Review by UltraViol3nt
Review From A Skeptic
I know there are a lot of reviews out there, but I haven't yet seen one coming from someone who was expecting something atrocious and discovered something quite good. I went into this game just absolutely hating the idea of everything I read, with basically zero confidence that I would like it. Well, I was dead wrong.
I've always believed that the traditional approach to Final Fantasy was the way to go. I like having random encounters (this alone made me dislike FFXII), a lot of NPC (Non-Player Character) interaction, exploration, and of course an endgame side-boss that required ridiculous grinding to overcome (Emerald Weapon, Nemesis, etc.). None of this will you find in FFXIII, and though it sounds like a grievous mistake on paper, Square Enix has managed to pull it off. While part of me still misses the aforementioned lacking content, what FFXIII does correctly it does extraordinarily well.
A bit of history on me - I've been playing the series since the original came out on the NES. I've played most of the games through at least twice, and I'm one of those people who likes to max out everything at the end of the game, so I've put in more than my fair share of hours. There are only two games in the series that I haven't finished (X-2 and XII), and only one that I truly disliked (XII).
So let's check out the plot.
There have been a lot of complaints about the story in this game. This is understandable, though I think it is the result of something else, because to be honest, all the FF games have plot holes and things that don't make sense, so it should be expected and tolerated by now, though there is always room for improvement. For those who are unfamiliar, the story's setting is initially a place called Cocoon, which is a massive structure built by what are basically the gods of the planet, called Fal'Cie. It's inhabitants are humans numbering in the tens of millions. The world outside of Cocoon is called Gran Pulse, which is a fierce environment and the reason that Cocoon was built. Everyone on Cocoon has an extreme fear of Gran Pulse and the Fal'Cie living there, and the government of Cocoon is hell bent on maintaining the sanctity of their home by forcing those exposed to any element of Gran Pulse out of Cocoon.
Fal'Cie can create L'Cie, which are humans who have been chosen by the Fal'Cie to fulfill a task, called a "focus," for them. They are given special powers, but upon fulfilling their focus they become crystals for eternity. Bit of a tradeoff there. Anyway, some things transpire which I won't spoil for you, but your party all become L'Cie and in typical FF fashion, take it upon themselves to save the world (Cocoon) from destruction.
I will have to say that there are definitely problems with the story, the most severe of which is the voice acting. I will never understand how such painstaking work is done in a game of this caliber, only to have poor acting spoil the experience. It's been like this ever since they added voice acting in FFX, and it's pretty ridiculous. One of the characters, Vanille, has some of the worst dialogue and voice acting I've ever heard. Every time she speaks it's almost like the infamous laughing scene from FFX. If you have any taste, it will make you cringe. Perhaps this is something else I preferred with the older FF games - having text to read may seem unacceptable now, but it allowed you to interpret the dialogue in your own way, and to imagine what you think the characters might sound like. I know there is no going back to that, but it would be nice to at least get some good actors.
Those factors aside, the story is very solid and parts of it are very moving. The villain is rather uninspired but it certainly doesn't spoil the plot, as it is primarily character-driven and focuses heavily on their individual stories.
The graphics are beautiful, and framerate drops are rare. They've managed some incredible draw distances that make the environments seem truly enormous and realistic. Undoubtedly top-notch, as you would expect from SE.
I'm docking points for the atrocious voice acting. I know it seems like I'm stressing that but let not your heart be troubled, because it's not all bad. But what IS bad is extraordinarily bad. The sound effects are pretty standard, but I did enjoy the music quite a bit. It doesn't compare with Uematsu's work but it is certainly not second-rate.
Now this is the real meat and potatoes of this game, though many will make you believe that it plays itself (which I totally believed when people said it), I personally believe this installment makes you strategize more than any other. You will find yourself dying often if you become absent-minded. You really need to pay attention to what's going on. What really surprised me is that on a couple occassions I fought something that I thought there was no way I could beat without some grinding, only to discover that a different strategy allowed me to do it with relative ease.
The system is incredibly innovative. I initially hated the idea of only controlling one character, but the battles unfold at such a fast pace that controlling more than one would be impossible. In truth though, you pretty much DO control the other characters, though there are problems.
Controlling the other characters is acheived via Paradigms, which allow you to switch between character roles and abilities on the fly. It's incredibly customizable, and I was creating new paradigms throughout the entire game, usually just using basic combinations. You have the Ravager role, which is offensive and magic based. Sentinel boosts your defense and allows you to take the hits for the party. The Synergist role allows you to improve your party's capabilities, while the Saboteur role reduces the enemy's. Two other roles exist, Commando and Medic, both self-explanatory.
Using a correct combination of paradigms is essential for success. Each character role provides a bonus, mostly to the individual character but each role gives the party a bonus. Utilizing these bonuses can make the difference between success and failure. Use a Ravager heavy party and you'll able to build up an enemy's chain gauge very quickly. The gauge fills up when damage is inflicted, and when it is full the enemy gets staggered, and subsequent attacks cause extra damage. When the enemy is staggered, you can switch to a Commando heavy paradigm and utilize it's bonus, which causes the enemy to stay staggered for a longer time.
Each character has a role to which they are naturally inclined, but three primary roles are assigned. You can later unlock more, but for most of the game each character will fulfill some particular use, and you will have to use each character because much of the game has branching stories where you only play two characters at a time. I think this was a smart design decision, because two people necessitates more paradigm switching in battle, which takes some time to get down pat. Once you get a regular three party team later in the game, the enemies are balanced quite well to keep the challenge consistent.
All of these things work together beautifully. The only issue I have with it is that sometimes the other characters will not cast appropriate spells, but I never found this to be a significant problem. It actually kind of adds to the strategy a bit because if there things that absolutely have to be done in the battle and the AI is not doing it, then you'll have too assume the role yourself while the AI takes on more simple tasks. This simple adjustment made the difference for me in several battles, but usually the AI casts what it's supposed to cast, because you've taken the time to make a paradigm combination beforehand and you know what abilities that character has available. I really thought that this would be the one thing that would break the game for me, but it's simply brilliant.
The upgrade system is a problem, but this is more due to the game not explaining it to you well enough. I would suggest reading a FAQ about it before you begin the game, because I ended up wasting a lot of gil (which is very scarce in this game) upgrading my weapons and accessories. The system looks far more complicated than it is, and simply pales in comparison to say, the upgrade system from FFVIII. I don't mind the simplicity of it, but I'd definitely have to say that I prefer just purchasing weapons as a whole or finding them in-game. You may find weapons littered here and there, but most of the time you'll just use the one you already have because new weapons require a serious gil investment, and as I've mentioned gil is quite scarce, and solid locations to grind for it are few and far between
This does present a significant shortcoming. The developers took great pains to ensure that grinding is never truly necessary until you decide to take on the game's more difficult but optional challenges, likely due to the complaints of all the grinding in FFXII. But instead of balancing the grinding, they chose to remove it almost completely from the regular game. Something gets lost here. In past installments you could always grind a bit if you were having trouble somewhere or simply if you wanted to be able to decimate your enemies for your own amusement. In this game they force you to fight the enemies on their terms instead of yours, and so a fair amount of freedom is lost.
Tied into this shortcoming are the lack of things to do outside of the linear path you're being guided along. There are a stunning lack of sidequests to complete; there are monster hunting missions that open up near the end of the game, but it feels like too little too late. I'm still going to enjoy the postgame grinding and missions, but I know it's not going to live up to playing hours and hours of blitzball to get Wakka's ultimate weapon, or breeding chocobos to get Knights of the Round. I would really like some more creativity on this in future entries. The linearity of this game is just a bit much, especially when compared to previous games.
Still, despite these seemingly huge downfalls and as underwhelming as it may seem on paper, FFXIII is still a very solid game because what is done well is done extremely well, and that makes up for what is lacking. I personally believe this game had the potential to be the best in the series, if only they'd had better voice acting and less linearity.
Anyway, hopefully this review will be helpful to those who are listening to all the people hating on this game. Give it a chance like I did, and you should be pleasantly surprised.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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