Review by t34b34n

"A Paradigm Shift for single player RPGs: Needs improvement"

Introduction:
Final Fantasy XIII is Square-Enix's thirteenth installment in the Final Fantasy series. Those familiar with past titles can rightly expect to see some of the staple elements and themes of prior releases but should also be aware that the mechanisms under the hood, from world exploration to battle direction, have been drastically changed.

Gameplay: World Exploration:
In all previous installments of Final Fantasy, the player was allowed to explore the world and was usually able to revisit past areas. In Final Fantasy XIII, this capacity has been largely denied, and the player would benefit from thinking about the structure of the game more as side-scrolling action levels than traditional regions of exploration. Where the non-linear exploration fantasy finally is allowed, the player receives it in spades and those keen on total completion of the game will likely be criss-crossing the explorable area for days. I wish I were exaggerating, but 24 hours is actually a highly optimistic estimate for the distance one will eventually need to travel.

Gameplay: Battle Controls:
Final Fantasy XIII's battles diverge from its predecessors in a handful of ways. Most notably, hit points (HP) and status conditions are reset at the end of every battle and magic points (MP) no longer exist. The overall result is that almost every battle can be won extremely slowly by taking an extremely defensive posture or lost extremely quickly by taking an extremely offensive posture. The goal of every battle, however, becomes a race against the clock to find the fastest way of beating the given opponent(s).

That said, at its best, battle control in Final Fantasy XIII is a fast-paced, fluid means of demolishing the opposition. At its worst, it is a chaotic smorgasbord of visual effects, bright damage numbers, flashing lights, and shaking camera angles through which the player can do little more than cross their fingers and Hope their team is the one to walk out of the dust. Strangely, the more challenging and active an encounter becomes, the more the gamer needs to try to *not* look at the actual fight, as battle management works much better if one learns to read and monitor each of the 8 meters (I kid you not) and one menu through which the battle operates.

It is also worth noting that although there can be up to three characters in the fighting party, the player only controls one character at a time. Even then, the player will likely make almost exclusive use of the auto-battle function (effectively ceding control to the programmers over at Square-Enix to determine the best course of action), and the gamer's only useful function becomes choosing what role combinations (called Paradigms) to select and when to select them.

Gameplay: Character development (EXP/CP) and resource management (GP/Gil)
Character development in Final Fantasy XIII is achieved through a system called the Crystarium. Fanciful names aside, it is an almost entirely linear system of exchanging experience points (called Crystarium Points or CP in Final Fantasy XIII) for crystals representing one of three status boosts (HP, Magic, and Strength) or a variety of abilities. These crystals must be purchased in order, though the main "rail" does often make small branches.

The Crystarium is also divided into a series of levels which are locked until various points in the main storyline are passed. To veterans of the series, it is worth mentioning that no status improvement is being made by engaging in extra battles until the first level of the Crystarium is unlocked.

Gil is handled differently from other Final Fantasy titles in that no gil reward is ever given for any fight. From time to time, enemies will drop items that may be sold for gil, and valuable items may be rarely found in treasure chests scattered throughout the game. To make effective use of the upgrade system in Final Fantasy XIII, however, the gil requirements will demand that the player engage in what MMORPGers call "farming". Why the designers thought this was a good idea in a single player game is quite beyond me, but don't be surprised if you crunch the numbers and find that the fastest way of making the gil you need has you fighting the same enemy (or enemies) hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Additionally, it's very easy to squander (and somewhat unavoidable to waste a good deal of) your gil, thanks to the horrendously byzantine upgrade system. Even though the game may recommend that you experiment, be forewarned that experimentation will lose you hundreds of thousands of gil. A guide (I used six separate guides and a host of YouTube videos to understand the upgrades) to this system is a must if you want to do it efficiently and save yourself literally days of needless and unrewarding gaming time.

Story:
The story of Final Fantasy is swell, touching on some of the oldest philosophical issues humanity has struggled with; finding meaning in life in the face of certain death, the role of gods in the affairs of mortal beings, free will versus determination...

The only issue for gamers may come in trying to figure out what the game world is like, as no real introduction is given to the setting, the geography, the culture, the social clime, etc., etc. prior to being immersed neck deep in a highly chaotic situation. Actually, the introduction *is* that chaotic immersion. Without spoiling anything, a lot of stuff is mentioned in the Datalog function that sheds light on the story of Final Fantasy XIII which is never mentioned elsewhere in the game. Clarity is best maintained by reading the Datalog fully and referring back to it whenever you are notified that new content has been added.

Graphics / Sound
Square-Enix has never disappointed in this department previously, and that tradition is still strongly reflected. Character models are detailed and animations are aces. Battle effects are over the top to the point of being distracting or obscuring of pertinent information, especially with higher level spells that take control of the camera to get the "best" angle on the action.

Sound effects are passable but nothing to write home about. Sound recording quality is great, but the sounds themselves aren't distinctive. The audio tracks, unfortunately, fall far short of previous installments. Even after 70 hours of gameplay, I can't recall a single song from the game. If you enjoyed the iconic Prelude or Prologue, "One Winged Angel", "Dancing Mad", or other works by Nobuo Uematsu, you're probably not going to get a huge kick out Masashi Hamauzu's score.

Presentation
In two words: "Techno Chaos". Actually, just watch the introduction. The world and cutscenes don't get much more orderly than that, and the colors just get more garish, so if you can tell what's going on and enjoy the feel of that world (think Hong Kong or downtown Tokyo), you'll really enjoy this title. If not... just remember that the minimap does away with all the clutter in the world.

Also, it should be noted that the atmosphere of the game is decidedly more technological than one might expect of a Final *Fantasy*. Everything from font choice to save points and treasure chests scream "Technology!", making this much more a science fiction adventure with touches of magic intertwined.

Play time / Replayability
Approximately 30-40 hours for a straight playthrough. Moderate exploration can easily double the gameplay (which is also pertinent to the Gameplay: World Exploration and Character Development sections). Total completion of the title (as in, defeating every enemy and acquiring the ultimate gear) will likely take over 100 hours, possibly doubling or tripling if no guides are used. There is very little replay value to this title is a large number of saves were made so cutscenes and sequences can be revisited if desired: No New Game+ feature exists and there is no reason I can think of to start this game over.

Final Recommendation
I would recommend making the effort to play previous titles in the series first and playing a rental of Final Fantasy XIII prior to purchasing, especially if you enjoyed prior installments of the series and would have liked something in the same vein.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 05/12/10

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


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