Review by mdaen
"Square offers another new approach"
I am a veteran of the Final Fantasy series, having played each of the numbered games from Nintendo on, and a large number of the Final Fantasy affiliated games that weren't in the official series. Having read a number of the reviews posted here, I thought I might be able to shed a little light on XIII and (hopefully) give some insight to anyone on the fence about the purchase.
Before we begin, and before you read any other reviews, I ask you to remember to judge the game based on its own merits, not your expectations or on previous games. Square has worked very hard to make each game unique, and it truly is unfair to compare any one to the other. Personally, I seek out each new game because it is unique, and would have lost interest rather quickly if my play experience did not vary from game to game. That said, let's begin.
Despite the reviews floating out there, I feel this is one of the game's strongest points. The world is indeed linear by comparison to past Final Fantasy games, but only to a point. After all, one who remembers the games well knows that, aside from the occasional mini-game or side-boss, nearly all bonus content came towards the end of the game, after acquiring some means of rapid transportation around the world. Until that point, any of the game's "open ended" exploration ultimately amounted to you being able to visit other towns for equipment, talk to npc's with little or no important input, and find different enemies to engage in combat.
Final Fantasy XIII takes away the illusion that you control how and when the story works by making the world feel realistic. You are fugitives on a time-restricted quest to either fulfill your given duty or revolt and find a way to end the chaos before you mutate into a "Cie'th". Were the world open ended, your characters would frequently be met with hatred by anyone who recognized you, attacked by soldiers and guards, and your time would (or should) eventually run out. The linear nature of the game gives the player the feel that they're pressed for time, hunted, and in need to hurry. Indeed, every aspect of the game helps to build the pressure, right down to the timed battle rating system. Get in, get done, get out; you're running out of time.
Perhaps realizing that the game was linear and many fans would resent that, Square took the time to offer an open world complete with sidequests, extra dialogue and cutscenes, difficult, frantic battles, treasure hunting, and more. Players can take as long as they like to explore this part of the world, do quests, build their characters, and when they're ready, can move forward with the story. And, should the players decide they're ready to return for more roaming and questing, a portal is made available (ala FFVIII) at the entrance to the final dungeon that will return players to this area and allow them to continue their aimless questing. If there were any flaws in the gameplay, surely this is where one would reside, given that this can consume hours, even days of a player's time, which would surely cause our heroes' time to run out. But I digress.
Battles require active use of the "Paradigm Shift" system, which essentially assigns each character 3 base roles, and the option to (eventually) branch into the other three. Players consider their tactics prior to combat by opening their Paradigm Menu and selecting up to 6 combinations of roles for their three party members. Then, in combat, they are able to actively switch between these combinations to assign roles to each party member.
An "auto battle" feature is present that allows players to have the AI select their actions for them in combat. However, the AI does not consider every option, making this tactic prudent only in battles with enemies that pose no challenge. Common changes in status can convince the AI that a particular action is best (for example, an enemy whose magic resistance is lowered will cause the AI to begin casting any spells available) even when a character has a better option available (say, when their strength is significantly higher than their magic, causing more damage overall with a physical attack.)
Overall, gameplay is exciting, fast paced, challenging, and rewarding. Character building could probably use a little more depth, but with 6 roles to choose from for each of 6 characters, enough depth exists even here to allow multiple playthroughs with different approaches.
Anyone who has seen previews, trailers, screenshots, or gameplay videos of FFXIII can tell you the visuals are beautiful. Smooth, convincing combat graphics, lush environments, detailed character design... You name it, it's here. And if the gameplay isn't beautiful enough, the cutscenes take full advantage of each and every tool at the PS3's disposal. Truely, a work of art.
I hear people throwing around the phrase "not memorable" a lot. In my own opinion, the music is subtle, but memorable, much the way you hear a song on the radio when you weren't listening, but later, can't get it out of your head.
Orchestral, often soft or symphonic, the music works well to set the scene no matter where you are. Classic themes, such as the chocobo's signature theme, appear throughout the game, worked into new tunes as seamlessly as they have been in titles past. The absence of the victory fanfare is noticable, but easily forgivable, as we no longer are subjected to an unskippable 15 second victory dance at the end of every battle. Several upbeat, fast-paced, exciting tracks exist throughout the game, most notably during run-ins with PSICOM (the military group after you) and other dangerous forces.
The battle track is addicting, and the music from Gran Pulse slips into one's mind so easily that, after five minutes, you'll find yourself humming along long after you've turned the game off.
Typical to the series, FFXIII brings a fresh and exciting new story to the table. Six people with seemingly no connection get thrown together as a result of an attempted purge of certain citizens from the utopian society "Cocoon." Resisting the purge movement and striving to free a woman named Serah, the group are made "L'Cie", given the power of magic, and bound to the will of the "Fal'Cie" they originally opposed. Now, they face a choice: Destroy Cocoon and all they've ever known, or face an eternity as a mindless, violent mutant, stripped of all will and humanity.
The journey the characters embark on takes them around the world, pits them against enemy military, militarized monsters, clockwork mechanations, feral beasts, massive magical beings, and Fal'Cie of seemingly infinate power, while they struggle with the moral consequences of their choices and are torn in both directions by outside forces. Compelling, intriguing, and daring, the story promises to have players on the edge of their seats right from the start.
Character backgrounds are well done, although the themes may be a tad generic when compared to past series. A serious, cynical soldier; a goofy, upbeat girl with a dark past; a protective older-sister-type warrior; a wise, if battered, old man; a confused but optimistic youth; and a selfless, self-righteous "hero". That said, their pasts are well developed, and introduced slowly over the course of the game, leaving an air of mystery to each character's history.
The game delivers a powerful new approach to the Final Fantasy series. Although seemingly more linear, the lack of freedom is ultimately merely perceptual. With a powerful story, driving gameplay, and an overall experience that lasts upwards of 60 hours before the side-quest content, FFXIII offers any true fan of the series and the RPG genre a new, and enjoyable, experience.
But don't take it from me. Don't bother with the reviews. Pick it up, rent it, borrow it if you must, and form your own opinion.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 03/29/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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