Review by Archmonk Iga

"Another amazing journey from Square Enix, but perhaps "First Sci-Fi" would have been a better title?"

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Such are the words of Juliet Capulet, and what she says still holds true hundreds of years after Shakespeare wrote it. But in this day and age of capitalism, constant advertising visible around every corner, every second, we nonetheless hold certain expectations when we hear names we easily recognize. Wal-Mart—BAM: cheap, department store, multi-billion dollar corporation. Stephen King—BAM: horror author, imaginative, worldwide bestseller.

…Final Fantasy—BAM: RPG, epic storytelling, addicting gameplay. That, among others, is what many people will think of first when they hear those two words. The latest addition in this series, lucky number 13, fits that description as well as any of the other FFs. What more can we ask for in a Final Fantasy? But as you have probably already known, XIII does indeed have more differences (and omissions) in the series than ever before. Still, as you read my review, and as you play the game, please remember: Final Fantasy XIII is just a name. It was something I struggled with as I played through it (and likely will again upon replays), but this, like all the other FFs, is a rose that would smell as sweet with any other name.

STORY:
Cocoon, the upper world, lives in constant fear of Pulse, the world below. The people of Cocoon are protected by the fal'Cie, strange entities that provide them with everything they need—food, water, safety, and more. The fal'Cie have convinced the citizens that anything to do with Pulse could mean utter disaster for the planet, and as far as the people can tell, this is completely true.

Our journey is more of a science fiction than a fantasy, as you will be able to tell within seconds of starting the game up. It begins when five people are branded by the fal'Cie. The moment this happens, they are no longer human—they are l'cie, enemies of Cocoon. As l'cie, they are given a certain mission that must be accomplished (called their “focus”), and upon completing it will be turned to crystal and granted “eternal life.” Should they fail, they become one of many mindless c'ieth, roaming wherever their feet take them in regret and despair. The thing is, the l'cie have no idea what their focus is. Their only clue is a dream-like glimpse of a possible future, where one of them becomes Ragnarok and destroys the world. It all becomes an enormous catch-22—completing their focus will grant them eternal life, but their home will be destroyed in the process. It is this issue that is carried throughout the entire game. Why do the fal'Cie want to destroy Cocoon? Why have humans do it when they can do it themselves? Can the l'cie change the terrible fate the almighty fal'Cie have imparted upon them? Or are these people not really people at all, but puppets of a grand scheme concocted by these higher powers? You must play to find out.

The overarching storyline here is truly intriguing, but the Final Fantasy creators have always emphasized that their games are all about the characters. We meet six party members who are thrust into this terrible journey, and I must say that this group of characters may arguably be the most cohesive cast Final Fantasy has ever seen. Lightning is our heroine, a tough soldier with a driven attitude. While I love every single Final Fantasy protagonist (yes, even Vaan), I'm assuming that it is generally agreed upon by fans that Light is far and away the best one since Cloud (some may even go farther back in the FF timeline). She is hardheaded, stubborn and often pessimistic, but somehow we immediately come to care for her. Sazh, the old pilot, is perhaps my favorite non-protagonist FF character ever. Yes, I really do mean that. His role in the story is simple—he is a loving single parent, who's only child was recently turned into a l'cie. Sazh is so passionate but constantly beating himself up about letting his son down. Almost all of the characters are believable in this game, but Sazh is by far the most believable. I can't put into words how impressed I am with Square's creation of Sazh—he is one of the FF characters that I will love for the rest of my life as an FF fan. Plus his son, Dajh, and his chocobo chick (who lives in his hair) are cute as the dickens. Vanille is a perky, though secretive, girl who seems to just be along for the ride before becoming a l'cie. But you'll constantly be asking yourself—who is this weird chick and why does she always act so happy even in the worst of situations? Snow (AKA Mr. Gets-punched-in-the-face-by-Lightning-a-lot) is the cheerful leader of a rebel force in Cocoon, and is determined to be both his crystallized fiancée's and Cocoon's “hero” throughout the entire game. And while Snow provides some good moments (and some laughs), he is probably the weakest character of the bunch. With such a strong cast, Snow really does bring down a lot of the goodness that everyone provides. His constant “hero” talk is only one of the MANY cheesy things he rants about, and his romance with Serah (who is Light's sister) is, well… disturbing. He is a giant compared to her. It's like he's in his mid-thirties and she's fifteen. It doesn't fit, and it makes their scenes together very awkward to watch. Hope (AKA Mr. Falls-on-his-knees-a-lot) was a character I absolutely despised at first. In the beginning, he is on a revenge-mission to kill Snow, who he thinks is responsible for his mother's death. This mindset of his takes way too long for him to get over, but by the end of the game he is a completely different person, and becomes quite likable. Fang, who has the attitude of Light but the mystery of Vanille (along with her own unique insecurities) joins the group at a later point in the game, and while her delayed addition to the party made me feel less close to her than the rest of the gang, I eventually grew extremely attached to her as well.

The best part of this cast is how they grow—both as individuals and as a group. On their own, you can pick them apart and see all the development they go through as the story progresses. If you look at them together, you see amazing relationships that overcome seemingly impossible obstacles with one another. It truly is a new level of storytelling in RPGs. And I can't believe I'm saying this, but the relationships between this group seems even stronger and more believable than the relationships in FF10. It really is that good, and it's so refreshing after the awkward character interactions we saw from FF12 (do you even remember Penelo speaking a single word to Basch? Didn't think so).

The story itself is wonderful, but there are some bumps in the road that bring its score down. First of all, as I hinted at when talking about Snow, the game can get a little cheesy. Scratch that, it can get a LOT cheesy. Not just Snow either, though he's definitely the worst of the bunch. The whole “believe in yourself” and “it's in your heart” chatter appears a little too often, and it's quite a shame. Another problem is with the villains. We are introduced to three in particular, and the most interesting one is taken out of the story way too early. The villain who eventually takes center stage is unfortunately pretty boring and predictable. Nonetheless, the endearing plot, the authentic dynamic between the two worlds, and most importantly the characters, are what make the story in XIII so fantastic.
STORY: 9/10

BEFORE I CONTINUE…
This is kind of weird, but there some things I want to mention that wouldn't really fit anywhere else. Aside from the slick and seamless menus we get here, there are many FF staples that are either barely here or completely missing from this addition to the series. Some will be mentioned in the other parts of my review, but others can't fit anywhere but here. Moogles are barely present, and the game is completely linear (as you probably know) for the majority of the main story. I also feel like Square missed a huge opportunity with the city of Nautilus—this place could have easily been XIII's “Gold Saucer,” but because of the linearity of the game, we are only in it for a short while and never return. Going with that, there are loads of levels that we would love to return to later in the game, but we can't because of the game's linearity. Additionally, many of the monsters we know and love (or hate) from the series are not here. No malboros, no tonberrys, there isn't even a Biggs or Wedge! Going along with that, while our Eidolons are totally sick, we're certainly missing some of our old friends—Ifrit, Leviathan, Ixion/Ramuh, and other summons from the past are nonexistent in XIII. Lastly, something I always liked about Final Fantasy games is how they are so easily westernized. With XIII, this is not the case. The bright pink hair isn't too big of a deal, but the characters are constantly grunting, gasping and groaning at every little thing. Even when running in a cutscene, you will hear a bunch of little outcries. It's a little too anime-ish for Final Fantasy, making the JRPG vibe feel stronger than I'd like, and also probably means a lot of American players will be turned off by it. Okay, end rant. Just something to keep in mind when reading my final score.

GRAPHICS:
FFXIII does a lot right, and perhaps its graphics are at the top of that list. I don't know what to say about these graphics. The environments are simply unbelievable. I can't imagine how much creativity and work was put into the locales, because they are the best I have ever seen in an RPG, hands down. And the enemies! Boy, these are some of the damned ugliest monsters you'll ever fight against as a gamer, with crazy details showing you every disgusting nook and cranny. Those dancing bird things are truly hideous. I also loved the graphics in the Crystarium screen. The characters look phenomenal as well, especially in their faces and hair. Sazh's hair in particular is truly impressive. At times, though, characters' fingers look way too pixelly compared to the rest of their bodies, and it's quite obvious. Another problem will be exclusive to the SDTV owners out there—this game was MADE for HDTVs, and if you don't have one, reading the tiny, blurry words and symbols will surely strain your eyes now and then. And as with the previous entries, the FMV sequences are absolutely beautiful—the one on the racetrack is mindblowing. Future FFs have a lot to live up to in this department.
GRAPHICS: 9.5/10

SOUNDS:
As I mentioned before, the constant anime grunts are a little too Japanese for the American crowd, but I must say the voice acting itself is the series' best yet. Everyone's voice is perfectly fitting. I've read some complaints about Vanille's voice, but I liked it quite a lot during the cutscenes. In battles, however, she does indeed get a little ridiculous. It actually seems like they wanted her to sound orgasmic, and it's just way too much—maybe even enough to stop people from using her altogether, which is a shame.

The music is a mixed bag, which is something I'd never imagine myself saying about Final Fantasy. There is one returning FF staple track, and that is the chocobo song, which actually has a vocal part in it this time around. And while the other tracks are decent (many of them have vocals as well), it just isn't the same without some of our favorite FF tunes we've loved since day one. There is NO victory fanfare, NO prelude, NO FF main theme, and I'm sure I'm missing a couple others. It's a solid soundtrack, but at the same time this is a Final Fantasy soundtrack, and it's not asking too much for a couple important tracks from the past.

The sound effects are great, though. All the weapons and magic have amazing sounds coming out of them. The only problems with the sounds were the loud-as-hell footsteps that we hear—and with a game that is 75% running, it can get pretty grating.
SOUNDS: 6.5/10

GAMEPLAY:
Whether you love or hate the game's linearity, you can't fault XIII much for being so straightforward. The game slowly eases you into all of its gameplay aspects, and it makes it much easier to get into.

First and foremost is the Crystarium, which is very similar to the Sphere Grid from X, except each character has his/her own rather than having a single giant one being shared by everybody. Also like the Sphere Grid, building up your characters with CP gained from battles is extremely fun, addicting and rewarding. You immediately notice the differences in battle after doing a massive Crystarium session.

The Crystarium builds the characters based on their selected “roles,” which determine their moves during battles. There are six roles, and each character has his/her own specialties. These roles get implemented in your “Paradigms,” which are the battle setups. You can have up to six of these for your battle team, and it's important to strategize carefully using up all six slots. You can make your team defensive, offensive and anything in between using the Paradigms, and it's quite a bit of fun brainstorming them.

Once in battle, you control only one character. Most of the time you'll be using the same Auto abilities as the ATB fills up, but for tougher fights and boss battles, get ready to change Paradigms and manually select abilities a lot. The normal fights can get a little boring, but isn't every RPG like that? Don't you kind of want to get the normal fights over with so you can continue? I can see some criticism for this, but it's something that RPGs have had since the very beginning. And anyway, the battle system is so fast-paced that the normal battles can be over in no time.

When fighting, you will constantly be looking at the Chain Gauge in the corner of the screen. As this bar raises, the enemy will begin to take more damage relative to the percentage shown along the bar. Once it's at the max, the enemy becomes “staggered,” which gives you a HUGE offensive advantage. It makes the battles that much more exciting, and there's nothing sweeter than dealing tens of thousands of HP worth of damage on all those tough bosses. But you gotta use the stagger wisely, because it's only there for a limited amount of time!

One thing I really did NOT like, though, was that if your character dies, it's a game over. The two AI members can still be completely healthy, but it'll still be game over for you (it also makes me wonder how hard it would have been to allow multiplayer). Luckily, this is pretty much relieved because of the new “Retry” option, which brings you back to right before the battle begins. It's very nice to have that instead of getting sent back all the way to the last save spot.

Which brings up another point—save spots are still in full effect with FF. I've never really had a problem with this, and with all these Western RPGs allowing you to save anywhere can make their games a little too forgiving at times. Personally, I hope the save spot never dies. The save spots also are where you do all the shopping and weapon upgrading. There are no towns or shops to visit because this game is THAT linear, and it's a little drab to do everything at the save spots. I also don't like the weapon/accessory upgrading, just because it means hours and hours of gil and material farming to upgrade weapons and accessories to their highest levels. This brings back terrible and tedious memories from XII, and it is not a welcome return in this reviewer's opinion.

Once the game becomes less linear, there are limited sidequests in XIII, with them only being applied to “Missions.” These are similar to the Marks from XII, which was another tedious part of that game, and it is no different here. While the rewards are again worth the trouble, there's just no variety or creativity behind the missions. It also sucks because you have to do them in order to warp from place to place.

Another big difference in XIII is that the characters have only three attributes: HP, strength and magic power. No defense, no magic defense, no luck, no speed. I loved how they took all those attributes out, because it lets you focus on the more fun parts, like accessories and the Crystarium. Sometimes less really is more.

Something else that is important to talk about is the Datalog, which carries any and all information about the story, world, characters, and whatever else you come across in XIII. While I loved the Datalog, some of the story information it gives you should have been put into, well, the story. Why do I have to read about certain things that were missing from the cutscenes? I would have rather watched them take place than read about them.

Last, and perhaps least, is the map. I love how the dots trail your marker so you know where you're coming from, but it's hard to tell north from south because the map screen rotates based on your camera angle in-game. Isn't the point of the map to know which direction you're going? I know the destination marker is helpful, but once we get to Gran Pulse it would've been nice to have the map NOT rotate as your camera angle does.

I feel like you may think I hate the gameplay, but I don't at all. The battles are fun and fast-paced, the strategy is constantly coming into play, and the Crystarium is simply a blast. These factors take up most of your game time and make you want to come back to XIII again and again. Yet even the missions and upgrading bring satisfaction, despite their unoriginality.
GAMEPLAY: 8.5/10

REPLAY VALUE:
The main game could last around 50 hours if you ignore the optional stuff, which is a pretty darn long time. If you're an FF master though, expect double or even triple that number, what with all the upgrading, Crystarium and missions going on. But because of its heavy linearity, replaying the entire story is a bit less appealing than before. I hate to say it, but that's just the way it is. Nonetheless, the story is good enough to be worth multiple viewings, like all FFs.
REPLAY VALUE: 8/10

OVERALL:
This is a long-ass review, so I'll cut to the chase. I loved every second of XIII, but there are certain things that we expect as FF fans. I quoted Shakespeare in the beginning of my review, and I think it's important to recognize what that quotation says. At the same time, it's a struggle to do that when a decades-old franchise takes so many 180's that we didn't see coming. But I am a through and through FF fan, and I mean that with all my heart. Final Fantasy XIII's story is impeccable, the graphics are amazing, and the Crystarium and Paradigm systems are addicting as hell. It may not be the rose we expected, but a rose is a rose is a rose, as the saying goes. And this rose smells just as sweet as the others.
OVERALL: 8.5/10

Thanks for reading =)


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 04/12/10

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


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