Review: Final Fantasy XIII
March 24, 2010, Author: Simon Weatherall
Way back in 1997 a game was released that would forever be heralded as one of the best games of all time. It had an epic storyline, one that is still gripping people to this day. The game was Final Fantasy VII. Now, I know that the seventh game in the series wasn’t the starting point for the franchise, but it was easily the most recognised throughout the world, especially in the Western market. Previous titles had really only appealed to the Japanese market and Final Fantasy VII was the turning point. Since that time, people have always anticipated the next Final Fantasy game, hoping for another character that would capture them like Cloud Strife did all those years ago.
Back in 2006 Square Enix gave us a teaser of the next game they were working on, this was to be Final Fantasy XIII (13). Before long, a few snippets of information were released, but what caused more of a stir with the fans was that it was to be released on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. This bit of news made some fans happy while the remainder felt alienated and let down by Square, due to them thinking that it had always been a Sony exclusive (it really wasn’t). Fast forward a little more and finally fans can get their copies and experience the game that they have awaited so long for, to see if it lived up to the hype. Across the board there has been mixed opinions, some good, some bad but the question still remains for some: Is Final Fantasy XIII a good game?
Ok, so maybe it’s not that final!
Set in a world called Pulse and focusing on a large conspiracy, the main protagonist, Lightening takes up the battle against the government of the floating city of Cocoon. After being cursed by a Fal’cie (a mechanical god) whilst trying to rescue her sister, she and the other members of the main cast become L’cie (magic users). As a L’cie she and the other characters have a focus, a goal that they must complete or be forever damned as a monster. The only glimpse they are given is a hazy vision with no explanation to their actual goal.
Exiled from Cocoon and running for their lives, the band of warriors must utilise both skills, old and new in an effort to finish their charged task, before it’s too late and turns them into Cie’th (monsters). With only a few people they can trust and a lot of people determined to see them dead, the fate of Cocoon rests in their hands.
The storyline doesn’t really start at the very beginning of gameplay and only just starts to get going around the midway point. In these early parts the game fills in some of the gaps with flashbacks to earlier times, explaining a little about each characters past. You also don’t just play as one character all the way through either, instead following the story from the point of view of all of the playable characters at some point for the first half of the game, until they all come together, at which point you’ll decide which you want to control. The story is easy to understand and even though a little confusing to begin with, it’s well written and well told. Each character has their own personality and although heavily clichéd (much like every JRPG character) this is probably the strongest character line-up a Final Fantasy game has had in a while.
Grinding isn’t the future
Before I explain how the game works I would just like to say, it may sound complicated when explained but it really isn’t in action.
For anyone that has played a Final Fantasy game before, you will probably be all too aware that this is a turn based affair. Battles can take place one of two ways, the first way would be to use the auto-battle button, which automatically selects what actions your character will take. This is based on the class your character is at that time. The alternative way to play is to go to abilities and select which actions you want to take (also dependent on the class your character is). You can change the cursor default to start on abilities rather than auto-battle from the options, and doing this is the better way to play. After each battle your health recovers and any members of your party are revived if they are incapacitated.
Over the course or the game you control several of the characters at different points. Sometimes you are alone in your fight and at other times you are in a team of either two or three. When in a team you’ll only ever decide the exact actions of the group leader, the remaining team members are controlled by the AI. With the press of a button you can change the roles of each of your team members depending on what classes you have unlocked and this can be done anytime during a battle. These roles are called ‘Paradigms’ of which there are six different roles; Commando (attacker), Ravager (offensive magic), Sentinel (defender), Medic (healer), Synergist (defensive magic) and Saboteur (status attacks enemies). Each of these roles allows the characters to perform different tasks depending on which exact role they’re assigned in the paradigm. Each character starts off with only one role and the remainder are unlocked over time. Each of these individual roles, have their own skill trees with new abilities and attacks that you unlock as you gain experience. When not in battle you can create a series of set paradigm role defaults (up to six). When changed in battle, a tap of the shoulder buttons offers a menu where you can choose the required paradigm. For example, you may have one Commando, a Ravager, and a Medic in one paradigm to allow you to attack and heal, however in another you may have all Commandos; the combinations are a plenty and having the right paradigms is the difference between success and failure for a lot of the bigger fights.
Each ability used depletes a different amount of ATB (active time battle) but if you have opened up enough of these ATB slots, you can queue up and chain attacks together perfectly. Some skills only use the one point, while others can use three or four. The ATB refills after each action and once it is full you it will perform whatever actions you have selected. Special attacks and skills can also be used, these are unlocked from the skill tree at different points dependent on the character. The special skills can be used from the “Techniques” tab and deplete your TP (technique points) bar. The maximum TP you can have at any one point is only as high as five, meaning you have to be careful selecting how and when to using these abilities. The TP bar recovers slowly as you chain together attacks in battle, and the rating you get at the end of each battle also increases how much TP you have, while there are also certain items and equipment that allow it to recover faster.
The stronger attacks and these special skills are all unlocked in the Crystarium (basically where you manage the skill trees I mentioned above). Rather than levelling up automatically how you might expect, after each battle you earn ‘Crystal Points’ (CP), and you can spend these points manually in the skill tree, allowing you to develop the characters how you please to a certain degree. All of the skill trees start off small in scope with a separate one of each of the roles the various characters can use, but the Crystarium quickly starts to expand as you progress through the chapters. The benefits of doing this range from simple acquiring a new normal attack to gaining more power in strength or magic for your character, however the more important aspect is that you’ll unlock new techniques. The attacks gained also have a lot of variety, with some attacks only affecting one enemy, some dealing damage to a small radius. Where a particular skill unlocks is also in a different place for each character, so some unlock certain skills before others. Eventually each character can learn all of the six available roles, but to begin with you will only have the one, and two later on when you get to a certain chapter.
This wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without summons, and this instalment is no different. Each character has a specific “Eidolon” (summoned creature) that they can unlock by battling them during the story. To unlock each characters Eidolon you will have to do certain things in battle against them to raise the “Gestalt bar”, once raised you can press a button to take over the Eidolon. Once you have achieved this, during standard battle you can use TP to summon the main characters Eidolon to come and help you in battle. The Eidolon will replace your two other characters on the battle ground and attack the enemies without your direction. While the Eidolon is in the battle its SP bar will deplete slowly if it’s not taking damage, although it does speed up when it is attacked. Each time you hit an enemy or use some magic, you raise the Gestalt bar once again. At any time you can enter into Gestalt mode, where the Eidolon and your character combine to do some devastating attacks. The amount of attacks you can do is dependent on how high the Gestalt bar was before entering the mode. When you enter this stage the way you battle changes for a short period of time, the first difference being how you control the Eidolon, using a combination of the left analogue and the action button to perform the different moves. This also has an auto button if you want to allow the Eidolon to pick. The variety on how you battle (even if it is for a short period) is a refreshing addition.
Later on in the game you unlock the ability to upgrade your weapons and accessories at the save point. By combining your chosen weapons/accessories with items that you have collected you can create more powerful versions of the equipment. Eventually you will hit a plateau, where you can’t upgrade that weapon/accessory type anymore. At this point you can use a transformation item to transform your weapon into an entirely new piece. When you do this you do lose a little bit of your bonus but you can then continue to upgrade it again. There are ways to get bonuses to upgrade faster so trying different combinations of items is a must.
Rather than have loads of towns with shops that sell different things, you purchase items at any save point, which has been a serious point of contention amongst some of the hardcore fans. At first you are restricted to what items and what shops you can purchase from but more items, accessories, weapons, and also shops are unlocked the further you progress through the game. The game is split up into thirteen individual chapters making it easy to track your progress, and a lot of things I’ve mentioned above are unlocked in certain chapters, which is another new for a Final Fantasy title. For example, the first two chapters you do earn some CP but you can’t use it until you become a L’cie, and this is justified in the plot as normal humans can’t use magic.
Rather than resorting the age old mechanic of random battles, when running around the different areas you will see the enemies on the screen and for the most part, as long as you move faster you can avoid them if you wish. Some of the bigger enemies are far too dangerous to attack early on so knowing your limits is a must. If you do want to see if you can beat the more powerful enemies (it’s not impossible don’t worry, just takes time) then you can run into them to initiate the battle. If you happen to die, you don’t get blasted back to your last save point, instead you can chose to retry or exit.
If you chose retry you go back to the moment before your last battle, this is handy if you haven’t saved in a while. For around the first twenty-thirty hours the game is quite linear and in that sense that there is very little exploration, this can be looked at one of two ways. The first way would be to say that it’s a bad thing with the reasoning that you really have nothing to do but follow the rail until you hit the area of Pulse, which is a free roaming area. The second way is to look at it as a good thing, this being that it allows you to follow the story without getting sidetracked and forgetting what you were doing then have the freedom later in the game to explore and grind till your heart’s content.
Later on in the game you have the chance to do some side missions that that are completely optional. By doing these “Cie’th” missions you can get rewards such as powerful accessories and big CP bonuses (depending on the mission). Don’t worry if you’ve given these a miss, once you have completed the game you can return to Grand Pulse and continue the side missions, but unfortunately there is no “New Game +” option as I and many others would have liked. By doing these missions however, you have the chance to unlock a Chocobo (a big yellow bird) which is capable of getting you from one place to another really fast. Chocobo’s are also able to dig up treasures and rare items hidden underground, which can provide some much needed money. You can’t fight while riding a Chocobo and if you run into too many enemies the Chocobo will kick you off and run away so take care not to run too close.
I did notice in that in certain areas the game did suffer from invisible wall syndrome, this is due to its linearity more than anything. I also noticed a couple of optimisation issues but nothing major, just a light stuttering in a couple sections of the game, but this isn’t a deal breaker. There also seems to be a lack of money too, although it’s not really needed for anything other than upgrades. Gone are the rewards of gil, experience and items at the end of a battle and items can be rare.
Pretty as a picture
The graphics are gorgeous, the environments are lush and each character is perfectly modelled and lifelike. Every cut-scene is beautifully rendered making this easily one of the best looking games of 2010. There is a real sense of detail in each of the areas, and you get a real feeling of distance as you wander around. The sheer amount of detail that resides in the game is overwhelming and lip-syncing during the cut-scenes is as near to perfect as you can get. There is a real sense of depth and it feels like you can literally reach out and touch it, even if you actually can’t. Also scale is something that is executed well too, especially looking at something far away. Pulse is even more impressive than any other area in the game and really feels like a diverse world with lots to see. That said, it’s true that unfortunately the PS3 version is slightly better looking than the Xbox version particularly in the quality of the cut-scenes, but even so, the Xbox version still carries itself very well.
One thing I did notice is that there is barely any overlap with the enemy design like you would find in other Final Fantasy games, although the same enemy classes keep making an appearance, their design is different. Each character looks unique and the same can be said for the enemies, which have also been rendered to a high quality. This could be the new standard for Final Fantasy games with more originality and less reuse of familiar enemies.
Can you hear that? It sounds big!
There is only one thing I can say about the audio and that is “its epic”. The score changes depending on location and is rich and beautifully composed. The surprising mix of musical styles is something new in a JRPG, including jazz, dance and rock, along with your normal Final Fantasy operatic theme. There is at least one familiar track in there, which is an updated version of the Chocobo music, and adds some much needed nostalgia to the game.
The character voice acting is well put together and the actors and actresses really bring the characters to life, each with their own personality. This is highlighted when traversing the environment and suddenly one of them will pipe up with a relevant comment to do with you current situation or surroundings. Great attention has been paid to the sound effects all round and even enemies each make their own individual sounds depending on their actions.
Is it worthy of the name?
After playing for over seventy hours just doing the main storyline and twenty eight of the side quests, I have to say that with no preconceptions and no comparisons to any other Final Fantasy game, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my opinion the game is no more linear than any other JRPG on the market today and can present a challenge from start to finish. It also allows people new to the series to enjoy it too; as it’s far less complicated than previous Final Fantasy titles, or titles of the same class.
Concentrating heavily on the storytelling and bringing to us probably the best combat system of any of the Final Fantasy games, this instalment stands on its own. There is also little need for grinding either so people who just want to blast through the story without having to invest hours of their lives running around the same area will still find some enjoyment. The story is pretty easy to follow and warms up to a climactic ending, one of which you will not expect. With an intriguing story and plenty of hours of gameplay, Final Fantasy XIII is definitely worth your money.
I can’t deny a large focus on both visual and audio, but the gameplay is still a lot of fun and what Square have done really is spectacular if looked at in the right light. Even if people take offence at its linearity and its few other downsides, it is still a fantastic game worthy of the Final Fantasy brand. If you haven’t played a JRPG before then I recommend this to you as your first, and if you have, get it anyway and you won’t be disappointed.