Review by Menji

"The Fantasy is Never Final"

Only four minutes into Final Fantasy XIII and I knew I was in for something special. XIII doesn't just build on previous installments, it recreates the series. Coming next in the series with a history of classics, XIII has two major responsibilities to live up to: creating a great story, one that is better than XII's and being the first Fantasy on a new console. The first Final Fantasy games on the Playstation and Playstation 2 (VII and X) were both amazing - naturally there is a lot of pressure on XIII to continue the tradition, and of course it does.

The first thing you will notice are the astonishing visuals, both in-game and during the cinematic cutscenes. You get to the point where you don't even notice when they switch. Not saying that they are so close, don't be silly now. It's the transitions between the two that do it – they are flawless. Unlike X where you got pretty visuals and were not allowed to look around, XIII continues what XII started with a free moving camera. There are certain locations, namely when you're in the sky or in a lush jungle that you will really appreciate the detail. Think of the world from Avatar. Only, you went a little too far but you get the idea. Unfortunately Square decided to get lazy thinking no one would notice the little things if they through in amazing visuals. Have you ever noticed invisible walls in a game? Ground that you should be able to walk on because there is nothing in the way but for some reason you can't? Maybe you remember this from Dirge of Cerberus. Unfortunately, XIII suffers from this at times. Nothing too bad but you will notice it.

One of the few travesties of XII was the lackluster story. I can't even recall what the whole point of the game was and I loved the game. XIII brings the series back to its golden age of storytelling. Only a couple hours into the game and it already passes XII's story and has the potential for greatness. It gives you a plausible reason why a bunch of strangers decided to team up and save the world. Not only that, but they are all faced with an unsolvable deadly problem.

A common theme seen in most of the Final Fantasy games is that the group of characters will either be amazing or terrible. The natural tendency is that the better games have a higher good-to-bad ratio. Thankfully, XIII possesses a cast of remarkable characters. There was only one character I didn't like early on. However, with time he definitely grew on me. A few of the other party members started off decent and then became amazing. The game incorporates incredible character development for each character. Much of the game's first ten hours are spent in groups of two as while your party decides what to do. The player gets to witness and participate in many pairings that give plenty of depth to the characters. Of every Final Fantasy I have played – namely all of them and Lightning has become my favorite lead. Sazh has also cracked the top 20.

The Final Fantasy series from IV through X was filled with an impressive soundtrack. XII fell apart in this category, so again XIII needed to more than make this up. Prior to the release, I listened to the entire soundtrack and was disappointed again. Not a single track stood out as this game's “To Zanarkand” or “One-Winged Angel” both classics from X and VII. But something changed as I played through XIIII, each and every song was great, I couldn't understand what had happened. I realized that while XIII may not have any top outstanding songs, the soundtrack is still great. The reason being is that every song is good. They're not great, just good. It's the perfect placement in every setting that perfects it to being one of the best soundtracks in gaming.

Square Enix seems to staying away from taking turns in battle in any future Final Fantasy. XIII builds off of what XII did with a few changes. You can't run around but the game does a great job of keeping the movements realistic except for the occasional floating in air while you juggle an opponent. You only control one character, and it's chosen for you for the first half of the game. If your lead character dies, that's it, the game is over. You don't get to wait for your partners to revive you. Fear not, as Square Enix must think this is our first time playing a game and allows you the option of retrying or loading your last save. Retrying puts you just before the battle you lost. There are options to have some control over the others that really make the game shine. Enter Paradigm Shifts. There are a multitude of jobs a character can be: commando, ravager, medic, saboteur, synergist, and sentinel. Essentially, Square went back to the classic roots of the Final Fantasy job system. Prior to a battle you can assign six different varieties of those six roles in your party. Throughout battle, you will be making Paradigm Shifts, quite often depending on the situation. If you need to heal; a medic, synergist and sentinel can be useful. The sentinel can attract all enemies by use of provoke and then use the sentinel's outstanding defense to withstand all blows. The synergist can cast status boosters like haste and protect while the medic heals everyone. Combinations like this take some thought and each and every role has its strengths and weaknesses. If you think one is useless like I once didn't, you couldn't be more wrong.

The battle thought process changed some too. If you think you can plow through enemies by using three commandos, think again. There is a chain gauge for each enemy that fills up to a stagger point. Without reaching this point, you will spend over fifteen minutes in a fight destroying your controller. With proper tactics, you can reach the stagger point quickly and dispose of most enemies within three minutes. To increase the chain gauge, you must use ravagers – essentially mages. A character that uses that class can increase the chain gauge quickly but it will fall fast unless a commando is there to slow it down. The biggest offensive threat you possess is a commando and two ravagers. Every job's command screen is the same. You can use techniques you have acquired which cost technique points. Your technique gauge refills slightly after battle depending on how you did. Techniques range from Libra to Eidolons. In XIII, Eidolons fight with you similar to how they did in XII. Any other attack is done through an active time bar. Using any move causes a certain section of your bar to reset depending on how strong it is. Items, like potions do not cost any bit of your gauge. You have two options for attacking, you can either manually input the abilities you want to use all while keeping in mind an enemies weakness and strengths or you can choose auto-battle. Auto-battle uses whatever knowledge you have acquired - usually from using Libra to find out an enemies' weakness and then using the most effective attack. Everything is done in an active setting; there is no waiting around allowed to figure out which move or item to use. Even shifting Paradigms doesn't stop the action. Luckily, the shift is almost instantaneous but you still need to keep your mind sharp.

As I said earlier, XIII has really separated itself from the rest of the series. The traditional prelude and battle fanfare are missing, replaced with a new ones. Random battles do not happen. All enemies are shown on screen and only when you run into them are you transported to the battle screen. Unlike the long transition periods of the other games, this is done swiftly. If you can sneak up behind an enemy, you will gain a pre-emptive advantage and all the enemies will be at the stagger point at the start of battle. There is no level up system, what exists instead is a simpler version of X's sphere grid: the crystarium. Points are obtained after battle and then you move along a somewhat linear path to gain stats bonuses and abilities. Unlike the sphere grid, there is no penalty for moving backwards. However, each job (commando, medic, etc) has their own grid and the abilities and stat bonuses are only good when that class is equipped. It may not be as complicated as X's, but it's far friendlier. The characters only start with three of the six classes so there is still some variety and it works out for the best. Thankfully, everyone gains the same amount of points even if they are not in the party at the time of battle. All points accumulate.

There are a few things to note. The game is incredibly linear at least for the first half. There aren't many towns, or shops for that matter. There are more save points than you will know what to do with. At these save points you can purchase items and upgrade your weapons and accessories – more on this soon. Accessing a save point does not heal your party. You are completely healed after a battle. The reason being is that abilities do not require magic points. All that is spent is your active time gauge that refills all the time. There would be no point of having to manually heal your party after battle if it doesn't cost anything. As for the linearity, it's essentially like X. Sure there are twists and turns, but there is only one way to get from point A to point B. The game also follows a set system of where to place chests. You will know exactly where a chest will be after the first hour or two. Luckily they aren't random this time around. Besides being similar to X's linearity, you are also going to get gameplay similar to the later Metal Gear Solid games.

A bit of running and fighting and then a short cutscene.
Some more running and then another cutscene.

Fortunately this is all kept to a reasonable time limit and is very easy to get used to. Plus the cutscenes are pretty as hell.

Weapons and accessories are a bit different from the norm. Again, XIII borrows from X's style. Only one weapon and few accessories are available for a character. You can upgrade both at save points by using components you acquire from enemies. Some components give more experience than others and some give bonuses. The great thing about this is that almost all the weapons are the same despite having different bonuses. You can finally choose the one that looks the best and just level that one up throughout the game.

Lastly, the menu is tremendous. The color combination that was used makes it very easy to navigate. There is a datalog that tracks just about everything and is updated constantly giving you more info you can read at your leisure. One of my favorite things to do is to go to a party member's page and their picture will move for a second and then freeze. It's really neat.

I love this game. XIII is definitely one of my favorite RPGs and in the top tier of Final Fantasy games. The characters are fun, the visuals are superb, the soundtrack is perfect for the game, and the battle system rocks. The linearity aspect takes some getting used to after playing in XII's wide open world but you will get used to it even if it's not your thing. I can't recommend this game any more than that. Being linear is a major killer for some gamers, but trust me – don't let that turn you away. Final Fantasy XIII is the killer game we have all been waiting for.


Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 03/16/10

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

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