Review by Nemesis347

"Lucky Number 13"

This is, by far, my favorite game to date. I know people claim reviews should be objective, but that is simply not possible.

Games are about the experience, and the experience is always subjective; Square Enix knew the personal experience is what matters when they made this game. This game digs so deep into your psyche, it's astonishing. It can also move you in so many levels, you'll be amazed at how many things you can feel at once, even if those feelings seem to contradict each other.

So if you buy this game (which I hope you do), leave your expectations at the door. Especially if you're a Final Fantasy fan like me. This game is as Final Fantasy as cheese is. The only things it has in common with the predefined Final Fantasy mold are the title, some spell names, and other irrelevant technicalities. It's exactly this path deviation that impaired many Final Fantasy fans to enjoy this wonderful game. Luckily, for the first time since VII, I wasn't expecting a one winged angel to impale someone.

If you're a long time Final Fantasy fan, forget about those games while playing XIII. Either way, you're in for a treat.

GAMEPLAY:
Outside of battle you move with the analog stick; interact with chest, switches, and a plethora of objects with the X button; bring up your game menu with the Triangle button; and cancel/go back with the Circle button. The environments are usually long corridors with a few straying paths leading to chests and the like. Do not be mistaken, not once did I feel trapped in "just another corridor" thanks to the awesome environment design which I won't cover in this section. You do all your saving and shopping at save stations, which are generously placed throughout the game. Sounds simple, right? Well, that's because it is.

This game is very linear (at least for the first half of the game) and that's exactly how it should be, but I can't tell you why without ruining the story. Usually, linearity is a bad thing in RPG's, especially Japanese, even more so in Final Fantasy games (X not being the exception). But this time, it is the other way around. The gameplay is the vehicle through which the story is told and the story had to be told this way. One might argue that any kind of gameplay being affected by the story is a bad thing. That's absolutely wrong. They are supposed to affect each other. Square Enix did just that, even if it meant having a linear first half of the game.

Once you get to the second half of the game, the world opens up and you're free to do a LOT of exploring. There's a very good amount of sidequests, but they are all very similar: Find C'ieth stone, accept mission, find monster, kill monster. This is sadly one of the game's flaws but it's not a huge one, not even remotely game breaking. I found them all to be very exciting and challenging even if they were all similar. Though, it would have been nice to have a little more variety.

The battle system; considered to be this game's strongest point and while that's not true (the story is), it's easy to understand why people feel this way. First, we have the character roles, the Crystarium, and the paradigms which are responsible for the depth of the game's battle system. There are six character roles for battle: Commando (physical attacks), Ravager (Magic Attacks), Sentinel (HP tank, great for defending), Synergist (boosts character stats), Saboteur (inflicts status ailments on enemies) and Medic (Heals party). At first, your characters will only have access to a certain role, as the story progresses you'll get access to another two. These first three roles will be each character's main roles; you cannot choose them, they are auto-assigned. Later in the game every role becomes available for all characters, but you will be so advanced in each character's main roles, it is basically a waste to spend Crystogen Points (EXP points and from now on CP).

For those of you who played Final Fantasy X, the workings of the level system are very similar. Since not all of you played that game I will gladly explain the Crystarium, the slickest leveling menu yet. After every battle you gain CP which you can spend in the Crystarium, in which you can choose which role to level up. As you spend CP in any given role, you will reach crystal nodes which contain more HP, more strength or magic points, a new accessory slot, or a new ability which your character will only be able to use while assuming the role to which said ability pertains.

Which brings us to the paradigms, and they are by far the most important aspect of the battle system (mainly because it involves every aspect of the battle system). In battle, you will only have "control" over one specific character, the other two are AI controlled. This does not become an issue like in many other games ("The Tales of" series comes to mind) in which you assign a certain behavior to a character and the AI just does what it "wants", meaning that your main character has to do everything. This time around, the AI is really smart. This doesn't mean the AI will save the day and beat the game for you. The AI is very smart because it chooses the commands according to YOUR battle plan and it does an incredible job. The people from Square Enix really outdid themselves, you will never feel like you're not the one in charge. If you did the math, that means you have 3 active members on your party, and each character has access to 6 roles (though for the greater part of the game, you'll only use the main 3 roles), since your character can only, for example, heal if he/she is "playing the medic", you need access to your various roles during battle. That's why you create a paradigm, which is assigning a role to each of your 3 active members and save that combination of roles. Let's use one of the most important paradigms as an example; one of your characters is a commando, another one is a ravager and the last one is a medic. Your commando will be in charge of dealing damage, your ravager will help increase the damage your commando does and your medic will keep the party healed. That combination of roles is called a paradigm and you can create up to 6 different paradigms for each combination of party members. There is one mild issue with this though, every time you switch an active party member your paradigm list will be reset. When you return to the original combination of party members you'll have to create your paradigms again. This is only a small issue, and it sometimes turns out to be helpful because it forces you to rethink strategies and you end up discovering very effective and interesting paradigms.

Why 6 paradigms? Well, enemies are very smart too and you have to plan accordingly. You may face an enemy which forces you to use a defensive paradigm instead of a balanced one. If you only stick with the defensive paradigm you won't be able to deal enough damage to defeat it. You wait for an opening, and access your paradigm list during battle and select an all-out-attack paradigm and then revert to a defensive one. This may sound like a lot to handle during battle but the game does a great job of easing you into it and the paradigm switches are handled very smoothly.

At first the actual Battle System seems in line with classic Final Fantasy fashion, walk up to a monster, brief battle start animation and your ATB gauge (active time battle, for newcomers) starts to fill up. You wait until it fills up and the commands are executed. But as you progress the game the battle system becomes much more "complicated" in a good way. First of all, your ATB gauge has segments, and each command requires a certain number of segments to be executed. For example, at the beginning of the game your ATB gauge has three segments and a simple spell costs one segment, which means that if your gauge is full you can use that spell three times. Another spell may cost two segments to use which means you can cast the both spells only one time once your gauge fills up.

It is true that there's an auto-battle command which chooses the best commands for your given situation and lines them up in your command queue until your ATB fills up. This does not mean you can just select auto-battle and breeze through the game. There's a lot more of micro and macro management to do. For starters, you may be in a situation in which you need to heal right away and cannot wait until the gauge fills completely, your healing spell doesn't need all your gauge segments, auto-battle can only assign commands but it can´t decide when they should be executed. That's when you press the Triangle button, which automatically executes any commands that already have enough segments to be performed. That's just one example of how auto-battle is not the solution for everything. Instead it is just a very smart command that will, in most cases, pick the commands YOU would have in the same situation. It sometimes picks commands you wouldn't have. Not a problem, there's also the commands which gives you total control over your character.

There's also a rating system. Every battle has an established target time to beat. Depending on a comparison between the time it took to finish the battle and the target time you receive a rating on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Which mostly affects the spoils you get after battle. It also makes for a very good incentive to plan your battle carefully, it is also very rewarding.

Spoils are basically items used to upgrade your weapons and accessories at save points. It is a very simple system but it feels a little overwhelming at first. I did like it, but it's mainly useful for completion purposes.

Near the end of the game, the spell Haste becomes crucial and at the same time, broken. There are only 3 characters that can use it and one of them requires to take the-not-so-recommended path of the "secondary roles". Basically, what Haste does is make your ATB gauge fill faster, this becomes increasingly important as the game progresses. There comes a point when you need to cast it every single battle.

All in all, the gameplay is very addictive and the battle system is extremely satisfying, though it can get hard for RPG newcomers if you don't plan carefully. But for the first time ever you'll want enter as many battles as possible not to grind, but for the sake of it.

STORY:
Ah, the very best thing about the very best game. Don't worry, I won't spoil anything you don't learn right at the start of the game or by reading early previews of the game.

The planet of Cocoon orbits around the hellish world that is Pulse. Cocoon is a peaceful world, everyone lives happily and the only fear the inhabitants of Cocoon know is that of the threat from Pulse. Oh what a threat Pulse is; any mention of possible danger from Pulse sends the population of Cocoon into a spiral of panic. Luckily, the government does a very good job of keeping the population safe. There have been no accidents originating from Pulse since the War of Transgression and that was centuries ago. The benevolent Fal'Cie (Cocoon's deities) keep Cocoon safe. These Fal'Cie are in charge of everything. There's one who controls the weather, one who is in charge of food, one who serves as the very sun. They even took pieces of Pulse to rebuild parts of Cocoon after the War of Transgression. But they rarely communicate with humans. Sometimes a Fal'Cie may choose a human to fulfill a certain Focus, or purpose, and when this Focus is fulfilled the chosen human gains eternal life in crystal form, these humans are known as l'Cie.

Lightning, the game's protagonist, works for the Guardian Corps division of her hometown, Bodhum. She is a mysterious woman with a delicate past which has made her rather cold. The only person she seems to care for is her younger sister Serah. Problem is, Lightning is overprotective of her younger sister so they don't always agree on things. But Serah knows her sister means well and loves her back.

One day, the authorities from Cocoon discover another Fal'Cie right in Lightning's town. However, this is no Fal'Cie the inhabitants of Cocoon would deify. This is a Pulse Fal'Cie. The presence of a Pulse Fal'Cie is about as bad as it gets, no one doubts it wants to destroy Cocoon. After all, everything that comes from Pulse has that purpose. The government decides to send all the people in Bodhum to Pulse, in fear that the Pulse Fal'Cie may have contaminated the inhabitants of Bodhum or even worse, chosen l'Cie.

Bodhum becomes a time bomb, no one wants to go to Pulse but the inhabitants of Bodhum know they can't stay because all of Cocoon fears them. Caught up in this mess are: a civilian pilot , Sazh Katzroy; a girl whose agenda is a total mystery, Oerba Dia Vanille; a kid who happened to be vacationing in Bodhum with his mom when the government discovered the Fal'cie, Hope Estheim; a very sexy woman who happens to be a l'Cie (though it is yet unknown whether she is a Pulse l'Cie or a Cocoon one), Oerba Yun Fang; a hero trying to save his girl, Snow Villiers and of course Lightning and Serah.

At first glance the story seems to revolve around the complex world Square Enix has wonderfully created. But it really revolves around the characters. To have a good sci-fi and/or fantasy story it never matters how crazy the setting is, as long as the characters are emotionally human and believable. It's precisely these character traits that make the world come alive, because we can identify with these characters and in doing so, with the world they live in. XIII's characters have these traits, even the ever so cheery Vanille is a great character, though at first glance she may seem like just another stereotype.

You'll care for each of the characters and their struggles, the game does a fantastic job of using everything it has at its disposal to make the story the best yet in a videogame, which is no easy feat. People claim there's no formal antagonist in this game. False. This game presents us the most terrible antagonist of all. One that is real, even if the world of Final Fantasy XIII isn't. FATE.

GRAPHICS, SOUND AND OVERALL DESIGN:
This is the most visually appealing game out there. In terms of use of hardware and software potential this game is right up there with its fellow industry titans but what sets it apart is that it is the means and not the end.
As programmer and videogame designer, I have to admit that we let ourselves be flattered by the idea of squeezing the very last drop of juice from the tools we are given and so we forget that they are just tools and maybe we should focus more on using these tools for the game, just as SE did for this game. You can tell that they pressed Nomura to create the right character design for this game and not just the coolest looking as he tends to do. Same can be said for every animation, every menu, every piece of artwork. The amount of work that's been put into this game is unbelievable, but even more unbelievable is the amount of work that is done perfectly.

Sound department? Just beautiful work, perfect voice acting.

Sadly the same cannot be said for the soundtrack of this game. "It is not robust enough" would be my only complaint, but it's not. Because even though I liked the music, sometimes it doesn't fit the mood of the specific part of the game. Luckily, all the crucial moments have music that fits them perfectly.

FINAL WORD:
Get this game, it packs up a decent 40-50 hours and a whole lot more (maybe double for some) if you do everything. I wouldn't recommend renting it (not only because I think this is the best game to date) because it's a little too long to finish in one rental.

To sum up the flaws:
-Haste is broken
-Some roles become useless near the end of the game
-While sidequests are extremely fun, they are almost identical
-Soundtrack is not robust enough

And here are the good things about the game:
-Great battle system
-Perfectly woven story
-Long
-Great replay value
-Great characters, one of which has a chocobo chick on his afro
-Lightning
-Best game to date

Questions?


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 03/30/10

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


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