Review by Jagon
"Destined to be the overlooked gem of the series"
Every Final Fantasy release is an event. Square's beloved series has carried on for over 20 years now, and fan debate rages to this day about the virtues and downfalls of every title in this iconic series, but every Final Fantasy release is met with great fanfare and high ratings across the board. Every game until Final Fantasy XIII, that is. While this game has gotten very few outright bad reviews, the response has been severely underwhelming, and, from the viewpoint of this fan, unjustly so. Final Fantasy XIII is not just a great game against all of my expectations, it ended up being the best Final Fantasy title since at least VII. Here is my full opinion on this modern classic.
This number requires some elaboration. The combat system gets a 10/10, hands down. The battles are like nothing ever done before in a Final Fantasy game. Like Final Fantasy XII, there are no random battles. You can see the enemies on the map, and avoid them if you wish, although it is difficult and unprofitable to do so. Combat is fast-paced, strategic, and challenging, requiring players to think on their feet. The characters move around the battlefield as they attack, and much like in Chrono Trigger, the player must keep the character placement in mind when deciding what to do next. And, hey, you actually get to see your characters dodge attacks when enemies miss! No longer does the enemy clearly hit you followed by the word "Miss" popping up over your head. It took them thirteen main series games to come up with this. Thirteen! That's amazing to me.
Anyways, while the combat revolves around the active time battle system which is familiar to any Final Fantasy player, it's given a great twist in that you now queue up attacks ahead of time, requiring you to really think ahead. The ability to set up job decks and change them mid-battle is an incredibly interesting design, and it's pulled off marvelously. While at first, it may seem rather lame that damage doesn't carry over between combat, you will be very thankful for this in the late game, when even normal battles involve fighting enemies with hundreds of thousands of HP and incredibly strong attacks.
Additionally, the way players develop their characters also gets a 10/10. Every character has this level up tree called a crystarium, which is sort of like a mix between Final Fantasy X's sphere grid and Final Fantasy XII's license board. A list of jobs is given in which your character can level, and you get experience from fighting enemies, of course. You spend your CP (crystarium points) on new abilities and stat upgrades on the job trees. The crystarium has a capping point which rises as the story progresses. Some players may not like having their development artificially hindered, but I think it works rather well. This way, the battles stay fresh and challenging you can't simply over-level and then plow your way through. You still have to think quickly and strategically.
Where the gameplay falters a bit is in the out of combat experience. Many have complained about this game's linearity. Personally, I don't think it's that bad. It allows for a very tight and well-told narrative to unfold, and the story is good enough to keep the action going. However, the game does drag in some areas, and it gets off to a very slow start. The opening chapter, while important for setting up the game's story and for introducing newcomers to the combat system, is essentially useless for gameplay purposes after you've played through it the first time. Additionally, one or two areas do seem to go on for far too long. This is mostly made up for by late-game, when the world finally opens up and you're given a lot of freedom and tasks to accomplish. In fact, this aspect of the game is very similar to Final Fantasy X exceedingly linear for most of the game, followed by a large non-linear area for you to play around in. In truth, most of your game time will probably be spent in this area. Anyways, summing up, this aspect of the gameplay gets a solid 8/10.
The story is intriguing and involving, enough to keep the action going, but not anything incredibly special. In the end, it essentially boils down to your basic group of young adults (not all teenagers this time, thank God) out to save the world, with a light dash of romance, as is usual for Square. No, what makes this game so special is the characters. The story to this game mainly succeeds because it focuses on the personal journey of these six people, and their peaks and valleys in spirit and character.
Truth be told, I haven't been too thrilled with many of Square's characters in recent Final Fantasy games. I'm pleased to report that Final Fantasy XIII has, easily, the best batch of characters Square has come up with since Final Fantasy VI. Lightning is the best lead we've seen since Cecil, way back in Final Fantasy IV. Only one of the characters annoys me (a record for post-Final Fantasy VI games), and even then, it's only for a bit; he actually grows and develops as the game continues. Ok, and Vanille can grate a bit near the beginning, mostly because her voice actress can't decide on an accent, but out of all the young, perky girl characters that Square simply insists on putting in every recent title, Vanille is easily the most tolerable, and has the most depth of character.
But these aren't really the characters I want to talk about. What really sold this game to me can be summed up in two words: Sazh Katzroy. Seemingly by accident, Sazh ends up stealing the spotlight in this game in a major way. Square did something amazing here. They managed to create one of the most standout and memorable characters of any Final Fantasy game by taking the most unlikely route imaginable making Sazh a completely normal person. I love JRPGs, but every JRPG character is, to some extent, a cartoon or a cliche. If they aren't that, they're some God-like badass who is on a pedestal that nobody else could ever achieve, not even the other powerful characters in-game. Not Sazh. Sazh is the most realistic, relatable, and human character in any Final Fantasy game. Maybe even in any JRPG. He's down-to-earth and thoughtful, but never self-involved or whiny. He has a big heart and a lot of compassion, but he's modest and never shoves his kind nature in your face. His personal predicaments are understandable and extremely sympathetic. Sazh steals every scene he's in, and is one of the major reasons I love this game so much. I'd recommend him to be the new symbol of Final Fantasy in place of Cloud, but Sazh is far too humble for that.
Moving on, another place this game improves over other titles in the series is the dialogue. I loved Final Fantasy X, but let's face it some of the dialogue in that game, particularly in the romance scenes, was stilted and wooden enough to be in Attack Of The Clones. Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XII were even worse in that regard, and don't even get me started on Final Fantasy VIII. But in this game, with the exception of one or two scenes, the dialogue flows smoothly and naturally, and the characters talk mostly like normal people. Like I said, there are exceptions Snow, in the beginning, is very hammy and over-the-top, but this can be excused because Snow simply is a hammy and over-the-top kind of guy, but in an endearing way.
The graphics are, simply put, amazing. I won't spend too much time on this, since this is basically the only aspect of the game where I haven't heard any complaints, but needless to say, this is the best looking game in the series by a long shot. Everything is lush and vibrant, the pre-rendered cutscenes are heartbreaking and gorgeous in design, and best of all, it doesn't suffer from Next-Gen Syndrome (making everything brown and black, and covering it all in bloom). The first few environments may seem rather bland despite the impressive technical graphics, but you quickly get to many areas which are full of life and color.
This is the only aspect where the game really falters. If I recall, this is the first of the series to be scored without long-time composer Nobuo Uematsu involved, and boy, does it show. The stupid techno songs with vocals (?!) that serve as the themes for quite a few of the maps in this game are absolutely no replacement for the grand orchestral pieces of Nobuo. The Nautilus theme, a remix of the chocobo theme, is particularly cringeworthy, and the song which plays over the end cutscene is a joke. Fortunately, this is all made up for somewhat by the themes which play in the non-linear area of the game, almost all of which are up to Final Fantasy's high standards. Since this area is where you'll be spending most of your time, this is a very good thing.
As far as sound effects go, there's really not much to say. They do their job, and none of them seem out of place even the hilarious and cartoony goblin punching sound effects work quite well.
I decided not to rate this particular aspect because it's a difficult concept in the case of this game. Due to the game's linear nature, it's hard to say that it would be worth playing through again, except to enjoy the combat system and the story if you so choose. However, there is still a lot to do after the game is over the game gives you a very nice reward for completing the game which serves as a good incentive to keep playing, and although, sadly, there is no New Game Plus, Final Fantasy XIII is generous to those who wish to keep playing after wrapping up the storyline. In short, while you may not pick this game up often after completing it, you will spend many, many hours completing it, long after required.
Final Score: 9/10
Final Fantasy XIII is a flawed masterpiece that gamers should greatly enjoy. I believe that some of the relative indifference being shown toward this game can be blamed on the advent of western RPGs in recent years games like Mass Effect and Fallout 3 are exceedingly non-linear and offer a lot of freedom to the players. In my opinion, this is extremely unfair. Those games are very good in their own way, but they don't capture even a fraction of the magic Final Fantasy XIII is able to offer. This game seems destined to go down as an overlooked gem, but I hope time will correct this error and show Final Fantasy XIII for what it really is a resounding success and an instant classic.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 03/17/10
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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