Review by Exodist
"An interesting battle system and great production values dragged down by awful game design."
Final Fantasy is now an absolutely huge series, garnering mass critical acclaim and fans all over the world. XIII is the first game on current gen consoles, Playstation 3 and to the delight of many, Xbox 360. Its hard to deny that XIII garnered pretty much massive acclaim when it released. A lot of fans loved it and a lot of critics loved it. They got drew into the hype, the franchise. Because XIII is not a good game. Many people look back and realise this, especially now the sequel XIII-2 is a vastly better game (and yet gets reviewed lower, right) yet somehow doesn't quite deserve the scores XIII got. Whilst there are hardcore fans of XIII who will forever love the game and defend it, I can only see its problems.
The storyline was uninteresting. Basically a few of the worst characters ever come together and get branded as l'Cie by Fal'cie. Fal'cie are sort of god like creatures, of which there are two types: Gran Pulse Fal'Cie and Cocoon Fal'Cie. Basically there are two main areas of the world as it were: Gran Pulse, and Cocoon. Gran Pulse is depicted as a sort of survival wasteland. It doesn't exactly match the term wasteland, but a variety of especially dangerous creatures roam the lands and the weak do not survive. Meanwhile Cocoon is fairly futuristic and a lot more civilised, being ran by the Sanctum. However the Fal'Cie of each type are enemies. Meanwhile they seem to randomly brand people as l'Cie. They earn themselves a tattoo and if they don't fulfil their focus (sort of like a pilgrimage, they see flashes of their focus as they're branded as a sort of starter) in time, they turn into Cie'th which are zombie stone things. Meanwhile, if they do fulfil their focus, they're blessed' with eternal life. Six people are joined together (for the start, then they split up, then you all meet again around 20 hours into the game), and they're all branded and given the same focus. L'Cie are enemies of Cocoon so they're hunted down by PSICOM, some military outfit, and the story just kind of goes along until around the half way point when they're all together and decide what to do about their focus.
That said the lore is rather rich and provided through a handy and good read datalog which gets updated throughout the game. That said it would have been much better if they implemented the back story throughout the game like many others do, instead they were just lazy and wrote it down for you to read. Good, but a bit lazy at the same time. The story never really grabbed me, and nor did the characters. They're a poor bunch. I'm sure you probably know who resembles who, but the characters aren't particularly original nor will likeable, Hope and Vanille get right on your nerves. People have said Sazh is one of the only good characters, but I never really liked him either. He just makes the point that he has a son and that he doesn't necessarily want to be doing what he is, he is just along the for the ride. Maybe it's the fact he has a miniature chocobo in his hair? I don't get what's great about that either. At the start of the game, when playing as Hope and Vanille, the latter's voice actor displays her range of voice talent: for the most part she just emits sex noises, and her accent seemed to change a lot. She also narrates the game, trying to give a more serious and intellectual side to the character, but she still irritates me. Maybe I just didn't like the characters and I'm the only one, but the characters, who are later given depth in a Lost-style flashback method still didn't particularly interest me, it merely gives insight to their past rather than what sort of people they were. There aren't really any other characters either; there are a few bad guys like some guy called Cid Raines. You hear his name a bit; see him and how evil he is because he wants to kill l'Cie, then you just fight him at some point and that is pretty much that. Basically, the cast is your main six heroes and a few evil guys.
The battle system in Final Fantasy XIII is actually kind of great. The game uses the Active Time Battle system however puts a spin on it in that its crazy fast, like, you have haste x10 on or something. Your characters have no MP, abilities are performed and require a certain number of ATB slots to use, when the slot is filled, the ability is performed. Your characters can thus have up to 5 slots with a different ability or abilities, depending on how many slots the ability requires, queued up to be performed once the bar is full. The battle system is fast, its fun and its exciting. However there are some issues. First, the speed is so fast its actually hard to go through your menu and select all your abilities. This is where auto battle comes in, an option which lets you pick a target, then the game does the rest for you. This is a double edged sword. First, it lessens the impact of your own decisions and influence over the game, the game is taking away your control and doing it for you. On the other hand, auto fight is actually great at doing it right. For example when you use the spell Libra and learn an enemies weakness, auto fight will suddenly start spamming its weakness. It does the right moves at the right time, especially for healing. Its doubled edged in that its pretty difficult to keep up doing it yourself, meaning you have that sense of control taken away, but at least the system provided actually works rather well. For me personally I had no problem using auto battle, it works and its pretty efficient, however the lack of control is slightly disappointing, however not a big issue.
The main source of depth (of which there is none, by the way) and strategy (of which there is very little) is the paradigm system. There are 6 classes in the game: Commando (fighter), Ravager (Magic), Sentinel (Tank), Medic (Healer), Synergist (Buff) and Saboteur (debuff). Obviously highly inspired from the class and role teamplay based off MMORPGs, your fights can use any one role in a fight. You set this up by paradigm decks, in that you can choose what 3 roles your characters use. You cannot freely change, you have to stick to the paradigm decks you set up. There is plenty of freedom here since you can set any 3 you want. During battle you simply press LB to swap to another deck and thus another trio of classes. Different situations call for different paradigms. The enemies have something called a stagger bar, fill it up, and they become staggered, making them mega weak. To do this, swap to a 'Relentless Assault' paradigm of two ravagers and a commando. The ravagers are what make the bar fill up higher, however the commando is what makes the bar not instantly decrease. Sentinels on the other hand can be used to draw attention of enemies allowing team mates to heal in a double medic and sentinel paradigm, whilst 'Diversity' of Commando, Ravager and Medic is probably the role you'll use the most. There are plenty of options here to choose from.
The problem is, its all a bit simple. Once you get into the hang of things that's it. The game rarely requires any shift of strategy at all. Most fights you stagger, swap to triple commando and destroy. Boss fights you start by buffing and debuffing, then going for a stagger, changing to sentinels and medics when the big attacks come out. Its all the same. There are very few bosses or even fights in this game that require any real strategy. Its all about character strength. The battle system is fun, its fast and furious, it looks fantastic and it works well. Its just not that boring as some systems can be for those random fights. The game just isn't very hard, instead, difficulty is applied artificially, by simply making everything strong, not by making fights complex or require deep strategy. Strategy on bosses is simply learning when to use what paradigms during the fights.
Instead, a lot of the game is about the grind. Winning fights earns you CP which can improve your characters on the crystarium. The crystarium is a grid of sorts where you level up your characters. You select your character, select a class, and away you go. To move from one node to the other requires CP. The nodes then give you stats based on the class, for example you're going to get a lot of strength on commando, learn new commando abilities, and earn HP. Similar to Final Fantasy X, all the stats you earn across every role goes to your total, you just cant mix up abilities and still have to change class. Its an incredibly simple system with no real customisation or freedom at all. This said, it at least works and despite there being no level to immediately see how strong your character is, your characters still get considerably stronger as the game goes. The system works but is completely unimaginative and dull. Worse still, the game even limits your character progression. Only in the last few chapters in the game does it increase that much you're unlikely to max your characters before it expands again. There are levels to the crystarium that are unlocked as you progress. Its like the game is setting out goals for you to grind up to, grind until you can improve no more, so you know when to beat bosses.
The design of the game is where it all falls apart. As most people know by now, this game is linear. Extremely linear. If you actually think about it, a lot of older JRPGs are actually quite linear. However there is the illusion of freedom. You can still go to towns and wander around, or visit extra places to do a little bit of fighting or just general exploring. There is none of this in XIII. The entire game is made up of a few small, tight corridors. You run down it, find some treasure, and fight monsters. Then watching some cut-scenes. This is XIII for its entire length. There is no freedom, no hidden places to explore, there is no life in this world, no soul. The places look pretty sure, but the game makes no attempt to hide what it really is, just a long corridor of fight after fight. The tutorial also lasts about 20 hours, as only everything is fully unlocked by around this time, meaning you cant freely level up or equip your character the way you want, or even choose which characters you want out of the whole lot until about 20 hours in. The game itself is actually fairly long, taking about 40-50 hours. Granted, the linearity means there is a big focus on the story and there is plenty on offer here.
There is a time in the game where you head to Gran Pulse. A lot of people use this as an excuse to say XIII opens up, gives you more freedom. It doesn't. Gran Pulse is basically just one really big area with loads of big monsters in it. Wow, so cool. There are a few smaller areas leading from this big area (the lovely Yachas Massif for example, I'm a fan of that), but what is the incentive to stay behind? The only side-quests in the game are available here: missions. And what are missions? They're just fights. More monsters to kill. The later missions do provide some challenging (well kinda challenging, you know what I mean, harder than the last bosses anyway) fights to do post game when your characters are maxed, but thats all it is, just extra fights. There is a lot of length to the game however. The equipment system is pretty interesting, your gear can be levelled allowing it to get strong, and then made into new and stronger weapons when they're maxed out. Part of the fun for people is earning all of the achievements which require you to get every accessory and weapon. This system is actually kind of deep with plenty of weapon and accessory combinations to be done, all created through the use of mats which you find, but can also buy end-game from the shop (all shops are just in save points, no people here) providing hours of extra content if you want to fully finish the game, be it maxing your characters, finishing all the missions and earning every achievement. Just bear in mind a lot of the extra hours spent aren't really side-quests, just more grinding to do some missions.
The graphics are outstanding. The quality is very high with the character models looking vibrant and extremely JRPG typical. The environments do generally look pretty great, the world and setting is very well made, its just a shame there is no exploration. The battle's however are probably a highlight, as the animation and ability effects are pretty awesome as your characters all run across the small battle system, fights always end up looking great. The CGI also looks really great, they fit in with the game great and there are some pretty cool CGI themes. The music in the game is also superb with an amazing battle scene consisting of strings to die for, along with some other really good themes. The voice acting is mixed, Hope is really annoying and Vanille is just utterly bizarre, however its not as bad as Star Ocean 4.
Final Fantasy XIII is a deeply troubled game. It has great graphics, music and a pretty decent battle system. The problem lies everywhere else. The cast is one of the worst to 'grace' an RPG in a long time, the story is an absolute boring and uninteresting mess, the game provides no real strategy or challenge to the player and there is no freedom. Good game design is where the fundamental game mechanics are hidden. Final Fantasy always did this right, they were linear, but it was hidden and this overall passes the player by. When you play XIII, its right in your face. Its like they literally gave up, they just present what the game is to you. Corridor after corridor of fighting. Final Fantasy XIII is by no means terrible however its not a good game either. There is potential in the battle system, but very little elsewhere.
Score: 5/10 - Average
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 07/06/10, Updated 08/08/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII (EU, 03/09/10)
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