Review by Kotetsu534

"An intense, interesting experience that lacks the charm and flair of Final Fantasy at its finest."

The Final Fantasy series has a long history of high budget, high hype releases. Final Fantasy XIII, having spent well over four years in development, is no different. It's brought with it its fair share of surprises and changes, as most previous entries have done. The most startling aspect of Final Fantasy XIII is no individual element of battling or plot, but its streamlined and slick nature. Final Fantasy was synonymous with steady paced adventure; even in the more recent numbered entries, there's no shortage of design aspects ready to divert one's attention and slow one's advancement through the main narrative. With Final Fantasy XIII though, everything's geared towards progress.

And progress is a good place to begin more in depth discussion, because for the first few hours there's little to nothing present to do but progress. Battles are extremely simplistic for several hours, there's few to no NPCs to talk to, no buildings to explore; just a road to head down. That's not unusual at the beginning of a mammoth Final Fantasy, perhaps, but what is surprising is that it's a long while before even the basic customisation options are opened up. Great care is taken, for example, to make sure that the player understands exactly what the Crystarium is, what Paradigm Shifts are and why they are necessary. At the time of introduction these systems seem unnecessary given the previously easy advancement, but rest assured that that is not the case.

That assurance is given because Final Fantasy XIII is easily the most intense and difficult main entry to the series in the 3D era. Even an average group of enemies can lay waste to one's leader - for it's only the player controlled character who needs to fall in order to see the game over sequence play - if a small error should be made. A switch to the wrong paradigm, or, perhaps more frustratingly, the lack of a useful paradigm in one's 'deck' for the purpose, is often the cause of such defeat. Yet, unlike in the standard Final Fantasy game, where defeats are rare and set one back to wherever they last saved, usually after some choice curses and a sandwich break, in Final Fantasy XIII the player simply clicks retry and appears before the encounter able to alter set-ups or retreat for the time being. It's a big factor in the streamlined style of the game - defeat is intended, and expected to be pushed past.

If the intensity of this title is still in doubt, one need only look to the flow of combat itself for confirmation. With two or three party members and multiple enemies taking action simultaneously, and then all acting again within seconds, it becomes clear that the apparent restriction on player control - the ability to only control directly their leader's actions - is in fact completely necessary. While at first the idea of using an "auto-battle" command to instruct the game to choose a series of actions appropriate for the situation with any frequency may seem anathema, it will long have become natural by the time the game enters its latter stages. The player's concern is not with whether to heal a status effect or to continue attacking - as it might have been the case in Final Fantasy X - but what abilities the combatants should have access to at that time at all.

That's right; there's job classes in Final Fantasy XIII, six to be exact. Commando, Ravager, Synergist, Saboteur, Sentinel and Medic are their names. The unique aspect of these classes isn't their contents, but that in order to be activated in battle a paradigm must be in place containing them. A paradigm contains a class for every member, but the key point is that there are a limited number of paradigms that can be placed in a 'deck' accessible during combat. This means that if there's no paradigm with, for example, a Medic and a Commando, it may prove difficult to hold the chain gauge steady. The system of paradigm shifting is a huge part of why battles in Final Fantasy XIII are most often decided by general flow and momentum than by individual strategic inputs. The task of the player is to decide when it's time to go on a Relentless Assault, when to take a more measured approach, or when to pull out the sneaky approach of summoning an Eidolon, at the cost of a significant number of Technical Points after which the whole party will return fully healed.

The aforementioned chain gauge often weighs on when paradigm changes may prove necessary. Each enemy has an individual gauge that rises when attacked, and when it's filled the enemy enters a Staggered state. In this form they receive much more damage than they would normally, and most can even be launched into the air to prevent them from moving. While an interesting concept, it's one that will be seen so often before during any significant period of play that it loses its lustre.

What hurts Final Fantasy XIII most, though, is less the lack of variety in solutions to combat, but the lack of variety in game content altogether. In previous Final Fantasy entries, the scope of the game was invariably its most breathtaking aspect. Wandering towns talking to their inhabitants, playing mini-games or pursuing sidequests have all been staples of 3D-era Final Fantasy titles. Expect none of that here. It's possible to buy items, weapons and accessories from save points, but gil - the currency - is so hard to come by for most of the game that it's rarely worthwhile. In effect, moving along the map to the next battle or watching a scene is all one will be doing for most of the game, besides accessing the field menu.

A major aspect of the highly polished field menu is the Crystarium, which is used to upgrade the party. After battles one earns Crystarium Points, which allow a character to move on it, gaining stat boosts and abilities as they do so. Anyone familiar with Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid will not find it difficult to see where its inspiration came from, but there are a couple of important differences. In Final Fantasy XIII all characters gain CP at an equal rate, whether they were involved in combat or not. This is important because for the first half or so of the main game it is impossible to choose one's own party; the scenarios and playable characters will be determined by the game. It means that when a segment involving, for example, Lightning and Hope, is complete, the player will have a heap of CP to distribute to Sazh and Vanille when the focus turns to them; any extra time spent acquiring CP is not wasted. The other crucial difference is that the Crystarium opens up in segments throughout the game - effectively a cap on possible strength at a given point. It's also divided up into separate discrete parts for each class, with different characters finding it easier to level and excel in their 'main' classes than others. So Snow will prove to be a better Sentinel than Hope, because he has access to more of the class' techniques and vastly more HP. The system works well.

What seems less effective is the development of the cast through the plot. Without going into specifics, not enough effort is made to endear the case to the player. Melodramatic scenes can be extremely powerful when used sparingly and appropriately, as they are in other series entries, but here they are hugely overused, without sensible reason. They do much to damage a cast that individually could have been endearing, and a plot that on paper looks strong. One of the better aspects of Final Fantasy XIII's storytelling is the splitting up of the the protagonists into smaller groups so their struggles can be focused on, but it is a pity that the writers never saw fit to have more than one narrator. The details of exactly what will happen, and has happened, to the leads are deliberately revealed only as things progress. A final point to be noted is that there are significantly fewer subplots in Final Fantasy XIII than there are in most other 3D installments, so if the main plot doesn't strike a cord with the player, there's little left to be engaged by. It's another example of Final Fantasy XIII's streamlined approach.

A clear drawback to this restricted style is that it makes it much tougher to care about the fictional world - Cocoon - the game is focused on. Final Fantasy XIII does not show, outside of a few flashbacks, much whatsoever of the lives of the Cocoonians. Contrast this with Final Fantasy X, which Final Fantasy XIII is often erroneously alikened to, where many hours are spent introducing and familiarising the world and people of Spira. Not so here; there's precious little dialogue to be had outside of the main cast and a couple of their relatives. Since the protagonists travel as fugitives, it's probable that this was an intended effect - the protagonists have no good reason to be interacting much with their people. Yet, it creates an atmosphere that has more in common with a dungeon crawler than a standard fantasy adventure, which will prove jarring for some.

For all that Final Fantasy XIII is its own game with its own ideas, delivering an experience very much unique among the main line of Final Fantasy games, it knows its history. The opening sequence begins on a train, its whereabouts or purpose unknown, an unruffled ex-soldier dealing acrobatic humiliation to its guards, then interaction between a ruffled black man and said ex-soldier. They travel a highway, the player not knowing anything but the bare details of their purpose, and the stoic warrior seems completely calm, while the companion is desperate for information. Then the highway partly collapses. If it was not for the fact that the reserved, distant warrior was female, one could reasonably assume they were watching Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X open as one. The nods to previous entries do not stop there; one of the most imposing images of Final Fantasy XIII involves an object sitting ominously on high, easily visible, just as Meteor once did. The key difference is that the highest quality CG visuals available today eclipse those of 1997.

And what visuals they are. The highlights are areas awash with colour or with vast canyons or landscapes, where the effects and draw distance can really shine. The monster and character models are impressive too, but not to the same degree. Some of the CGI sequences are truly astounding feasts of colour and effects. It's a pity that the areas so vividly detailed are not effectively knitted together into a larger world. Mostly, the music is of the atmospheric variety, doing its work in an understated manner. It's a matter of taste whether one prefers this style of Hamauzu's to Uematsu's.

The background music, not short in vocals, plays a role in the creating the stylised and futuristic tone of the game. While the standard battle theme is a standard strings and drums affair, many other tracks have a hint of techno about them, familiar to Hamauzu's input to the Final Fantasy X soundtrack. Other motifs include treasure chests being replaced by floating spheres, items and equipment being bought from a computer display at save points, and Eidolons featuring the ability to transform into motorbikes. Guns and machines are very prominent, too.

Final Fantasy XIII is not one for the traditionalist, nor is it Square's magnum opus, but it is an intense and interesting title. While it will not come to represent to this era of video games what Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X did to theirs, it will be fondly remembered and appreciated by many.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/29/10, Updated 03/30/10

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

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