Review by Unabomber256

Reviewed: 03/22/10

Square Enix's flagship fantasy is finally here and it's an ambitious game that tries some new things.

The following is my initial impression of the game. I'm currently about half way through the main story (chapter 8 of 13) and have logged 24 hours of play time.

The curse of the Final Fantasy series is that it's never really final. There are 13 of them (including X-2 and excluding XI) and every new installment has to been held up to all those that have come before. As perhaps the most celebrated RPG series in the world, living up to your predecessors is no small challenge. There is folly in comparing the games however because each one stands alone as its own complete experience, the installments having only token similarities that are really more like traditions than rules. Perhaps the greatest Final Fantasy tradition is to break with the standards of previous games. What makes a Final Fantasy game then isn't so much what it has in common with the others but what it does differently. Invariably fans will cry foul, declaring that the series has been ruined, screaming of sacrilegious changes to familiar formulas and calling for designers' resignations. I believe the whole point of Square Enix's flagship series is to push the company to produce something that is both familiar and totally new at the same time. Well with Final Fantasy XIII they have certainly done that.

So I know it's ironic given what I just said, but I'm going to start of by comparing XIII to another game. More than anything else this game reminds me of FFX. The story is similar. It’s about a small band of people who's mission will likely spell their doom whether they succeed or not. They both have a progression system that abandons traditional levels in exchange for a branching path that increments attributed one at a time. They are both highly linear games with limited opportunities for sidequests or exploration. Finally, they are both the first Final Fantasy games for their respective console generations, setting new standards for graphical excellence.

So there's that comparison. Now lets talk about what makes XIII unique, and we'll start with the obvious, the battle system. Back in 1991 Square put out FFIV and with it a new battle system called the Active Time Battle system. ATB changed the way we fought battles from a turn based system to one in which time "flows" and characters act when their individual ATB gauges fill, usually a function of their speed stat. Since FFIV every game since has had some variation of the ATB system (with the exception of FFX).

FFXIII's variation is the most radical yet. Your character has a bar that fills like normal only now the bar has segments and different actions use up different numbers of filled segments. This means that you don’t have to wait for your bar to fill completely before executing an action. For example a basic attack only costs one segment. If you had a bar with two segments filled you can hit a button and use up the first two segments to instantly perform two attacks. If you had the third segment half filled it would carry over to the first segment, so you it wouldn’t be wasted. This can be useful if you know an enemy is only going to take two more hits to kill. You can finish it off quickly and move on to the next without having to wait for the bar to fill.

It doesn’t stop there. Did you notice before I said “your character” has a bar? It’s singular for a reason. In battle you directly control one lead character. The other characters in your party (max party size is three) are controlled by the computer and their actions are dictated by whatever their paradigm roll is; more on rolls in a moment. So what happens if your one controllable character dies? Game Over. This means that paramount to anything else is your lead character’s health.

So what are rolls and paradigms? Rolls are like the job classes of the past, only instead of a job with a mix of actions that could span attack and defense the rolls are strategic foci and are highly specialized. When assigned to a roll a character will do one specific thing; a commando attacks, a medic heals, a sentinel defends, a synergist buffs, etc. There is no crossover. A medic cannot do a simple weapon attack for example. The paradigms are pre-set roll assignments for the characters in your party. Paradigms can by shifted on the fly during battle. So you can go from having a commando and two ravagers (a second attacking roll used to drive up a chain gauge, more on that in a moment too) to having a sentinel, medic, and synergist with the push of a button (OK two pushes and some stick work). This would be useful if you were low on health and needed to shore up your defenses.

So what then is a chain gauge? Each enemy you fight has a chain gauge along with their health bar. Buy damaging the enemy their chain gauge will fill up. When the gauge is full the enemy becomes staggered and will take more damage. Staggering enemies is a vital part of FFXIII’s battle system. The whole thing works like this. Enemies have weaknesses that when exploited will drive their chain gauge up faster. Ravagers can cast elemental magic and perform elementally charged physical attacks. You either use a librascope (an item) to scan the enemy’s weakness or let the AI figure it out by trail and error. The ravager’s pound the enemy with its weakness element while a commando, just by being there, slows the chain gauge’s recovery. The enemy gets staggered and the commando starts doing beaucoup damage until it is dead or it recovers from the stagger. Rinse, repeat. And that’s your combat system folks.

So I mentioned that the progression system is like FFX’s. There are no character levels, just stats that are boosted one at a time. FFX had the sphere grid which let you occasionally choose which path you wanted your character’s development to take. FFXIII is similar but instead of a grid you have this weird crystal lattice thing. Each character has three rolls that they can be assigned for the main portion of the game (you get more after you beat the story). Each roll has a path with stat nodes on it. Spend Crystal Points (experience points basically) and you can move along the path from one node to another. Occasionally you can choose whether or not to branch off the main path but this usually only leads to one side node and then you’re back on the main path again. At first glace it has the appearance of giving you a choice but it’s really pretty linear. The only choice is deciding which roll to level up first. The crappy thing is that you can’t power level at all in the main story. Your crystal paths will come to an end and you have to wait until the next chapter of the game before more of the path opens up.

The third big change is the way you get equipment. Every save point is also a store. It’s like a futuristic shopping terminal. You can access stores virtually through the terminal… and I guess they beam you the products you buy Star Trek style. It’s a neat idea that doesn’t make a lot of sense but whatever. There are no traditional stores in the game, you just use the save points. You can equip a weapon and at least one accessory to protect you or confer some ability. Weapons and accessories have levels, and herein lies the true method of power leveling. Enemies you kill drop loot instead of money. You can sell the loot or you can use certain types of loot called components to upgrade your weapons and accessories. This is a game in and of itself with a complicated system for determining how much a component improves an item. Since you can keep fighting enemies and collecting loot you could theoretically build up a really strong character early in the game. However, because of how long this would take it’s really not worth investing a lot of time on loot farming until later in the game.

Well there’s the synopsis of the game. So what are my impressions of FFXIII? For starters let me just say that bottom line, it’s a good game. Is it an amazing, perfect 10? No. What I think Square Enix was trying to do was create a more cinematic and action-oriented game than Final Fantasy games of the past. The battle system is designed to be streamlined and fast moving, and it is! There are times when the flurry of attacks and the rapid shifting of paradigms create a truly exciting game play experience. The thing I don’t like about it is not being able to control all three characters. It was a cool idea and most of the time I dig the paradigm system. But sometimes I just want a character to do a very specific thing and I can’t tell them to do it. All I can do is paradigm shift and prey the AI figures it out. I wouldn’t mind it so much except you can’t dictate who your leader is, that’s determined by where you are in the story. I’ve always found it annoying in FF games when I’m stuck with a certain group of characters but at least in past games I could control those characters. So, it’s an interesting idea SquareEnix but next time no thanks.

The second problem I have is the pacing of the game. Like I said, they made it very cinematic. There are tons of cutscenes! These scenes tell the story at regular intervals throughout the game. The trouble is that they tend to break up the action too much. In past FFs you would enter a new area, have a cutscene, play through the area having many battles, get to the boss, cutscene, boss fight, cutscene, next area. In FFXIII you’ll have a cutscene at the beginning and end of each area but you’ll also have three or four during passage through the area. That could actually be pretty cool except that you only get two or three battles between each cutscene. At first this was OK but as I got towards the middle of the story I found that both the cutscenes and the battles were getting tedious. The battles would get really long because the enemies were stronger but they weren’t interesting enough to justify the length. The cutscenes stopped being impressive around chapter 6. I wish they would just put it all in one big scene and sum it up so I can get back to playing the game. I’ve read elsewhere that the momentum picks back up in the latter third of the game. We shall see.

Hands down, the weakest part of the game is the crystal leveling thing. Like I said before it doesn’t give you the freedom to develop your character as you might think it would. Really it just feels like work. Instead of leveling up my character automatically they make me do it, but the experience doesn’t have any appeal or feel rewarding. I’m just holding a button while watching a line and some crystals light up. On top of that the whole thing is presented in this 3D crystal model which is pretty to look at but unwieldy to use. It’s just too much trouble when I have to use the thing every ten minutes. Something like the sphere grid from FFX or even better the license grid from FFXII would have been a better choice.

That’s the bad stuff. On the plus side the graphics and amazing; even on my dinosauric standard definition TV. The story is pretty good. It’s your standard Final Fantasy story. It’s not going to win any awards but it’s engaging none the less. It’s interesting enough that I’m anxious to see how it turns out. OH! And they get a big thumbs-up for putting a story summary in the game that you can read at any time. I love it when RPGs do that, and they really went all out creating an encyclopedia with people, places, history, and the game summary that updates as you go. The characters are your typical Final Fantasy characters. They can be annoying but none of them are as obnoxious as Brother from FFX/FFX-2 so fear not.

I really do enjoy the battle system despite its flaws. The paradigm system is fun and exciting. The biggest impact of the new battle system is that it increases the difficulty of the game. Having the loss of one character end the game creates plenty of opportunities for failure. I don’t think I’ve ever died this much in a Final Fantasy and that’s a good thing. Finally, I like the weapon upgrade mini game a lot. It’s fun the way the bazaar from FFXII was fun, but it’s a little more straight forward too which is nice. I just wish it played a bigger roll in the early game.

I don’t give games number ratings because I think they’re misleading (I gave it an 8 for gamefaqs because I had to). All I can say is that I have had fun with the game and plan to spend a lot more time with it. I would recommend it to fans of Final Fantasy and RPG fans in general provided they take into account the negatives I mentioned. If you’re too much of a traditionalist you may just want to go back a play an early FF over again. I can’t say that I’d recommend paying $60 for the game either. It’s $60 worth of game no doubt, and I don’t feel like I wasted my money. However, I’ll bet most folks could stand to wait a while longer until the price drops. If you’ve never played an RPG before this may be a good place to start. It’s simpler than a lot of other RPGs out there, and it might appeal to a more action oriented player.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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