Review by Phyrre56

"FF13 is worth your time, but it's no RPG"

Final Fantasy 13 was perhaps the most anticipated RPG of all time. Given the technological leaps of the PS3 and XBox360, fans were anxious to experience the next generation of the popular series. Initial reviews were mixed -- the graphics were unanimously lauded, but the gameplay and character design rubbed some reviewers the wrong way.

Personally, I withheld judgment and picked up the game. Having completed most of the Final Fantasy series, I was not going to be deterred by a few lukewarm reviews and snap-judgments from players. I completed the game and even finished a fair amount of the post-story content. Now I feel qualified to share my review of the experience.

Gameplay -- Square Enix took a big risk in re-imagining the gameplay of Final Fantasy. Until its predecessor, Final Fantasy 12, the combat experience was generally consistent. You had a party of heroes, and they each had some unique characteristics (weapons they could wield, spells they could cast, skills they could use, etc.) You fought battles by giving each character a command and a target in turn, and this continued until one side was wiped out. Kill the enemies and you win, lose all your characters and the game is over.

Final Fantasy 12 was actually the first big step away from the "individual commands" model. In this PS2 title, you controlled your party leader while two party members followed you around. Each character, including the leader you controlled, could be assigned customized artificial intelligence. "If your HP is below 50%, then heal." "If your target is weak to Fire, cast Firaga." The skill of the game was not in assigning individual commands during battle but in programming your characters to handle ever-changing situations. The end result was surprisingly non-interactive. The better you programmed your heroes, the less you actually had to do as they wandered hostile territory. Just let them explore and kill stuff until you've achieved your goal -- no button pressing necessary!

Final Fantasy 13 takes the non-interactive approach even further. You only control your party leader. Instead of creating artificial intelligence for your heroes, you simply assign them one of six jobs. Fixed AI handles the rest. The battles are also more frantic, as each character can execute 5 or 6 actions per turn. You can't manually assign commands to your main character and keep up with the battle -- you have to trust the fixed AI. Most of the fight involves mashing the Auto-Battle button and maybe throwing in a custom command here and there for emergencies.

The skill of the game comes from Paradigm Shifts, decisions to change the jobs assigned to each character. Losing the battle? Switch to a paradigm with defense and healing. Nearing the end of the fight? Switch an all out aggressive stance. Essentially, you become a field general. You're monitoring changes in the long term while ignoring individual commands, and it's your job to decide when it's time for Plans B or C.

The gameplay is innovative but not very deep. You'll figure out two or three vital Paradigms and when to switch among them. There isn't much room for creativity. You just set up your plan and let the PS3 work out the details.

The exception is boss battles. Bosses have two unique characteristics: they have a ton of HP, and they get progressively more difficult as you damage them. This forces the player to use evolving strategies, typically meaning more defense and healing as the battle goes on. It's not particularly strategic, it's just drawn out. You defend because you have to, because of how the boss was programmed. Honestly, it feels contrived, like the programmers said "Hey, this boss dies too quickly. Give him 10 million more hit points, then the battle with take 15 minutes and feel appropriately epic."

Therein lies the problem with the combat system. It's not strategic. It's entirely tactical -- switch your paradigms to fit the situation of the moment. Rinse, repeat. Characters grow in pre-determined ways. One player's experience will be about the same as everyone else's. It's a game stuck on rails, and that's not what RPGs are about. Most enemies are easy, some are hard, but those enemies are only hard because the programmers tweaked their stats, not because of any strategic obstacle or puzzle to overcome. You just have to use the same tactics for more turns until they die.

In my opinion, Final Fantasy 13 is incorrectly categorized as an RPG. It is more accurately an action game with characters that level up over time.

Story -- The story of Final Fantasy 13 is interesting. The Gods of the world, called Fal'cie, can conscript mortals to do their bidding by turning them into L'cie. Becoming L'cie means you can use Magic and other supernatural powers, but it comes at a price. You are given a focus, or task, that you must complete. If you do, you turn into crystal. If you don't, you turn into a monster.

The game does a great job of portraying the emotions around the "no win situation" of becoming a L'cie, something the mortal victim has zero control over. If you don't have faith that becoming a crystal means "eternal life" (a clearly religious undertone), then you've been irrevocably cursed. In many ways, becoming L'cie feels like a metaphor for being diagnosed with cancer. You don't know how it will play out, maybe you'll be OK, but you absolutely wish it hadn't happened to you because it immediately alters the course of your life and there's no way to undo it.

Beyond this major plot device, the story is fairly linear and predictable. Like many FF games, the ending becomes crazy and esoteric, with commentary on the nature of existence and creationism. Depending on how you like that kind of philosophical stuff, it can range from mind-blowing to a load of crap.

The characters in my opinion are well designed. They have unique motivations and views on the world. The only drag is Vanille, whose constant positive, You Can Do It attitude through most of the game ruins the gravity of certain scenes. If you were a L'cie facing questions about your own mortality, you'd probably punch Vanille in the face whenever she opened her perky little mouth.

Graphics / Sound -- The graphics are stunning. There's nothing more to really say about them. This game is gorgeous. Even if you find the gameplay tedious, just admiring your surroundings is a surreal experience.

The sound is strong but at times repetitive. I really enjoyed some musical pieces that were only used for short segments, such as the chanting themes from the Grapa Whitewood. Beyond that, the music is impressive but fairly generic for fantasy games.

Play Time / Replayability -- I finished the main game in about 40 hours, with no power leveling but without rushing through any parts. I also spent about 20 hours on post-story missions. I quit when I realized that advancing to the next level and beating the final few missions in the game required many MANY hours of grinding. No thanks, not interested. Overall, I imagine it would take about 100 hours to do everything in the game. There are also plenty of save stations, so you can play the game in short bursts.

Replayability is practically zero. As I mentioned earlier, the game runs on rails. You can't decide how to progress your characters, and you can't decide in what order to complete tasks. The game is 100% linear.

Final Recommendation -- If you enjoy RPGs, you should give FF13 a try. Maybe you'll love the gameplay. I personally found it too simplistic, but there's nothing broken about it. It is what it is -- a straightforward combat system that is not particularly deep. Once you learn it, it becomes second nature. At that point, you can focus more on the visual experience and the story. The fact that you don't have to grind much to actually beat the game is a huge plus. You don't have to repeat anything unless you really want to, or if you're going for trophies.

Looking to the future, I hope that the developers at Square Enix can find a way back to the RPG style I've enjoyed in the past. Let me control my characters more. Give me more choices in how they develop and the strategies I want to use. Don't spoon-feed me a very specific way to play the game. Give me a reason to try replaying it.

If they can make these adjustments for the next installment of the game, I'm onboard without question.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 06/16/10

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

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