Review by ExileNineteen
Final Fantasy XIII: Change can be a good thing.
From the moment of its conception, Final Fantasy XIII has had the proverbial deck stacked against it. While this is nothing new for SquareEnix and their unceasing attempts to bring Japanese RPG's into a state of acceptance in western markets, never before has the company needed to reclaim the adoration of their rabid fanbase in such a drastic fashion. Their last two installments, XI and XII, were critically panned as huge steps away from their tried-and-true methods employed in every FF title; the former, an actual MMORPG, has seen limited success in the wake of the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft, and the latter is almost universally despised by fans of the series due to a vapid and uninteresting main character, a lackluster plot and a battle system that, more than anything, represents change coming to the formulaic turn-based system that the fans know and love. Under these circumstances, it has been clear that the upcoming installment needed to do something: whether that something was return to the basics of Final Fantasy or go in a totally new direction, something had to change. This review will address the complete product with the perspective of having finished the game's main story, and in the process hopefully I can suitably prove this thesis: while XIII is a highly iconoclastic game, the changes to the battle system represent a welcome, one-shot change from turn-based systems and in all other respects, it's a worthy addition to the series.
A common accolade (and occasional criticism) of Final Fantasy is that playing a game in the series is much like watching an interactive movie. While the graphics obviously have more to do with that judgment, no installment would be complete without the musical themes that are present in all facets of the game: during battles, while running around the dual worlds of Cocoon and Pulse and during the trademark FMV scenes, which, as expected by fans, have never looked better. The battle themes are suitably upbeat (a few are even jazzy; yes, a final fantasy game with a jazz theme) and one of the boss themes is particularly memorable, but the lack of Nobuo Uematsu's expert presence is evidenced in the lack of truly epic material. For fans, there will be nothing to supplant "One-Winged Angel" from FF7 or the Necron theme from IX for you here. The sounds of battle (weapons striking, enemies grunting, etc.) are mostly pulled from past games but I only note them here for the truly involved. Finally, the chocobo theme receives special mention because it has been truly redone in a monumental fashion - all I can say is you're probably in for a surprise, and hopefully it's one you'll like.
Voice acting is, like many FF games that have tried it thus far, hit and miss. The six main characters of the game are voiced tolerably for the most part; the sole exception is Vanille, whose VA seemed to have been trying to channel a non-native Australian accent and girlish timbre changes in the same role. Net result: annoying. One of SE (used from here on to refer to SquareEnix)'s talking points when they began to release info on FFXIII is that every NPC in any given scene would have a voice actor. Sadly, instead of increasing immersion this only highlights the "talents" of a few voice actors that shouldn't have been called back.
Graphics - 10/10
The perfect score should really only be surprising to you if you're new to next-gen Final Fantasy. Even if you think the breathtaking visuals exhibited in the FMV sequences are just window dressing, even the most diehard of naysayers can't deny that the game looks amazing. Cocoon, the fractured world in the sky, is a beehive of neo-urban activity as imagined by many other Japanese influences; even in a video game setting, it rivals all the sources it draws from. Pulse, the hellscape of beasts and overgrown nature that the Cocoon population fears, is perhaps even more awe-inspiring. The large section of Pulse where most of the side-questing occurs is so well realized that I felt like I'd stepped into another game. Enemy graphic designs are very technologically stylized this go-round, and old favorites like the Behemoth, Tonberry and Cactuar return in their old, lovable skins.
Story - 8.5/10
Without stepping into the details of XIII's plot yet, I feel a warning is in order, and while it may seem trite for me to be preaching the values of immersing yourself in a fictional setting, the outcry surrounding the plot and its jargon requires this additional effort.
Here it is, plain and simple: the developers at SE seem to have assumed that anyone playing the game will first be patient enough to accept a few in-game terms that may not be clear for the beginning hours of the game, and secondly will take the time to read the Datalog, XIII's information manual, and clarify for themselves what everything means. Without doing this or taking the extra effort to contextually figure out what these things mean, you are severely harming your own ability to understand and therefore sympathize with the plot. Though it sounds like shoddy work on their part requiring you to overwork, the simple truth is that the plot can be a little bit complicated even if you don't fully comprehend the meanings of the various terms, and the combination has created many confused and irritated people who have given up on fully enjoying the story. While the subtext is dense, the story that lies behind is a good one and told in classic FF style, and I only include this heavy-handed introduction to emphasize the importance of doing your own research.
Now that the above business is dealt with, I can move on to discussing the actual plot. To understate the matter, SE has sacrificed sandbox mechanics (the ability to remove yourself from the main plot for a time and mess around doing side-quests, basically) for a sense of what many people have critiqued: linearity. While less ability to select what you're doing sounds like the devil's handiwork in gaming form, the plus side to this equation is that a supremely focused story can propel and immerse you in a way that few modern games, sandbox-oriented as they are, can boast of. The caveat to this is that the story must be an engaging one, and whether XIII accomplishes this is solely subjective to the player. For my part, the plot was believable, lacking any major or obtrusive plot devices to move the story forward, and the characters' emotional growth, particularly in the characters of Lightning and Hope, is gratifying to witness. If you're a gamer that seeks out thought-provoking material, XIII's plot has the underpinnings of such: the use of xenophobia to control a populace by way of fear and reliance on all-powerful deities, the somewhat overused theme of technological vs. naturalistic cultures and the consequences of replying too heavily on either, and the conflict between people and a largely fascist government.
However, the main issue with the plot lies mostly in the pacing. The complaint that Final Fantasy games start slow isn't a new one by any means, but the new linear approach that XIII has taken compounds this problem by limiting you to the main plot for the first two discs out of three, meaning there's no way to further explain and explore what's happening around you. When you begin the game, you've basically been thrown into the action with very little development of context: you know you're in a warzone, that you're in Cocoon, and that the woman you're controlling is a major butt-kicker. Other than that, you have no way of figuring out the complexities of the situation until much later when you have all the facts necessary to piece it together. This way of exposition isn't an abhorrent process, but when it's as overused as it is in the first discs it starts to feel like you're hurtling from one random situation to another. Fortunately, this issue has mostly resolved itself by the second disc, when the underlying motivation behind each character and their innate connections to each other are known. Finally, this very observation about a sort of "web" connecting the characters to each other is very Dickensian and frankly becoming one of my pet peeves; the story isn't helped very much by such coincidental connections, and the theme of human connection just didn't resonate with me. It may have been because I found this to be one of the most realistic FF plots ever in terms of human nature, and the huge leaps of faith and logic found in linking the characters together in a long and intricate series of coincidences seemed way out of place.
At last, we've come to perhaps the most important part of this review; does the new system, the unwieldy-sounding "Command Synergy Battle", measure up to expectations? Can anything take the place of basic turn-based gameplay in the eyes of SE's followers? Obviously, given my score you know I think it can and did to an extent, but it's my job to convince you that that number is valid.
I've decided to begin with some simple explanations of expected FF content before delving into the relatively complicated battle system. To obtain new weapons, you can receive them from treasure chests (which are floating, bouncing spheres this time around - go figure), but these are only first-tier weapons. To actually obtain strong weapons, you need to use XIII's new upgrade system accessed via save points, which consists of using drops and shop-bought materials to level up your weapons and improve their stats. There are no shops in the traditional sense, either; when you find a save point, you have the option to save your game, access online shop inventories or upgrade weapons. By obtaining licenses to use different shops, your access to different weapons, accessories, materials and consumables increases. As far as accessories go, they serve as your armor since there isn't an actual armor slot with the purpose of increasing any sort of defense, and range from simple stat increases to percentages to resist status effects to bestowing certain buffs at the start of battles.
The crystarium system is XIII's method of increasing stats and acquiring new abilities for the six "classes" in the game: commando, ravager, sentinel, synergist, saboteur and medic. To truly explain all the classes would make this review even longer than it already promises to be, but suffice it to say that tougher encounters in this game require constant, hectic shifting between classes to maximize tactical advantage over bosses and have produced some of the most involving RPG battles I've experiences in recent memory.
In general, the difficulty has been ramped up compared to other installments, and in an uber-casual gaming environment it's likely SE was feeling the heat of potential backlash towards old-school punishments for failure: to this end SE decided to add the "retry" button, which lets you restart after losing a battle a short ways away from where you began it. While seemingly beneficial in that a potential forgotten save won't set you back hours of gameplay, it also opens a lot of tough bosses up to trial-and-error approaches. To a certain extent, it feels like this was a concession that some of their fights require a lot of tries to figure out, and instead of fine-tuning the encounters they opened them up to the easiest replays possible. Other than this, I have no particular criticism for the system: it's a polarizing love/hate change, and I happened to fall on the adoring side.
Replayability/Hours of Play- 7/10
Ignoring all the beneficial aspects of a linear story, the bad part of trying to replay XIII is that you literally know everything that will happen in advance. While it is undeniably a fun game, by the time you've finished all the hardcore content after finishing the main story you may not be motivated enough to even take different characters through the game.
While the replayability aspect would barely garner a 3/10 from me (just isn't a core strength of FF games), the length of the main story is easily over 45 hours, which is practically an eternity compared to current RPG's, i.e. Bioshock and Mass Effect 2. Add in the extensive side quest missions, which I haven't finished yet, and I'm currently clocked at 75 hours of play. Whether you buy or rent, know that you'll get your money's worth at a far better price-to-time ratio than any other game you've played lately.
Final Score - 44/50, or 8.8/10 (9/10 for GameFAQs scoring purposes)
While the controversy is still raging over this game, helped along by the condemnations of several high-profile gaming reviewers, people have overcomplicated the very basic and formulaic result of time-tested strategies that is Final Fantasy XIII. Whether or not the battle system is highly automated and stylized in comparison to the relatively archaic turn-based systems that old-school fans fell in love with, it is still the same system, just simply sped up. Whether or not SquareEnix has buckled to populist demand and made their games more accessible and casual is not only an irrelevant question, but one that is pointless to ask as the answer is clearly an affirmative. If this game, with its few imperfections, is the result of an appeal to new, modern fans - the result of a studied, gradual departure from almost every tenet that has guided the Final Fantasy series for a decade and more - then I can do nothing more than give them my blessing, because the game has been a blast and a near-guaranteed success regardless of all the naysaying.
To any new, young FF enthusiasts whom this review might persuade to try this game: welcome to the experience and enjoy your stay.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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