Review by serados

"Final Fantasy XIII is a whole lot of wasted potential"

The highly anticipated flagship title of the “Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy XIII” series of games, Final Fantasy XIII (FF13) is finally out in Japan. Having spent about 5 years in development, FF13 is the first numbered Final Fantasy title in nearly four years. Fans of the changes made in the previous title, Final Fantasy XII, hoping for more of that may be disappointed with FF13, as it further refines the style found in Final Fantasy X. Yet beneath the shiny veneer something is lacking; FF13 contains the graphical polish of the best in video games right now and possibly the most intense battle system the series ever had, but it seems like something is missing after you realize you have finished the game and find yourself asking – “Is that all Final Fantasy XIII has to offer?”

Final Fantasy XIII is set in a world where humans live in a giant sphere in the sky called Cocoon, governed by the Sanctum, together with godlike beings called fal'Cie. Fal'Cie are guardians of the people and are indispensible in the citizens' lives, serving specific functions which include producing food and providing light. Fal'Cie can mark humans to complete tasks for them, known as a Focus. Humans thus marked are called l'Cie. If l'Cie are successful in completing their Focus, they will become crystals and achieve eternity. If not, they turn into monsters known as Cie Corpses. Underneath Cocoon is the earth, called “Pulse” by the inhabitants of Cocoon. To an inhabitant of Cocoon, Pulse is the equivalent of hell, and they live constantly in fear of another attack from Pulse. To be chosen by a Pulse fal'Cie turns you into a monster lower than human in the eyes of the humans in Cocoon. The story begins when a fal'Cie of the Pulse awakens in Cocoon and incidents caused by Pulse l'Cie happen, creating fears that some citizens have been turned into Pulse l'Cie, forcing the Sanctum to initiate a Purge, which rounds up everyone suspected of coming into contact with anything related to the Pulse and exiles them to the Pulse. The game itself starts when the Purge begins.

And what a beautiful game this is. The opening movie is beautifully rendered in quality CGI, of which generous amounts are included in FF13. The introductory scenes of the game have a train blitzing through a detailed, technologically advanced city. Particle effects are employed liberally and the models are highly detailed and superbly animated. You see a mechanical construct swoop down upon the train to ravage it, and its movements look lifelike – FF13 has plenty of these action-packed scenes. In cutscenes, when characters talk, it is apparent that much care has been put into making them act like real people, from the synchronization of their lips, to delicate, subtle eye movements to quirks like leg-shaking. FF13 also features some of the most impressive hair detail rendered in real-time in a video game.

Yet this quality came at a cost, which stands out glaringly. No, it's not the fact that the CG movies are obviously different from the ones rendered in real time. It's the fact that for all the details in hair, face and clothes, in several scenes places like the arms and fingers look so horrible. The armpit area looks like games from the late 90s with Half-Life level shading, the forearms are obviously polygonal and the fingers look like cuboidal sausages with fingernails that are flat and seem like they are tattooed on. In a game made with such dedication in getting the faces, hair, clothes and environment right, they did such a bad job in another expressive part of the body – the arms – and it looks so bad next to everything else that it can really break immersion. Some scenes also have particularly bad framerates, and some of them are merely camera panning shots without half the intensity of more heavy scenes.

Our heroes this time round are with us for very personal reasons, unlike protagonists from many previous installments. The opening scenes have heroine Lightning, a former sergeant in the security force, trying to save her sister Serah, and Sazh, a middle-aged civilian airship pilot, who is doing the same for his son, by destroying the Pulse fal'Cie that has awakened. The scene changes and we are introduced to Snow, the leader of Nora, a group of vigilantes who seek to protect Cocoon and its inhabitants from harm, who is also looking for Serah. Amongst the group Nora is protecting we have two other protagonists, Vanille and Hope.

In the first few chapters, the story is structured such that all of the protagonists are going their separate ways in groups of usually two or three, switching around perspectives from time to time but always giving the player no control over the arrangement of the party in battle. Numerous cutscenes allow for their fully-voiced interaction - you will never see a single non-system message left silent in this game. The character development in this part of the game is a different breed from the past – the script is somber from the beginning as befitting what happened, there's no evil empire to take down, and there's no romance between player characters. Instead, we have a game that deals with the bonds of family and brushes past themes of xenophobia and persecution of those who are different amidst a backdrop of the typical Final Fantasy story of people defying their fates.

Gameplay alternates between the field map, battles and cutscenes, much like a typical RPG. On the field, your characters are now able to jump from place to place, but such jumping is automatic and done at predefined locations on the map, many of which are marked out with a blue circle. Monsters can now be seen on the field, and touching them will transit the game into the battle map a la Chrono Cross. There is also a “reserve smoke” command on the field that allows you to use smoke bombs to sneak past enemies should you wish to avoid encounters, but there are also various other types of smokes that grant effects such as automatic Protect and Shell at the start of the next encounter.

Battles are where FF13 shines. The battle system is one more step forward in the evolution of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, a franchise staple since its inclusion in Final Fantasy IV up to Final Fantasy IX. In the ATB system, instead of characters taking turns in order based on speed, every character has a time bar which fills up according to that character's speed. When it fills, the player is able to give a command to that character and the character takes his turn in battle. In Final Fantasy X-2, the ATB made a comeback with one major change – turns could overlap, greatly increasing the pace of battles.

Final Fantasy XIII then took this “one move a time bar” concept and linked multiple bars to it instead. In FF13, your “ATB bar” is made up of several bars, and every move made in battle would cost a certain number of time bars. For instance, the basic attack costs one time bar while the second level spell Fira costs two time bars. These bars fill up as per the ATB, and you can, for instance, queue up three attack commands at the cost of three bars and execute the three moves in direct succession. You can also do “ATB cancelling”, which basically allows you to cut short the progression of the ATB and perform the moves that have their ATBs filled instead of waiting for all the ATB bars to fill.

The speed at which the bars fill would allow about two bars to fill in the time one bar filled in previous games, which means battles are now at a breakneck pace. There is an option to slow down the speed at which the bar fills in the Options menu.

To allow humanly possible control of this new system, the developers puts you in control of one character and delegates control of the other two party members to the AI. Next, there's also an auto-attack styled option which allows the AI to fill up the bars for you. Then, they introduced the Optima Change system, one highlight of FF13's battle system, to facilitate both the player and the AI in battle.

In FF13, there are six Roles that every character can have, each with a specific function. Similar to Jobs, but much more restricted, each Role literally has a specific function, and also provides boosts to certain stats. For example, the Healer role only has access to curative magic, while the Enhancer role only has access to party-buffing spells. Optimas are basically party configurations of these roles that you create. Example Optimas would be Attacker-Healer-Enhancer and Defender-Healer-Healer. This adds an element of pre-battle strategy in which you decide which Optimas are ideal for the situations ahead. In a situation early in a boss fight, you may want to use the Attacker-Healer-Enhancer Optima to buff up your party while ensuring survival, but after a strong attack that leaves your characters in red health, you may switch over to a Defender-Healer-Healer to recover – this is “Optima Change”. Because of the restrictive roles, changing Optimas is basically the same as giving commands to all party members at the same time, and you will usually get what you want from the AI – a character in the role of Healer will always heal and cure status ailments, and a Defender will always draw aggro and enter a Guard state to tank.

Another highlight of FF13's battle system is the Chain and Break mechanic. Every enemy has a Chain Gauge and a Chain Bonus which starts off at 100%, representing the damage multiplier. With every attack, the Chain Bonus will increase slightly, and in the absence of attacks, it falls. Every enemy also has a “breaking point”, a fixed Chain Bonus percentage that, when reached, causes the enemy to go into Break status. In Break status, the Chain Gauge will continually empty, but the enemy's defenses will fall and Chain Bonus will increase at a higher rate, allowing you to deal much more damage to the enemy. Many of FF13's battles revolve around the Breaking of enemies, and on some enemies causing them to enter Break status can incapacitate them, make them to lose their armor, or may even be the only way to deal damage to them. As you approach enemies, you will be detected if you go up from the front and enemies will start chasing you. Approaching from mobs' blind spots and successfully touching them undetected will result in a pre-emptive attack, which starts your enemies in a near-Break status, which makes pre-emptive status extremely desirable as it means large mobs of weak enemies can be finished off quickly, and stronger enemies can be put into a disadvantage from the beginning.

Further adding to the tactical depth of FF13's battles, the two main offensive classes of Attacker and Blaster cause the Chain Bonus to increase differently. Attackers cause Chain Bonus to increase much more slowly compared to the Blaster, but slows down the rate the Chain Gauge decreases, deals a lot more damage a hit, and eventually gains the ability to “juggle” enemies in the air, leaving them completely helpless to your assault. Blasters on the other hand give large Chain Bonuses, but using solely Blaster attacks cause the Chain Gauge to fall extremely quickly.

Another key difference is that Blasters are the only role capable of dealing elemental damage until Enhancers get their elemental attack buffs. The element system comes back again, and this time consists of the 6 elements of fire, ice, lightning, water, earth and air. Enemies have different elemental weaknesses and resistances, and attacking an enemy's weakness not only increases damage dealt but also the Chain Bonus given. The AI will automatically attack enemies' weaknesses once discovered, and if the enemy has any special quirks such as being particularly weak to a status ailment, the AI will exploit that as well. While you learn more of the enemy automatically as you fight, this makes Libra, which reveals some of the enemy's statistics instantly, very useful in situations such as boss fights where there is no time to leisurely learn about its weaknesses.

Libra is a spell in a category of abilities called “TP abilities”. TP abilities have battle-wide effects and utilize Tactical Points, which you have 5 and regenerate mainly after good performance in battles. The TP bar itself is divided into 5 sections, and you have one TP available for use when a section is filled up. The section lengths are staggered, so while you probably can regenerate the first two TP from the minimal amounts given for attacking enemies should you exhaust your TP, you probably wouldn't be able to summon Eidolons twice.

Summon magic, this time called Eidolons, returns in a manner similar to Final Fantasy X. In battle, Eidolons cost 3 TP to summon, and run on “SP” which is constantly decreasing. An Eidolon replaces your two party members fighting alongside the leader and is entirely AI-controlled. SP acts as the summon's HP but cannot be recovered, and when it runs out (or when the player decides to) the summon enters “Driving Mode”, in which the summon turns into a construct which can be “driven” by the summoner. In Driving Mode, you have a certain number of Drive Points determined by how much you have charged your Drive Meter while the summon was fighting alongside you. Every Eidolon is unique and their moves are flashy, providing the incentive to switch leaders around to watch the various Eidolons in action.

Eidolons grow stronger together with the character, and strengthening your characters is accomplished through the “Crystarium”, a simpler version of the Sphere Grid found in Final Fantasy X. After every battle, you get Crystarium Points (CP), which are the experience points of FF13. Every character has his own Crystarium, with six branches representing the six different roles growing out of a central crystal. CP is spent to advance from node to node, with nodes giving various benefits like increased strength, new abilities or providing a “role level up”. How far you can progress in the Crystarium is determined by your Crystarium level, which increases as you defeat certain storyline bosses. For a good part of the game, you can easily reach the limits of the Crystarium. As such, player stats are controlled by the developer for a large part of the game, forcing the player to use Optimas and Breaks to progress through the game instead of simply wasting time farming for CP in the hope of beating bosses through sheer brute force. In a way, this makes the player use the battle system's features instead of grinding their way through, but the difficulty of this game is quite high and this in turn may turn into a roadblock for players.

Because the game has shifted in focus from out-of-battle inventory management to in-battle tactics and control, FF13 accordingly gives you some of the toughest fights the series has seen and heals you after every battle. When the main character falls, it will be an automatic game over and control does not switch over to another party member nor are there options for party members to revive the leader. Thankfully, the game allows you to restart from before the battle started, with all smokes and items used intact. Battles can also be restart at any time in battle should you accidentally run into enemies or think you did not do well enough. Consequently, this leads to an increase in pace and momentum of the game – no more loading from a previous save point upon an unfortunate death and having to trek your way through the dungeon again. After every battle, you are given a rating out of 5 stars based on battle performance; mainly on time and number of Breaks achieved, and this has some impact on enemy drops.

Gil is still the currency of this Final Fantasy, and like in XII, you do not gain gil from enemy encounters. Gil is made from selling drops and treasure balls, and you will find enough drops to get a comfortable amount of money in the end. Weapons and accessories are expensive and you get more than enough as the game progresses, so the main use of gil is for purchasing materials to upgrade equipment, which consists of weapons and accessories.

Upgrading in this game works off an EXP system. Every weapon and accessory has its own level and EXP, and you use “materials” to provide EXP to the item you want customized. Some materials provide EXP bonuses for the next set of materials added that increase from 1.25x to 3x depending on the amount of bonus-imparting material you add, others provide a lot of EXP, and the crux of the system is mainly the challenge of balancing these two and finding enough materials to use. At a piece of equipment's maximum level, you can use an Item Change material to upgrade it to its next tier, lowering its level and effects but increasing the potential of the equipment – but the game never tells you which one of the many Item Change materials you need. To get materials, you can either get them from drops or from shops. The shops have a staggering variety of materials to buy, all of which grant different amounts of EXP and contribute different EXP bonuses. If a guide is not consulted, a player can get quite lost in the sea of items. This adds unneeded faux-complexity to an extremely simple system. Perhaps a smaller list of materials and more information about upgrading would be helpful.

We also have a post-game that allows you to power up and explore the massive world opened up to you in the latter half of the game, if you have not done so before finishing the game. Loading the save after beating the final boss puts you right before the boss fight with the full Crystarium unlocked and allows you to go back and roam.

In FF13 a living world exists, full of mythical beasts and a strong sense of art direction that turns it believable. Hyena-like beasts run freely across wide, rolling plains. Shadows of winged dragons are cast on the ground as they fly overhead, blotting out the sun. Looking across the plains, several colossal Adamantoises walk at their own leisurely pace, dwarfing even mighty Behemoths in size. These are sights that truly could not have been done in the previous generations of hardware. Not only is the natural environment well-realised, there are little hotspots that trigger additional cutscenes and character interaction as well, giving the player pleasant surprises.

Chocobos and a treasure hunting make a comeback, but it is integrated into field exploration. Occasionally while running around on a Chocobo, an exclamation mark may appear above the Chocobo's head indicating treasure is nearby, and its head turns in the direction of the treasure. The speed at which the exclamation mark flashes represents how close you are to treasure, but unlike Final Fantasy IX's Chocobo Hot and Cold, the only interaction you will be able to do besides running around is picking up the treasure like a regular treasure ball when you get to the right location.

Missions are the most substantial sidequest in FF13 and are similar to Hunts in Final Fantasy XII: there exists a certain powerful monster, go and take it down. With a total of 64 Missions and a larger Crystarium to power up your character with, as well as a really large world to explore, the post-game can take quite a while.

Final Fantasy XIII, however, does not give off a good first impression gameplay-wise. The only moves you can use in battle at the beginning are your basic attack and an AOE attack. Consequently, this makes the first two chapters (lasting about two hours) extremely dull – a literal cycle of cutscene > walk > battle > cutscene > walk… without a point to the battles besides item drops because you do not receive CP nor TP.

In the second half, some of the problems with the centerpiece of FF13 - the plot and characters - and the various gameplay systems become apparent.

One of the alluring points of a JRPG would be customization of a character's in-battle stats and abilities, and it is especially gratifying when you get a new super ability, be it through the story or by fulfilling certain requirements or accomplishing certain quests. This makes FF13's customization system a letdown.

The full Crystarium is also a one-way rail – fully limited and fully uncustomizable. Unlike the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X which allowed you to customize the entire Sphere Grid to your liking as long as you had the correct Spheres and Sphere Points, there is no way to modify the Crystarium and you are limited to whatever nodes the developer has placed in it. It feels like a step backwards, especially since previous games needed you to do more than gain EXP to properly “max out” a character's stats.

It does not seem like there are any sidequests to get each character's ultimate weapons at all, or even any sign of unique ultimate weapons which have been a staple so far. All base weapons are purchasable at shops, and the “hidden weapons” thus far aren't really hidden since they are bought from a shop that opens after a completing a certain Mission. The equipment upgrading system is extremely dry and simple, and revolves around finding the two or three optimum materials to use and repeatedly grinding for the gil required. The huge lists of materials are, as mentioned, unneeded faux-complexity in a very basic system, which ultimately isn't very fun to tinker with. Since materials are also very hard to come by, upgrading weapons also feels like a bigger commitment than it actually is, and some players may be discouraged from upgrading weapons when they have no clue how the EXP bonus system exactly works beyond “some materials give EXP bonus” and the EXP cost for the next level starts ramping up to quickly unsustainable levels.

Because the game has had control of your characters' stat growth for so long, when it opens up the monster balancing falls apart. In the second half of the game, monsters get much tougher and CP costs for advancing the Crystarium get very high, but the amount of CP given in battle does not increase proportionately, resulting in grinding that spoils the flow and feel the first half of the game has built. Certain encounters just feel plain unfair with the party facing off against multiple monsters, each with attacks that can cleanly take off half of the party's HP or even instantly kill the party. Boss fights are easier than the strongest regular enemies, and they still use simplistic attack patterns and fall into the categories of “too easy and terribly drawn out with inflated HP numbers” or “fairly challenging but drawn out with inflated HP numbers”.

The story progresses by having you do what essentially is a series of dungeon crawls through various locales ranging from lakes and forests to military bases and towns. The art direction is top-class and succeeds in crafting a very believable duality between the near-magical Cocoon world and the untamed Pulse. The forests and lakes in Cocoon feel distinctly different from those in the Pulse, and the concrete-and-stone of Pulse ruins are a far cry from the gleam and shine of Cocoon cities. Snippets of information about every character, every event, and every location are kept in a handy “Auto Clip” option in the menu, functioning like a record of your travels and an encyclopedia of the world.

Yet prior to the second half, locations feel very expendable and are not unique at all. It feels like you can take any two chapters of the game of the first half, swap the locations around and the game would still carry on as normal as though nothing happened. It's literally a straight tunnel until about fifteen hours in, when dungeons themselves start become less of a line and more of a room, bigger and bring back simple puzzles. This problem is made worse by the fact that all of them are one-shot and you are unable to revisit locations from the first half of the game.

Cocoon's areas are a sight to behold and about as realistic as you can get in a video game these days, yet ironically these places strangely feel dead; sterile and clean as a hospital. For the majority of the first twenty hours, when you look down the dungeons marveling at the draw distance, all you see are monsters prowling about in their predefined routes and a tunnel for you to walk in, occasionally with a nook here or a cranny there ending with a treasure ball, or maybe a longer detour that allows you to go behind an attack a group of enemies preemptively.

The level design is too perfect in this aspect – in towns and railroads such neatness and straightness is fine, but when there is nary a tree out of place in forests to block your path, and supposedly wild enemies are positioned such that they block off chokepoints and not move, it throws you out of immersion. The natural environments don't feel natural in the Cocoon, and whether this is intentional or not given that the Cocoon is entirely artificial, it just seems off.

There is an “auto talk” feature that replaces the “press X to talk to NPC” trait found in every other JRPG, which will cause the NPC to “say” several lines to the player character as he passes near them. Yet they still repeat the same lines over and over. Together with the facts that you never actually “approached” them to converse (merely walking past them) and that the lines themselves are fully voiced, it feels very surreal when the same voice clip of the same NPC screaming the same plea for help repeats over and over when you walk past him again and again. On some occasions, you actually have to “press X to talk” to certain NPCs, which presumably they did because those NPCs are semi-related to the plot and have more lines than passers-by, but it's a nice touch when they say different things as you talk to them multiple times.

But the actual content of the NPCs' dialogue is extremely shallow and does not reveal much about the world. This could be a design choice to show how ignorant the “sheeple” population living in Cocoon is, but shoving the details of the setting into an encyclopedia when no one has displayed any knowledge about the world is neither progress nor innovation.

The towns in Cocoon seem to merely be extensions of the lifeless dungeons, even with NPCs littered about the place. There is basically nothing you can do in them besides eavesdropping on strangers and moving on to the next objective neatly marked on the map. Enemy mobs appearing on field maps only exacerbate this problem of lifelessness – you now see government troops just hanging around walking on their predefined patrol routes, ignoring injured citizens lying about and you, a bunch of fugitives, in plain sight.

Never will you see injured soldiers lying on the ground nor will immobile bodies litter the streets after a major fight. There's a scenario early on where elite government forces are assaulting a room, but when you regain control you don't see anything but two groups of enemies walking up and down the corridors like you were invisible. Ironically, having enemies appear on the field maps made the game less immersive and more “gamey” than random encounters – you had a constant sense of urgency as you did not know when you would enter a battle, and you didn't have the immersion-breaking sight of trained soldiers ignoring you in broad daylight yet suddenly attack you when you get close as though they were severely myopic. This problem is particularly obvious in intense “assault” situations. A cutscene may show giant monsters chasing after you, but when control is regained the monster is completely ignoring you and walking about in its patrol route. Even 1997's Final Fantasy VII had battles start immediately when they attacked in the cutscenes – it made you think that the battles and cutscenes actually happened and did not exist in some parallel battle-and-cutscene universe. It's like everything is in “next-gen” graphics, but the dev team has worse-than-‘90s ideas of creating the illusion of a living world.

It seems that developers simply focused too much on visual quality of the areas and not what's in those beautiful places they have created, resulting in the environments not feeling alive. What makes a location memorable is not mere artistic prowess, but the personality of the place, be it a rich history, an inextricable link to significant events of the plot, or the music that just so perfectly captures the mood of the place. The visual splendor takes your breath away, but the locales with their fancy names like “Vile Peaks” or “Sunleth Waterscape” ultimately remain unmemorable because they are, in the end, just dungeons you crawl through, stopping momentarily to take in the view (because oh boy are they beautiful).

Perhaps it is fitting that one of the most atmospheric and well-designed areas of the game is a snowy ghost town near the end, completely devoid of people except for Cie Corpses and wild beasts. This area brought back memories of past Final Fantasies, talking to people to glean whatever information I could about the setting of the world and not having everything tucked away in the Auto Clip with only the bare minimum (like the place's name and where it leads to) revealed as you play the game. The music conjures up a melancholy mood and the entire feel of the area is very similar to that of Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, an immersive place that constantly reminds you of what was. In every other part of the game, whenever an X button popped out on the screen with the word “CHECK” written next to it, it was to open a treasure ball or to activate a lever or switch of some sort to advance. Coupled with the “tunnel” design for many of the dungeons, imagine my surprise when, running about that ghost town, the X button popped out, but instead of picking up an item, it gave me a short, sobering little description about the item in particular and life there in the past in general. And the town is littered full of these hotspots and even contains the only non-battle related sidequest in the entire game (a simple “find the items” quest, but at that point in the game any break in dungeon crawling is better than nothing)! That place is yet another sign of what could have been.

The first half of the game puts the focus squarely on the story and characters. The developers have managed to fit in some great character interactions in the first twenty hours by having the plot split the characters up and giving them lots of time to interact with each other in cutscenes. Using a recipe that mixes graphical detail, fitting music and some emotional scenarios, the drama in the first half of FF13 is some of the best in the series. You can see the main characters maturing and these sublime, touching moments are some of the high points of the game.

However, at the beginning, you have totally no idea what is going on, and the game prefers to let you in on the plot slowly. The player is groping in the dark as he moves along the straight corridor to the next cutscene, not even knowing what, in the first place, a “fal'Cie” or a “l'Cie” is. Without doing prior research, the sheer amount of terminology can get confusing. As the story moves along, you get flashbacks of the events that happened in the prior thirteen days, and these retell the motivations of the main characters. A series of short stories acting as a prequel to FF13, Episode Zero, were written and released online, giving more insight to the characters and their pasts, and ends at the beginning of FF13. These short stories, however, give so much more life to the many named, but one-dimensional side characters you encounter in FF13 and provide a background to how exactly certain main characters met, and I wonder why they did not make it directly into the game itself.

The main party members don't really bond together. All the “character development” cutscenes focus on two or three characters' interactions, never the entire party bantering like in the skits found in the Tales series of RPGs. The only times all the main characters ever talk in a single scene are the “motivational speeches” in the confrontations with the baddies, and such boys' anime scenes have no place in a game that gives us a somber first twenty hours. They certainly even streamlined character interactions. FF13's storytelling comes off feeling like you've just read the Super Robot Wars adaptation of a 26-episode anime, a mere Cliffnotes summary of a grander plot with richer characterisation.

Final Fantasy XIII adopts an interesting narrative structure that uses flashbacks heavily, switches perspectives often and leaves you hanging for the big reveal, but it falls flat as something went horribly wrong with the story in the second half of the game. It says something about FF13's plot when, as soon as the spotlight is taken off the protagonists and shifted to the major conflict of the game, the entire story falls into shambles.

The plot points regarding the inner conflicts of the characters are mostly solved in the first half, which isn't exactly good storytelling when the meat of the story in fact lies in said character development. Further compounding this problem is that the villains are far from compelling and fail to be the stars of the second half. They rarely get any screen time and the situations they are put in are poorly conceived. The villains fight you simply because you are a l'Cie regardless of their personalities, and the main villain not only has one of the most ill-explained motivations but also a downright convoluted plan to achieve his goal. I don't know which fact is worse: that the only reason you fight most of the antagonists in FF13 is simply because you are fugitives and they are the law, or that the main villain is about as well developed as a minor villain in prior games.

Eidolons may seem to have a big role in the plot of the game, and certainly the first few scenes where characters meet their Eidolons were meaningful and some of the better parts of the first half. But in the second half as the end approaches, suddenly it seems like they just shove in the Eidolon introductions for the rest of the playable cast with no Eidolon just because they did not have them at that late point. It's like you're going to the next objective when suddenly the characters decide to talk about certain emotional events in the middle of a dungeon and BAM! Eidolon introduction. No context, no sense, and certainly no emotions evoked. As the world opens up, the characters close and turn into walking shells to be moved from point A to B “exploring”.

One particularly egregious chapter has barely any plot events, but simply is the longest not because the player chooses to go off the beaten track, but by virtue of the sheer distance you have to cover to get to the next objective.

This dichotomy between the first half and the second half makes it feel like gameplay and story was not balanced at all. The second half simply cannot hold its own in story, whereas in most character-driven stories the second half is where the twists come quickly and furiously with the characters shining at their brightest. The somber, dramatic first half gives way to cheesy motivational speeches and lame encounters with the villains, which is a bad way to round off a game which has thus far felt like a breath of fresh air.

This can be said to be the single greatest fault of FF13 – for a game that has eliminated so many traditional RPG elements to focus on story and battles, it fails to create a storytelling experience matching other RPGs with a mere fraction of FF13's budget and developer expertise.

Music is provided this time by Masashi Hamauzu, one of the co-composers of Final Fantasy X's soundtrack. One stand-out problem with the music is the time it takes for the tracks to get up and running. This makes the already-unmemorable (while playing the game) music even worse, as watching cutscenes normally wouldn't even get you to the good parts of the soundtrack. With the main battle theme the problems are even more obvious. A battle system that moves so quickly should have a battle theme that kicks off with a running start, but FF13's many battles will be over before the violins even kick in with the main melody. On the other hand, some tracks are too chaotic and while certainly “epic” sounding just doesn't rise above the noise of the battle to shine. This “lack of ambition”, how the music just seems to feel content to stay in the background and provide ambience instead of claiming the stage for its own, may not be the best fit for an RPG's soundtrack.

I'm sure all Final Fantasy fans have certain scenes in their favourite games which made a huge impact on them, be it the Opera House scene in VI, the scene at the end of disc 1 in VII or the endings of IX and X. More likely than not, the music accompanying these have been beautiful and perhaps emotional but always attention-catching. Unfortunately, FF13 lacks a scene with such impact. The Japanese theme song, Kimi ga Iru Kara, is by far the weakest of any Final Fantasy theme song so far – it sounds generic, unemotional and certainly doesn't have the magic. Series staple tracks the Prelude and the Victory Fanfare are all but missing.

The theme played over the title screen is nice and appears in multiple arrangements, as does the melody of the battle theme, but they do not have the X-factor that places them in the territory of classics. The vast majority of the soundtrack of FF13 is musically impressive but not instantly memorable – the kind that grows on you after you listen to it multiple times and catch all the small little details. Composer Masashi Hamauzu has also channeled the style of music in modern Persona for a couple of vocal tracks that are refreshing to hear, including one cute ditty based on the fan favourite Chocobo theme.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII feels very manufactured and forced to push the boundaries to the point that it lacks a lot of heart. It leaves you feeling hollow and thinking “Did I really spend 40 hours on this game?” when you realize you feel no attachment to a majority of the characters despite having spent a lot of time with them. It is an RPG with pretty graphics which cannot decide whether it's going to be lite or deluxe, holding your hand as much as it punishes you. It invokes names like Bahamut and Tiamat but lacks a lot of the meat of previous Final Fantasies whether in out-of-battle gameplay or story.

+Pretty graphics, animations and movies
+Setting and background (on paper) is detailed and well-conceived, especially Pulse
+Character development in the first half was very good
+When the various systems in the game open up, you get a great first impression
+A soundtrack that gets better the more you listen to it

-One-dimensional, underutilised antagonists due to a lack of proper development
-Despite starting out strong, eventually shallow protagonists
-Poor pacing and weak plot
-Equipment upgrading system is too simplistic and bland but feels overly-complicated
-Monster balance is not well done and the difficulty can get very high towards the end
-Too many unmemorable locations and lifeless environments
-Non-Mission sidequests are almost nil
-Music has no “hit” that nails the exact mood of any part of the game

Final Fantasy XIII is by no means a bad game; it is certainly worth playing for the experience of the potential a next-gen JRPG can have, but it does have a bit of bipolar disorder. Players in it for the story may find the second half a slog and end up with a terribly sub-par experience, while players in it for the battles and customization will have to bear the first half and end up with not much customization to do anyway. Some of the “innovative” design decisions are for the worse, and the on-rails feel may not appeal to some players, especially not with poor plot and execution.

There's so much wasted potential in Final Fantasy XIII – a beautiful setting, a story that could have been so much more as seen from Episode Zero, carefully animated, detailed character models, an intense battle system – ruined by locations without personality, a weak plot, questionable character development and poor out-of-battle customization options… It is unfortunate that the first “Final Fantasy” in almost four years doesn't feel quite right on the whole, as glimpses of magic can still be seen in the new direction this series has taken.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 01/04/10, Updated 01/29/10

Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (JP, 12/17/09)

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