Review by nintendosega

"At times incredible, at times a bit of a mess. But the compelling story and a revolutionary battle system make for a fun, addictive RPG experience"

Ever since Final Fantasy XIII was released in Japan, it's been the source of an unusual amount of controversy, something which quickly carried across to the West. As a result, the game's director and producer have actually made statements online to Western fans, attempting to justify Final Fantasy XIII's linearity. I'm not sure if I remember the internet hate reaching such a vocal level with the equally controversial Final fantasy XII before it released: it certainly never got to a point where the game's staff felt they had to make excuses for and try to speak for a game that, you'd think, would be able to speak for itself. Yes, Final Fantasy XIII is another installment that will divide fans and, pretty amazingly, it's for the exact opposite reasons that Final Fantasy XII did.

First and foremost, yes, as has been discussed to death for months, this game is linear. Linear storytelling is nothing new to the series, as all offline numbered Final Fantasy games have progressed in a linear fashion, small diversions aside. But yes, FF13 is by far the most linear of the group. Yes, it's more linear than FF10, and yes, that is possible. Much like FF10, the linearity in FF13 works within the context of the game's storyline, and it's used to propel that story forward, and until you get to chapter 11, you can't ever walk more than a few feet off the path the game has set you on. There are brief forks in the road, often leading to treasure chests or additional battles, but yes, Final Fantasy 13 features almost no free exploration or sidequests *whatsoever* until you reach the later portion of the game. Final Fantasy 10, which took a similar approach, broke up this linearity by allowing your characters to be, for example, passengers on a boat or airship and giving you the opportunity to wander these locations freely, chatting with people and finding hidden items. It allowed you to explore towns and seek out shops from time to time as well, and it allowed you in its final act to backtrack to all locations in the game. Final Fantasy 13, almost without exception, allows none of this, choosing instead to focus ENTIRELY on its story and combat, taking the series dangerously close to becoming a menu-driven action game.

(To clarify; you CAN journey back to Pulse before the final battle, but you can never backtrack to the locations on Cocoon.)

Now, I'm not saying this to dissuade you from buying the game. In fact, I'm encouraging all Final Fantasy fans and all Japanese RPG fans in general to play FF13. But I definitely do feel that if you go into it without knowing what to expect, you may be thrown for a loop, especially if you've been a fan of the series thus far, because this really is different. That said, despite how scary this all sounded to me too before I started it, much of this, well, actually works. I'm not thrilled with all of it, don't get me wrong, but it's a lot like Resident Evil 5 last year: I don't agree with this action-driven change in direction, but holy crap is this game fun to play, and wow, are those some INCREDIBLE cutscenes.

With that being out of the way.....

Visuals: A true visual showcase, FF13 looks amazing on a Standard Definition TV: you put this in HD, though, and it's an entirely different world. Final Fantasy has long pushed the envelope as far as visuals are concerned and Final Fantasy 13 is indeed one of the most stunning-looking games released this console generation. Some environments you explore through, like the forest in Chapter 6, are so amazing-looking that it's almost hard to believe that humans are capable of ‘creating' something like this. Nautilus (the one city in the game that you get to explore a bit of without combat taking place) is full of life, with detail on almost everything in sight and with (fully voice acted) people wandering around. These graphics are top notch, but that's nothing compared to the in-game cutscenes, featuring absolutely incredible character animation, facial expressions, and camera work….Final Fantasy 13 of course still features traditional FMV cutscenes, (and they're awesome, with FF12's FMV director returning) but they feel almost unnecessary, as the in-game engine ends up looking so amazing by itself. Final Fantasy XIII should be studied by anyone involved in video game cutscene creation for the rest of this console generation. Everyone has pulled out all the stops here to make sure that Final Fantasy XIII looks as amazing as possible, and some lengthy load times and noticeable slowdown (when walking around, thankfully, not in battle) don't take much away from this visual masterpiece.

Storyline: No game in recent memory has gripped me the way Final Fantasy XIII does, from the very first second of the opening cutscene. Beginning in the midst of an all-out purge on Cocoon, the floating futuristic world that the humans inhabit, and with nothing in the way of an introduction or explanation, the main characters are thrust into this dramatic battle right off the bat. Who they are, what they're doing there, what they're talking about….these questions are all unanswered at first as you witness and get to participate in an epic fight of resistance and survival. After the incredibly intense opening hour, things slow down a bit, allowing you to catch your breath, filling you in on some details, but still leaving others a mystery. These details are slowly revealed to you through some powerful flashbacks that occur throughout the story, showing what various main characters were separately doing in the twelve days leading up to the 13th day, the day of the fateful purge.

To say anything more would spoil you of the surprises in store, but the story, which takes you from the floating human civilization of Cocoon to the dead wilderness of Pulse, progresses at almost a non-stop rate. The main characters are all fleeing fugitives almost from the start, rarely pausing for long to catch their breath. This feeling of urgency and intensity drives the first 9 chapters of this 13-chapter adventure, and this is how the linearity works to the game's benefit. The story is very carefully paced, with cutscenes occurring roughly every ten battles or so as you travel through these stunning-looking environments. Allowing you to wander off, do other quests, and explore during the first 9 chapters would prevent Final Fantasy XIII from keeping its desired feeling of relentless pursuit. Brief moments where the characters can stop and take a breather (for example, the city of Nautilus) where no monsters are attacking them or no soldiers are chasing them, end up being very rare and serve as a huge sigh of relief for these characters, who spend most of this journey on the run. This breakneck pace and almost unrelenting urgency, as well as the very frequent (and well-made) cinematics, make the first 9 chapters incredibly compelling, and you'll find yourself playing this for hours without being able to set the controller down.

In one of Final Fantasy XIII's cooler features, the characters spend much of these first 9 chapters apart from each other, often in small groups of two or three at a time, which allows us plenty of opportunity to learn about each individual character. It also means that they all get plenty of use in combat. Much has been said about Final Fantasy XIII's refusal to let you pick your characters for the majority of the main adventure, (around 46 hours for me with only a couple sidequests and a couple instances of level grinding) but once again, it's in service of the story and I think it's easily one of FF13's better features.

The story both loves to thrill you and emotionally grab you, and Final Fantasy XIII's set pieces (like a chase scene on a racetrack above a massive city like something right out of F-Zero GX) are very memorable. Even with all the fun and exciting action, things do get serious for some incredibly moving scenes, and some of these are sure to stay in my mind for years. The flashbacks involving Snow and his girlfriend Serah are highlights, especially with the great “Serah's Theme” (more on the music later) playing behind them. One particular scene at a fireworks show in the city of Bodhum has become one of my favorites in the entire series. Balancing out these scenes are rather dark notes, like suicide, war, missing children, and even the process of loading the soon-to-be-purged onto trains evokes some Holocaust imagery. Darker than your usual Final Fantasy storyline, for sure, but at the same time, the characters' sense of optimism prevents things from getting too dark or depressing. Though there's no love story among the main cast (at least, not outright,) the tragic love story between Snow and Serah provides the heart of this journey, and it's here that Final Fantasy XIII really shines.

Despite all this, it's not all (as one character, Sazh, puts it) “sugar and rainbows” in the plot department. Final Fantasy XIII falls victim to its fair share of melodrama as well. While the series has never exactly been the most subtle, it's certainly been more nuanced than this. Characters often demonstrate their flaws, state their goals, discuss their motivation…over and over again. Most of the time the dialogue's very convincing, but at other times, it's incredibly awkward, and I'm not sure what happened there. Though I wasn't a big fan of Final Fantasy 12, I will admit that it featured a top-notch English translation and nearly perfect vocal performances, and in Final Fantasy 13, though the script's often solid and some of these actors do an incredible job, I can't help but feel that some corners have been cut in the translation. It's certainly not worse than any other Japanese RPG, and definitely better than most, but coming after Final Fantasy 12's superb localization, it's a bit jarring to see some of the corny and unnatural dialogue that occasionally presents itself in Final Fantasy XIII.

Then again, the story does call for a lot of it. As I said, these characters are constantly on the run, constantly in battle, constantly escaping from soldiers as they flee through cities…with all this, there are very few moments when this cast gets to relax and have more natural conversations. Almost everything's a command, almost everything carries a sense of urgency, and almost every cutscene serves to hammer home each characters' personality flaws. I felt that Final Fantasy 10 did an incredible job at making its characters feel like real people. FF13's cast, likable as almost all of them are, (except Vanille and, disappointingly, Fang) never reveal themselves to be much more than one-note characters. Snow's almost entirely in “hero mode” or “determined to help Serah” mode: there are very few layers to his personality, and that's sort of the problem here. The game lacks the quiet, more natural moments that would develop these characters into real, human beings. It was something I liked so much about Final Fantasy 9 and Final Fantasy 10 and it's disappointing not to see that here. The one exception is Sazh, easily the most layered and human character in the entire game. I wish others in the cast were given that opportunity.

The final flaw I have with Final Fantasy XIII's story is its structuring. Though the first 9 chapters feature very frequent cutscenes and character-driven events and action sequences, the game eventually switches gears, and starting at around chapter 10, you're thrown into much bigger areas with far fewer cutscenes. Soon after this, you get to explore the world of Pulse, and it's here that you're allowed to freely traverse a gigantic, incredible-looking field occupied by huge, wandering monsters, some hidden cutscenes, and (for the first time) monster hunting sidequests scattered throughout a vast landscape. Stupidly, as if fearing that the game's emotional moments would be lost in this type of setting, the developers apparently chose to cram all character development into the 9 (linear) chapters, leaving almost nothing left for the rest of the game. Starting in chapter 10, these characters, who spend the preceding chapters in much smaller groups, are now one large party who barely knows each other, and their eventual motivation for saving the world is practically non-existent. This leads up to a rather emotionally detatched ending (intentionally?) that, while interesting, I definitely don't think will be everyone's cup of tea. The way FF13 handles its storyline (frontloading it all into the first 9 chapters) means that the characters I see standing in front of the final boss at the end of chapter 13 just feel like shadows of their former selves. Since you don't see them experience any meaningful development for such a long time, it's hard to still care about them all that much when you reach the game's end. Feels like they should have headed to the final boss after chapter 9, but the developers felt the need to (awkwardly) throw Pulse in there....what a mess...

Anyway, flaws aside, this is still one hell of a journey. At one point, the characters stand atop a tower and look out at the dead world of Pulse while Hamauzu's soundtrack simply soars: there's no other word for it. It's here that weight of this journey and all that these characters have seen and been through in just a few short days finally hits home, and it's quite a show-stopping moment. I'm still not convinced that the "field trip" to Pulse was at all necessary from a story perspective, (and the way it's integrated feels like an afterthought) but that scene and the next couple hours of gameplay won me over anyway. They do this with the powerful atmosphere that I've always loved about this series taking front and center before the grand finale. This is, flaws aside, a great story, one that's (for much of the game) very well-told and I think many will have the same feeling as I did, which was to exist in a near-constant state of eagerness to pick this back up again whenever I wasn't playing it. Just so I could see what would happen next in this rather thrilling tale.

Gameplay: Final Fantasy XIII is divided, for the most part, into cutscenes, walking forward, and battling. As you wander through these environments, there's nothing to do aside from pressing on, collecting treasures you find, and, when you see an enemy, engaging in battle. First and foremost, with FF12 and now this, it's clear that the series has left random battles behind for good. You see all the enemies wandering the field. Sometimes they'll be fighting with each other, and sometimes they'll group together. Making contact with one brings you to a battle screen. The good news with this system is that once you fight a battle, it's gone. There are ways to bring back battles in an area but if you want to backtrack for whatever reason, you don't have to worry about the enemies coming back, at least, not right away. Leveling up is handled with the Crystarium System, which functions very similarly to the Sphere Grid from FF10. You gain points for enemies defeated and you can spend these guiding a light across a path, lighting up nodes that grant you stat increases, like “Strength +20” or “HP + 100” or something like that. You can only progress a certain distance per chapter on this grid, and for the first 9 chapters of the game, each character is limited in a set role. For example, Lightning can only level up her job as a Commando or Ravager at first. As the game opens up, though, you can teach her skills as a Medic, Synergist, etc. I love this system, it's like a much easier to use Sphere Grid, and since you can pretty much make progress on the grid (even if it's only a node) after each battle, the feeling of progression and getting stronger is constant.

And you'll certainly need to get strong, because this game can be challenging. The ATB gauge (when it fills up, you get to make your move) is pretty fast, giving battles a very hectic and exciting feel. You only have direct control over your Leader character, with others handled by the AI. Unlike other games with AI characters, though, the AI has no choice but to do exactly what you tell it. The way this works is that each character has a role in battle, called a Paradigm. Let's say you get into battle. You have all your characters “Relentlessly Assaulting” the enemy, which pretty much means they're all attacking it at full force. Doing this has two benefits: it makes battles go faster, and it also helps build up the enemies' Stagger gauge much quicker. Once staggered, the enemy's defenses are crippled dramatically, and, for the next minute or so, your attacks all do much more damage than they otherwise would.

However, let's say the enemy attacks your party, and all of a sudden you need to heal. Well, you should switch to a different paradigm (a deck of which you have set up from the game's menu). This new paradigm may have Lightning and Sazh continue physically attacking the enemy, while Hope heals. Since Hope is now assigned a Medic position, he can't do anything but healing moves, reviving KOed characters, or curing status effects until you switch him to something else. Once he heals your party (in a matter of seconds) switch back to Relentless Assault and continue hammering the enemy with attacks. The system's a work of genius: how many times in RPGs with AI characters have you been at low health and yet your AI-controlled allies were too dumb or busy to notice and heal you? Well, that problem's gone entirely here, as, basically, you want your character to heal, you switch to that job, and boom. They have no choice to heal you. It still has all the benefits and control of being turn-based with all the excitement of an Action-RPG battle system and I've never played anything like it. When attacking the enemy, you have a certain amount of moves you can stack at once, which grow as your characters grows stronger. Since you'll face many different enemies and since you'll have lots of different jobs and strategies, combat almost always feels fresh, and the battle system favors planning a strategy over level grinding. (Probably why the levels are capped per chapter.)

You're healed after each battle, and the enemy can't "surprise," or stagger you. Save points seem to be every five battles or so, (and these save points contain item shops) but it hardly matters, as dying in combat provides no penalty. You just start right in front of the enemy again. These all seem to be advantages way too far in your favor at first but after a few hours into Final Fantasy XIII you'll be thankful for each one of them, because even during regular battles you'll need all the help you can get.

But, (and I can't stress this enough) this is all unbelievably fun. Staggering an enemy and bashing it up into the air to relentlessly pummel it with attacks offers a feeling of satisfaction that's pretty addictive and the drive to stagger tough bosses will make you have to carefully choose between cautiously fighting (keeping a healing character in) or going all out with physical attacks and risking a quick death. Or, switching between the two rapidly during combat. Each character also unlocks their own summon over the course of the game, and these function somewhat similarly to how they did in Final Fantasy 12, with the summon replacing the other party members and fighting with you. However, in Final Fantasy 13, the summon actually heals you in addition to attacking the enemy, so no longer do you feel wide open to attack when using a summon. After you both attack the enemy for a little bit, you can transform your summon into a vehicle or a horse, and your character gets to ride it, further unleashing attacks. Some of these elaborate transformations (especially Sazh's summon, created specifically for this game) have to be seen to be believed: great stuff. (Your other characters are also fully revived after you're done with your summon, so they're helpful that way too.)

Quickly you'll settle into the game's groove of running through linear but GORGEOUS environments, listening to an often amazing soundtrack, and getting into battles, and the gameplay becomes as addictive as the story. Sadly, FF13 doesn't provide you Gil (money) from winning battles, you only get it from selling loot. This loot can also be used to level up your weapons and armor, another fun feature.

This all sounds like a lot to take in, but thankfully, you're revealed little bits and pieces at a time. It takes a while for you to be told how to stagger enemies, before you're introduced to the level up system, before you're told about paradigms, etc, which prevents you from feeling overwhelmed at the start. On paper, this sounds like the ideal RPG for someone new to the genre, but it becomes pretty clear after a few hours (and especially once you reach the later chapters) that this game's not afraid to provide a substantial challenge. Sometimes it goes overboard. The summon battles in particular can reach controller-throwing tedium, especially later in the game. One of the three final bosses, too, goes way overboard with the status ailments. I do appreciate the challenge, (though keep in mind I've been playing Japanese RPG's since 2000) but I remember when Final Fantasy was somewhat of an accessible series: one with its share of challenge but still great to recommend to people new to RPG's. With Final Fantasy XIII, the difficulty of the *main quest* at times goes overboard from what I think this series should be. Since Final Fantasy XIII positions itself as such a story-driven experience, I feel that the developers have a responsibility to make sure that all who are drawn in by the story can actually reach the end, and (like with FF12) I don't think that will be happening with the more casual fans with FF13. True, the game does a great job of getting you into the combat system and all its mechanics, but you become so reliant on this that I found it intimidating, rather than liberating, when they finally relinquish control of your party and character classes to you in the middle of a very powerful group of enemies. Where do you even begin?

Is it flawed? Yes, sadly it's all a bit more flawed than I think I expected from the team that brought us Final Fantasy 10. Get past these issues, though, and you'll get to enjoy an intense, addictive, and challenging adventure from start to finish. The battle-heavy nature of the gameplay, which could have been a disaster, is saved by an incredible combat system and (for the most part) very frequent story progression and character stat progression. You're always moving, you're always making progress, and, until around chapter 10, there's absolutely ZERO downtime. Once at chapter 11, those who love sidequests and wandering are finally given the opportunity, (in a chapter with a very "tacked-on" feel to it,) while those simply interested in progressing the narrative are stuck with far fewer cutscenes than before. They still happen, of course, but it's off-putting to see characters who used to talk to each other in cutscenes every 10 battles or so suddenly silent for almost entire dungeons. Still, gameplay-wise and story-wise, Final Fantasy XIII is a resounding success. Certainly not perfect, and maybe not quite the return to “traditional Final Fantasy” some fans were hoping for, but it's a gigantic step back in the right direction after FF12 disappointed. With FF13, characters and story are placed in the forefront of a Final Fantasy once again. Finally.

Music: Masashi Hamauzu (one of the three composers from Final Fantasy 10) gets to take center-stage here in the music department, and he does a great job. Some tunes may seem slightly impersonal to the areas they're in and he does occasionally repeat tracks, but there's some surprising work in here unlike anything Final Fantasy has ever seen. (Wait till you hear Gapra Whitewood and Dust to Dust.) Serah's theme is an incredible vocal that brings so much emotion into every scene it's placed in, and its melody is rooted into several songs on the soundtrack. Not necessarily up to the best in the series, but still a masterpiece. Two J-pop songs were removed for the Western release. One was replaced (thankfully, without this ruining the moment) with Serah's Theme during the Fireworks scene, and the other song was replaced with a Leona Lewis track. It's fine, not something worth making a big deal out of, (the songs are pretty similar in tone, and, frankly, the Leona Lewis song is a lot less distracting than the Japanese one it replaced) though I hope it's a trend that doesn't continue with the series. One look at the characters should make it clear to anyone that this is a JAPANESE game, (not to mention the Japenese names in the opening credits,) so I don't know who they think they're fooling. Nobody would have been overly-surprised to hear a Japanese song on the soundtrack, trust me, Square-Enix.

Voice acting is, for the most part, very well done, with each actor and actress bringing a sense of life to their characters. Sazh, Hope, and Snow do a particularly great job, and though Snow has some weak lines, the actor manages to keep most of it at least somewhat believable. It's not quite up to the lofty standards set by Final Fantasy 12, and a lot of that has to do with either the translation or the script, which can occasionally feel unnatural or corny. Vanille also has a high-pitched voice, which can get somewhat irritating, and her lines in the second half of the game are pretty awful. Overall though, Final Fantasy XIII's a fantastic audio experience, and certain voice actors completely shine.

Verdict: And, with four to five years seeming commonplace now as a gap between major offline Final Fantasy titles, it's been a long wait to FF13 and it'll be a long wait until FF15. It almost feels like an entire gameplay era has passed in the wait up to this game's release, so completing it was actually a little bittersweet for me. Though a great game, it's at times hard not to think of how much better it could have been. Had we been allowed to explore more than a tiny beach in the seaside city of Bodhum, had we gotten to traverse some of Cocoon's environments without constantly fighting enemies, had we been given the chance to explore boats and airships instead of just seeing them in cutscenes…..I feel like this Final Fantasy could have been one that the fanbase universally loved: did they honestly think fans wouldn't mind that almost all RPG aspects like non-player character interaction, exploration, and sidequests were almost entirely eliminated from the Final Fantasy XIII experience in favor of a much more "action game" approach? How were the producers expecting fans to react?

Due to this, the game "settles" for being simply a great FF title that will certainly divide the fans. There are a couple scenes where you get to walk around a small space and speak to members of your party (that's at least a couple more than FF12 featured) and there are areas where you can wander around free of battles and listen to the non-player characters talk as you travel by. Sadly, there aren't nearly enough of these, and when they do arrive (for example, when inside Cid's massive airship, of which you can only explore a narrow hallway) it's hard not to feel a sense of disappointment at how small they are. Is Final Fantasy XIII a bit of missed potential in this sense? Yes, definitely. Even with that very disappointing decision, though, there's plenty to love here. The plot, the characters, the pacing, the visuals and cutscenes, the music, (most of) the English voice acting, and a perfect combat system all make Final Fantasy XIII one hell of a journey. It may not be quite the Final Fantasy classic that fans were hoping for (it doesn't come close to my personal favorites, 9 and 10) but it definitely holds its own in the series. Despite the radically different gameplay, it feels very much like a Final Fantasy game, something I couldn't say about FF12. Still, with FF11, FF12, this, and then the upcoming MMO FF14, it continues to feel that this series has become way too focused on combat, and I hope we see a reversal of that and a return to tradition with FF15, whenever that finally ends up arriving. Though I thoroughly enjoyed FF13 (and, at times, was blown away by it) I'm starting to miss the "traditional RPG" Final Fantasy that I love. Why has this series suddenly become so obsessed with being "the RPG for people who don't play RPGs"?

There has got to be a way to strike a balance between exploration and story pacing so that all fans of the series can enjoy the next installment: not just those who love exploration and hate cutscenes (Final Fantasy 12) or those who love cutscenes but hate exploration (Final Fantasy 13). I think there's a balance that can be achieved and hope it's shot for with FF15. In the meantime, fans should give FF13 a shot regardless of where they fall in this whole "exploration vs. linearity" debate. It's a true standout game and while some will love it and some will hate it, it's definitely a title that needs to be experienced.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/30/10, Updated 05/12/10

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

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