Review by joncalvin
A beautiful, exciting adventure marred only by uneven pacing.
+A gripping, emotional story with glorious cut-scenes driving it forward
+Unbelievably beautiful graphics and design
+Inventive and clever enemies
+One of the best battle systems in the series
+A large number of side-missions to finish
+A fantastic score and great voice-acting
-The story's pacing is often incredibly slow
-Some characters can be either dull or annoying
Time spent playing to date: Around 80 hours
Difficulty: Just right
Final Fantasy has been around for many years, and has gained an immense fanbase all the while. There aren't many series as prolific or long-lived, spanning decades and never failing to innovate in its genre. FF's first outing on next-generation consoles is far from perfect, but its incredible beauty, both in aesthetics and story, along with the battle system makes Final Fantasy XIII an unforgettable experience and one of the best role-playing games available on the Playstation 3.
The game is set in the world of Cocoon, a floating city in the sky where the populace lives in constant fear of the feral world below, Pulse. Cocoon is controlled by godlike beings called Fal'Cie. They have the ability to create special servants called l'Cie, which are given a task called a Focus. If they finish this Focus, they turn to crystal and are given eternal life. If they fail, however, they're turned into Cie'th, monsters with no goal but to eradicate anything in their way. The story focuses on six characters who, through a bizarre series of events, become l'Cie themselves. There's the stoic Lightning, cheery Vanille, optimistic Snow, caring Sazh, young Hope and courageous Fang. Their fates collide, and together, they will have to work out their differences for a common goal.
The story and terminology itself is fantastic. The world is incredibly detailed and feels like a living, breathing environment. There are many twists and turns in the narrative, which happens to be very well-written on top of that. It is an emotional epic that will genuinely make you feel for the characters. FFXIII's selection of characters is an odd one, however. Some are very likable and are among the series' best (Lightning, Snow and Sazh, for instance), while others can't escape being overdone or tiring (Vanille, Fang and Hope are examples of that). It creates an uncomfortable imbalance in the otherwise superbly-told story, and you'll find yourself rooting for some more than others. The side-characters are more consistent, and the frightening Dysley will send shivers down your spine.
However, the story's pacing is the game's biggest flaw. For the first 20 hours of the story, it moves at a snail's pace, and it doesn't fit the game's linear form. The beginning is an overly long introduction to the characters, world and game mechanics which could easily have been shortened or made more exciting. It is this point of the game which may turn off those used to a more engaging tale, and it puts a rather big blemish on the wonderful set-up.
The game's slow pacing in turn makes the first one-third of the game seem like a long tutorial. It goes without saying that FFXIII has changed the formula once more, as the series has done with most previous installments. You walk around various areas filled with dangerous enemies. If you touch these enemies, a battle will ensue and you are transported to a battle arena. The Active Time Battle (or ATB) system is back again, but it has changed slightly from previous versions. Every character has an ATB bar that fills up with time. This bar is segmented, and every move you perform requires a set amount of ATB segments. The new aspect in FFXIII is that you can form an attack queue while you wait for the bar to fill up. You can either choose actions for the queue yourself or make the computer choose the attacks for you with an auto-attack function. Luckily, the AI is very smart and will react to a number of situations. However, that doesn't mean that you can just mash the X button. The auto-attack will only get you so far, and it is often preferable to choose your own actions.
The main goal of every battle is to stagger your enemy. Every foe has a stagger bar, which fills up with every hit. The higher it goes, the higher the percentage of the bar goes; the higher the percentage, the more damage you will deal. Once you hit a special stagger limit, the enemy will become staggered and the damage percentage will skyrocket. The stagger bar will slowly empty but this is the time where you can deal massive damage to your adversary. Some boss fights are even close to impossible without them being staggered first.
Another original aspect in the game is the paradigm system. This can best be explained as a job system focused rather on the party as a whole. Everyone can be assigned special roles and after you assign each character a specific role, you have created a paradigm. You can have up to five paradigms at a time and switch between them at will in battle. This is what the game calls a paradigm shift. Paradigm shifts will become a vital part of every battle, since they are needed to beat some of the tougher foes. They add a hint of tactical depth to the FF formula and works much better than it might seem at first. The game's slow pacing at first is used to drip feed you the details of the combat, so there's no chance of you getting confused later on. This new battle system is fast, exciting and incredibly fun, and is one of the game's crowning achievements.
The different roles can be leveled up via the Crystarium system. It slightly resembles the Sphere Grid of Final Fantasy X, though it isn't as open. After every battle, you get crystal points, or CP. You can use these points to progress in a crystarium branch. Every role gets its own branch which contains abilities, status upgrades and even extra accessory slots and ATB segments. Each branch is basically linear, so there's normally no question about where to go next. However, later on in the game, you're given far more freedom to choose whatever branch you wish to progress in. However, it takes some time before you'll really see the depth of the system, since you are usually given enough CP to travel equally along every branch.
One final battle component that is worth mentioning is the Eidolons. These are the summons of FFXIII, which have been staples in nearly all FF games. When summoned, they'll come assist you in battle. After accumulating chain bonuses to ramp up a special Gestalt bar, you can enter Gestalt Mode. This causes the Eidolon to turn into a vehicle and you'll be able to perform a number of moves to mow down the opposition. This is incredibly fun, and adds a twist to the battle system.
How you customize your weapons has been changed as well. Every weapon can be upgraded by using materials. Once enough has been added to the weapon, it levels up until the level cap is reached. At that point, you can transform that weapon with a catalyst, turning it into an even stronger weapon. This initially simple system is both fun and easy to use, and gives you space to customize to your hearts content. This can be done in relation to accessories as well, though they generally don't need as much experience to level up.
As previously mentioned, the enemies roam around the world and are always in clear sight. You progress along the game in a pretty much linear fashion at first, but then it opens up around 20 hours in. Without going into too much detail, you will have the chance to go where you want at that point, but it's likely that you'll rather want to continue with the story before going any further into any side-missions. However, the freedom is well-executed and the scope is staggering when you really experience it.
What helps make it so staggering, though, is definitely the sublime visual presentation. FFXIII is, to put it simply, one of the most beautiful games in existence. It's one of those games that will actually make you stop and just take it all in. Looking at a beautiful sunset shining on the clear waters of the sea is an enchanting sight. Detail abounds in every area, and the pure scope of every area is amazing. The world is almost perfect in its presentation. The design is also stellar, whether it be for the characters, environments or enemies. Occasionally, the frame rate will slow down in very heated situations, and enemies will sometimes wait to appear until you're in a certain distance from them, but these are such minor flaws that they don't matter in the slightest. FFXIII is a visual showcase, and sets the bar for all games to come.
One thing most FF fans value very highly is music, and the game doesn't disappoint. The best way to explain FFXIII's soundtrack is ethereal. It blends many different instruments to create a beautiful blend of sound and emotion. It goes perfect with the atmosphere and story, adding much personality to every situation. Leona Lewis also lends her talents to the soundtrack, and it works surprisingly well. Voice-acting in the game is generally superb. No voice sounds out of place, and though Vanille's pseudo-Australian accent can grate at times, even that becomes charming after some time. Maybe the only drawback is that you don't have an option to have the original Japanese voices, which would've been a great extra to have.
FFXIII's a long game, finishing the story will take the average person around 60 hours and for the adventurous that wish to do everything, it can easily stretch to the hundred mark. There are a lot of hunts to partake in, where you will need to take down powerful enemies to get some nifty rewards. This will add a considerable amount of incentive to play the game after the ending credits roll, and add to that the number of secret areas to explore and there's more than enough to see and do.
Every Final Fantasy entry is bound to split opinion. After all, the constant change to the formula is something not everyone is happy about. However, FFXIII is a superb adventure offering a lot of value in a small package. The game boasts a perfect visual presentation, a touching story, a fantastic soundtrack and a superb battle system. The uneven pacing will drive many to stop playing the game prematurely, but if you stick with it, you'll get a polished, high-octane experience like no other.
Final score: 9.2/10
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Final Fantasy XIII (EU, 03/09/10)
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