Review by Das_Regal

"FFXIII is best JRPG released in at least 5 years."

As the tagline states, I believe this game easily surpasses any other JRPG of this generation and possibly even last (with the exception of FFX, which I think it ties). It manages to do something engrossing and unique while avoiding many of the pitfalls that nearly other JRPG of this generation have meandered aimlessly into. I'll try to give a brief idea of what you should expect if you pick this up and discuss the wedge points which will make you love or hate this game in particular.

Graphics: 9/10
Square is known for making incredibly beautiful, stable graphics with rich art design, and FFXII is no deviation from that tradition. This game offers a variety of colorful environments and truly amazing FMV sequences that are top notch. You find a more technically impressive RPG experience no matter how hard you look. The later open areas in the game especially showcase the power of the Crystal Tools used to create this game. When things open up around chapter 11 (that's when the linearity decreases) you'll enter a rich world full of interacting, living, breathing creatures that fly through the sky, battle each other, and roam the plains. It's truly amazing.

However, it's best to keep in mind that the game does run at a higher resolution on the PS3. It is noticeable if you have a large HDTV, so if you have the option and the proper setup, I'd suggest snagging a PS3 to have a graphically superior experience. That by no means implies that the graphics are bad for the 360 version, just not as good as the PS3's. The XMB's you unlock are better than the gamerpic unlocks as well.

Sound: 9/10
I'd heard some reviewers claim that the musical score isn't as impressive as in previous entries, and I couldn't agree less. I was apprehensive at first when I heard about the songs being incorporated that include actual singing, but I have to admit that they really do integrate into the game rather well, and even in the forest that you rush through that has a vocal soundtrack, it doesn't detract from things at all. In fact, I think it enhances the mood.

I find the battle music especially impressive, and the sound effects aren't bad either. The voice acting is excellently done for most characters, but Vanille's voice does get on my nerves a tad. I can't say Snow's performance is perfect all of the time however.

Battle System: 10/10
One thing that I think a lot of reviewers failed to mention is that the positioning of your opponents is relevant in the same way that it was in Chrono Trigger. This isn't just an ATB battle system souped up so that the action is more real time; you have to take into account the position of your enemies in order to judge your area-of-effect abilities and utilize your ATB gauge to the fullest. You only control the main character directly, but you give general roles to each party member, and I can't imagine how insane it would be if you tried to control more than one at a time (one is often challenging enough to input commands for which is why they added an auto-battle function).

Some reviewers also suggested that using the auto-battle command is the best way to play, but in doing that you're missing out not only on the gameplay experience, but the auto-battle AI cannot match the effectiveness of a human player. The ability to execute commands early, take enemy positioning into account, and develop more in-depth strategies is entirely lost if you rely the auto-battle command. After the game opens up a bit once unlock paradigm shifts, the battles are fast-paced, beautiful, and incredibly challenging.

The paradigm system allows for on the fly class-switching (think jobs from previous installments) so that you can dynamically adapt your strategies and give your AI partners a general role to fulfill (though it also changes the party leader which you are controlling). This paves the way for deep, challenging fights where strategy is the most important element.

Gone are random encounters, replaced by a familiar system where you try and get initiative in battle by engaging your enemy before being sighted. There's items called shrouds which help you obtain the advantage on the field, similar to the way that some games allow you to set traps. These features aren't new, but they're well-done for FFXIII and create an additional layer of gameplay.

Upgrading/Customization: 8.5/10
The bad news is that there's only two types of items for you to equip on your characters. The good news is there's a fair degree of involvement in those particular slots, including leveling up your weapons and accessories using components, plus you can unlock additional accessory slots as you advance in the game (up to a max of 4). Compared to FFX and FFVIII, the game's equipment system is amazingly rich and involved; in both of those installments things were vastly oversimplified and revolved entirely around upgrading via collecting specific components. The tedium is gone here, in FFXIII you only need specific components to evolve your items, not level them up.

As far as progressing the characters themselves go, the new system is like the Sphere Grid with a little bit of the license board thrown in. You unlock stat upgrades, abilities, and auto-abilities (think passive traits) by spending points earned in battles to try between nodes. Each character has a different path to traverse for upgrades for each of their paradigm roles (think jobs), where abilities learned can only be used by that paradigm but stats affect the character in all roles. It's an amazing system which gives you a great degree of freedom and choice in character progression, especially when all six roles open up later on in the game.

Story: 9/10
It isn't Shakespeare, but it's a vast improvement on the storyline offered by the previous installment. Where FFXII focused largely on an over-arching plot, FFXIII is focused on a more personal level, though the personal struggles of the characters do eventually become part of a larger saga that is every bit as far-reaching and relevant to the world as it has been in previous Final Fantasy games.

This is one area where FFXIII finally breaks the precedence of cheesy, uninspired dialogue with plenty of philosophical, unbelievably trite lines set by JRPGs of this generation. There are a few times where you'll be wincing at the stupid things characters say and do, but the game often recognizes that and realizes that the characters in question are behaving foolishly (and will often punish them for it). There's only a handful of bad cutscenes in the game and they pretty much all involve Hope.

Sazh and Lightning are the most sober, realistic, and mature characters to breach the genre in a long time. They serve as a perfect counter-balance to the cliches of Snow and Vanille, and keep the plot grounded in believability and decent writing where Infinite Undiscovery, Star Ocean IV, and other JRPGs of this generation fell off the cliff of shoddy-dialogue and into the abyss of storyline apathy.

Exploration/Freedom/Pacing: 6.5/10
I've heard people claim that this game is nothing more than running from one battle or cutscene to the other, that's really not the case, but they have distilled out a lot of traditional features that some fans enjoy.

Sidequests don't open up until much later in the game, though there are a lot of them. There's not a lot of backtracking, but this could be considered both good and bad. Towns are no longer places to relax, they still serve a purpose in the storyline and are impressive, but shopping is done from save points. There is some NPC interaction and a few sequences where you run around and talk to people however.

It isn't until later in the story when exploration elements even begin to crop up, because you travel through packed corridors for the first disc or two of the game. The same can be said of the game's progression system: for the first 1-2 hours you haven't even unlocked the ability to have your characters progress. It takes awhile for all of the features to open up to you, this is undeniably the biggest problem with the game, but if you stick it out long enough, the open world exploration elements make a strong return in chapter 11.

Replayability/Length: 10/10
I'm already thinking about playing through again to revisit the old cutscenes and storyline revelations with a new perspective. The upgrading system allows you to focus on different aspects of your characters while you're leveling, so if you play through again you could try and focus on Lightning as a caster instead of a physical damage dealer. This seems like the sort of game I'm going to play again every year for a long time.

As far as length goes, if you don't rush and take your time, you can easily extract 60 hours of gameplay out of this. 100+ if you go for achievement completion. And unless you skip cutscenes, you will not beat it in less than 45 hours.

Final Score: 9/10
This really is the best JRPG to come out in forever, but I cannot emphasize enough that it's very Japanese. Western RPGs focus on open world exploration, non-linearity, and freedom of choice. But where Final Fantasy XIII shines, is in the creation of a character-centric completely linear plot, a challenging combat experience, and graphical immersion. There are more open elements with a focus on sidequests later on, and it's well done, but you have to be willing to wait 25-30 hours for it.

Much like FFX, FFXIII creates the feeling that you're coming along for the journey with a team of six individuals with an extraordinary fate. In some ways you're just a spectator along for the ride, but if the trip is worth taking (and it is), sometimes you don't mind stepping back and taking in the grandeur around you.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/09/10, Updated 03/15/10

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

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