"Squaresoft finally gets back on the right track. Let's hope it stays that way for awhile."

Since Final Fantasy X, Square and especially their Final Fantasy series has mostly misfired. From shamelessly milking Final Fantasy 7 to ruining Kingdom Hearts with convoluted plot lines to remaking every game except Final Fantasy 7 to simply making terrible games outright -- Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy 12, to name two gigantic offenders -- Square seemed like they were only making games to troll their own fans. Older fans would buy the games in hopes of seeing Square recapture some of the old 1990s magic, and we may finally, mercifully, have come across the game that turns the corner. We won't know for a few years if this release was a flash in the pan or sign of things to come, but at the end of the day Final Fantasy 13 is pretty damn good. Not great like Tactics, 6, 7 and X, but still pretty damn good.

Characters

Final Fantasy 13 is weird with its characters. The six you're able to use are mostly really good, but the NPCs are either cardboard cutouts or nonexistent. Only one or two NPCs will make a lasting impact on most people, and once again it's not the main villain. For whatever reason Square hasn't produced a memorable main villain since Final Fantasy X, and some people will go back even farther and accuse them of having not made a good villain since Sephiroth. The villain's motives are pretty cool in this, though nothing we haven't seen before in some way.

The main party is where it's at, and they are fantastically done. Lightning, the main character, is essentially the female version of Cloud from Final Fantasy 7. Except while Cloud was very aloof, Lightning actively hates everyone. The children are the only party members she doesn't inflict harm against, and even then she considers it. Then of course she has an epiphany and becomes the too-nice background voice that we've seen a million times in JRPGs.

This is a weird game insofar as everyone else in the party is much more likeable than the main character. Sazh is a black civilian pilot, but Square doesn't get stereotypical with him. He gets to play the role of old wise man, even though he doesn't look a day older than 30; you have to love how ridiculous Japanese culture is. Once you hit that tender age of 25 or so, you're a grizzled old veteran. But for a country where blackface is socially acceptable, Sazh being old at 30 with a baby chocobo living in his hair and pistols as weapons is a massive step up for how they view black characters. Remember, Wakka was the "colored" guy in Final Fantasy X and they did everything short of having him attack with basketballs in battle. And let's not speak of Barret's character.

Snow is the other rugged old dude in the party, but he doubles as a lovesick talking point. Some players will find this part of him annoying, but he really isn't so bad. There's one scene in particular in an early chapter where you'll want to make sure you're playing alone (because being caught watching porn would be less embarrassing), but overall Snow is a great guy. He puts on a face for having copious amounts of swag, but in reality he's miserable after seeing his fiancé turn into a crystal statue right in front of him.

Fang and Vanille are best friends, and the game literally makes you think there's a serendipitous lesbian relationship between them. They do everything short of make out on camera, and they end up being the two best characters in the game independent of this. Vanille serves as an overseer narrator for the plot, which doesn't get explained until the tail end of the game, and she also serves as the prerequisite "overly happy chick". But unlike the legitimately insane Selphie or Yuffie from prior games in the series, Vanille is almost never annoying and has a big reason for doing all this. Fang doesn't show up for awhile, and once she does you'll immediately see why. Fang serves as the party's win button, and she doubles as an Amazonian Jane character that can fend for herself without any help. She comes into the party completely jacked, and it only gets worse as you progress through the game. Even when Lightning punches her in the face, there's a sense Fang is just bored and doesn't feel like fighting back and lopping Light's head off. One of the two among Fang and Vanille is the game's best character, and a great case can be made that one of them, not Lightning, should have been the main character outright.

The one downside in the main party is an annoying brat named Hope. Hope is the most insufferable, whiny, annoying, useless, idiotic character in the history of video games. No escort mission is worse than listening to this kid. Hell, no kid in real life is worse than listening to this kid. Even after the big plot reveal that helps Hope develop a little, he goes from a 0/10 character to maybe a 1.5. He's that bad. In a particularly cruel irony, Hope has the party's best Magic stat and learns all the necessary spells for being your best Medic and Synergist (buffer) for the entire main plot, yet he has pathetic HP. So if you want to use the "best" party, you're stuck with a magical and emotional glass cannon that always dies. Have fun. And yes, party of the reason for Hope's name is he's the character who always pipes up to lift the party's spirits and give them direction when they're lost. So again, have fun with him. He's the video game equivalent to the one kid in every class who never, ever, ever, ever shuts the hell up. You know the one kid who always asks a million questions, gets on the professor's good side and keeps everyone late every session? Hope is that kid. It can be argued Lightning's worst character trait is not killing this brat.

Plot

Final Fantasy 13 tells a really good story, though at times it isn't executed particularly well.

Before you start playing Final Fantasy 13, there's a very simple rule of thumb you have to follow: Humans = Humans, Cieth = Zombies, L'Cie = Wizards, and Fal'Cie = Gigantic robotic beings able to recruit humans and turn them into wizards, which then turn into zombies if they refuse their task.

Sounds cool, but it's not. When a L'Cie is created, he or she is given a brand and a "focus". The L'Cie's focus is a task they must complete, yet for some reason the branded human isn't told what the focus actually is outside of a vague dream state. Okay. If the L'Cie fails in completing their focus, the brand evolves and the infected party is turned into a mindless Cieth, only able to hate the living world until they die. If the L'Cie does complete their focus, they enter a crystal stasis and supposedly gain eternal life. The humans equate both fates to death, so in Final Fantasy 13's universe the last thing anyone wants to see happen to them is being branded a L'Cie. I'm sure even a casual JRPG fan can see where this is going.

Final Fantasy 13's main plot takes place in a massive, isolationist world aptly called Cocoon. Fal'Cie have given Cocoon's populace every want and need for centuries, and the citizens know not to cross the Fal'Cie that help them because no one wants to be branded a L'Cie. More importantly, everyone likes the comfortable life. Below Cocoon is an even more massive world called Pulse -- think of the relationship between Cocoon and Pulse as the same relationship the moon has with Earth, only if we all lived in the middle of the moon instead. Cocoon is told that Pulse is complete hell and that they're preparing to invade at any moment. As such, the people of Cocoon are kept in a constant state of fear and go along with whatever the government tells them. It's not unlike the current relationship between America and the Muslim community. Japan loves taking little shots at American culture in their media, but this plot line is more like an intellectual missile rather than a "shot". I guess dropping nukes on them didn't go over so well after all.

In a plot line pulled directly from Final Fantasy 6, a vestige from Pulse is found on Cocoon after laying dormant for centuries. Naturally, most of the game's main party ends up going into the vestige for their own purposes and they're all branded as L'Cie by a Fal'Cie hiding inside. It's not the deepest or most original plot out there, but this isn't really where FF13 shines as a story. It's always interesting watching protagonists struggle with a decision to save the world or save themselves, and most importantly this game has very good character relationships. By this, I mean the characters interact with one another and you as a player can really see various attitudes displayed. A good example to compare this to is Tales of Symphonia, where you get all those world map skits and see the characters talking to one another. FF13 does this a lot, but it's well-woven into the main plot.

Gameplay

This area is the big point of contention with a lot of professional reviewers and a ton of people who played the game and didn't like it. To get the obvious out of the way first, yes, the game is extremely linear in multiple ways. You're basically walking in a straight line for 10 chapters, and the linearity extends to how much you can do in battle. There are also no towns, very few notable NPCs to talk to, and save points are all over the place and function as a base of operations. All your shopping, upgrading and saving is done there. And you know what? It all works. Really, it does. The first RPG I started playing after I beat Final Fantasy 13 was Dragon Quest 9, and all I kept think about while playing DQ9 was "This is way too slow, I wish it were more like FF13". FF13 removes all the useless towns that do nothing but clog up your time, all the random encounters, and most importantly it removes the "Holy crap I died, when did I last save?" element. If you die, you get a retry button. You may not appreciate the sense of urgency being removed like this, but think of where that sense came from in older RPGs -- you couldn't just save whenever you wanted. We're in a state of gaming where games auto-save every few minutes. For JRPGs to lag behind and not do this would be really stupid.

The idea behind FF13's gameplay design was trimming the fat out of the JRPG genre, and a lot of extraneous crap was removed. It's not a perfect job, but it was still very necessary and ends up rather successful. The end result is a sort of lesser version of Final Fantasy X. This isn't quite as good as X, but it comes close enough.

When discussing 13's gameplay, it's best to separate in-battle from out-of-battle. Outside battle, at least for the first 10 chapters, you really are just walking along a linear path. You'll see enemies on the screen, fight them, watch a bunch of cutscenes as you progress and fight a boss once in awhile. If you're not into story-intensive RPGs, this probably isn't the game for you. This also isn't the game for you if you don't like having your hand held for awhile. 13 is a fairly limiting game where you won't feel like you have much control over things until chapter 11, mainly because this is exactly what happens.

Character development comes from something called the Crystarium, which is loosely based off of FFX's Sphere Grid and translated to 3D. Rather than getting experience points after fights, you'll get CP that you spend in the Crystarium to develop your characters. Most of what you'll see is stat boosts, but you'll also get new accessory slots, increases in job level and job abilities. The Crystarium is limited for awhile, but eventually opens up to where you'll need 120,000 CP just to learn one thing. It's pretty cool if you have the patience to see it through to the end. It ends up being one of the many things about this game where you can go "It's not FFX, but it's close".

The battle system itself is fairly well-done in this game, because screwing up a job system is almost impossible. The one good thing about Final Fantasy X-2 was its battle system and how a ton of things were going on all at once, and a better version of that system is transplanted into Final Fantasy 13. Without getting overly technical, Final Fantasy 13 introduces the Command Synergy Battle System. It's much like the ATB Final Fantasy veterans are used to, but with an added twist. Instead of the standard "ATB fills, character acts" routine, the ATB bar fills up to cover multiple bars, or action potentials. So for example, in the very beginning of the game you control Lightning and she has 2 ATB bars. The "Attack" command uses up 1 bar, so if you want you can have her attack twice per full ATB bar. "Blitz", her starting area of effect move, uses 2 bars. The entire battle system boils down to using your ATB bars well, and it gets really fun once you get job classes and start learning new abilities. Or you can just auto-attack every round after scoping the enemy and let the game do all the work for you. FF13 is very streamlined and limiting, but there's still a lot of things in there that let you play however you want. Battles always end up feeling very fast, even if they're long. Compare this to something like Xenosaga, where a 5 minute fight can feel like an hour. That same 5 minutes in FF13 can feel like 10 seconds because you have so many things going on all at once. Figuring it all out is something every FF fan has always liked, and there's no shortage of that in this game.

The job system is especially worth expanding upon, because it's a huge part of every fight. In most games, you learn job abilities and carry them over. FF13 does this a little differently. Remember how in FFX-2, you were able to change jobs mid-fight with those lame Dresspheres? 13 lets you do that without being embarrassed about it, with something called the Paradigm system. In layman's terms, Paradigms are the standing formation of jobs your characters have. You're able to create 6 different paradigms outside of battle, which is more than enough until you get in the latter stages of the game. FF13 has 6 different job classes -- Commando and Sentinel for the physical attacking and defense, Ravager for magic attacks, Medic for healing and Synergist and Saboteur for buffing and debuffing -- and for much of the game your characters are very limited in what jobs they have available to them. This actually makes sense, since Hope as your Commando with Lightning as his support caster would be stupid. As you progress through the game, more stuff becomes available and the system becomes really fun.

It all adds up to one of the better battle systems in the series, because the game streamlines everything to make it all go faster. In fights, you only control the lead character and your 2 allies do things their way. This gets dumb when things get harder, especially given the stupid game over condition where only the party leader has to die for the game to end. There's also some major AI problems with the mage classes in this game, but it's not really a huge deal because of the retry button. The battle system only really has two major flaws. One, there really needed to be a way to change the party leader mid-fight. Your characters all get really cool character-specific abilities and summons, and having to change leaders out of fights to see them all is annoying. And two, there needed to be some way to control what allies do in battle. Most of the time it works well, but when you get to the bonus content and medics aren't healing correctly it gets stupid and annoying.

It's hard to think the traditional JRPG formula can advance beyond what FF13 did, and hopefully most people will appreciate the massive risk FF13 took here. With that said, here's a thought: How about ripping off the Tales series and giving us live-action fighting? Really, letting us run up to the enemy and hit a button to attack it is fine. It's weird how 13 cuts out so much fat from the old formula, but leaves in the weird tabletop battle mechanics. Not that 13's system is bad because it isn't, but Square seems scared of making the most logical step of all. It makes no sense.

Graphics and Music

The phrase "stretches the limits" gets thrown around much too casually in gaming in our new age of HDTVs and HDMI connections, but Square legitimately does this with FF13. The game is just stunning, and there isn't much to say beyond that. There are other games even on the PS3 that don't compare to how this one looks, never mind games from older eras. It's in all the details, too. When you spend millions of dollars on a graphics engine, you get million dollar results. Now with this said, the game's art direction isn't very good. Japan especially needs to get over its robot fetish, because there's a serious problem when Bahamut goes from being a flying dragon of death to a Transformer. Or worst of all, when Odin goes from riding on a horse in past games to transforming into a horse. This is sacrilege.

Beyond the summons being lame, even the character weapons all fold up like gimmicks. There are simply way too many robotic enemies, robotic bosses and weird machine-type things in this game. The setting as a whole is much too futuristic, which creates problems. We the players are never given a chance to get attached to the world of Cocoon (only the characters we control are given adequate development), much like how it's very difficult to get attached to anything in Final Fantasy 8. So when the inevitable happens, we aren't sitting there picking sides. We're just waiting for the lame parts to end so we can play the game again and watch Fang and Lightning roll heads. I can't explain this in great detail without giving spoilers, but in layman's terms: Final Fantasy 13 is a beautiful game that takes place in a mostly bad setting. It's not a huge black eye or anything, but it is a problem for many people. If you've even glanced at the internet since the game's release, you've probably seen a lot of the complaints.

And let's not forget the standard "Why hasn't Tetsuya Nomura been fired yet?" nonsensical art style that's plagued the series for well over a decade now. Seriously, just end it already. I think I saw a gigantic turtle wearing gigantic belts on all its legs while playing this, but I'm chalking it up to hallucination and forgetting it ever happened. Because if Square is still approving his terrible artwork to that bad a degree, they're beyond help. Seriously Square, you can't trim the fat out of the JRPG genre without trimming the fat from within your own company. Fire Tetsuya Nomura, for everyone's sake.

Musically, Final Fantasy 13 has a passable, but not necessary good soundtrack. The music is decent, but it mostly feels like it's there just to be there. Some music choices are borderline bizarre, and overall there aren't enough standout tracks to consider the overall product special. But as for the songs that are special, their names are "Saber's Edge", "Snow's Theme", "Colorless World" and "Tumultuous Eden". That's it.

Bonus Content

Since Final Fantasy 6 and especially 7, Square has often put equal weight into their bonus or postgame content as they have the main game. Sometimes they strike gold, like with Triple Triad in 8, Chocobo Hot and Cold in 9 or the hunts in 12. Other times, like with this game, they crap out.

Final Fantasy mostly offering good bonus content paired with the modern obsession with achievements and trophies should be a no-brainer, but FF13 might have the worst bonus content in the entire series. There's really only one side quest, and it's a watered down version of 12's hunts. Once you get to chapter 11, you'll come across something called a Cieth Stone. Talk to it, and it tells you to go kill a mark. So you run off, kill the Flan palette swap and a new Cieth Stone activates. Rinse and repeat 64 times if you want to do all the hunts, and rinse and repeat even more if you're going for the trophy where you have to 5 star all the marks. Some of the hunts are thrown into a mandatory dungeon, others into an optional area called the Titan's Trials, and a few are scattered about that force chocobo access. But it's all part of one grand scheme, and the entire thing is thrown on you at once instead of being woven into the plot in bits and pieces as you play. It's not that the hunts aren't fun, because they are -- it just has a very tacked on "we need to increase the length of our game" feel to it.

If you need proof of Square caring just as much about bonus content as they do the main game, just beat the game. Your Crystarium opens up to max, which gives you the ability to powerlevel and finish off those hunts you couldn't 5 star before with relative ease. Again, it's not devoid of fun -- just really strange. You have to beat the game before everything is made available to you, like reading the ending of a book with 500 added pages of exposition for the next one coming afterwards. It makes no sense.

For the trophy fans among you, they're mostly fun to get. I personally loved 5 starring all the hunts, even if FF13's optional super boss is by far the worst one in the entire series. There's also other random stuff, like 5 starring the final boss or taking 10 thousand steps on the game's biggest map. The trophy everyone hates is Treasure Hunter, where you have to at one point hold every weapon and accessory in the entire game. Sounds simple, but it's actually a massive pain because you'll have to grind money for hours on end to upgrade all your stuff with expensive components. Final Fantasy 11's loot system was an abysmal failure, and the idiot who keeps bringing it back needs to be fired and never allowed to help design video games ever again. Just give us the freaking money for killing an enemy. Don't leave it to random chance solely for artificial increase of game length. This is bad game design in one of its worst forms and needs to go away.

Treasure Hunter and the odd dynamics of FF13's bonus content aside, it's still very fun if not a bit out of place.

Conclusion

Final Fantasy 13 is an oddball of a game. It's really good, but not great. It's definitely not on the top tier in the series like 6, 7, X or Tactics. It's not even on that crowded second tier with 1, 4, 5, 8 and 9. But it's still really good in its own way.

The reception to this game reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy 8's, but for a different reason. By now, everyone knows Square went over the top in designing 8 and made a mostly convoluted mess. Yet even though 8 was a mess, it was still awesome in its own little way. 13 is a lot like that. Square has caught on to people not liking them very much, so they went completely over the top in designing this, while at the same time embarking on a project to reinvent the JRPG genre. This was no easy task, and the end result was another really good, but not great game.

I'm probably overvaluing this game a bit, but look at Square since Final Fantasy X came out. The great early games in the Kingdom Hearts series aside, we've been subject to Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy 11, Final Fantasy 12, two Final Fantasy Tactics Advance titles, a ton of Kingdom Hearts titles instead of just making 3, Dissidia, the firing of Sakaguchi and about 8 million terrible Final Fantasy 7 spinoffs with the abomination known as Crisis Core headlining them. These aren't just bad points against Square; most companies would go out of business from things from such a rash of bad games. Of course the first good game Square makes in a decade will be overvalued by the community. The series has been unequivocally dreadful for years, taken over by Tetsuya Nomura's bishounen belt fetish and teenybopper anime fans. Has one thing ever remained good after young girls started liking it?

Whether FF13 is a flash in the pan or a sign of good things to come remains to be seen, but I'm proceeding forward with this series with cautious optimism. They've already dropped the ball with Final Fantasy 11 HD -- sorry, "Final Fantasy 14 Online" -- so that's out. They're also giving this the spinoff treatment with all the versus agito 13-2 nonsense, so that's out too given Square's awful track record with spinoff titles.

Final Fantasy 13 is a good, albeit flawed game that proves there is still some talent making games over there. Hopefully we won't have another decade's wait before they again make a good game. This game can really be summed up in one sentence: "This isn't Final Fantasy X, but it's close". If you're still on the Square boat playing games in hope they get their magic back, play this. If you're already jumped off, this won't bring you back.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/27/10

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


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