Final Fantasy XIII Review

Genre: RPG

Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Developer: Square-Enix

Price: $29.99 (USD)

I usually don’t like to be an apologist for titles, especially in reviews, but I have to get something off of my chest concerning Final Fantasy XIII: It doesn’t suck. I’m not sure where the wave of hatred for this title originated, but it’s incredibly unwarranted.

As a long time fan of the Final Fantasy series (been playing since the original on the NES), I feel that I’m able to review this latest entry in the series, with the history of the franchise in very clear perspective.

Unlike my normal reviews, I feel compelled to address what Final Fantasy XIII has done to improve not only the FF pedigree, but the RPG genre in general.

The plot of the story is one of the major changes I feel improve upon the, honestly, rather dated and stale FF formula of the 16 and 32 bit era of Final Fantasy (Final Fantasy X and XII also opted for non-traditional, cliché plots). The game takes place in the floating world of Cocoon, who’s government, the Sanctum, is ordering a purge of civilians who have purportedly come into contact with the people from the lower world of Pulse.

Our protagonist, a tough and beautiful fighter known only as Lightning, has begun to rebel against the government of Cocoon when her sister, Sara, was branded a Pulse l’Cie, unwilling servents of the fal’Cie, beings who maintain order on Pulse and Cocoon. The fal’Cie are considered enemies by the Cocoon government. Lightning eventually teams up with a group of disparate individuals who, like her, have been branded l’Cie, and given a Focus – a task they must complete or else face a grim transformation into a beast. Upon completing their Focus, they will turn into crystal and remain that way forever.

Sound confusing? In truth, it is, at first. The game is broken up into Chapters, 13 in all, and each Chapter peels away more and more layers to the complex narrative being told. As far as plots for RPGs go, I was genuinely interested in what was going to happen next. The story is a far cry from the standard “young, idealistic and naïve young man is whisked away on a world saving adventure after meeting a mysterious, potentially royal or magical, girl, conveniently his own age, and single, on a fateful evening right before his home town is attacked/destroyed, thus allowing him to run off with the beautiful stranger.” Whew.

Not being able to telegraph the narrative was truly a joy for me. Having to actually think about, and decipher the story tidbits revealed in each chapter was refreshing. Some of the flashbacks are told out of order, and it’s nice to see them begin to make sense as further events unfold.

If anything is negative about the story, it’s that some of the characters are grating (Snow and Hope, I’m looking at you, specifically), with solid, but annoying dialogue. Hope in particular, comes off as the typical angsty teenager, but later on in the game, his character arc opens up, and he becomes a lot more tolerable, though not as likeable as you’d hope. Lightning, as a protagonist, is strong, intelligent, and independent. She is determined to change the fate of herself and her sister, and she is often cold to her teammates when their agendas conflict with her own.

Overall, she’s one of the better cast members. My favorite would have to be Zazh, a black male with a baby Chocobo living in his afro, who wants nothing more than to return to his son and set things right. The character is played for comic relief, but there are some great scenes between him and the plucky redhead, Vanille, that have some serious gravity and drama.

Now, story is everything in an RPG, but what’s just as important is the battle system. Thankfully, Final Fantasy XIII has one of the more electric and fast paced battles systems in the series thus far. Enemies are seen on the field while making your way to your destination, and as such, they can be avoided. During battle, players can queue up actions as their active time battle meter fills up, and they will be executed when the meter is full. Attacks, Spells, and Item use are accessed and executed this way. There is also a convenient Auto Battle button that will select the most pertinent offensive action for the enemy type encountered, and executed. It’s easy to rely on Auto Battle early on, but later in the game, the battles demand more thought and input from the player.

The player only controls the lead character during battle, so you don’t have to micromanage the other two party members in the battle like in previous games. Instead, control of secondary characters is handled by the computer, with the player only being able to influence their combat tactics by switching their “Paradigms” with the press of the shoulder button.

Paradigms are just a fancy way of saying “Role.” For example, in the beginning of the game, Lighting has access to the Commando and Ravager Paradigms. Commando is what it sounds like; a heavy focus on strong, powerful attacks. Ravager is like black magic. Other Paradigms include Medic, Synergist, Saboteur, and Sentinel. Eventually, you can make any party member utilize each of the 5 Paradigms, but at the start, their roles are laid out (Snow is a Sentinel, Lighting a Commando, Vanille a Medic, etc).

The real strategy of combat comes in creating a series of Paradigms that work well and compliment one another. When a role is selected, that player will only perform skills of that role. For example, if your party consisted of a Commando, Sentinel, and Medic, the Sentinel would use his abilities to draw attacks towards him (his high health means he can take quite a bit of damage before falling), the Medic would be constantly casting heal spells on the Sentinel (and any other party member that may get hit by a stray attack that doesn’t just hit the Sentinel), and the Commando would focus solely on damaging the enemy.

Players are able to mix and match Paradigms, switching back and forth any time during battle in order to become victorious. Further adding depth to combat is the “Stagger” system. Below an enemies health bar is a meter that fills up each time damage is delivered by the player. When the meter is filled (differing with each enemy type encountered), the enemy becomes staggered, and it’s defense drops, opening it up to greater damage and criticals. Ravagers have a knack for driving up the Stagger meter of enemies quickly, so it pays to start off a battle with a Ravager in the party (or two or three). When the enemy is staggered, switch to a heavy damage role like Commando, and wail on the foe.

Early on in the game, it is easy to rely on the nifty “Auto-battle” feature, which is the top most option in combat, that quick selects the most pertinent attack for the enemy encountered. Later battles, and in particular boss battles, require a lot of strategy and switching Paradigms. The game is not a cakewalk, nor is it impossibly difficult, but it has a nice balance of challenge without frustration for the most part.

This brings us to another useful feature in FFXIII should you happen to fall in battle to a particularly tricky foe: Restarting battles upon defeat. In the older Final Fantasys, when you were K.O’d, you got a nice “Game Over” screen, and were then sent back to the title menu to load your last save. Often, that last save was pretty far away from the location in the game in which you died. The random battles didn’t help make things any easier, as it was possible to use up even more resources on your way back to the enemy that defeated your party, making that encounter even harder. In FFXIII, you simply get the option to “Retry,” which will set you, at the most, a few feet away from your last enemy encounter.

For boss battles, the game will even let you swap out party members, change equipment, or readjust Paradigms before retrying the battle. This feature alone negates the very paltry excuses many FFXIII dissenters have thrown at the game’s quality. Player health is also restored at the end of each battle, so there is no need to go through countless amounts of Health potions after a difficult battle. K.O’d party members are revived at the end of battle with full health as well.

Save points also restore health, but also allow players to restock items, and purchase and upgrade equipment. There are no traditional towns in Final Fantasy XIII, which upset a lot of people, but I didn’t find their ommision terribly troubling. The narrative of the game simply didn’t leave the door open for town exploration. The protagonists are on the run constantly, and they are often no where near a town during 90% of the game. The few times they are in a human settlement, they are there only to flee their pursuers.

Town exploration is great for a non-linear RPG. Most Japanese RPGs are linear. I never really understood in old Final Fantasies why the party would stop at all these towns, completing side quests for strangers, when the world was always on the brink of utter destruction, and time was “of the essence.” Apparently the world could wait while my party helped a farmer get dragon scales for a necklace he wanted to woo his love. That’s all well and good, buddy, but can’t you wait until after I save the world?

From a game play and design perspective, FFXIII follows the most logic in terms of the unfolding of events. Nothing about the game suggests that it’s this world romping adventure that the heroes are glad to be on. In fact, they are pretty miserable for the entire journey, since failure to complete their focus means they turn into horrible beasts, but succeeding in their focus means an eternity as a crystal. I’d be pretty bummed too.

Lastly, are the visuals. It’s no surprise that the game is in it’s best form on the PlayStation 3. It was originally designed as a PS3 exclusive, and it utilizes the advantages of Blu Ray to have fully 1080p video, uncompressed audio, and fit on just one Blu Ray disc. The 360 version suffers from some relatively negligible resolution loss in in game visuals and cutscenes (no 1080p videos and uncompressed audio), and the game is spread across multiple discs, not just one, but the game play experience is still the same. The world of Coccoon is vibrant and colorful, with great attention to detail and a variety of locales that are visually creative as much as they are stunning (in particular the crystalized lake at the beginning of the game).

VERDICT: BUY – Final Fantasy XIII is not the best Final Fantasy title in the series 20+ year run, but neither is it the worst. The cast of characters are not perfect, but entertaining none the less. The non-traditional narrative that actually places story over standard JRPG design conventions is a breath of fresh air, and the genuinely fun battle system is one of the best I’ve played in a long time. At the time of this review, the game is at a great price ($30 on Amazon, I believe), so if you’ve been hesitant to give the game a spin due to middling reviews and overly nit-picky editorials, now’s a great time to give it a whirl.

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