"Doesn't win any awards for storytelling, but otherwise superb"

The RPG is a dying breed. Part of this has less to do with this genre itself and more to do with what's happening in others. Where RPGs were once the go-to place for lengthy, compelling narratives, more action oriented genres (platformers, fighting games, etc) have closed the gap considerably in recent years. The challenge for RPGs, then, is to continue generating novel-caliber stories while not letting the gameplay side of things grow stagnant. Final Fantasy XIII, for its part, does one of these things very well: the combat system is fresh and fast-paced, while at the same time familiar enough to not feel out of place in a Final Fantasy game. The story, while not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, falls short of series standards for the second game in a row. Nevertheless, the overall package is a solid one, and well worth the wait.

The world of FFXIII is divided into two conflicting realms: the game starts within Cocoon, a giant sphere that floats high and isolated above the lower world of Pulse. Cocoon is maintained and its people provided for by beings known as fal'cie. Fal'cie, in turn, can select humans to accomplish special tasks: these humans are called l'cie, their task known as a Focus. Centuries ago, fal'cie from Pulse declared war on Cocoon, with its own l'cie leading the charge. Though Cocoon still stood when the dust settled, its citizens have been long ingrained with an acute fear and hatred of all things of Pulse origin. For this reason, as things get underway, large numbers of people are being forcibly deported by train to Pulse (called the “Purge”), under orders from the Pope Primarch of Cocoon, Galenth Dysley, in response to a Pulse-related incident that occurred in the city of Bodhum. One of these people is a young woman who goes by the name Lightning, a former soldier. Rather than being deported, Lightning apparently has a different agenda. She soon takes action, incapacitating the soldiers guarding the train and making her escape. Caught up in her actions is civilian pilot Sazh Katzroy, another deportee who tags along with Lightning, seeing her as his only means of surviving the day. Nearby, others are rebelling against the mass dislocation of innocents. Snow Villiers is leading a ragtag group of resistance fighters against the military forces. Left in his wake are Hope Estheim and a girl named Vanille, who also find themselves dragged into the conflict. For different reasons, they are all converging on the object that led the military to take drastic measures in the first place: a large structure housing a Pulse fal'cie. What happens there becomes the driving force for much of the game.

As you may recall, my biggest beef with the story of Final Fantasy XII was that, while it was very well written, was simply spread too thin and had one too many throwaway characters among the main party. FFXIII, in a sense, suffers from the opposite problem. There is most certainly enough story to fill the roughly 40 hour adventure (minus sidequests), but too much of it is disjointed and uninteresting. One of the biggest gripes among the fandom for this game is its uncompromising linearity, and indeed, the first twenty or so hours of the game offer little in the way of exploration off the beaten path. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Final Fantasy X made an ingenious move by leveraging its own linearity to enhance the focus and impact of its plot. Where FFX took a balanced approach to developing its characters while advancing the story, very little actually happens in FFXIII plot-wise for several hours after the events that take place on the Pulse fal'cie structure. Instead, we get truckloads of characterization for the main cast through dialogue and flashbacks to events that led up to the Purge. This would be okay, but the poorly written melodrama and idle banter partially sabotages the effort to get us to care about the cast. Lightning and Sazh are the saving graces of the whole affair. Lightning is angry, decisive, and dangerous, and the rest of the group sometimes can't help but be left in her dust. Sazh, while sometimes relegated to comic relief, is the most likable and believable character of the bunch, and his motivations for the things he does are easy to identify with. Things take a turn for the better eventually, when the game finally gets all the dialogue driven cutscenes out of its system and things start to happen. From that point on, the story does improve overall, and the ending is one of the best in the series. One odd thing to point out is the function of the game's datalog. There's a bizarre disconnect between the chapter summaries in the datalog and what's actually happening in the game. The datalog provides lots of extra information that you would not have reasonably surmised from the on-screen action, especially with regards to the characters' state of mind and motivations, which isn't even hinted at in some cases. Stranger still is that, in at least a couple cases, the datalog reveals important plot information before the game itself does, which can be really disorienting.

The gameplay and combat of FFXIII could best be described as traditional yet modern. The foundation is still a turn based system, but what is built on that is sped up and streamlined to the point where an observer might think you were playing an action game. The game makes a point of taking some good ideas from FFXII, which itself did things a lot differently than previous FFs. Controlling the flow battle is essentially a simplification of FFXII's Gambit system: you only have direct control over the actions of the party leader, with your two allies controlled automatically. However, unlike the Gambits, you don't establish a set of strict condition/action directions on each party member: rather, you change the overall party strategy (known as a “Paradigm”) on the fly to suit the changing battle situation. Paradigms are defined by which of the six possible roles you cast each member into. For example, you may start a battle with one character focusing on physical attacks, while the other two attack with magic, in order to quickly deal damage and eliminate enemies. However, say you came up against a powerful creature that wasn't damaged much by your attacks and had weakened your party considerably. You could then shift into another Paradigm that had two characters healing the party while the third member casts augmentation spells on everyone to give them some more firepower to use when you were ready to switch back to an offensive Paradigm. Mixing and matching roles into Paradigms that suit your individual style is a large part of what makes this system so enjoyable to use. It helps that the AI that dictates your allies' actions within their respective roles is fairly intelligent, and in fact will adjust which abilities are used as you learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of each individual enemy type, either through time spent fighting it or use of the Libra skill. A large factor towards success in using this system, especially as you get later in the game, is effective management of the enemy's “chain gauge”. As you attack an enemy, its chain gauge increases, serving as a multiplier for damage that you do. Once the gauge peaks, the enemy enters “stagger” state for a limited time, in which its defenses are lowered and you can really start bringing the pain. It's a system that rewards a good preparation and effective adjustment to the ebb and flow of battle, and is really fun to use and experiment with. One major design flaw tarnishes an otherwise masterful execution. If your party leader is KO'd, it's game over, even if your allies have the means to revive you. Aside from not making any sense whatsoever, it can get really aggravating when a tough enemy decides to unleash its super mega ultra attack on your unsuspecting leader and wipe you out before even having a chance to retaliate. Late game enemies even have the ability to insta-KO you, and there is no accessory in the game that completely protects you from it.

Visually, the game is top of its class. Practically every environment is absolutely gorgeous to look upon, and alive with color and detail. Of these, the crowning achievement is the design of the Pulse wilderness itself, which is a massive area with lots of branching paths and places to go and explore. The character design and animation is head and shoulders above anything the series (and most games for that matter) has yet accomplished. The audio enjoys similar degrees of success, for the most part. Masashi Hamauzu, in what will apparently be the last project of his 14 year tenure as a Square Enix composer, has put together an absolute masterpiece, rivaling the work of his mentor and Final Fantasy music legend Nobuo Uematsu. Just try and not get the battle theme stuck in your head. For the second game in a row, Square has opted to use an English vocal theme in the North American localization of the game, this time tapping British R&B star Leona Lewis, who does an excellent job with “My Hands”. Voice acting in the game is really solid all around, with one exception: Vanille. Her character is fairly shallow and unmoving to begin with, but her obnoxiously perky, faux-Australian voice (which is particularly funny when you consider that the actress actually IS Australian) just makes you want to punch her in the throat. On the opposite side of the quality spectrum is Galenth Dysley, whose smooth, cajoling cadence helps make him one of the more convincing villains the series has seen in a while. Technical execution and polish for this game is very good all around. Visuals only lag on very rare occasion, and loading times are barely noticeable aside from the initial load and chapter intermission sequences. While the game couldn't quite duplicate FFXII's seamless method of eliminating field-to-battle transitions, the transitions are short enough that it doesn't disrupt the flow of things.

Square has been trying for a while to break the conception by people who don't play RPGs that they are “fun to watch, but boring and tedious to play”, and FFXIII is clearly designed with that principle in mind. The game is, good story or no, a blast to play, and for that it deserves due credit. With the next installment in the series already planned as a MMORPG in the vein of FFXI, it may be a while yet before the next single player adventure comes around, so enjoy this one for what it's worth.

STORY – 7/10
VISUALS – 10/10
SOUND – 9/10
SWING – 10/10

OVERALL – 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/12/10

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

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