Review by SSpectre

"Final Fantasy XIII has several good ideas, but its horrendous pacing destroys most of their potential."

Final Fantasy XIII

The Good:
+ Unorthodox design plays to the genre's strengths
+ Possibly the best graphics of any console game, period
+ After it picks up, combat becomes smart and challenging

The Bad:
- Combat takes forever to pick up
- Story's quality fluctuates wildly
- Complete lack of variety, even in sidequests

I don't like to reference the popular opinions of the games I'm reviewing, mostly because I don't want you to remember that other opinions exist. But Final Fantasy XIII is different. This game has had an amount of hype, rumour, and predilection going into it equal to what I'd expect from the second coming of Christ. So it seems like the best way to start a review of it would be to give my take on the various aspects of it that you've no doubt already heard of.

Aspect #1: It's linear. Yes, you've heard right, it's really linear. It's more or less a straight line, with the world opening up about 80% of the way through to allow for sidequests. But this isn't nearly as much of a problem as it sounds. It prevents annoying “where the hell do I go?” moments, it completely eliminates grinding, and it would keep the story moving at a good a game with a better plot.

FF13's plot can be neatly divided into three sections (decidedly not three acts, though – the game starts deeper in medias res than Inception). In a significant departure from FF12's steadfast refusal to have its plot and its characters in the same room together, FF13 spends its first 20 hours doing nothing but character-building. As a result, the characters are complex and interesting, but they take forever to do anything worth playing, or even worth watching.

The next 30 hours or so are where the game becomes truly worthwhile. An overall goal is established, some genuinely profound and surprising twists are revealed, and there are some great character developments and action sequences that set the stage for an epic climax...which promptly nosedives into an idiotic ending fuelled by what could generously be called a series of dei ex machina. Realistically, though, it's the developers blithely saying, “We couldn't think of how to end this, so here's a bunch of **** that resolves everything for no reason.”

Steering this back onto the subject of linearity, the only real drawback of the game's design is the lack of decent puzzles in the dungeons (yes, there are still dungeons) but lack of puzzles is certainly nothing game-ruining. JRPGs are linear by nature anyway. Sure, you're given a big world map to explore, but you're always travelling from point A to point B, with no reason to return to point A for another 30 hours of gameplay. FF13's linearity just streamlines the process.

Aspect #2: There are no towns, and no NPCs to talk to. Also true. Again, why is this such a point of contention? NPCs serve no purpose other than dumping novels worth of unnecessary text on you, and towns essentially do nothing more than give you an intermission from the story every hour or so. Their only purpose is world-building and sidequest offers, neither of which is needed in Final Fantasy XIII because the plot is a personal one centering on a handful of characters, and sidequests aren't even a part of the game until very late in its runtime. Their omission both compliments the story and prevents it from dragging even more than it already does.

Aspect #3: You can just use the Auto-Battle command constantly and win every battle.

Well, kinda.

It's true that you will probably use the Auto-Battle button way more than anything else, and this, unlike the other two aspects, is definitely a bad thing. But, that appraisal is a little oversimplified; it's not as bad as it sounds. FF13's battle system is an interesting middle ground between FF12's Gambit system and the job system found in various forms throughout the series.

Your three party characters each have access to six Roles, and the combination of these Roles is referred to as a Paradigm. When out of battle, you devise a collection of six Paradigms to use in battle, and switch between them on the fly during skirmishes. The system is incredibly well-balanced; each role is equally useful, and you'll use almost every Paradigm at some point in the game – even seemingly useless ones like three characters specializing in debuffs. You only directly control your party leader, while your other two members simply do as their Role tells them to. Essentially, Paradigms become your attacks, and while you'll probably use Auto-Battle 90% of the time once you've set it the way you want, knowing when and how to switch Paradigms takes much more strategy and skill than you'd expect, and if you go into battle thinking you can just press A the whole time, you'll be torn apart very quickly.

This is because there's much more going on than a simple exchange of attacks and healing spells. Enemies have a “chain gauge” that steadily drains, but increases the more they're attacked, and multiplies the damage of future attacks. At a certain threshold, the enemy will be staggered, at which point your characters can do ludicrous damage and potentially incapacitate foes. In addition, your party is healed after every battle, a concept that seems to be taking root in JRPGs of late, and one that I endorse wholeheartedly. These mechanics, along with the fact that bosses will put a countdown on your head if you take too long, create a combat system that favours the ability to build up strength and unleash quick, devastating rushes, for both you and the enemy. And it's really satisfying.

Or more accurately, it's really satisfying eventually. The gameplay suffers from much the same problem the story does: it starts off slow, gradually introducing more and more elements until it finally gets over its performance anxiety and hands you the reins, allowing you to experience its more interesting side. This is probably where all the “You just use Auto-Battle!” sentiment came from, because for a big chunk of the initial gameplay, that is all you're going to be doing.

The combat also suffers from a few minor annoyances, not the least of which is the idea that if your party leader dies, you lose, regardless of the presence of any remaining allies. This was not a good idea when Persona 3 did it, and FF13 has not improved it. There's also the way your characters pause when doing their first Paradigm Shift, even while enemies tear away at their HP. Your other party members have some annoying tendencies in combat, as well. Notably, your Medics seem to place reviving dead party members at an irritatingly low priority, and everyone has a habit of moving closer together just when the enemy is readying a powerful area attack.

The new character-levelling system, the Crystarium, is also nothing special; you upgrade individual Roles for each character by moving along a crystal track filled with abilities and stat boosts. In terms of integration with the story, it's a few steps up from FF12's “I need a license to wear a hat” system, and a whole elevator shaft below every other levelling mechanic the series has used, but it gets the job done. It's disappointing, however, because it also embraced the linearity of the level design, with much less reason for doing so, meaning every player will have identical characters throughout the game.

Aspect #4: The graphics are really pretty. Oh, yeah. The graphics are astounding. They're easily the best graphics to be found on any console to date. Superb animation, plenty of artistic flourishes, and an absurd amount of detail lavished on everything in the game add up to a beautiful experience. The spectacle of it all is another reason the combat eventually becomes so exciting, as the screen begins to pop with chaotic particle effects and extravagant enemy designs.

The audio doesn't fare quite as well. The music is by no means unlistenable, but it's terribly bland, and mostly relegated to wallpaper, rather than the standout soundtracks usually associated with Final Fantasy games. Additionally, the Japanese-English translation impedes the dialogue during scripted cutscenes like it always does in voiced JRPGs. Most of the voice actors do an excellent job salvaging the material, though, so with the exception of supporting protagonist Vanille, the awkward script is never too distracting. There's also a much-appreciated feature where the characters change their in-battle dialogue as you progress through the game.

Finally, the game contains quite a large number of sidequests once it actually opens up and decides to let you do some. They definitely contain some of the most interesting enemies in the game, and are easily the best showcase for the highlights of the battle system, but the complete lack of variety in any of them is disappointing. They're pretty much all a variation on “go here and kill something ugly”, with “here” being halfway across the world in most cases. Actually, the constant combat can make the game seem a little too long.

So Final Fantasy XIII has its problems, obviously. It's nowhere near the quality of the series' high points, but compared to the last few main series efforts – a game existing solely for fanservice purposes, an MMO, and a bland, misguided attempt to experiment – I'd say it's a decent step in the right direction. A completely confused, possibly unintentional step, but a step nonetheless.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 11/16/10, Updated 10/04/13

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

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