Review by vgplaya89

"XIII Is a lucky number, after all."

The iconic Final Fantasy series has left its mark on gaming history, by being one of the most consistently high-selling and long-running role-playing series in gaming. From becoming a surprise hit with its first iteration, to becoming a mainstream phenomenon and household name from Final Fantasy VII-on. It is easily believable that Final Fantasy is THE premier Japanese RPG series (Sorry Dragon Quest fans). In its thirteenth installment, can the Final Fantasy (or FF for short) series maintain its dominance, and continue to prove why it has stayed relevant in the eyes of gamers worldwide, for the past 23 years?

Final Fantasy XIII almost completely drops the politically driven, Fantasy-over-Sci-Fi trappings from its predecessor, in favor of a more slick, character-driven Sci-Fi tale.

There is no real “main character”, as the story brings together an ensemble of 6 misfit residents of a floating colony called Cocoon. There's Lightning, described affectionately as a “Female Cloud” but with more anger than angst, Snow, the leader of a resistance group and the fiance of Lightning's sister, Sazh, an ex-pilot who looks like a walking stereotype, but ends up being the most likeable and believable member of the cast, Hope, a fourteen year-old boy with major parental issues, Vanille, who seems like a ditzy pink-haired girl, but is actually more involved with the events at hand than most would think, and Fang, who shows up a bit later in the story.

For the better part of the game, the story switches between groups of two characters each, whether you like it or not. While it may seem restricting, it gives the game a chance to evenly develop every character. And good characters they are, easily being the best cast in a Final Fantasy in years. There are no throwaway or one dimensional party members, one is connected to another in some way, and all have a motivation for tackling the tasks at hand.

One of these motivations is forced upon them, as the story opens with a bang (Hardcore Final Fantasy VII fans pay close attention to detail). There are two worlds, the above mentioned Cocoon, and Gran Pulse, described to Cocoon citizens as “Hell on Earth.” both worlds are protected and sustained by Fal'Cie, monstrous demigods with immense power. They also brand humans to do their bidding, who are then known as L'Cie. They are given an ambiguous mission, called a “Focus”, that they either complete, and become an immortal crystal, or fail and become a Cie'th, a fate worse than death. L'Cie branded by Pulse are banished from Cocoon, in an event known as the Purge.

And if this all sounds confusing, don't worry, the game has a built-in encyclopedia, that explains nearly any and everything simply.

In an explosive chain of events, the characters come together during a Purge gone horribly wrong, and end up branded as L'Cie. The rest of the story unfolds as they deal with their dark destinies, personal motivations, and conflicts with each other.

The story is quite engrossing and well done, the only visible flaw is the lack of a memorable villain. While the villains are mildly interesting, none of them are truly worthy of being put on the same level as say, Kefka or Sephiroth, but certainly not the worst villains the series has come up with.

The Final Fantasy series is known for pioneering and experimenting with both turn based and real time combat, and often fusing them, in the form of the Active Time Battle system. This time, they've taken the fusion factor even further, setting battles at a breakneck pace that barely seems turned based. While you can only control one character at a time, the other two A.I party members back you up well. But this is no Final Fantasy XII, you cannot set Gambits to do battle for you.

You must pay attention and keep your strategies precise, or You.Will.Die. You can select various abilities, which use up segments of the ATB bar, but you do not have to wait for your “turn” to input these commands. This keeps the battles flowing quickly and smoothly. You are also rated on your battle performance, which gives a motivation to bring your best to every little fight.

Each character has three different “Roles” they serve, which all come equipped with different abilities. For example, a Commando is primarily a physical attacker, and cannot use magic or heal (without potions), so if there's a need to heal, you must switch to the Medic role, or have someone in the party with that role. You are able to switch roles on the fly with the “Paradigm Shift” option, and you can customize the paradigms to fit different battle situations, and can switch up roles with a few simple button presses.

And switch you will need to. Make no mistake, FFXIII's difficulty is no joke. The game keeps you on training wheels for the better part of the game ad nausea, throwing mindless grunts in your way and showing you tutorials for nearly everything. But when as it slowly lets go, it stops babying you completely and begins making serious attempts to kill you. Some of the bosses will hammer you down if you do not use the correct strategies and power up when needed. Many of the mobs late in the game are harder than most of the game's earlier bosses, with average enemies toting 85K HP, and bosses having six-to-seven figure health, barely even being able to be scratched without “Staggering” them. Thankfully, there are no random battles, every enemy is visible on the map, and many are avoidable.

One highlight of the difficulty is the Eidolon fights. Each character has a summon, known as an Eidolon, that appears to them and challenges them to a battle. They will rip you to shreds if you do not Libra (the game's “Scan” command), them, and study their patterns and weaknesses. Luckily, once you do conquer them, they are at your disposal, but only to be used sparingly.

You may have wondered why I have not mentioned exploration yet. This may come as a shock to some hardcore fans, but for about 70% of the game, there borderline is none. Fanboy cries of “WHAT, NO TOWNS!?” were heard throughout the internet when the game was released in Japan. This is quite noticeable for the first few chapters of the game, as you run forward, fight, find treasure chests, shop at save points, and watch cut scenes. While this feels extremely restricting, you will not miss the illusion of freedom as you get deeper into the game.

The truth is, there really has never been a truly open-ended Final Fantasy, outside of the MMO FFXI, and the polarizing FFX sequel FFX-2. The world map was just an illusion to keep the player thinking they could go anywhere and do anything, when they really couldn't do much besides backtrack for no reason, and play minigames and side quests. Luckily, the story is engaging enough to keep you moving forward, no pun intended, and late in the game (Disc 3 for Xbox 360 players), the game opens up finally, giving you freedom to pick your party, explore areas, perform side quests, and grind to your hearts content.

Another omission is conventional leveling and “grinding“. this is replaced by the Crystarium system, similar to the Sphere Grid from FFX, but more linear. In every battle, you earn Crystarium Points, that go towards expanding every character's crystarium. However, progression is story based, and the crystarium caps off at certain points, until you reach certain points in areas, or defeat certain bosses. meaning that you can not powerlevel for hours to smite a boss you're having trouble with, you have to do it the old fashioned way. This keeps the difficulty balanced, for better or worse, depending on whether you're asking a veteran or beginning RPG-goer.

Overall, the gameplay elements streamline the experience, keeping battles endlessly entertaining and compelling, and keeping the adventure flowing smoothly, and never giving you a reason to backtrack, not that you could if you wanted to, for most of the game.

While Final Fantasy mainstay Nobuo Uematsu, who could easily be considered the Japanese equivalent of John Williams, is completely absent from this installment, Final Fantasy X co-composer Masashi Hamauzu more than picks up the slack, creating some of the most memorable video game music in years. No theme seems lackluster, or out of place, and fits every scene perfectly. There is a mix of electro, vocal, and orchestrated themes. The battle theme, which you are guaranteed to hear hundreds upon hundreds of times, never gets old, and will be stuck in your head for hours after you turn the power button off. In a shocking move, Square Enix decided to replace the original Japanese theme with Leona Lewis's song “My Hands” which you have most likely heard in the commercials by now. This led to mass complaining by purists, but the theme really does fit the game, and is not even heard until the end scene and credits.

The Final Fantasy series has always been known for its high production values, standing hand and foot above most other RPGs, or even most other games at the time, on the market. XIII is no different, providing some of the best visuals of any game thus far, period. To put it in perspective, FFXIII's in-game graphics look almost as good as Final Fantasy X's CG, which already looked amazing. It is actually hard at some points to tell what is in-game and what is FMV during certain cutscenes. The visuals are helped by great character and art design. The locales are surprisingly varied, but never appear out of left field. The characters look believable and the monsters and villains look menacing.

While the Playstation 3 version is the better looking of the two, the difference is only marginal, however. No matter what system it's bought for, graphics junkies will be more than satisfied at this game's beautiful visuals.

While it is not without its flaws and polarizing design choices, Final Fantasy XIII is a more than worthy addition to the series name, and brings the series' dominance of the Role-Playing genre into forefront of current generation systems. The engaging cast, innovative battle system, and the fast paced, heavy-handed storyline will keep you compelled to see this through to the finish, and playing for many hours after the games credits roll. Guess XIII is a lucky number after all.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 10/17/11

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

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