Review by milkcan
"Beautiful and ridiculously fun, unsatisfying story"
A new Final Fantasy is a big deal for me. I love these games. I've played and replayed quite a few number of them (the exception being those NES ones, I just can't bring myself to play them, no matter how big a fan I claim to be, and 5, because, well, I don't have a good reason for that). There's something comforting about going into a battle mode that's separate from when you're running around, a stark contrast from say an intense shooter, or some over my head strategy game. There's something about running around towns talking to strangers, buying items and weapons, finding some super powerful secret weapon thanks to a guide you read on the internet, exploring a huge over world, seeing familiar names from previous games in different settings in different roles, an epic story full of melodrama, cool music that pumps you up, leveling up your characters to godly levels, and all the other staples of Final Fantasy. I kept hearing about how the game is too "linear" and that's really the only thing I got out of the many reviews I read about this game, that and the battle system was some impossibly complicated thing that couldn't be explained in words (or maybe I just didn't bother to understand it in words).
But I had such a good history with these games, the last one was so good, and man it looked so pretty, there was no way I was not picking this up. To tell you the truth, in my tragically limited world of video games, this is the game I've been waiting to play for four years. This is the reason I bought a Playstation 3 (although I convinced myself otherwise a couple years early). And thank goodness I was not disappointed. It was definitely not what I was expecting, but it was a very pleasant surprise. Yes, they throw out almost all of the stuff I know and love about Final Fantasy that I mentioned above, but what's left and what's new is impressive and polished to a very high degree that I couldn't have asked for more. They did the same thing with the last one with a pretty crazy revamp on the battle system, and that game was my favorite in the series (still is). This time around, it was a great feeling playing and thinking the whole time that they could turn the battle system completely on its head again and succeed so astoundingly. I guess I'm still reeling from the other ten games of pretty much the same affair.
This is the most fun I've had playing a Final Fantasy and that is credited to the fast-paced, intuitive, addictive battle system. It is pretty complicated and I didn't get some of it for awhile, even after they finally give you the reins to control everything. At one point though, everything snaps into place and you get it, and it's fun as hell. They really ease you into it, with about 20 hours before you're free to do whatever you want.
That's the biggest complaint I've heard from this game. After playing through it though, I didn't think it was bad at all since it's not like this game was super boring and they hold your hand the entire time during these 20 or so hours. It felt a little more like you were playing with restraints given to you and you had to make the best of your situation. You definitely felt handicapped, but you're learning a different, critical aspect of the battle system along the way. Beyond the first few hours, the battle system is plenty of fun.
Might as well dive in and tell you what I love so much. You only control one character at a time, and with that you have the option to Auto Battle where it chooses the actions of the character for you. In the beginning this seems kind of strange, but you soon realize it's completely necessary once the pace of the battles ramp up. That's pretty much when you get full access to the Paradigm system.
Each character has some roles, like a healer, attacker, magic user, tank. The key to the fight is to have the right combination for the right situation and you can change your combinations up at any time. These combinations are called Paradigms. So you can whittle down a bad guy with status attacks and then go all out physical, or maybe you need to switch to a tank and two healers if you're getting bombarded. You're really more in control of the three characters than it seemed at first since you're basically only macro-managing. The AI is actually really smart in that it usually does the optimal actions for you, for both Auto Battle and the characters you aren't controlling, so you don't waste a second. Although this seems like it shares the most similarities to FF12, this is an entirely different beast even from that, and it is awesome.
To clarify how the AI acts for you, suppose some bad guys may be immune or weak to certain elementals. Or there are a group of bad guys that are bunched up that you should do an area effect attack. The AI does all this for you. Well, for the elemental weaknesses and such, you need to learn it, either through using Libra or just fighting the bad guy for awhile, eventually the computer will learn the most effective attacks against it. This isn't really a convenience but a necessity and you'll be Libra'ing every new bad guy you see. Pretty much the only micro-managing you have to do is to pick which bad guy to attack in the crowd.
There is a pretty unique damage system that I really like but it took me a little while to understand. You can hit bad guys and hit up their chain gauge until they break some sort of limit, at which point they start taking a lot more damage. You can build the gauge with magic attacks, but you need to stabilize it with physical attacks or else the gauge will drop down to zero quickly. This provides most of the direction for the strategies in your battle. Most of the time you just try to focus on one bad guy at a time getting his gauge up while trying to survive the barrage of enemy attacks at the same time. It's much more exciting than I just made it sound.
Boss battles are great. Some of them last really long and most of them are pretty frantic. Mostly because they tend to switch to different tactics / attack modes that force you to constantly switch up too. Some of them are pretty challenging. Actually regular monsters in some areas were pretty hard for me too if you're like me, trying to rush through at lower levels.
After every battle you're completely healed up. I really liked this. This made each battle its own struggle contained in itself. You go all out with all your effort without worrying about using up your MP, your items, whatever. I don't know if its better since I guess that takes out one element of strategy, but it sure feels good.
Another "gift" is that there is no penalty for dying. You just press retry and you're back a little bit before your last battle, ready to rearrange your party, change up your paradigms, whatever. I love this. I guess I loved it because I happened to die a lot. A lot of the big fights, they sort of pop up at you out of nowhere and a lot of times I wasn't very prepared. This alleviated what could have been some very stressful and painfully annoying times.
Treasure chests. If you're not an idiot, you'll probably get every treasure chest in the game. This is slightly refreshing as you won't need to refer to any sort of guide to make sure you don't miss the ultimate weapon or accessory or whatever. On the other hand, it kind of detracts from the excitement of going out of your way to get that ultimate weapon. Some of the rarest items are still monster drops though, so you can still get your kicks from that.
There are summons and they are really elaborate. I don't think I used them even once besides trying each one out to see how cool they looked. Enough said I think.
This game is pretty much one big dungeon romp. There are hardly any puzzle elements, not that I like those. There's no going back and forth places, no home base, no exploring, none of that. Just blazing through a pretty clear cut path. In some ways its interesting. It's like you're riding an amusement park ride where exciting things happen all around you while you sit in a car on a track. I'm neutral on this. At least there is at no point in this game where you don't know where to go next.
Except when you get to missions. They're very similar to Final Fantasy XII. At one point the game opens up to a really crazy huge world and there are marks all over the place. You find these things that give you missions that correspond to a certain monster and you can only be on one mission at a time. This ridiculously vast area of game though, I think it might be too big. I spent more time running around looking for monsters and markers than ever fighting. And I have no idea how anyone is supposed to find these markers without consulting a guide. But this area of the game didn't exactly fascinate me, especially since a good chunk of it is only really possible to beat post game.
The experience system is pretty much like the later FF games. You get these points and you upgrade some sort of board. Except unlike FF12, it's clear what stats you're upgrading and abilities you're gaining. The interesting thing in this game is weapon upgrades. You'll get every weapon in the game through finding every treasure chest. The thing is, although some weapons are better than others, each character usually has 2 or 3 equally good weapons once fully upgraded, depending on how you use that character. I'm guessing you need to consult a guide or forum to really know the potential of each weapon unless you want to waste hundreds of hours finding out for yourself.
How would you spend hundreds of hours? Upgrading weapons requires you to go to a shop and buy these weird, crazy expensive components and money isn't very easy to come by, at least before post-game, and even then I don't think its that easy. That said, I picked out one weapon for my three main characters and upgraded them half way each and that was plenty enough to beat the game. No need to go further in this review, just know it is complicated and time-consuming.
So in quick summary of everything I've just said, not everything about the gameplay is golden but the battle system is so fun it outshines everything.
Sadly, the only thing that keeps this from possibly being my favorite game ever, and it actually really drags it down past a lot of other games, is the ridiculous story. It actually starts out pretty good and is kind of intriguing most of the way, but in the end it's just frustrating as it spins out of control and things are tied up in a strange and unsatisfying way.
There is a fair amount to like though. Like I said, the beginning was actually pretty good and there was some pretty heavy themes to tackle for a Final Fantasy I thought. And cliched as they are, most of these characters are likable. There's the obligatory emotional wreck but thank goodness this time he isn't the main character.
There's not much else to say, just know there are an annoyingly large amount of cheesy cut scenes that are hard to stomach and characters don't act and events don't play out in a way that make sense like you'd like them to. You know, like, knowing from your experiences as a human being, a reasonable reaction to the situation is all you need for it to be convincing. Unfortunately, the melodrama is just too sensational.
There were so many times I was just in awe of how beautiful this game is. I'm talking about the CG scenes but also the environments and character models and the crazy realistic facial and body expressions. I think some of the environments outshine some of the CG cut scenes. Besides some of the few drab, earthy dungeons, the game world is simply stunning in terms of detail, texture, color, style. It's like a futuristic punk clean utopian setting. Yeah, pretty vague description, but it's awesome.
There were some outdoor environments where the background was breathtaking. Like at one point you were on some sort of mountain and you look into the distance and as far as the draw distance would go you saw detailed sky, clouds, forest, sun, everything. I think with the power of the Playstation 3, even if you are set to run on a predetermined path, the world seemed to extend endlessly, whether you're on a serene plain or in a busy city. And when you get to the part where you do have a lot more freedom, it really does feel like you could run around forever. In many locations I could rotate the camera around and feel like it would be an amazing picture to frame.
I really love the more earthy art direction of games like Final Fantasy XII, Vagrant Story, FF Tactics, but this futuristic punk setting is still awesome, that and this is the best looking game I have ever played. Simply the graphics are well worth the purchase price alone, in my opinion.
I was really surprised by how good the music was in this game. Like, really, really good, maybe the best I've heard in a Final Fantasy game, and you know how hard it is to beat those nostalgic tunes from FF7.
I love how there's a melody that ties the whole game together and in its many forms it's exciting, sad, even epic. And even as I say there is a main melody, the distinct general feeling I get from these tracks that differentiate it from the first 10 games from Uematsu, and even the twelfth from Sakimoto, is that these tracks seem less melodic and make towards building atmosphere, mood, texture, movement, and it just seems more grand rather than specific melodies. Like, I can't really whistle any tunes as they aren't memorable in that way, but trust me they leave an impression. Clearly I have no idea what I'm talking about so I can only ramble and hope you get the gist of what I'm trying to convey. I'm a fan of Hamauzu and if you're familiar with any of his work you will recognize it and you won't be disappointed.
The quality of the tracks are really good too. It's probably synths but the orchestration is getting closer and closer to sounding like the real thing (unless it really is). This is also the first RPG I've played where some of the background music has cool vocal tracks and it works surprisingly well. It ups the illusion of quality significantly. Not that sound quality speaks for how good the song is, that's up to your opinion, but it's more of a feeling that you're really playing a "next-gen" game.
The voice acting is okay. The only reason it isn't pretty good is Vanille. I don't think anyone actually has that high a voice and it is annoying. But you get used to it and you kind of warm up to her strange accent. I thought Sazh was impressive but I thought Fang was the best, playing the badass. It was probably her cool accent that won me over. Lightning had some cringe-worthy lines but overall not bad - the rest were unremarkable. Unlike FFXII it didn't blow me away but I was still very happy that it was simply not bad. The terrible script didn't exactly help the voice actors.
Play Time / Replayability 7/10
I beat this game in 40 hours. In one week too. That's a full 8 hour workday week. And it was glorious. Of course I kind of breezed through it just to finish the story and a few missions on the side.
I'm not a fan of replaying games after I've beaten them. Even if they have some compelling reason to, like getting all your stats and items back at the beginning of the game (a New Game Plus, as I remember from Chrono Trigger), or maybe a new difficulty level, unlockable stuff, side missions, etc. In this case, replaying isn't starting from the beginning of the story, since most people don't want to go through that 20 hour lead time again, but more like finishing everything else that you can do. And that's pretty much one huge side quest to finish mercenary missions, powering up your characters stats, and spending the hours to get enough resources to upgrade your weapons. Not something that appeals to me, but I can see the value in someone who really wants to "master" a game. To really get the nuances of the battle system, get all those trophies and achievements, max out characters, etc. This could easily lead into 100+ hours of total game time.
I can even see some people considering these missions as the real meat of the game. They certainly quickly progress to much harder difficulties than the final boss. I just get this bad taste in my mouth that this is really the only side quest, the only extra, optional thing to do in the game, a lot like Final Fantasy XII. It clearly occupies a lot of people though, since if you scour forums and look at FAQs a lot of the discussion, most actually, has to do with the post game.
Final Recommendation 8/10
Don't play this game for the story. You'll probably find yourself not caring about it at some point because it's just so ridiculous. And that's a deal-breaker for some. It's not that it's so bad more than it is unsatisfying. There's so much good in this game though, it not only redeems itself in every other category but excels to the point of becoming one of my favorite games. However, I have a long history of deep love for Final Fantasy, so take that for what it's worth. In the end, I imagine if I bought a PS3 for the sole purposes of playing this game, I wouldn't be disappointed.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/18/11
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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