Review by ShaheerRahman

"Time to Paradigm Shift into Next Gen! How does Final Fantasy fare on the PS3/360?"

It's been a long time coming for Final Fantasy on a current-gen console. The last time gamers have had the chance to experience a single player Final Fantasy title was all the way back in 2006, when Final Fantasy XII launched on the PS2. Since then, gamers, including you and myself, were subjugated to spin off titles like FFXI and handheld entries. Square-Enix is ready to showcase their newest entry to the lineage, with that being Final Fantasy XIII. While the game has garnered a lot of media press, is it the game that JRPG fans have been waiting for?

The setting in Final Fantasy XIII takes place between the worlds Pulse and Cocoon. Both areas are controlled by fal'Cie; mechanical gods-like creatures who oversee both worlds. Humans living on both worlds can occasionally become l'Cie, (people specifically chosen to carry out a task by the fal'Cie gods.) Failure to accomplish the task, results in l'Cie turning into Cieth, (desolate and devoid beings who have no thought or emotion.) Both Pulse and Cocoon are at war with each other, and the residents of Cocoon, governed by a group called the Sanctum, are in fear of another invasion by Pulse. The story itself may seem confusing but it does an excellent job conveying the constant struggle between the two worlds. However, the pacing of the story is erratic and at times under shadowed to other elements that emerge later in the game. Especially nearing the end of Final Fantasy XIII, the story loses its focus and more attention is put forward to the battle system and character interactions. This is the result of inconsistency of the plot, making it dull and dreary by the time you finish the game.

From character animations to an array of stunning environments, Final Fantasy XIII does not disappoint in visuals. Without a doubt the animated cut scenes are breath taking and everything is finely polished. Bosses are no doubt intimidating, while a plethora of diverse monsters fit into the whole “fantasy-esque” atmosphere of Cocoon. The designers did a great job making the visuals as immerse as possible, and it was great to see new settings ranging from frozen top mountains to a futuristic utopia amidst in chaos. Without hesitation, Final Fantasy XIII bolsters some of the most beautiful cinematic cut scenes in any game to date, but it doesn't quite set the bench mark for in-game graphics. The CGI cut scenes are a treat to the eye, and while they are sparse and rare, they do an excellent job of progressing the story, and characters.

If there was a word that could sum up the first twenty hours of FFXIII, it would be, “claustrophobic.” The game itself directs you through a linear path, with no deviation or surprises to follow. For those looking for a grandeur world to navigate be prepared for utter disappointment. By far, this is one of the lacking qualities that Final Fantasy XIII possesses. Since there is no freedom in exploration, it feels that you are only playing to understand the narrative from the character perspectives. While this may be fine for a story saavy aficionado, those who wanted a linear approach that has been seen in other current gen titles, will have to wait until we reach a good 3/4 of the story's game play. But the wait is worth it, as gamers who hold out long enough will be able to reach “Gran Pulse;” a gorgeous over world, brimmed with intimidating goliaths, and a luscious landscape as far as the eye could see. It's at the point when I reached Gran Pulse where I saw the full potential that was in this game. Being able to freely explore on your own will, tackle your own missions in any order, and play at your own pace, is what fans of the series has been striving for. It's just unfortunate that it took twenty hours of following linear paths, after linear paths, just to reach that point. The other disappointment comes from that there are few towns to visit and explore. What has become a staple of previous Final Fantasy titles, shops, inns, taverns, and houses are all missing in this title. This has all been replaced by frequent save points which allow you to save the game's progress, and to purchase items, weapons, and armour.

The character designs as always are very unique to the Final Fantasy franchise. However, I did feel that some characters had a limited role in fulfilling the plot and expanding on the story. While evidently there is a back story; character animations, dialogue, and cut scenes do its job of explaining the plot, but not enough attention was directed into a few key characters. Hope Estheim, was really hard to relate to. It was a bit confusing trying to ascertain what his motives were, as they were vaguely clear through out the story. Other protagonists like Vanille was often too gregarious and naive for the most part, while Snow was subdued to one line cliche's that became annoying right away. However, each protagonist stood out from each other with their eccentric traits. Lightning's emotions and actions came off as a resemblance to Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII, yet her character was well defined. Other characters like Sazh, and Fang also bring something new into the series, and both were very unique in their own right. Most disappointingly, the antagonists weren't well defined. In fact, I had no idea who the main antagonist was or is, until near the end of the game. Previous entries of Final Fantasy titles had some of the most intriguing, and cynical villains to feature in any video game. However, FFXIII struggles to identify who and/or what your team members are fighting. The motives of the opposing faction against Lightning and her team were vaguely expressed during brief dialogues between the characters. The eventual antagonist ended up becoming very lack lustre and was deprived of any qualities that would stand out against some of the more notorious villains of previous Final Fantasy entries.

The battle system is the bread and butter of this game. At first glance the game may seem automated in a few hours of game play. This is due to the game inexplainably locking out features and tactics that only become accessible half way through the game. That's right; you read it right, the game's battle system is gimped for the first half of the game. Really, the only difficulty you will have with enemies, is ….absolutely no difficulty whatsoever! You literally could engage in battles and just watch your team win every consecutive battle with little, to no effort at all. But fortunately, and thankfully the battle becomes rewarding once you reach “Gran Pulse.” Certain boss fights also spike in difficulty, which becomes very frustrating, but preparing your team before every fight can prevent this. Basically, your character has actions that he/she can perform on an enemy, and they have “classes” that make them unique in battle, compared to others in your party. The classes are: Ravager, Commando, Sentinel, Medic, Saboteur, and Synergist. For the first half of the game, the main characters are given 2-3 classes, and you have the option of switching them for fights. But like I referred to earlier, the game's lack of difficulty doesn't require you to actually change classes at all. It's only when you get towards the end, where class diversification plays a key role in fights and boss battles. I'm referring to a tactic that gets unlocked half way through the game called, “Paradigm Shift.” Paradigm Shifting allows your characters to change classes on the fly during fights which becomes very helpful when encountering difficult enemies late in the game. For example, I can have a team comprised of all “Ravagers.” Having this team allows me to focus a lot on damage on the enemy, but I sacrifice having a healer, and a tank (the medic, and sentinel role would fill this void.) Having a team of Ravagers, might allow the team to damage the enemy considerably, but puts me at risk of having my team dying quickly. Paradigm shifts allows the player to have “preset” teams of classes that you can change on the fly. So my team of three Ravagers, can change to a Sentinel, Medic, and Ravager, if my team is running low on health.

Deviating away from the typical RPG formula, levels are not to be gained in FFXIII. Instead, a new concept called the Crystarium, is where all your character upgrades are to be found. Extending from the “Grid” idea in Final Fantasy XII, winning battles increases your experience points. These points are exchanged ranging from stat boosts for your characters—to learning new powerful skills, and abilities, that will aid in battle. This is a great concept, and eliminates the grinding that is often frequent in a lot of older type RPG games. Battles reward your team with a letter grade, with a higher grade earning you rare items to craft weapons, and armour. This is a nice touch, and adds great replay ability to an already deep battle system.

If there is one thing that Final Fantasy doesn't disappoint in, that is the music. Every iteration of Final Fantasy provides some of the most eloquent soundtracks in video games. FFXIII does no different, as there are a range of tracks that stick to your head. The battle theme; while redundant over a couple of hours is an excellent piece of work. The sound and melodies compliment to the atmosphere, and overall feel to the game.

Final Fantasy XIII bolsters many ideas, and concepts to a genre that hasn't got a lot of attention this generation. The issue with this game lies with the very slow start, odd pacing, forgettable characters, and an automated battle system that becomes very lacklustre. It's this methodical, sluggish start that most likely will turn off a few gamers. If you are willing to invest some time into the game, and allow the story to flesh out, then you will be rewarded with faintly interesting storyline, a great battle system, and a diverse world to explore. The linearity, battle restrictions, and lack of difficulty will soon become an afterthought when you get deeper into the story.

Simply put, Final Fantasy XIII is what we expect from Square Enix; a title with a lot of production value and polish. While the visuals, and stunning music hold up to a very high regard, it's a slow start that hinders this game from being perfect. Glaring issues such as the highly linear nature of the game, lack of exploration, battle-system restrictions, and no towns is something that needs to be addressed if Square decides to tackle another Final Fantasy title. While some of these issues are resolved in later parts of the game, gamers will need to invest a significant amount of time to truly enjoy the finer details to the game play and story.

The last half of the game is truly rewarding, and the missions will keep you stuck in the world of Pulse and Cocoon after you finish the game. Deep within the glaring errors, is a strong JRPG title that should not disappoint those who sink a few nights into this game. Final Fantasy XIII is a great addition to any library, and while it may not be a bench mark for RPG's, it certainly gives revolutionary ideas that will set the foundation to the next Final Fantasy title.

Final Score: 7.5/10

+Great Music/Visuals
+Lengthy title,
+Great presentation, and polish
+Deep battle system that gets better as the game goes on
+Some great characters, while others are forgettable.
-Very lacklustre denouement
-Erratic pacing,
-Average story, with no emphasis on antagonists.
-Difficulty spikes in some boss fights, and may be too easy in the first portion of the game.
-Very linear for a majority of the game. The non-linear parts are exceptional, and there needs to be more of it.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 09/23/11, Updated 09/26/11

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

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