Review by LynnJynh9315

"Such a departure from FFXII that some will be dissatisfied-but otherwise a superb entry"

It was 2006 when Final Fantasy XIII was first announced during E3. Those familiar with the series will recall that FFXII wasn't even out yet and we were already being treated to its sequel: a trailer that was so impressive, it made the soon-to-be-released title look like a major let down. For many people—myself included—FFXIII represented hope in light of the disappointing title we were about to receive. With its major shift away from turn-based systems into the realm of what looked like real-time, FFXII seemed poised to disappoint. Furthermore, Final Fantasy XIII featured an enigmatic and intriguing woman at its lead who actually looked like she could carry the title all on her own.

As a huge fan of Final Fantasy X—my first introduction to the series—I set out on a decade long endeavor to play through the series I had missed. As of the current date, I have played every main-series entry except the first three and IX (and FFXI, though it hardly counts as a FF in the truest sense). I must admit that I do not count FFXII among my favorites, so readers would do well to consider me biased in that area—otherwise I am very familiar with the series and offer about as unbiased of an opinion as a passionate fan can have. Opinions among FF circles tend to be rather heated, so you might also note that I am not a FFVII fanboy, but I nevertheless respect the title for what it is and what it did to the genre.

In my opinion, FFXIII can ultimately be summed up in one word: refinement. Some may favor the word “excision”—and there is definitely a point to be had in that descriptor—but for the most part, XIII improves upon previous ideas in the series and manages to take the franchise forward in new and promising directions. As a person truly impressed by the announcement trailer four years ago, it pains me to admit that FFXIII is not perfect. In order to properly explain these problems and examine its merits, this review will be broken down into the usual methods of analysis.

—Gameplay 10/10—
Due to the major innovations introduced to the combat system in its predecessor, FFXII, it makes sense to begin evaluating FFXIII's gameplay first. While sounding plausible in theory, the combat system of FFXIII is such a complex animal that it easily defies any simple explanation. FFXII, the last game in the series, could probably best be described as a fusion of ATB (that's Active Time Battle, where a gauge must fill before you can act) and real-time battle systems (such as the Kingdom Hearts series).

For the most part, FFXIII is more of a modified ATB system than it is real-time; the game removes the freedom of movement during combat and reinstates the flashing shift from an exploration field to that of a combat screen. In addition to this, FFXIII splits the ATB meter into different segments, and different actions require a specified number of segments be filled before the action can be taken. Attacking might require one segment, but high level cure spells may require as many as four. In addition to this, FFXIII's battle system is noticeably flashier and fast-paced. Despite its similarities to XII's system, FFXIII probably has more in common with FFX-2 (a good thing, since X-2's combat system was exceptional in light of its other failings).

Most of the complexity in FFXIII's system comes from something called paradigms, which control what role each character plays in combat—with a total of six possible combinations allowed at a time. Roles are essentially a modification and upgrade of the job systems featured in FFV, FFT and FFX-2, the main difference being that FFXIII only features six roles: commando, ravager (similar to B. mage), healer, saboteur (status inflictions), synergist (status enhancements) and sentinel (which takes damage for other characters). Although initially straightforward, the battle system is actually quite complex, with every role becoming essential to combat. Despite this complexity, the interface is shockingly simple.

Perhaps the most astonishing improvement is FFXIII's battle system, however, is the AI. Whereas FFXII's gambit system was tedious and required constant babysitting to rearrange the parameters of the AI, paradigms allow the player better control over the AI and entails no hand-holding whatsoever. The AI is so intuitive that seems ever aware of the player's needs and—with an on-the-fly shift of paradigms—the characters act in a flawless manner according to their role.

In short, Final Fantasy XIII's battle system is ridiculously fast paced but incredibly complex and deep. The system is more simplified and accessible than that of FFX and FFXII, but the change is actually a fairly smart improvement.

Finally, the character advancement “crystarium” system in FFXIII bears striking resemblance to FFX's sphere grid (my personal favorite due to its replacing the long overused exp and lvls systems familiar to any rpg fan). Despite this, the crystarium system is much more streamlined in FFXIII, essentially offering one way to advance characters in: forward, even though the grids are split according to each paradigm role. This makes the system much more accessible to newcomers, but removes a good measure of freedom from the character advancement. In addition to this, it takes more crystarium points to advance a character in a role they are not well-suited to (such as training Vanille as a commando fighter). It is also important to note that the crystarium grid sections are unlocked at varying points in the game, ensuring that you cannot progress beyond a certain “level” until you progress farther in the game's storyline—thus enacting the much discussed and criticized level cap in FFXIII.

—Story 7/10—
The best asset to FFXIII's story is far and away its excellent cast of characters. Lightning always looked promising as a main character, and she doesn't really disappoint either. Apparently she was modeled to be a female iteration of Cloud Strife from FFVII… but thankfully Square-Enix failed in this endeavor and created a character like Squall, but more dynamic and interesting. If there's anything Lightning lacks, it's the whining emo-ness of FFVII's lead character; she actually ends up being more of a bad*** than Cloud could ever hope to be—and she'll instantly endear herself to players when she callously punches the crud out of someone who is annoyingly weak or wimpish… or even just abandon them without a care.

Every one of the main characters possesses their own personalities and motives for getting involved with the other cast members. While this may seem like standard rpg cliché—a diverse cast of characters teaming up with one another for different reasons—this game has a major difference. Unlike most rpgs, the differences between characters in FFXIII most often DON'T draw them together, but cause them to clash with one another.

The internal conflict in this cast of characters is unprecedented: even if two cast members join together for a time, they do so for their own self-serving reasons and are still likely to be at each others throats in the near future. Characters often split up and fracture for the very reasons which once drew them together and alliances are very shallow. The character interaction is chaotic in every sense of the word, and during the opening hours, the cast members are chiefly using each other for their own ends. Without spoiling the whole plot, you might well expect that one or more of the main characters will attempt to kill one another, commit suicide… and perhaps even succeed in one of these things.

Unfortunately, what FFXIII possesses in its exquisite cast of main characters it lacks in a focused and well-crafted plot. There really isn't a main face to the antagonism in FFXIII, and most of the villains are forgettable in the short time they are present. This is actually a huge loss when considering the unique and original ideas Square-Enix brings to its newest title. The basic idea revolves around a floating globe called Cocoon which hangs in the sky above the world of Pulse and created by a group of god-like beings called fal'Cie. Fal'cie exist in two varieties: the creators and protectors of Cocoon and those malevolent fal'Cie of Pulse, portrayed by the Sanctum—the governing body of Cocoon—as a hellish underworld. Anything emerging from Pulse or being marked by a Pulse fal'Cie is instantly rendered as a threat to be eliminated.

Unfortunately, being marked by a Pulse fal'Cie renders a human being as a l'Cie, a slave to the fal'Cie's will. Defying the will of their master, a vision called a focus, results in the l'Cie being morphed into a monster called a Cieth. Should the l'Cie accomplish their focus, they will supposedly be granted eternal life, but will also be turned into a seemingly lifeless crystal.

While the story is unique and original, there is a considerable amount of lost potential and even a plot thread that is left hanging by the story's end (a certain higher being that never appears and is never fleshed out properly).

—Music and Sound 9/10—
Every time I enter into a new area, I find myself asking: “what is that tune?” so I can look it up after inevitably buying the soundtrack. The music for Final Fantasy XIII is everything you've come to expect from the series, with the main battle and boss themes standing out as some of the best in the whole series. The Battle Theme (aka: “Blinded by Light”) as well as the Boss Battle Theme (“Saber's Edge”) are among the best combat themes the series has ever seen, and the Latin choral track “Fighting Fate” brings back pleasant memories of “One-winged Angel” from FFVII and “Liberi Fatali” from FFVIII's superb opening scene. Although Uematsu may no longer be directing the score, you aren't as likely to notice his departure as much as in FFXII.

The rest of the sound in FFXIII is competent enough to fill the scenes aptly without annoying the player, but I did find myself a bit disappointed with the weapon sound-effects. For a game with such brisk and enjoyably fast-paced action, the slashes of Lightning's sword and the other battle sounds could have been imbued with a greater sense of power than this game manages… although this is admittedly a small complaint.

The voice acting in FFXIII is superior to FFX in just about every area and is comparable to FFXII except with more interesting characters for the actors to bring to life. The one exception to this rule is Vanille, who's telltale high-pitch voice will send plenty of players reaching for a volume control—but this is perhaps the only disappointment in the sound department worth mentioning, and if you're familiar with rpgs… trust me, you've heard far worse.

—Graphics 8/10—
Some readers may be surprised by the decided average score I give to the graphics considering how much the game has been praised in this area, but there is a good reason for this. Final Fantasy XIII looks absolutely amazing and is perhaps the best looking graphics we've seen on a console to date (even though I wouldn't hold my breath for the near-future). This, to be quite honest though, shouldn't surprise anyone who has ever played a FF title… the graphics far outweigh competitors, but it actually falls a tad short when considering the high standards that Square-Enix has epitomized in the past. The truth is that, while the game looks great and has excellent graphics, it really doesn't do much WITH those graphics. FFX had several scenes of characters fighting impossibly massive monsters while airships shot cables for people to slide down the cables in spectacular scenes that could only come out of a fantasy.

FFXIII really doesn't have anything like that—there are a few cutscenes that come close, but I think I was more awed by the battle between Sephiroth, Angeal and Genesis from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core… and that was on the Playstation Portable. In the end, players probably won't be disappointed, but the game won't exactly awe people either—and I just think that's really too bad.

—Replay Value 6/10—
This is one of the ways in which FFXIII truly disappoints. Since the game is incredibly linear, and even though it does open up towards the end, the game still lacks anything truly compelling to do after the credits roll. There is a set of mini-quests involving optional bosses, but FFXIII has no mini-games, no side-dungeons, no optional storyline elements… and it only allows you to revisit two of the places traveled through the main quest. In a way, it reminds me of the Legend of Dragoon on Playstation—since in that game you couldn't leave the final dungeon once you entered it—but FFXIII doesn't quite reach that atrocity.

Admittedly, battle is considerably more fun than past FF entries (which helps to make the side-missions a bit more compelling), but unless you plan on unlocking some of the achievements on the 360 version of the game… why not just start a new game?

—Content Warning—
The Final Fantasy series has always held a lite PG-13 status when it comes to content issues. There's no blood, no guts, no language, and (save for a few instances of exposed leg and cleavage) no sexual content to speak of. Except for a storyline that echoes mature themes of religious-extremism and a terrorism panic, I don't see any reason why someone under the age of ten can't play this game. It's the most accessible game the Japanese role playing genre has seen.

—Overall 8/10—
Final Fantasy XIII is a worthy game, and mostly makes up for everything its predecessor, FFXII, did so horrendously wrong. Unfortunately, if you actually liked FFXII, you may find that that game's greatest strengths are this game's strongest failings. The game is too linear, the story lacks focus even while it has the best cast of characters the series has ever seen, and it seems to only hit the awe and wonder of previous games in the series in brief and forgettable moments. But while Final Fantasy XIII may fall short of the excellence set by FFVI, FVII, FFX and FFT, it marks a considerable improvement over the changes the series has made in recent years—rewarding players with an original setting and one of the most enjoyable battle systems the series has ever seen, recalling the innovation of FFXII's battle system along with the tremendous system from FFX-2.

FFXIII is probably more the successor to FFX than it is to FFXII—much like the newly announced FFXIV will be the successor to FFXI's MMORPG concept. Fans of Final Fantasy XII will probably take an instant disliking to this game, since it is the antithesis of everything FFXII stood for—lacking the large open world environments, and the massive number of side-quests and mini-games. Thankfully, this is actually a good thing—I pretty much reviled FFXII and the idea of playing through another game like it upsets me; those people got the last game, this game is for those of us who found XII far less than exemplar, due to its non-existent storyline and forgettable cast of characters. To many fans of the series, this game will serve as a reminder that Square-Enix can still do the important things the series is known for… and do them very well.

An excellent battle system, with the finest iteration of an ATB system I've ever seen
A unique and original setting which puts FFXII's hackneyed plot to shame
The most dynamic and developed cast of characters to ever grace a Final Fantasy
The highest presentation value an rpg has ever be given before

An extremely linear game, lacking even the semblance of freedom most rpgs attempt
A plot lacking both focus and a decent and memorable villain
Somehow lacks the awe and wonder of previous series entries

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/03/10

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

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