Review by lilithdarkstorm

"Looks like an ocean, but it's actually a paddling pool"

It's quite amazing how 2 simple words, ‘Final' and ‘Fantasy', when put together, can command all gamers to the internet or the closest game store to buy the latest title in the epic RPG line. Since the late 80s Final Fantasy has been Square's core RPG series, and their money maker, however it wasn't until the 7th installment to the series (released in 1997) that the series demanded attention from millions of fans from around the world. I joined the band wagon from the 8th entry; I loved VIII – X, enjoyed X-2 and Crystal Chronicles, but disliked XII. So what is XIII like?

XIII is set in the world of Cocoon, where humans are watched over by Fal'Cie, powerful machine-like beings with extraordinary powers. Below Cocoon there's the world of Gran Pulse, known as hell by Cocoon's inhabitants and also governed by their own Fal'Cies, the 2 worlds have been at war in the past and do not co-exist with one another. When Fal'Cie come into contact with humans, they become L'Cie; humans with powers of destruction and get given a ‘Focus', also known as a task to complete. If they complete it they're given eternal live as crystal, if they fail they become C'ieth (zombies, living eternally in their own failure). The story takes place 13 days after Serah becomes a L'Cie for a Gran Pulse Fal'Cie and sends the world of Cocoon into panic. This brings together Lightning (Serah's sister), Snow (her fiance) and other companions into the middle of a conflict that's set to change both worlds forever.

The story has the right ingredients of a grand adventure and it could've been an emotional and wonderful tale, but somewhere along the line Square Enix forgot to sell it to us.
Let's start with the good; there's plenty of elements here that are I haven't seen in previous Final Fantasy's I've played. For example the ‘bad guy' of the story is not all ‘I'm going to destroy the world because I'm evil bwahahaha!', there's plenty of story twists that questions whether our heroes are doing is the right thing, are they saving the world or should they leave it as it is? The decision isn't all black and white and I quite liked that part of the story. The first 20 or so hours are, for me, the best part of the story telling. Unlike previous Final Fantasy's, XIII doesn't gather the cast all together and make them stay that way, the cast all go their separate ways and get given time to develop as characters before the story kicks into gear. We get shown, in great detailed cut scenes, how the characters got to where they are now and how they're motivated, and they're all for different reasons. Sazh is out to save his son, Lightning for her sister, Hope's seeking revenge for his mother, and more. We get to know these characters as people first, and heroes second. Sadly after 20 hours this isn't kept up, but I did feel more connected to the cast then most RPG's I've played.

Where the story falls apart is in the deliverance of the exposition. From the very start of the game the characters will throw words out like L'Cie, Pulse, PSI COM, and of course, being new to the world, you won't know what they all mean. But because there's no character who's new to the scenery to question it all and the game doesn't stop to breathe and explain what's going on, you'll be completely confused. Overtime it does sink in but you never get to the point where you feel you're part of the story and your opinion matters on what's going on. However, the game kindly provides you a ‘catalog', also known as an encyclopaedia to the world of Pulse and Cocoon, everything you'll need to know about the world, characters, plot, phrases used and monsters will be in there. Why is that a bad thing? Because, to use Zero Punctuation's example, you don't consider it normal to walk into a cinema and get given a glossy to the film you're about to watch. It's not right that the game's lack of proper storytelling should be forgiven because you have an entire sub-menu devoted to filling in the blanks. You'll find plenty of information in the catalog that you won't get from cut scene themselves, and unfortunately, because the storytelling goes downhill from chapter 11, you'll need to sit there and read for a good half an hour or so just to feel like you're keeping up with the characters you're controlling. Sure, you could play without reading and marginally follow it, but you will be scratching your head at character's decisions and especially at the ending.

The lack of emotional involvement with the story is also carried over to other parts of the game as well; in past Final Fantasy's you're given 1 world to explore, and you really do cover the whole planet. You see their towns, caves, forests, dungeons, people, animals and more; you can't diss previous FF games for excluding you from becoming part of the world. In FFXIII's case, you can. You're given 2 worlds to roam in FFXIII, yet you're only shown a smidgen of each. This is mostly due to the linearity of the game but it's more than that. For example in X they have their own language (Al Bhed) and you get the opportunity to learn and understand it. In XIII Cocoon and Pulse both have their own alphabet system, you see it on shop logos and writings on town walls, do we get a chance to learn it? No. We're left in the dark. Pulse is meant to the this huge vast world with one level being this huge field that stretches as far as the eye could see, you can literally spot the gigantic mountains and waterfalls in the background, but you can't reach any of it. I felt like I was strapped to a train that was just passing through both worlds, not giving me a chance to reach out and touch it myself. The bottom line is that the game tries to sell itself as a huge ocean, but we only get to play in the shallow end.

I'll go into more detail about the linearity of the game; all RPGs are linear to some extent. Most players forgot that as they play this but all RPGs have a story to tell, and as a result they require the player to get from point A to point B. Few games do break this mould slightly (Star Ocean: The Second Story is a wonderful example) but at the end of the day, linearity is a part of all RPGs. The reason why FFXIII is getting criticised for it though, is because it takes away the one thing that breaks the linear game play long enough to trick the player into thinking it's not linear; towns. There are no towns in FFXIII, at all, you shop for your items from a save point (which there's plenty of) and that's it. Towns are more than just a place to buy items, they grant the player to stretch their legs, take a breather to talk to people they don't care about and maybe do a side quest here and there, because it breaks up the pacing of the game. Take those away and what FFXIII suffers from is one huge dungeon crawl. You go from one catastrophe to another, with no means of wondering off the one-way path, so players will feel trapped. However, the reason Square done this is because the characters are on the run throughout the game and therefore it wouldn't fit right that they suddenly go into town and talk to the locals. I get that, I really do, but Square Enix should've found other ways to break the pacing because it gets to the point where the linear game play can only be saved by the player if they happen to love and be completely involved in the plot, because as soon as you've lost interest in the story, the whole game falls apart.

Finally, the restriction flows into the side quests of the game, which are nearly completely reserved until the end of the game. Apart from some hidden treasure and gathering pieces to fix a mechanical dog in chapter 11 (don't ask), the only side quests available to the player are the Chocobo treasure hunting and marks quest. The Marks quest is similar to the huge Hunting side quest in Final Fantasy XII, you find a particular magical stone that gives you the task of killing a monster, kill it and you are rewarded. The quest can easily last over 10 hours but can become repetitive as some marks are the same but in a different parts of the world, and a good 80% of them are only available at the end of the game, therefore it's a huge task to take on at one go rather than spread out like it was in XII. Chocobo treasure hunting is simplistic, you ride a chocobo, wander the field until an explanation mark hangs above its head and then dig. The prizes for the effort are worth it but you'll need to perform a few mark quests to access them. Considering you have 2 worlds to roam in I was very surprised with the lack of variety to the side quests. Normally Final Fantasy and other RPGs have at least 4 types of side tasks on the go, so that if the player doesn't like one they can go for the other. On the whole its disappointing and kind of draining overall considering the amount of the travelling they both involve. One thing to mention is that this is the first Final Fantasy I've played that encourages the player to leave the extra content until AFTER you beat the final boss, rather than wrapping it all up before you confront the big bad.

Getting back to the good things of the game, graphics are beyond beautiful. Everything about Pulse and Cocoon looks breathtaking and full of life, the clothes on characters actually look like they're made of cloth and, apart from a few NPCs, nothing is left with minimal detail. Hair on characters still needs work as it floats on the shoulders rather than fold into them, but that's a minor technical failure.

The score is provided by Masashi Hamauza, who provides the strongest Final Fantasy soundtrack since Nobuo Uemastu's departure after Final Fantasy X. Although a lot of the default melodies from the previous games (such as the victory music and the grand ‘credits rolling' theme) are no longer here, Mr Hamauza does keep the trend of using a melody and re-arranging it throughout the game as well as capture the magic of each level brilliantly. The game also features many vocal themes, including the beautiful voices of Frances Maya and Mia, that flows naturally into the background whilst also giving the player something to sing along to. Even Leona Lewis' theme (which only plays during the final cut scene) doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. Combined with very impressive voice actors for all of the cast (even the side characters) makes the audio side of the game one of the strongest in the series.

The combat and levelling up systems are a combination of Final Fantasy X, X-2 and VIII.
Although there's no random encounters (you can see all enemies on the field), battles take place on a separate screen and features 3 characters. Unlike previous games however, you only control 1 character also known as the ‘leader'. The other 2 characters are AI controlled and act according to the job class they're currently using. In this game there are 6 job classes that all characters can use, but obviously some characters are better at roles than others. From the menu you can set up to 6 paradigms formations, meaning you can have one where there's 1 attacker (commando) and 2 ravagers (mages), another with 3 medics (healers) and so on. You set these up (or the computer sets them up) and throughout the battle you can change the formation of the party, so if during the battle you need to heal and hold off attacking, you choose the paradigm to match your needs and continue the battle as normal. Battles themselves are very fast, the game sets it up that way and scores you (with stars) on how fast you finish a battle, as a result early and easier fights wiz by you and you feel like you have little control, it doesn't help that the ‘auto command' option is there and will be the most likely option in battles. But in longer, more drawn out fights, a great amount of strategy is required, and thinking quickly on your feet is essential too. A few seconds of hesitant thinking can get you a game over screen just as quickly.

The system itself is very well put together, thankfully you can set up 6 paradigms so you can prepare for most battles and set it up to how you personally handle the combat. The roles all get used at one point or another in the story so you'll give each character a chance to join the fray, plus even though every character can learn every role, they don't all learn the same moves. For example Sazh learns haste way before any other character in the game, whilst Hope is the only character who'll learn all the ‘-aga' spells.

Having to control only one character though did hurt the experience for me; I've played RPGs where you only control one character but at least if your character dies you switch control over to another character, or you wait till a party member revives you. What XIII does wrong is that when your character dies, it's game over. Just like that. It doesn't matter if your party members are completely healthy and have spells to bring you back in a matter of seconds, it's all over if your character croaks. It doesn't help that the ‘Doom' spell is common in boss battles and during the first half of the game you have no control over which character you have as your leader, you will die many times as you'll be using the characters with low HP. You should be making sure that your whole party is kept alive, instead I just cared about my own HP during battles. Another thing to point out is skills and summons; summons are now character specific, each member has one summon each that has their own skill set and behaviour in battle. Some summons are returning favourites (like Shiva and Bahamut) whilst others are brand new to the fray. The problem is that as you can only control one character at a time, you only have access to one summon at a time. If you want to play with the other summons you'll have to change who you control, defeating the object of controlling the most powerful member of the party so that you die less. On top of that, each character has their own special skills which they can execute, or in actuality, YOU can execute ‘cos the computer won't perform them for you! I went through the game having only played with 3 summons and without trying Lightning's ‘Army of One' ability once!

Characters develop stats via the Crystarium, which is similar to the Sphere Grid in X but a lot less complicated. Like the game the Crystarium is linear, there's only one path to take; at the end of each battle you're rewarded Crystal Points (CP) which are spent in the Crystarium (accessed via the menu) going along the ‘branches' to learn skills and developing the stats. As I mentioned in the above paragraph no 2 Crystarium paths are the same, so no one will learn the same abilities the same time as another character. The good thing about the system is that it allows you to develop the job classes that you want for your characters, therefore further customising your ‘dream' party. Although the Crystarium can become harder to gain points for later in the game, the system itself is easy to grasp and work to how you want your team.

Final Fantasy XIII is a game that requires a certain amount of patience; either to get through the linear path for the first 20 hours, to make time to read the glossy to fully understand the story, or to grind your way through the game. XIII is, like its predecessor, a marmite game and should be attempted by all fans of the series at least once. A good game is in here, but I just can't help but feel that Square-Enix spent so much time and effort creating these fantastic 2 worlds, intertwined with this epic history, led by these deep characters, who go on a grand journey...but they forgot to include the player in their fantasy.

The Good:
+ Fantastic graphics
+ Brilliant music score, voice actors are excellent
+ Combat is fast paced, fun and requires a good amount of strategy
+ Story and character development is strong within the first 20 hours...

The Bad:
- ...But goes south from then on
- Leader dies, it's game over
- Restricted choice of optional content
- Linearity and lack of towns can be too much for some players

In a sentence: Looks like an ocean, but it's actually a paddling pool

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 04/08/10

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

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