Review by BabyRyoga

"A fresh reworking of traditional RPG gameplay -- at least, the part that should matter the most."

Final Fantasy XIII has arrived, and in accordance with two decades running personal tradition of purchasing new Final Fantasy titles as close as possible to release, I made sure to pick it up right away. As someone who finds it harder and harder to be completely absorbed into this type of game, I had no problem sitting down for marathon gaming sessions reminiscent of previous titles, and times when devoting attention to traditional RPGs felt more natural.

Having played through all the content offered to its fullest extent, here are my impressions:

Story: Undoubtedly one of, if not the biggest contributor to previous franchise success. For XIII, the story itself seems to fit in appropriately for the Final Fantasy series, but there are some issues with setting that tend to be problematic.

The setting this time around is Pulse, the roughly uninhabited "lower world", and Cocoon, a planet-like habitat floating in the sky. The conflict revolves around individuals who become l'Cie -- they are given a dream-like vision that shows them a particular task to complete, branded with a mark, and granted magic abilities by a god-like entity. Any such being becomes a threat to Cocoon, and is subject to adversity by the government's armed forces. The biggest problem with this is the lack of development of the game world itself; the game starts off right in the middle of the action, and attempts to develop the characters, scenario, and game world through flashbacks and discussion among the protagonists. This often falls short in that details needed to contribute background information on the Cocoon way of life, and other characteristics of Cocoon are lost, leaving the player feel lost. Coupled with the fact that there is next to no exploration to be had on Cocoon, there is very little room for development -- the game starts by following a series of events that will leave much to be desired in background information that is completely unattainable. Following a similar flow of action, the antagonists jump into the story just as fast as the action unfolds from the onset, equally as under-developed as the world they live in.

Graphics: The environments are imaginative, design is creative, and CGI is at the highest standard it has ever been.

There are very few noticeable graphical flaws, and the animation is smooth during gameplay, as well as in cut-scenes. My complaints with the environments can be tied to this category loosely at best, fitting better in with the setting problems touched upon previously; there is absolutely nothing wrong with the visual representation of the game world graphically. However, traversing through Cocoon is rather odd when the game jumps from one type of environment to another with almost no discernible transition. I could live with likening Cocoon to some kind of tropical preservation project that simulates a number of very different habitats in sectors, but a similar problem occurs in the second half of the game on Pulse. The switch from environment to environment feels forced, as if the designers were trying to jam in as many totally different vibrant settings into the picture as they could. Once again, not really an issue with the quality of the graphics, but variety does make it a little hard to establish an overall mood or theme.

Gameplay: XIII's strongest point, without any doubt. Some people might disagree, however, longing for elements that have traditionally been present in RPGs, but are almost entirely absent from here.

This game is unique and refreshing where it should matter the most -- the battle system. There is less focus on the individual abilities that each character learns, and more focus on roles that are selected and changed on the fly during battle. This makes for some original and challenging gameplay. Often, you will face a certain type of foe alone as an opportunity to get used to the type of abilities or tactics that foe will use. Shortly afterward, you might be thrust into an overloaded battle featuring 2 of that foe, and 3 of another. This means that even normal battles will require careful use of switching to the right Optima combination at the right time in order to win. Almost all abilities are useful, and de-buff style magic plays a much bigger role in battling to the best of your party's abilities than in previous games. The only thing I found unfortunate about the battle system is that the speed at which battles will play out is a huge factor in which roles the character being controlled can fulfill effectively. Only one character can be controlled by the player, and the quick nature of combat coupled with the fact that only one target can be selected at a time sometimes makes it difficult to perform specific healing or enchanting buff-type magic tasks. These are better left to the AI, to which there are two options: you can either leave these tasks entirely up to the computer controlled characters active in the battle, or you can select a command for the person you are currently controlling which will fill in abilities as the CPU sees sit for one round of moves. The overall challenge of this system will result in dozens of defeats for even the veteran FF or traditional RPG player, but these defeats are not inherently frustrating due to the fact that the game will pick up right before the battle took place. If it was a story related battle, you will be taken to the status menu to refine your optimas, gear,etc.

As far as initiating combat, there are no random battles. Enemies can be avoided to some extent but are often difficult to work around. One thing that bothered me here is that preemptive attacks are frustratingly difficult to pull off -- simply attacking an enemy from the back isn't good enough; you must initiate combat in a way that employs stealth as to not be noticed at all. This is perhaps for the better, though, as preemptive attacks put you in a situation that is extremely advantageous, and will likely result in a quick win.

There is very little freedom as far as exploration goes. The entire first half of the game progresses in probably the most linear fashion ever for a traditional RPG. The game does open up a bit later on and allows for some exploration, but the amount of side quests you can do at that point is still limited to mainly missions which require you to defeat a specific hard monster. Treasure is not too difficult to find, nor is it out of the way. The focus here is definitely not to make this game a sandbox of any kind, but rather to fight strategic battles.

The game is also rather linear in character and equipment progression. There are a lot of roles to master for each character, but the game does a lot to ensure that they are raised at roughly equal levels. There are limitations to how far you can advance roles that are slowly lifted as the story advances. Even if you were to try and save points for when a limitation is lifted rather than advance other roles equally, the cost difference between ability tiers would make doing so of little value. Also, the roles outside of each character's 3 main roles are very expensive to raise, and most likely will be completely untouched till after the game is completed. Equipment is upgraded through a system of using materials on weapons or accessories to empower them and eventually change them into stronger models. Unfortunately the amount of materials that are attained over the course of the game all really have the exact same use towards any item, just at different values. You will likely just use 4 or 5 of the same materials to do all your upgrading, which will come towards the later half of the game; very little upgrading can put to good use early on.

Music: Some very memorable tracks. Enjoyable overall, makes nice use of incorporating the main theme of the game into most of the different music.

Included this time are a few tracks that employ a background vocalist singing Engrish, similar to tracks of the same nature from Persona 3, but much fewer in number. Although the lyrics are almost completely indiscernible, they sound pleasant, and are definitely not overused. There are however, a number of tracks that are overused and end up seeming as if they are filler, when the story advances but a track already used at a few different points during the game is used once again. Throwing in 4 or 5 additional tracks could have helped the end portion of the game quite a bit by adding a little more variety.

End-game thoughts: The designers probably put much of the work they did on this game into the battle system, and having done so, they make sure the focus of the gameplay is exactly there. It works very well, considering the system is totally fresh, fast-paced, and challenging.

This is easily the most difficult Final Fantasy title, surpassing even Final Fantasy III on the Famicom, but it isn't challenging in a frustrating way. Side quests are nil until mostly after completing the game, but for a perfectionist, there is a lot to be done in that area. The main story can be completed in about 40 hours accumulated on the sub-menu clock, though I believe this clock doesn't keep track of your failures, thus pushing that up to 45-50. The missions and strongest monsters available to fight will in the end require mostly maxed-out characters, which would amount to 80-90 hours total, plus probably another few of defeats. The linearity of the first half of the game serves in part as a tutorial to introduce the games systems, which hurts the replay value a little bit, but the challenge increases steeply after that. There is a lot of potential for minimalists who would try to complete the game without strengthening their characters.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/13/10

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

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