Review by thirtyninesteps
The Adventures of Kobe Bryant & the Transformers
While playing this game one day, my friend happened to pass by and stole a glance. "Why is Kobe Bryant in this game?" she asked. I paused a bit and then burst out laughing. Of course, Kobe Bryant isn't in this game, but dangit if the character who is doesn't look like him. A lot of the characters I guess will remind us from time to time of real people. Perhaps that's due to the advance of technology blurring the lines between fiction and reality. FFXIII certainly pushes the boundaries when it comes to realistic character models and expressions. Surely it couldn't be how immersive this game is? Nay, I'd say among Final Fantasies, this is among the least immersive. It could be the character development, which took a step up from FFXII. But in the end, I'd sooner dismiss it all to one's overly-active imagination.
A lack of imagination is certainly one thing at least FFXIII's detractors cannot accuse the graphic designers of. This game simply oozes production value. From the cinematic opening cutscenes, to the breathtaking finale, few games even barely touch the level of graphical showmanship that Squeenix has mustered for its flagship baby. It's the story, which has been erratic and wreaks something awful from time to time. How does FFXIII compare to its predecessors? Well, it has the traditional "save the planet" leit motif all prior FF's had. It's done in the typical FF sleight-of-hand as characters initially team together for their own selfish reasons and later realize they must fight for a common good. The story is cliche honestly, but there are very few good stories that are not these days. What's even more important is how it's presented and for about two-thirds of the 13 chapters in the game, FFXIII's story is revealed in flashbacks. Now flashbacks can be an iffy thing. Sometimes they can be annoying if you keep getting thrown in and out of flashbacks; it ruins the moment. However, when done correctly, flashbacks can meld seamlessly with the present day plot and in this humble reviewers opinion, that's what they succeeded in doing.
But no matter how good a story you have, it must 1st be accompanied w/ solid character development. Where FFXII disappointed me, FFXIII certainly has made up for. Every character has at least one "moment" in this game. To name a few w/o spoiling anything, Snow & Hope have a memorable scene, so too do Sazh and Vanille. Many of the character's pasts are told as mentioned before via flashbacks. This technique helps character development even more as it serves as a page turner to a good read. One just has to find out what happens. The unfortunate casualty here though is with gameplay. For much of the early parts of the game, you are forced to play with a predetermined group. They've even force you to play the first 4/5ths of the game as one long run from point A to point B. There are no sidequests until very late into the game.
Indeed, gameplay is arguably the most problematic issue for FFXIII. For starters, you'll very quickly realize that you have control of one and only one character. Here then is where FFXII exceeds that which was done in FFXIII. While XII had a gambit system that allowed you to customize the play of your non-controlled characters, no such system exists in XIII. Instead, players are assigned roles with names like Commando, Ravager, or Medic. In layman's terms, that would be Fighter, Black Mage, and White Mage respectively. When playing a role, your non-controlled characters will always act in a predictable manner and there's no way you can adjust it. You can change the role of any or all your characters by doing a "Paradigm Shift", but once in a role, your supporting characters will always act according to their preprogrammed AI. This really stinks when you want, for example, a character to cast offensive buffs instead of defensive ones. The other bad choice in gameplay was to make it "game over" if the character you control dies. There are plenty of ways to get cheap killed in this game. You might for example, get hit by a death spell. Or perhaps you might get hit by one powerful enemy followed by a critical strike from a weaker one. Or maybe just all enemies randomly decide to attack your lead character and your medic is too stupid to concentrate their healing on you. Yes folks, the luck factor is definitely more at play this time around.
It's not all bad news though. Here's the good. First, instant death kills are now far fewer in this game than they have been in the past. Second, this game actually allows you to retry battles that you lose. So if you're walking around concerned about not having saved in awhile, don't worry. Even if you get offed, the game can restart you in most cases right before you entered battle so that you can readjust your equipment/strategies and try again. Third, and perhaps the biggest advantage you have - unlimited MP. That's right, cast, cast, and cast to your heart's content. MP is so last generation. These advantages all serve to more than offset the negatives of the gameplay. To be completely thorough, there are other "disadvantages" the developers have taxed you with. Buffs are no longer permanent and wear off after a certain time. Even an "ultimate" accessory will only protect you 60% of the time. Aside from accessories, there is no way to increase your speed & defense permanently. But rest assured there are plenty of counter-arguments to accompany them. Buffs last long enough and there are "shrouds" in the game for giving extremely long-lasting buffs. Accessories will still protect you most of the time and for those times it doesn't, you can stack them for even more protection. Same goes for defensive accessories.
Now we've already talked about character development as it related to story, but what about as it relates to stat grinding? Exp in FFXIII is now known as CP and you must use CP on a Crystarium which is basically a 3-dimensional version of FFX's sphere grid, only more limited. You are not allowed to buff up your characters infinitely as they've allowed you access to only a few levels at a time. Not even after you've unlocked all levels will you even come near to maxing out your characters (not that you could in FFX, but you sure came a heck of a lot closer). Very often you'll find that the level you're on will be nearly maxed out by the time you reach the end of a chapter. This then is something I truly do not appreciate. One of the most appealing things of an RPG is the choice to be able to spend more time grinding so that later battles can be easier. I would have appreciated it more if they had locked away levels of the crystarium in a sidequest so that you could choose, go defeat a boss now or complete a sidequest for more powerful characters. Ultimately, this turns out to be a minor quibble since the game never gets overbearingly difficult. I guess I just don't like the man telling me how I should play the game.
Equipment upgrades though is definitely a chink in the FF armor. For starters, you can very possibly play the entire game w/o having once bother to upgrade. That's probably a good thing too since there is nowhere near enough upgrade materials to go around all six of your characters and their accessories. You'll find yourself constantly needing to replenish your supply of upgrade materials, which are divided into 2 basic categories. Materials that increase the exp multiplier and materials that decrease it but provide more base exp. For better or worse, you can use any material to upgrade any weapon/accessory. So even nonsensical combinations like a sword with a bone would work. The game doesn't bother to tell you any of this and instead encourages you to experiment with different combinations. Boy was I disappointed when I found out that was all it boiled down to! I also found it very discouraging to equip a new weapon I found when I had already spent so much time developing the one I had and it was more powerful than the new one. Overall, not a very well-thought out system so minus a point.
For some reason, Squeenix decided to revert back to FFIX nomenclature for summons calling them Eidolons instead. To use them, these beasts of burden must first be tamed. These battles are some of the most challenging in the game since you'll find brute force doesn't always work. Each character has but one summon and they can only use it if they have TP. Summons require 3 TP and you can only carry 5 rolls at a time. Aside from summons and personal hygiene, TP is used for a few other select abilities like scanning enemies and restoring health to your allies. Going back to Eidolons, when you summon them, they will battle with you until a timer runs out. Before it runs out though you can initiate something called Gestalt mode. It basically allows you to deal extra damage to your opponents using special attacks only available during this mode. Not too bad, but there was something peculiar about summons this time around. You'll find that your summons can actually transform into vehicles that the characters will ride! That's right, they're summons in disguise.
When it comes to extras, it's really feeling as if Squeenix isn't even trying anymore. In past FF's, we were able to farm Chocobos, sing opera, play Blitzball, unlock hidden characters, here? We're able to go on missions. You basically run around looking for stones that will start the mission for you. When you find it, you'll receive some background on the mission (in text...grrr) and the mission will begin. This always involves going to another point and killing a monster to receive a reward. For those of you keeping track, this is the same exact thing we were fed in Crisis Core. I didn't like it then, and I'm not gonna like it now. Completionists can also go for several achievements that involve a lot of grinding because unlike previous FF's that had too much money to spend and not enough things to buy, FFXIII has too many things to buy and not enough money. C'mon Squeenix, there's got to be a middle ground somewhere! Unfortunately, the best way to farm Gil (the universal currency of the FF universe) is to fight giant turtles for Placido Domingo's. Who knew turtles were such big opera fans? Minus another point.
So where does that leave you? Well let's put it this way, if you're like me and a fan of the series, buy it - end of story. If you like the occasional RPG, don't want your games overly complicated, and play infrequently, then also buy it - when it reaches about $20. This game loves to hold your hand through everything and there are tons of pages reviewing anything you might have forgotten or missed. If you're a fan of traditional RPGs, one's where you have complete or almost complete control of every character in your party and can explore as many towns as there are dungeons (there are only two towns that you ever truly visit in FFXIII and you can't return to either of them later), then you might want to steer clear. And lastly if you hate all things FF, then why the heck are you even here in the first place? I definitely enjoyed this game, but it's kinda like your best friend who changed over the summer. You still like the guy, but dangit he used to be way cooler. I gave an 8 out of 10 for FFXIII, but would probably also be happy to give it a 7.5 out of 10. Take out of that whatever you want.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Final Fantasy XIII (US, 03/09/10)
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