Review by 8DaysTillSunday

"Lightning and Fang go Commando in the newest Final Fantasy!"

After being unveiled to the public eye during E3 2006, and being in development for almost four years, probably even longer, the release of the first next gen title from the critically acclaimed series Final Fantasy has finally arrived. Many FF fans had high expectations for this hyped game, especially considering the longer development gaps that we've seen between the most recent games meant that fans had to wait for newer titles. There was also a mixed fan reaction from the release of their previous title, Final Fantasy XII, which I personally enjoyed, sans the weak plot and the excessive grinding. Now that the new Final Fantasy has been released, does it manage to live up to expectations?

The Battle Within Begins- PRESENTATION

The Final Fantasy series is a series of JRPG's (Japanese Role Playing Games) in which you assume the role of a character. Players can form parties with other playable characters, travel, and fight monsters to make their characters stronger. RPG's were also known to have strong plots. Final Fantasy was one of the first RPG's and served as a source of inspirations for many RPG's following its publication. Each Final Fantasy is different from the last, plot wise, and for the most part, game play wise as well, and Final Fantasy XIII is no exception to this rule. From what I've read, this game has been criticized for being too different. Yoshinori Kitase, who also worked on Final Fantasy X, one of my personal favorites and my first Final Fantasy game ever, also worked on Final Fantasy XIII.

Yoshinori loves movies, so he tries to incorporate a cinematic feel in his games. At times this works, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the game feels like an interactive movie, with cut scene after cut scene and no real game play to break up the action. But it does make the game feel epic because it's so cinematic. The game is split into thirteen chapters. Each chapter explores the story of a different character though later on, at around chapter ten, the characters are united for the game's finale. The game is presented in this way to allow for a more story driven experience. Unfortunately this comes at a price, which I will explain in the game play section of this review. The game also has a new battle system, which the series has never seen before. The legendary composer of the Final Fantasy series, Nobuo Uematsu didn't return to work on this title, instead replace by Masashi Hamauzu, who worked on a few SaGa titles.

As you can see, this Final Fantasy is radically different from its predecessors. But that isn't necessary a bad thing. Final Fantasy presents the player with a beautiful world, a new take on the outdated random encounters you get into with fiends, and a new composer that is much different from Uematsu, as well as a plot that offers a good character development experience, probably the best that the series has seen so far. Final Fantasy XIII's presentation alone should entice Final Fantasy veterans and newcomers to give this experimental title a try.

SCORE:10 out of possible 10

It's Para-dime, not Para-dig-em!- GAME PLAY

Final Fantasy XIII tries a radically different approach with the Command Synergy Battle System, which is a revised variation of the Active Time Battle System. There is a bar next to your character's name that is split into segments. You can only control one party member in this game. Unlike previous games, this Final Fantasy is the most hectic and fast paced one yet, and I'd reckon things could get out of hand quickly if you had to control both your attacker and healer at the same time. At first I shied from the idea but now I see this as a practical decision, so I take my hat off to Square on that one.

Anyway, your character can use more than one action per turn. In the beginning of the game, you only have two bars to use. Attack always takes one bar, so you can potentially attack twice. Blitz, an area attack, consumes two bars to use, so at the beginning you can only use it once until you wait for the bar to fill up again and then it's your turn again. Healing items, like potions, consume nothing and you can use as many as you like. Did I mention there's no MP, and you can cast Fire as many times as you like, as well as being healed at the end of every battle? Don't be fooled, though; this game isn't a cake to breeze through. At first this may all sound complex, but the learning curve isn't too steep.

Instead of the Job System used in previous Final Fantasy games, players utilize a system known as the Paradigm System. This system has six roles. Commando, which can be seen as a Warrior, a Ravager, also known as a Black Mage, a Sentinel also known as a Paladin, a Synergist also known as a Green Mage, a Medic also known as a White Mage, and lastly my favorite, a Saboteur also known as a Red Mage. Each role is essential in combat for different situations. Commandos and ravagers deal damage, Synergists and Saboteur support the party by buffing the party and debuffing the enemies, respectively. Medics and Sentinels provide defense in different ways; Medics restore any lost health while Sentinels are much more situational because they can take hits for a weaker party member but lack any offense to retaliate. They are best used with the Medic to allow the party to recuperate. Each character starts with a set of three possible roles of six, differing for each character. Some are naturally good at some but suck ass at others.

To make your roles stronger, there is a special growth system known as the Crystarium, which is similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X, but I like X's iteration better because this one's a lot more linear, which is a word that you'll see more of latter in this review. After battles, players acquire CP which can be used to progress along a set path in the Crystarium. As roles become stronger, they need more CP to advance further. Things such as HP +100 and abilities such as Water are goodies that can be acquired with the right amount of CP.

Combat is even more interesting with the inclusion of the stagger bar. Each enemy has a stagger bar. Some fill quicker than others. Some can never be staggered, such as Eidolons, which I will explain later on. Staggering an enemy is very beneficial because the damage intake is multiplied. Commandos and Ravagers work well in tandem to build the stagger bar.

Summons, or known as ‘Eidolons' in this one, make a return in Final Fantasy XIII. Many staples such as Bahamut and Alexander return. Eidolons are each attributed to a character. Lightning, for example, has Odin. They must be defeated in battle in order for you to obtain them. They can also transform into a vehicle, which is very Transformers- like, by the way, in battle and provide means of transportation and offense in this mode known as Gestalt Mode. I loved the designs for the Eidolons.

There is also a weapon and accessory upgrade that can be use to make your equipment stronger by merging components. Instead of gil (currency), enemies drop components, which can be sold for gil or synthesized. Unlike Final fantasy XII, which was a cheapskate with its gil, this one is surprisingly generous. Not as generous as the earlier games, but generous nonetheless.

Players are also ranked out of a possible five star rating at the end of a battle. Five stars net you a higher probability or acquiring rare items.

For the most part, these changes are all great but there are a few flaws. One flaw is this auto battle which essentially means that the game plays itself for you. It's not a big problem because if you want to really immerse yourself into the game, you can just manually select the attack yourself. Auto Battle makes your character use attacks that work the most effectively on the enemy, which definitely kills some of the difficulty. If you choose to play with Auto Battle, all you'll be doing when you fight for the most part is mash X, with the occasional shoulder buttons to switch Paradigms.

Another flaw is the A.I. Sometimes they don't do what you want them to do. For example, Hope might not use the buff I wanted him to use. Final Fantasy XII had this system known as the Gambit System, which could effectively control your allies for you. The game however allowed you to control your whole party if you wanted to, so it wasn't exactly a mandatory feature. But in Final Fantasy XIII, your two other members are entirely A.I controlled, and some sort of Gambit System feature should've been implemented. You can control your allies to an extent by switching up Paradigms but it really isn't enough in a long shot.

Another flaw is a few hours' worth of grinding. Some bosses, even common enemy mobs where you're vastly outnumbered from time to time can give you a run for your money, and strategy isn't enough; you also need the stats. There is a boss at the end of chapter 11 that you WILL need to grind to beat. Some of the end bosses WILL require you to grind to beat them, and anyone who tells you otherwise must have massive amounts of skill at this game. A casual gamer will have to grind a bit in this game, and that's a fact. Grinding annoys me. Who really wants to run around collecting CP when I can see what happens next in the story?

Eidolons, while flashy and powerful when you fight them, when you use them, they're weak as hell. They cost TP, which is acquired at the end of fights and slowly accumulates. So they gotta be used sparingly. They seem more of a gimmick, especially the Gestalt part, than a useful game play mechanic. There have been more than a few occasions when my characters dished out triple more damage than my Eidolons could ever dream of. Seriously, what the hell? The only good features of them is that they revive and fully heal the party after the summon is over with. Also, they can take a hit for your party leader, the character you control.

Why is this so important? Because if you die, it's GAME OVER. That's right, your other party members can be completely healthy yet they lack the brain capacity to revive their party leader. This was a cheap way to make the game more challenging.

So the combat has its shares of flaws. Unfortunately, so does the rest of the game play. One of the most popular reasons why Final Fantasy XIII had some mixed reactions is because the game is linear. Linearity is when your characters follow a premeditated path and have little to do to divert from this path. Games such as Grand Theft Auto IV (one of the best games in existence), and Dragon Age are the polar opposite of this; open ended. You can do plenty of side quests without moving forward in the game. Now all of the Final Fantasy games are linear in a sense, but man, does this one take it to a new level. The first part of the game is literally a straight path where you kill some goons and then there's a cut scene, rinse and repeat. There's a few parts where the path splits and leads to some obviously placed treasure, but that's about it. Now the whole game isn't a straight line, but I can't help but grit my teeth at the wasted potential here. The scenery is so beautiful, but all you'll do is watch. There's not much exploring to be done.

You can't backtrack either, only after chapter 11. That's when the game ‘opens' up and you can participate in side missions, which I'll get to later. Until the end of chapter 10, you have no control over your party members. To move the game's plot, you'll instead be forced to use certain characters. For the most part at the beginning of the game, it was handicapped, in your enemies favor. Sometimes it was five against two; it was ridiculous. Until the end of chapter 9 you main a two man group, which is frustrating. I REALLY disliked playing as Sazh and Vanille, in my opinion the weakest characters (well Vanille has her uses, but Sazh's stats are very poor, for no reason!)

It would've been better if the side quests were introduced much earlier in the game. There are also no mini games. Past FF gamers shouldn't expect the Gold Saucer, a place that houses a series of mini games in FFVII, Triple Triad, a card game in FFVIII, or Blitzball, a kinda underwater soccer from FFX here. See where I'm getting at? There was game play variety. That's not the case in Final Fantasy XIII. No, it's just fight after fight after fight, with only melodramatic cut scenes to break up the action. All the side missions are… you guessed it, fighting. Specifically, they're hunts, and about half of them are stronger than the final boss, which means its post game stuff. There are no traditional towns, which is a common staple in JRPG's. Towns are usually used to collect information from Non Playable Characters, occasionally push the plot forward, or shop, which is now at save points. I'd rather it this way honestly instead of backtracking out of a dungeon to get a few potions. Honestly the exclusion of towns wasn't a big deal to me but it was a big deal in FF forums and such. In essence though, the game play aspect of Final Fantasy XIII was a mixed bag.

SCORE: 6 out of possible 10

Once upon a time, a ‘utopia' in the sky existed, called Cocoon- STORY

Final Fantasy XIII is very story driven and ambitious in its attempt to tell an exciting tale to the player. Without spoiling anything, Cocoon is a place in the sky inhabited by millions and protects its people from what lies below: Pulse. Because the people of Cocoon know nothing about Pulse, they tend to alienate anything associated with it. Cocoon is not just kept stable by just humanity alone; god like entities known as the fal'Cie allow life on Cocoon to be possible. The fal'Cie are powerful and have special abilities. One of these abilities of the fal'Cie is known as branding, when a fal'Cie brands a human with a tattoo and bestows them magical abilities. These humans are known as l'CIe. Despite this gift of power, the l'Cie are cursed. I won't say exactly why, but let's just say that I'd never want to be a l'Cie, even if I could (okay, I'm lying; anything beats how boring my life is, haha).

The l'Cie are also considered taboo on Cocoon. So imagine the horror that Cocoon faced when they discovered the existence of a PULSE Fal'Cie within Cocoon. Done imagining? I'd assume that you thought the same thing as me; not good. Cocoon freaks out and its government body known as Sanctum, which comprises of two main branches of security; the tougher one called PSICOM and the weaker one called Guardian Corps, decide to enforce an emergency quarantine known as ‘the Purge'. They believe that there is a chance that if the Pulse Fal'Cie came into contact with someone from Cocoon, they could potentially become a L'Cie and a threat to them all.

The six main protagonists become L'Cie, as it just so happened to be their rotten luck. They try to escape this curse of the l'Cie for the duration of the game. The story is very good; there are some good plot twists and strong character development for some of the characters. The story focuses on themes such as xenophobia (fear of the unknown) and prejudice/ discrimination (well you should know what this means). It's interesting how the plot builds and ties into the real world at the same time. While none of us are l'Cie and have magical abilities, I'm sure there's a Sazh or a Hope out there. Hell, I identify mostly with Lightning as a person, though she didn't get much character development at all.

Lightning may seem like a Cloud or Squall clone to previous FF gamers at first but she has another layer of depth underneath that and her actions are justified. Sazh is comedy relief, and down to earth and easily likable. He's also a good leader, but I think he's been stereotyped a bit too much as a black man. Fang is tough and determined (and hot, IMO). Vanille may seem to be one of those happy- go- lucky characters (a la Yuffie, Selphie, and Rikku from previous games), but is more than that. My only gripe with her is that her voice actor is not wholly consistent with her Aussie accent, which is also ironic because her voice actor is an Aussie. It's also pretty noticeable because Vanille has a lot of speaking roles and narrate the story of Final Fantasy XIII. Hope is thrust into this epic journey but he's just a normal fourteen year old kid. Snow is a wannabe hero at first but in the end he actually becomes one.

The story and characters are good, but there are three major flaws. First off, the plot starts off media res (in the middle of the story), during the Purge. There was a light novel that explained some of the story before the game began but it didn't reach western territories. Why this didn't get translated is beyond me. The lack of info makes the beginning confusing and hard to get into at first. It starts off a lot weaker than some of the other games in the series. A portion of the plot is never revealed throughout the game's plot but is instead stored in a data log, a constantly updated encyclopedia that encompasses not just the story, but information on locales, mythologies, combat tutorials, and enemy Intel. Instead of containing some of the story in the form of cut scenes, some of the plot is stowed away and forces the player to read up in order to understand what's going on. I think it would've been better if the game told the story better and used the data log more as a recap guide on previous events than anything else.

Final Fantasy XIII, like all JRPG's I have stumbled across, falls prey to melodramatic storytelling and has some cheesy dialogue. While it's not a serious problem it can definitely detract from the overall experience. This game could pass for an E rated game if it wanted to. I hope that next Final Fantasy games (like Versus) will have a more mature feel to it. Lastly, the game suffers from a rather generic main villain and some awful, contrived plot twists at the end. While I won't spoil them, you'll definitely know them when you see them. The game has a few plot holes, also. To add injury to insult, the data log isn't updated after you beat the game and save it, so the ending isn't even explained to the player. I was left scratching my head and had to go online to see some player's interpretation of the ending. Overall, Final Fantasy XIII has a solid plot that suffers from some quirks that prevent it from realizing it's true potential. It needs a more mature form of storytelling, it needs a ‘Sephiroth' or a ‘Kefka'—a good villain, and it needs a stronger conclusion.

SCORE: 7 out of possible 10

I'm happy that Lightning doesn't wear Cloud's smurf shoes- GRAPHICS

From the seldom moments of civilization on Cocoon in this game to the open fields filled with a variety of monsters on Gran Pulse, Final Fantasy XIII is just brimming with impressive artistic quality. The graphics never disappoint; there are never any screen tears, clipping, and the textures are great. I'm a self proclaimed graphics whore and I couldn't help but to notice that most PlayStation 3 games still don't animate their character's hair that well, but Final Fantasy XIII delivers in this area, too. Whether the character's hair is pink, silver or black, the hair looks awesome. Another neat thing I noticed about Final Fantasy XIII's graphical prowess was that Lightning's cape never mixes with her legs or the rest of her body when she moves, which is a common graphical hiccup that I've noticed in plenty other games.

Square Enix boasted that the heavily used CGI (Computer Generated Images) animations in previous titles would still be used, but the in game graphics of Final Fantasy XIII look almost as good. This is not true, unfortunately, as I can still easily tell when the CGI starts and ends. I can honestly say that Square still has a long way to go before the in game graphics and the CGI is on equal footing. Knowing how ambitious Square Enix is when it comes to quality, I suspect that next gen games will be enough for the in game graphics to finally catch up with the CGI in future Final Fantasy games. Trust me, though, I can't possibly cite many games that rival this one in the look department. If I had to choose, I'd go with the Uncharted games, God of War 3 and Modern Warfare 2. Final Fantasy XIII's graphics nearly trumps them all.

SCORE: 10 out of possible 10

There's no classic victory fanfare? What the $&@!- SOUND

Masashi has done a great job on the soundtrack, to be honest. However, he lives in Uematsu's shadow because he has much to live up to. Luckily for the most part, he delivers. Tracks such as ‘The Promise,' ‘Snow's Theme,' ‘Saber Edge,' ‘Blinded by Light,' ‘Desperate Struggle,' ‘Warpath Home,' and ‘The Will to Fight,' and a few others like that one at Oerba that I can't recall, really stood out for me. But some tracks like ‘Taijin's Tower' are too ambient, quiet, and boring for me that I forgot what it sounded like. A lot of Masashi's music starts slowly, such as the battle theme ‘Blinded by Light'. The violin segment is pure sex on the ears but most fights (well at least my fights in my play through) last roughly forty seconds, so the best part never kicked in. Plenty of Masashi's tracks are like this, which is okay to some, but I feel that a game soundtrack needs something more dynamic sounding.

One problem that fans had with Final Fantasy XIII is that it lacks the classic Main Theme and the Victory Fanfare. While these were left out, I understand where Masashi is coming from. He took a risk on establishing new themes to the series. I don't think he should be penalized for leaving out some ‘staples'. It's always good to do something new. Although the new themes are good, the classic ones are still better, but it's okay that he tried. Overall, it's a good soundtrack. I've downloaded some of them and listen to them when I write, if that gives you any clue on how good most of the music is.

As for other sounds, they are perfect. The slash of a sword, the cackle of flames, it's all pretty good. I personally thought that the English voice actors sans Vanille's did a great job, so I don't have much to say here.

SCORE: 8 out of possible 10

Me: Mom, I beat the game.
Mom: Damn, already?

The end game material consists of sixty four hunts, which is basically just ‘I saw this monster, go kill it'. Some of these fights are good but Square Enix seemed to recycle some monsters, which they have been doing in the whole game. When I say recycle, I mean that the monsters look entirely alike, sans a different color. I mean, would it kill Square to think up a few more monsters? The side missions pale in comparison to the older Final Fantasy games—the least they could've done is give us original monster designs. This palette swap problems always rears its ugly head in RPG's. The hunts were daunting and repetitive at best. The hunts all felt tacked on and like a last minute addition.

Besides the hunts you can max out your characters Crystarium, which just screams ‘GRIND FEST!!!' to me, or you can upgrade your characters weapons and accessories, which is another grind fest because in order to max out and attain your character's ultimate weapons, you need 21 million gil, for each weapon. Ouch. Sounds fun, right? And to think, before I knew what getting their ultimate weapons entailed, I actually considered getting the ultimate weapons just so I could cream the final boss. I didn't know that it would be that much of a chore.

You can also work on your trophy collection. My endgame time was a grand total of fifty hours in a span of six days, but I ate, breathed and slept this game, so I'm sure you'll take longer if you're not a total nerd like me.

So, time for the million dollar question; is this game a rent or a buy? Up to you, really. It's a good game in its right; if you're one to replay games annually or something or likes to achieve everything in the game, then buy it. But if you're only in it for the main play through, and don't like replaying games, rent it. Even if you do like replaying games like me, I'd doubt you'd replay Final Fantasy XIII again for a long while. I definitely don't want to have my characters selected for me and have to battle through swathes of foes that outnumber my two man party for another twenty hours, until the game finally feels less linear. If you're an open minded person, this is for you. It sure isn't the best Final Fantasy (X and VII were for me, but that could change since I'm playing VIII and IX now), but it sure ain't the worst, either.

SCORE: 6 out of possible 10

Well this is one long ass review, so let's recap, shall we?

Hell yea!

+ Good story
+ Amazing visuals
+ Good Music


- Cheesy way of storytelling
- Contrived, confusing and unexplained ending
- Gimmicky summons
- No game play variety

TOTAL SCORE= 37/50, or 74/100, which is equal to 7.4, or a shiny, a little above average ol' 7.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 04/30/10

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

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