many times. In the end, you stop believing that any of the characters will walk the mile and do something really dramatic, it's just built up to fool you into thinking so. In addition, one of the better scenes in the game is completely ruined by the fact that the gameplay mechanics appearing two seconds after a dramatic shock destroyed everything the game tried to make you believe.

The game simply lacks guts to pull the rug beneath your feet and cause you to really feel something. It tries it's best to enforce emotions by showing you romantic or dramatic scenes, but even the smallest smile is delivered with the impact of a fifty-ton truck and when it has the chance to deliver some really affecting moments it chickens out.

Another issue with the story, is that it feels like you're getting very little out of alot of time spent. cutscenes drag on and on, characters repeat points we've heard several times throughout the stories and despite all the time the game takes to tell it's story, it's easy to feel like not very much has actually happened. Only a few dramatic scenes spice things up, but compared to earlier cataclysmic events in the series much time is spent standing around talking and discussing what to do and where to go and why to bother. Very little of the plot is actually done through playing, almost everything is shown as cutscenes. You feel like the only thing you really do, is run from A to B, fighting enemies in between, while the characters uncontrollably makes their dramatic fates by themselves. Compared to when you actually make decisions in the earlier games (Like not saving Shadow in FFVI, or even smaller things like changing who you want to date in FFVII), it is easy to become a little passive about the whole situation the characters get stuck in. You can't do anything about anything anyway, so you just have to lean back and hang on to the story. And when the story fails to deliver anything really emotional, it becomes somewhat dull.

Not to say it doesn't have it's moments, especially the afro-haired Sazh who remains one of the best characters with several good moments. He doesn't really change all that much either except from becoming more comfortable with the group, and remains a reliable character throughout the game. But overall the story just feels less engaging and motivating than previous games (The exception is FFXII with it's pretentious and heavy dialogue that made kids sound like Hamlet and everyone else talk like they were stuck in a law paragraf or history book), and with less obvious enemies and badguys, it feels a little hard to properly insert yourself into the story. You're watching the events happening, but even close to the end you're still asking yourself "So..what exactly is going on? Why is this guy doing this? Why did this happen?". The story just doesn't feel as satisfactory as many of the earlier games, and for a game relying so heavily on its story it suffers greatly. Luckily most cutscenes can be skipped, that's always positive for multiple playthroughs. But if the story just doesn't feel engaging the first time, and even less so the next times, having a skip button seems like the easier way to solve the main issues that should have been taken care of in another way.

Gameplay
Where the game really strays from everything the series is known for however, is the actual gameplay. Just about everything is changed, even more than in FFXII, and unfortunately not everything is for the better even if the combat and role system makes for often exciting and dramatic battles. However, In the attempt to create an intense, challenging and fun experience, the gameplay has become changed so much that it's close to alienating fans of everything the series used to contain, just like how Resident Evil 4 & 5 seemed to create a new type of franchise, far from the things the series used to contain.

Don't panic, the game is actually pretty good, and deep within there's still a sense of it being a Final Fantasy, but it's no longer what it used to be. Put the past games behind you, and enjoy it for what it is and you might actually like it alot.

At it's heart, the game is still a command-based battle game where you pick a target and choose an action to perform. That hasn't changed. You pick a target and choose Attack, and your character will run up to the target and slash it with the sword or shoot it with the gun. You choose a partymember to heal and choose the type of heal you want to use, and it will be done as soon as the ability is charged up and ready. All actions takes a little time to charge up before they're ready. But whereas the previous games only handled one action per round and character, in FFXIII you can que up up to six actions in one combo. You could choose to use two strong single target melee attacks, one wide but weak area-attack and a ranged spell, and the character would execute those attacks in the order you've chosen. In addition, there's also an Auto-Battle command that allows the A.I to quickly set up a good and reliable attack combo for you. This is both good and bad, good because there's often not enough time to scroll through your abilities while being smashed to bits, but bad because it turns the game into a simple button masher. You can play without Auto-Battle, but everything will take more time and time is just not on your side in this game.

This is all a part of the new chain system, where chaining attacks in rapid succession increases a gauge on your enemy. Once that gauge is full, the enemy will stagger and take additional damage in addition to ofte becoming hindered from attacking. However, it takes more than your own attacks to reach stagger status, and that's where your party comes along. The party consists of up to 3 members at a time, but you only control one. The A.I controls the other two, much like how the A.I behaved with a setup gambit system in FFXII (If you've played that). Luckily, the A.I is pretty well scripted and will act fast and effective in almost any situations, no matter if they're tanking, healing, buffing, debuffing or just doing damage. You rarely ever need to worry about the A.I as they perform admirably in even the most intense situations. But then again, since you're not able to directly control who they should attack or heal or debuff, it's to be expected that the A.I performs as close to optimal as possible.

But no character can do everything at the same time. That's why the abilities is split into six different roles, who can do different things. The six roles include: Commando (Powerful melee attacks and preventing chain decay), Ravager (Offensive Caster who rapidly builds up chain), Sentinel (Heavy Defensive tank who keeps the enemies on them and reduces damage done to everyone), Medic (Heals and cleanses the party), Synergist (Buffs the party) and Saboteur (Debuffs the enemy). Each of these roles work very differently, so a Ravager is the only one able to cast offensive spells like Fire, while a Medic is the only one able to cast Cure or Raise. It might be easy to quickly judge Synergist and Saboteur as lesser roles, but they quickly become essential roles to ensure your characters are buffed up with abilities like Haste, Protect and Shell, while causing the enemy to be afflicted by Slow or removing said buffs from the enemy. These buffs are often so important during certain battles that ignoring them will be a sure way to fail. By allowing support-abilities to shine, Square have managed to make every role feel important. You don't feel like you're being punished by buffing and debuffing, instead you straight away notice the difference since the enemies hit you for far less than normal, which in terms saves you alot of time when doing damage since you don't have to stop and heal so often.

Each of the six main characters has three prefered roles they are great at, and three roles they are either semi-good as, decent or even bad as. The roles are split between the characters, so you need to figure out which characters makes your party the most complete and create a party based around that once you got the ability to choose your party. One character is a great Commando, Ravager and decent Medic, but a terrible Sentinel, Synergist and Saboteur, while another character is a great Medic, Synergist and Saboteur, but a terrible Commando and Sentinel and a decent Ravager. None are good at everything, but everyone are great at something.

However, it's not just as easy as picking abilities in the middle of the fight from the roles you are good at. That's where the Paradigm Shifts comes into play. Each character can only have one active role at a time, and that determines the skills they can use. Paradigm Shifts are like preset group compositions, where you make groups that you can change into during battle. And the different shifts you can choose, of course varies with what roles each character have. If you don't have a character with Sentinel abilities in your party, no shifts that involve Sentinels becomes available. However, all characters will eventually learn all roles, but at various effectiveness, and some will just not be good enough at some roles to fulfill them during endgame. So back to the Paradigms. You can set up a list of Paradigms in the menu based on your party members. You might have one focused on pure damage with one Commando, and two Ravager. Another one could contain one Sentinel, one Medic and one Synergist which allows you to minimize damage taken by the group, while healing and buffing. You could even go for triple Sentinels which despite does close to zero damage, can be necessary to almost completely reduce damage taken during intense moments. All of these setups are put on a list that you can almost instantly change between during battle, as many times as you like. And therein lies the core concept of battle.

As you fight, you start in one Paradigm that you have defined as standard. Let's say "Relentless Assault", which contains one Commando and two Ravagers. If the group takes heavy damage, you might want to swap over to Combat Clinic, which contains one Sentinel and two Medics. Instantly, the A.I will adapt to their new roles, and start taunting/tanking/healing, and your own active abilities will change. The game does a great job of explaining this, and even teaches you it the hard way. Do not for one second believe you're gonna get by without this system, the first boss once you get the Paradigm system is ready to show you that if you're not paying attention and changing paradigms when it's needed, you might as well just stop playing as you're not gonna get anywhere.

Yes, the game is unforgiving. It's in my opinion the hardest of all Final Fantasy during the normal story. I've had normal bossfights lasting up to and over 20 minutes before wiping on a single Doom spell. (Second time was alot faster as I was better prepared) It's all a matter of learning, and you'll gradually become more confident and more effective in swapping around Paradigms. And that is the best aspect of the game. Once you hit that sweet spot where you're constantly shifting between four-five different paradigm systems in a boss fight you get into a special flow that is extremely tense and fun. The game wears you out in a somewhat good way by forcing you to pay attention every single second, as a boss could suddenly decide to clear out your buffs instantly, or use a massive Area attack. Rapid changes into the right Paradigms is required constantly. But this makes every victory feel rewarding. You feel like you're doing things the right way. For what is a boss fight if it falls as quick as it's minions and normal enemies? Final Fantasy XIII is the first game in the series that really makes the normal bosses feel dangerously tough, and some can be a real pain until you figure out how to do them, not to mention the massive amount of health they got. But it helps the game feel more epic. You're supposed to be afraid of the bosses, and FFXIII succeeds with that.

But it's not just the bosses that pose a challenge, many normal enemies can wipe your party in a short time if you're not being careful or paying attention. If you're slow to change Paradigms while under heavy fire, the game will show no mercy as you'll still be attacked while changing. The game never stops to wait for you. But herein lies a small complaint. Some normal enemies feel almost a little too tough, with a little too much health at times, which can make grinding up CP and Money somewhat boring as drawn out normal fights that doesn't reward that much CP occupy alot of your time. It's especially important to reach Stagger on most enemies as it cause them to die faster, but the problem is that the chain meter will rather quickly decay if you don't attack the enemy. And you're gonna have to stop attacking rather often to heal up as many enemies can do alot of damage. You could take a safe route through the battles and more or less run with a Sentinel, Commando and Medic, but that would cause the battles to take ages. So instead you need to juggle between high-chain and damage boosting Paradigms like Commando, Ravager and Ravager, and back to a more defensive one. You can of course mix Paradigms the way you want so you could have a commando, Ravager and a Medic, which often works nicely as it offers more survivability while not dropping too much in damage.

But you want the fights to end quickly. Each fight is ranked with up to five stars and points. The more stars you get, the bigger chance you have for getting good items. In addition, better ranking refills a Technical Point bar that is capped at 5 points. Technical Points are used for special abilities like Summons, Emergency group resurrection and healing, mass dispelling, detailed information about the enemy target and so on. Use one of these abilities, and your TP will sink and you won't be able to use these abilities until you refill them. There are other ways to refill them, so even if you can't get the speed to kill the groups to get high ranks, you can equip items that will refill it slightly as you just kill enemies for example.

Oh yeah, Summons. As you can tell by now, there's ALOT to talk about with FFXIII. Perhaps more than usual because of all the drastic changes, but there's actually quite alot of depth in the game, which is hidden beneath it's flashy surface. Each character has it's own summon, most of them well known for any fans of the series. Old time summons like Shiva, Bahamut and Alexander is back, but not the way you remember them. Sure, in their normal form they resemble their earlier versions, but now the summons are Transformers. They got one more humanlike form, and a vehicle form. (Say what?) Yes, vehicle. With a flashy animation, they change from being a mighty humanoid into either a dragcar, a motorcycle, a horse and more. Oh yeah, Shiva is actually two females who bond together in a rather..intimate way and transform into a motorcycle. And once they've transformed, you mount it and can use unique skills to damage the opponent until you run out of points, whereas you can finish it off with a typical ender (Odin for example has the typical slash that shatters everything. And yes, he's the horse, true to his norse myth). Using a summon costs you a decent amount of TP, so you can't just spam them during fights.

Well, all these things are fine and good. Great new additions that refine and define the series, keeping it fresh while maintaining it's trademark aspects, right?

WRONG. Here's the game when Square decided to ditch most of the gameplay mechanics it's series is famous for, so while it has gained alot of good aspects, it has also lost several things that many considers to be staples in the series.

First of all, you no longer level up in the traditional sense. There's no experience bar, no levels that will grant you stats and make you feel a little bit stronger and more ready to fight. Instead, you increase up three base abilities, HP (Your Health), Strength (Damage done by physical attacks) and Magic (Damage and Healing done by spells). This is done with the new Crystarium system that in many ways resemble the Sphere Grid from FFX. Every battle and enemy grants you a certain amount of Crystarium Points, just like Experience Points. Each role (Commando, Ravager, Medic and so on) has it's own Crystarium Board that it unique for each of the six characters, and is populated by small spheres that follow a path from the cheap initial boosts like +50 HP with low CP cost to the huge, expensive endgame ones that include massive HP boosts, Role Levels that increase how effective you are in your role and various abilities. All abilities and skills are purchased here, so everything from Cure, Fire, Haste, Shell and other spells and abilities are obtained this way.

However, to complicate things, the Crystarium System gradually opens up as the story progress and even puts a lock on your ability to powerlevel too far ahead of the story until you've passed certain points in the game. At that point you can only gain Crystarium Points (CP) that will stock up until you can continue on the board. This feels very restrictive, and at some parts like a cheap and silly way to prevent players from choosing to help themselves a little if the game feels too hard. By suddenly opening up for the +150 HP spheres after defeating a grueling boss, you're left with the feeling that once again you're just following a strict, planned out path by Square where choice is eliminated. Some players finds eternal lasting life in earlier games in the series by attempting new and challenges, like not leveling at all or reaching max level at a certain early point in the game. Some just like to get a little boost before a hard boss. No such luck here, you play the way Square tells you to. You don't even have a reliable way to measure if you're properly prepared other than capping everything you can, as with no levels you can't really compare yourself to the locations and enemies you fight. It doesn't help that you can spend thousands upon thousands of CP on spheres like +24 Magic only to not feel it making any difference at all. You can't even plan far ahead which makes it even worse, without a guide you'll never know that certain characters will never get Haste as a Synergist for example, yet you can spend millions of CP building them up until you realize this, as you can only see as far as you can put points before progression is blocked until next major plot or boss opens up more.

In addition, some characters lack some abilities that others gain, and vice versa. In some cases it's things you can safely ignore, but when staple abilities like Haste is unavailable to certain characters, it becomes an issue. While some unique abilities have always been a part of the series, the main important abilities have mostly been available to everyone which allowed you to pick a party of your own choice.

No such luck here. You want a strong healer with the ability to cast Haste? Count one character out, you're stuck with only one choice. Having a dedicated healer character is no problem if that's the ONLY healer available, but when there's several but there's a clear indication of who you should be using, the others feel less attractive.

To slightly make up for this, all of the six characters in your party gains the same amount of CP, even if they're not in your active group. But the damage is still done, as you'll sit regretting putting all those points into Synergist instead of Medic for example. You can always get more CP, enough to fill out everyone's roles, but it takes brutally long and if you've started on the wrong path, and in addition spent alot of money on upgrading one character's weapon, the game feels just unfair.

Upgrading weapons? Yes, taking a hint from games like Dark Cloud, you now build up basic weapons into stronger versions. You even level accessories, boosting their effects. This is done by choosing a weapon or accessory and simply using component items to add experience to the desired item. Once the item gets enough experience, it levels up, increasing the stats on it. Once the item reaches it's max level, you can either transform it into a brand new item, or dismantle it into rare and exotic components. It is easy to grasp and understand, especially for any fan of Dark Cloud, as you cannot see what weapon it will turn into before it can actually transform. However, once again without a guide this can result in you upgrading a weapon you might feel be wasted later on, but that looks good early on. But knowing that is just impossible. Each character has several weapons available to them, they will all transform into an ultimate weapon that is different statwise and suits their different roles. So even the powerful physical attacker who's a great Ravager and commando, has a weapon intended to be used as a Medic. Once you get the hang of the system, it's actually very much fun, but just like the Crystarium, it reveals too little early on, leaving the player to grasp at straws and guessing, often wasting both money and CP to level and upgrade into something that's not that good. This becomes less of a problem second time around, and luckily, you rarely if ever get into a spot where you mess up, as just about everything can be regained, weapons and accessories can be bought again and you never really feel you waste much else than alot of time and money. So if you got the patience, you'll get the best stuff despite messing up early on.

No, there's no ridiculous Zodiac Spear situation in FFXIII where opening up a chest early in the game messes up everything, or like in FFX-2 where not taking a short sidetrip the first ten minutes of the game will prevent you from getting 100%. So you can relax and enjoy experiementing if you're only willing to realize it might take some extra time to grind it back if you mess up, because in the end you're still gonna get hold of the best stuff. This is especially important in a game like FFXIII where you for most part of the game follow a straight line until the end, containing areas and parts you're unable to revisit. I'm mentioning this because not only was this question on my own mind while playing it, but I've also had questions by several friends wondering if they could miss anything. It might put your mind at ease when playing through the game and allow you to enjoy it more, instead of worrying that you've just wasted 70 hours because you can't get the best weapon in the game or a special cutscene or something like that.

However, the one big problem with the game is the following. It completely removes choice. You have no choice in terms of story. You have often no choice in terms of party setups until very late in the game. You have no choice in where to go or what order to do things. You can't choose to make fights a little easier by leveling a little past the expected level. You even often don't have any choice in how to fight many of the battles (especially bosses), as the system and fights are very unforgiving and rarely allow for time to experiment and try out things. You better be in a Combat Clinic mode by the time that special attack comes or it's bye-bye. You need to be in a Relentless Assault mode in a small timeslot to increase chain. You need to be in a Bully mode to quickly apply buffs and debuffs in a small rest between attacks. Fail to follow these instructions and battles will come crashing down hard on you. Of course these battles are fun in their own way because of the intensity and actual challenge they present, but part of the fun of finding your own way to fight gets lost in the pressure of constantly doing what the game expects you to.

Choice it seems, is no longer a part of the series. And with the lack of choice, the game becomes a tedious game of figuring out the correct order of doing things, and following them until the end with no freedom or option to do things your own way. Another problem with how linear the game is, is that there's no random battles. All enemies are placed upon the field in preset positions, respawning after some time. After just a few rounds back and forth you know exactly where the enemies are and what you face, removing the element of surprise and variation. Even grinding becomes a calculated repetition in estimated CP gain that involves running back and forth between groups of enemies until you get enough CP. While grinding monsters is a part of the series, having the element of surprise made things more tense. Walking around in the fields in Final Fantasy VI and crossing into a forest, only to find yourself attacked by one nasty dinosaur that is much more powerful than yourself, learnt you to respect the dangers of the world. Here everything becomes stale after a round.

What happened to choice Square? What happened to "I think I'll try some blue magic here" or "I got time to try and steal an item before I continue to attack"? What happened to steal anyway? Gil Toss? Blue Magic? Limit Breaks? MP? The world Map? Towns? NPCs to talk with? What happened to everything that the series used to contain? Yes, all of those things are gone. I'll leave you to think about that for a second before you read on.

No you won't miss them as much as some want you to believe, because the game works well without them. But it only reinforces the impression that this is feeling less and less like Final Fantasy, and more like a new permanent direction for the franchise that started becoming more clear in FFXII. It's first with FFXIII that they dared to take the step and change almost everything. You never talk to anyone, all conversations are either done between party members while running around, or during cutscenes. Shopping is done by save crystals, where you gain access to various shops (one for items, one for accessories, one for weapons and so on). These gradually unlock more items as you play and it works pretty well actually. It's refreshing to stock up on antidotes in the middle of the field if you're running low. There's no MP, which means casters got unlimited resource to cast spells. Your health is returned to full after each battle, which only adds to the fast and furious feeling of the system, but removes some of the charm of dungeon crawling when you had to survive with the resources you had left. You can even retry battles, if a battle goes bad, just retry it and you'll be placed back on the field before the battle. This is actually a pretty decent change, as it makes game over a much less painful experience. No longer do you have to save every five minutes of the fear of game over, if you wipe out, choose retry and you'll be returned to just before the battle, with your characters exactly like they were before you started that battle. You can then run back instead of fighting again, as it usually puts you a little distance away from fights which ensures you never get stuck fighting something. If it's too hard, retry, move back and grind something else.

Some things work. Roles and Paradigm Shifts are for the most part excellent. The increased pace and difficulty of the battles is definitely welcome, as previous games have been a little easy during the main story. The chain and stagger system gets a little annoying because the fights become an endless chase after reaching stagger instead of enjoying the battles. It also drags the fights out many times, which often adds to the tedious aspect of fighting low-reward monsters that takes several minutes per fight. The imbalance between the characters and what roles and abilities they got can be frustrating, and the lack of choice can be downright depressing. Inability to plan far ahead makes building characters and items a gamble before you know what you're gonna get. But most of all, the lack of freedom to play the game the way you want, with what characters you want and feel like you have some sort of effect upon the game makes the game a predetermined and narrow experience that simply doesn't feel as fun to replay as the older games. You're still gonna have to endure the very same setup, the same locations, enemies, items, spells and everything you did last time, in the exact same way. The game will punish you brutally hard for trying anything else before you're pretty much maxed out during the end, where it opens up enough for you to experiment and build a more unique party. But even then, the game will tell you by it's blunt favoring of certain characters that you're not doing it the right way.

If you can enjoy it's rather narrow path and experience, you'll find a fun, fast and furious battlesystem in there, combined with plenty of challenging content and much to do despite little freedom to choose what, when or how.

Graphics
If there's anything that deserves alot of praise in FFXIII, it's the graphics. The game simply looks great almost anywhere and at any time, despite some lesser issues detracting slightly from the visual experience.

The main characters are highly detailed, but apart from a few things like hair (Which looks great), they're not out of this world stunning. Instead it looks like a very good evolution from FFX and FFX-2. It simply looks like you expect it to, just a little bit better. But when everything comes together and the environments, battle effects and monsters combine in a beautiful mix, the game looks gorgeous. Some things, especially fingers sometimes look terrible, but this is only notable in a few short scenes and moments and doesn't detract much from the experience.

Apart from a few visually dull areas, most environments look great. Mind you, some look fantastic, like the open fields of Pulse or a few natural environments on Cocoon like a beach in the sunset or the grassy plateaus by a mountain. It is during these moments that the game is photogenic, you simply want to take pictures of it and show it to people because it looks unbelivable. However, many other areas becomes quickly dull with washed out colors and environments. There's also alot of interior locations in the game, and far too little variation outdoors, which cause even the grand outdoors to grow a little stale after some time. While the journey of the main game tries its best to present a visually varied and changing environment, one can't help but feel that there's many missed chances. Considering how earlier games in the series provided with plenty of different areas and environments, going from deep forests to snowy mountains, dangerously burning deserts, underwater tunnels and all kinds of fantastical locations, the variation of locations presented in FFXIII feels disappointing.

Once again, the FMV cutscenes represents some of the best done in gaming, and with FFXIII Square shows that there's still very few other companies who can compete with them in terms of FMV, with Blizzard being one of the only ones who comes close, or being equal. An impressive feat though is that the game more often than not uses ingame cutscenes instead of FMV, and there were a few times when the ingame cutscenes looked almost as good as the FMVs. When Square wants to blow away the competition, they use a FMV. When they just want to look better than most others, they just use normal cutscenes.

In the end, there's simply no better looking RPG out there. Some locations are so breathtakingly beautiful that you just want to leave the characters standing around, and the characters are detailed with good facial expressions and nice animation. Monsters look pretty good, but very few blows you away. Sometimes it even starts to look a little like FFX and X-2 which this game is far more identical to in terms of visuals than the grittier FFXII. Flashy and somewhat artificial with vibrant colors and wild design, but once you start looking at it some of the initial awe goes away, but there's never a moment where you think that the graphics are bad in any way. They never drop to that level, they always maintain consistently great with just a few flaws here and there.

Sound & Music
Perhaps the part where FFXIII fails completely is the music. The loss of Nobuo Uematsu has hurt this series so much that it's probably not gonna recover. This was evident already in FFXII and unfortunately FFXIII continues the trend. Yes, sometimes his music was a little simple, but at least he got the basics right. He created memorable melodies that most of the time matched the mood. Timeless classics that any fan of the series can whistle to, just like most gamers remember the well known Mario theme from the first game. He had the knack for enhancing the experience, just like Koji Kondo. With FFXIII we get a technically proficient and majestic soundtrack that should ensure that the experience would become grand and magical. Instead, it follows FFXII by removing the music from the forefront of the experience, changing it into unremarkable background noise. Not only is the music most of the time completely uninteresting and bland, it also ruins the entire mood at times! I was simply shocked in several scenes where the characters spoke boldly about dramatic future events while the music chugged along with a trippy upbeat melody. One event is so prominently ruined by this that I sat staring and listening in disbelief.

Considering the history of memorable music, perhaps more than any other game except Mario and Zelda, this is nothing but utterly disappointing. Having strong, often simpler melodies to enhance characters and situations should never be underestimated, so when FFXIII presents a score that lives it's own life in the background, never taking place in front to strengthen the scenes and situations, and in some cases it just ruins the mood and feeling of the scenes by placing inappropriate tunes in the wrong places. No doubt it's intentional, but somewhere along the way Square Enix must have lost the touch. They used to be able to pinpoint what music to use in what scenes, so that whenever a villain or memorable character entered the scene, his presence was greatly enhanced by the sound. Now there's just nothing left apart from a few lighter songs that somewhat works during the romantic scenes.

A good score isn't remembered by how technical it is, how many channels it use or if it uses real instruments or not. It is remembered for it's ability to perform melodies that improve the game, and stick with you long after you're done playing. Unfortunately FFXIII, just like FFXII, fails in this aspect, and it's probably my biggest gripe with the game. The music is downright boring.

The voiceacting however, is fortunately pretty good all around. All the main characters have likable and belivable voices. For some reason it feels closer to the voiceacting in FFX than in XII, which is also a good thing as XII had not only compressed and muted voices, but it often sounded somewhat dull and lifeless. There's alot more emotion and life to the voiceacting this time around, some emotions like laughing, joking and even crying comes off sounding quite natural compared to many other games.

Conclusion
So why such a score despite all my complaints about the game? Surely if you've made it this far into the review, you'd expect no better than 6 or so right? Well, the fact is that this is still one damn good game. The main story, while feeling short in terms of adventure and plot takes quite alot of time. Expect to hit the end of the story around 45-50 hours if you don't rush completely but take some time to play with the game system and level up what you can. And that's not counting the sidequests that becomes available later on, which adds a significant amount of time and extra rewards. With a hard to get Platinum Trophy there's alot of time required to best this game. You simply get a game crammed full of content, surrounded by mostly superb graphics, excellent voiceacting and stunning presentation and production values. And perhaps most importantly, the actual gameplay and battlesystem can be fantastic fun. That the story and character development is somewhat lacking, and that the game follows a pretty linear progression until the end can't detract enough to lower the score much. The music however, is easily worth at least one point reduction and definitely reduced my personal opinion from a 9 to an 8, as it's along with FFXII the weakest in the series. Heck, even the often disliked FFX-2 has so much more enjoyable music than this with several memorable themes. Agree or disagree, but ask yourself how many times you hum the theme from Indiana Jones, or The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. It's all about creating memorable themes that gives the game an identity even outside the console. This game completely lacks anything remotely memorable or interesting in terms of music and that is a direct drawback for the game. Not only because it prevents it from becoming truly great, but because it often hurts the experience or ruins the mood the game desperately tries to build.

On a personal note though, what bothers me the most is the direction the series seems to be going. Sure, there are still Chocobos, Moogles, Potions and Ribbons around, but without levels, without MP, with strong, linear paths and caps on abilities enforced by the story, the freedom of playing is severely limited and at several times you got so little choice in who you want to play as and what you want to do that the fun is about to cease. Sure, what you've called freedom and choice in the earlier games have been but an illusion to mask that you're stil on a path from A to B to progress, they have still been greatly more varied in the ways to get there in terms of party members, setups, abilities to use, often directly affecting and changing the future events. In FFXIII choice is no longer an option, you play as the game intend you to and that is only one direct path, both on the maps, with the pre-selected party members with predetermined roles and bosses that are built up around those roles.

While I will honestly say that I have enjoyed FFXIII alot, I cant help but really feel like it was a missed opportunity. Brave move to try to progress the series, but just like Resident Evil, change too much and you're about to loose everything that hooked people in from the start. Chances are you'll win quite alot of new fans, but does it have to be so radical?

One can't help but dream about a more old-fashioned Final Fantasy on the next generation of consoles. Look no further than Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2, which didn't do a single fancy new thing or radical change. It simply took everything that was great about the series, improved on all aspects and used the power of the generation to create a giant, awesome experience. And for a more updated game, Metal Gear Solid 4 showed us that you can update a beloved series to the next generation without completely changing everything the fans loved.

I will surely wait in line for the next major Final Fantasy, but if this is the kind of game the series is about to permanently become, then that might actually become the FINAL Fantasy for me.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/18/10

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


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