Review by Virtue777
"Praise from a fan who's been with the series since the NES days."
I'll make this brief, then begin the meat of the review. I really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII. Tons of negativity brewed following the Japanese release, due to the supposed lack of towns, exploration, and other Japanese Role Playing Game staples. Perhaps this is why the FF XIII experience caught me off guard; I expected garbage, and received one of the best times I've ever had in a video game. I'll review this game as objectively as possible, but keep in mind that some of the flaws that seemed minor to me, may drag down the experience for you.
Graphics - 9.7/10
Let's get this out of the way: Final Fantasy XIII is absolutely beautiful. There isn't a single area in the game that looks boring or ugly. Even places that one wouldn't expect much of, Square-Enix manages to present a beautiful environment. The character models look just as great, with attention-to-detail given to even minor characters. My only gripe is that the characters' hands look a little blocky. This really stands out, as everything else in the game looks amazing. Even the spell effects within battles look gorgeous, as do the typically terrifying enemies. It's humorous to see traditional Final Fantasy enemies, such as the Tonberry and Cactuar, make their debut in HD. They look great, but definitely stick out like a sore thumb amongst the more realistic looking robots and beasts the protagonists encounter during their journey. The cutscenes are very well done and are far more impressive than anything else I've seen in a game.
Sound/Music - 9.3/10
Final Fantasy XIII bolsters an impressive soundtrack, with most areas having a unique theme. There are a multitude of battle/boss themes, which mitigates wear of the normal battle theme. The entire soundtrack has a bit of a "jazzy" feel to it, which I enjoyed. My only complaint is the generic feel of the different tracks played during the final boss battles. I've always felt that the final boss theme for every game should be the best battle theme that the game offers, and sadly Final Fantasy XIII failed here. Other than that, the entire soundtrack is very good.
The voice acting is pretty good for a video game, but a couple characters sound annoying. Overall both the voice acting and sound effects succeed in delivering the drama, action, and comedy present within Final Fantasy XIII.
Story - 9.6/10
The story is presented well, and I personally liked it. Without spoiling anything more than what can be found on the back of the box, the team must decide whether they want to save mankind, or themselves. All of the characters are developed very well, and by the end of the game, I was very attached to all of them. They're crazy enough to be the protagonists of a Japanese Role Playing Game, but realistic enough for the player to identify with. Some will probably be turned off by Snow's "I'm the hero!" attitude, and Hope's "emo" demeanor. Personally, I wasn't bothered by it. I'd rather have a few cliche characters than an ensemble of boring, but realistic, characters. My only issue is the lack of care given to the development of the antagonists. Even by the end of the game, little is known about them other than their reasoning for opposing the heroes.
Gameplay - 9.4/10
If you've been following Final Fantasy XIII at all, you know that the general complaint is that the game is very focused on cutscenes and battles. This is true; the first half of the game severely limits the player in terms of exploration. But when the cutscenes are so entertaining, and the battle system is so fun, what is the problem with that? FF XIII cut out a lot of the "fat" from the JRPG formula, and avoided obnoxious errors typically made by designers such as: fetch quests, level grinding, and mazes filled with random encounters that make the player go insane from boredom.
Let me start off by explaining why the battle system is so great. First off, it's VERY fast. Faster than any other turn-based game on the market. In fact, I think it may be inaccurate to call the game the game turn-based. The Active Time Battle system is back, in a much different form. Inputting commands costs ATB blocks, which fill up quickly. Some commands cost one block, some cost two, and some cost even more than that. You only control one character while fighting; the others are controlled by the AI. Either way, you're almost always doing something while fighting in Final Fantasy XIII. You not only need fast reflexes to succeed in Final Fantasy XIII, but tactical capability, which takes us to the Paradigm System.
The Paradigm System is unlike any other battle system out there. To put it simply, every character has access to certain Roles. Roles are like Jobs, or Classes, from other RPGs. There's the Commando, which is your melee attacker. The Ravager, which casts powerful spells. The Sentinel, which fashions as a tank and protects the team from harm. The Medic heals the team's wounds and cures status ailments. Saboteur's enfeeble the enemy, making them more susceptible to attacks and spells. And finally, Synergists boost the party's status, increasing damage, defense, and even providing protection against certain elemental attacks. Characters can "Paradigm Shift" and change roles according to the Paradigm decks created by the player. This adds a whole new dimension to combat, and switching Paradigms is essentially for beating even run-of-the-mill foes. When the battle begins, sometimes it's best to go all out with damage, using a Commando and perhaps two Ravagers blasting the opponents with attacks and spells. Or it may be to your benefit to have your Saboteur and Synergist turn the tide of battle with their enhancement and enfeebling spells before beginning the onslaught. If you're getting beat down, you may have to switch to a Paradigm that offers a Medic and a Sentinel in order to recover.
Finally, one last element of Final Fantasy XIII's combat is the Stagger system. Enemies have a Stagger bar, which rises as the characters chain together attacks. Chain enough attacks to fill the bar to the top, and the enemy will become staggered, leaving them wide open to devastating attacks.
Combining all these elements in one battle system sounds complicated, and it is at first. Luckily the game provides an Auto-Battle command. Selecting Auto-Battle will choose all the actions for your character, but only for that particular chain of attacks. Then you either need to select Auto-Battle again, or select your own abilities. The real challenge in Final Fantasy XIII comes from knowing when to switch Paradigms, and realizing the time to play either defensively or offensively. Even fighting normal enemies requires strategy most of the time.
Enemies are actually visible this time around; no random battles to be found in FF XIII. Touching an enemy will initiate a battle with it and any surrounding enemies; touching an enemy without it noticing you will give you a Preemptive Strike, which fills up the enemies Stagger bars to just below full. Defeating enemies rewards the player with Crystal Points, which fashion as experience points for leveling up the various job roles in what is called the Crystarium. The Crystarium is very similar to the sphere grid of Final Fantasy X. Using Crystal Points you progress through each character's individual Crystarium and develop abilities for certain roles. It seems complicated, but it's actually quite simple compared to the Sphere Grid. The game provides a much higher challenge than any other Final Fantasy, and even caps your level depending on the chapter you are on. Reaching the level cap for the chapter is somewhat difficult to do, but is definitely possible if the player finds him or herself struggling with a boss. Towards the end of the game, the level cap becomes very difficult to reach, giving the player the opportunity to level up in order to reduce the challenge.
One thing to note is that the game can be very difficult at times. I managed to complete it with only a dozen or so game overs, but I spent quite a bit of time fighting enemies and am quite seasoned with both RPGs and action games. On the bright side, being decimated by a powerful boss or group of enemies has no more punishment than wasted time within the battle. Falling in battle allows you to retry the fight, spawning you just a few yards away from where you died, giving you the opportunity to run away or restrategize. If the character you're controlling, known as the party leader, falls in battle, it's game over. This can be somewhat frustrating, as enemies in the final dungeon are not afraid to cast Death on the player, which has a chance to instantly kill whatever it targets.
Now on to the negative: there's very little exploration until the halfway point of the game. You're pretty much stuck on one path, with a few little nooks jutting out the side, fighting battle after battle and watching cutscene after cutscene. For me, I enjoyed this aspect, as the battles are quite fun and the cutscenes very well done. The story is fast paced, with the heroes almost constantly on the run, and so the linear design of the game accompanies the story perfectly. Halfway through the game, the characters are not as much in a rush, and so it makes sense that the world opens up significantly. At this point, there are more than 60 side missions to complete, among other various activities.
Conclusion - 9.5/10
Overall I was very impressed by Final Fantasy XIII. Having completed it after clocking in 47 hours, I now plan to finish the side quests and obtain some of those trophies. I own every main Final Fantasy installment, and in my eyes Final Fantasy XIII stands out as one of the best.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 03/15/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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