Traditionally every Final Fantasy game is very different to the last in one way or another and, because of this, not everyone is going to agree with every single aspect of the series. This was particularly the case with FFXII – a game that changed so much that fans were familiar with that many were left disenchanted with it, though others felt that the overhaul removed much that they had considered to be caveats of the series.
Final Fantasy XIII polarises opinion in a similar way. You don’t get the chance to level up until a good few hours in, which gives the earlier stages of the game more of an action than an RPG feel, and much of the first 25 hours or so are spent walking through linear areas with little scope for the grand exploration of earlier epics, whilst the combat system doesn’t reveal its true depths until a substantial amount of hours have been sunk into the game. All of this has the potential to leave a fair number of series and RPG devotees disgruntled at the initial lack of RPG and freedom featured in the game.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII will appease those who felt that the twelfth iteration was lacking in overblown nonsense, as there’s plenty of that here. It’s initially set on the floating island of Cocoon, a world in constant fear of invasion from the lower world of Pulse, the denizens of which are said to be cursed; both Cocoon and Pulse are home to Fal Cie, godly robot like beings, who have organic servants, La Cie, that are tasked with completing tasks, as failure to do so will transform them into hideous monsters, with the problem being that each La Cie must discover just what these tasks are for themselves. The voice actors do a respectable job at breathing life into the characters and the music really plays its role in complementing dramatic and poignant scenes.
As for the characters, it’s an ensemble cast, so there’s not really a cut-and-dried lead protagonist: Lightning is the moody ex soldier, reminiscent of FFVII’s Cloud Strife, Snow is brash and heroic, Sazh is a comedy character with an afro that is home to a Chocobo chick, Vanille is upbeat and, the seemingly requisite, slightly annoying character, Hope is seeking revenge for the death of his mother, and Fang is mysterious and is not exactly always unassuming with her words.
in the first half of the game, there are large chunks dedicated to particular characters, which works effectively at allowing you to better become acquainted with their colourful personalities: At least on those occasions, they’re a well developed cast of characters, but later on they become a less interesting bunch in favour of a story that, whilst not without its memorable moments, is quite frankly nonsense and not always in a likeable way, as was the case with many of the previous entries in the series. A glossary that documents narrative events that you have witnessed is welcome, though less so if you find yourself having to refer to it with increasing frequency as progression is made.
With menu based combat returning, the battle mechanics are reminiscent of the pre FFXII games. The active time battle system has too been reinstated in yet another form and the results are excellent. The lightning fast pace brings to mind another love it or hate it game in FFX-2. Characters this time around can queue up and unleash multiple attacks within a single turn, each of which are divided into individual time bar segments. But if you so desire, attacks can be triggered strategically, allowing you to forgo longer string of attacks, in favour of quicker but less powerful commands.
Another important strategy of combat is staggering your enemy by filling their chain gauge. This is achieved through repeated attacks and creeping up on unaware enemies. Staggered enemies will be more susceptible to damage and, in some cases, will even be left unable to attack. There are some enemies that are near invulnerable to your attacks until you stagger them, only then can the satisfying obliterating commence.
Summons fight alongside the summoner and can shift to the flashy Gestalt mode of which has them transforming, with the summoner riding on the back of them and at the same time ditching the time bars and changing the control scheme, instead giving you points of which you spend on manoveoures triggered by pushing the left stick in certain directions along with any of the four face buttons.
During combat, you only ever are in direct control of a single character at a time and once that character dies, it’s game over for you – harsh, but checkpoints are mercifully generous. The accompanying two characters are AI controlled, though you still have a lot of say of the roles they play in a fight. This brings me to the Paradigm system. It’s somewhat like a less complex version of the Gambits featured in FFXII. There are multiple character classes and having certain combinations of these will create Paradigms, for example a commando and two ravagers (magic users) will create the Relentless Assault Paradigm, whilst a synergist (has the important role of buffing up the party), a saboteur (equally important, inflicts enemies with negative statuses) and a commando will result in the Bully Paradigm. Outside of battle you can create up to 6 – out of many possible combinations – of these, of which can be switched between at will whenever the situation demands it during a fight.
Victory in combat doesn’t earn you traditional exp and old fashioned levelling up is out, though thankfully much of the similar geeky compulsion of ascending through levels has been retained with the Crystogen Points, which similarly to exp is gained through victory in a fight, but it’s then left entirely up to you of what you want to spend these points on.
Crystogen Points are spent in the Crystarium, which is essentially a less complex variation of FFX’s sphere grid and consequently slightly less satisfying, where stat increases and new abilities can be purchased. Each of the six classes has their own board and whilst bought abilities remain exclusive to the classes, stat increases, however, are available to all classes regardless of what board you buy them from.
Additional party enhancement comes with an equipment upgrade system, which allows you to strengthen weapons and accessories with loot, which is obtained regularly from defeating enemies and found lying about, as well as simply purchased. Each item has an experience value, which will grant the chosen equipment exp and whilst some don’t offer much exp, they do however have another benefit, granting an exp bonus to equipment that can potentially double or triple the amount that future items will grant to them. Once a weapon or accessory amasses so much exp, the gear will level up and as a result become more effective. Another thing to consider is that once you max out its level, you have the option of transforming it into a new item, of which is sometimes worse than the old, but through enough upgrading will ultimately become more proficient than it.
All this upgrading is carried out at save points, as is your shopping. Traditional shops are not a part of the game and towns are a rarity. Exploring towns and chatting to the locals, gathering information, both essential and inane, will be missed by many genre fans and leaves the world feeling a little less rich than it otherwise would have. It doesn’t help matters that a fair chunk of the game has you traipsing through areas that are about as complex as your average garden path.
However, at the 25 hour mark, Final Fantasy XIII begins to open up, offering you a vast area to explore filled to the brim with optional quests. When you first witness this beautiful but harsh land stretching before you, tantalizing you with its breadth, it feels as though you were previously a caged animal who is only now learning the wonders of freedom, it’s a cliché but it couldn’t be more fitting in this particular instance. It’s made all the more better with the fact that you get the chance to ride around on Chocobo’s, those lovable giant yellow birds, made complete with that accompanying memorable, chirpy theme tune.
The Crystal tools engine does a wonderful job of conveying to your TV both vast and smaller locations, needless to say, as is always the case for the mainline series, Final Fantasy XIII is one of the best graphical delights of the generation. All the flash and spectacle that has come to be expected is in there, with extraordinary character detail and sumptuous, chaotic, effect laden battles that gives the feeling that this is the big budget RPG main event (which it is so for many people), and the FMV sequences that Square were once famous for are extraordinary. The musical score also features plenty of strong pieces, though it’s not quite on the same level of Nobuo Uematsu’s finest work.
Final Fantasy XIII’s story, whilst solid and occasionally brilliant, hasn’t managed to meet the expectations set by previous iterations, though it does contain a memorable cast of characters. The battle system is sublime however, and even though traditional level raising is missed, the alternate growth methods are a worthy substitute. Whether people can overlook its flaws in favour of these strengths is another matter entirely.
As its mixed reviews show, Final Fantasy XIII is a more divisive game than ever before. Some series fans will feel that its lost too much that makes the series and the genre as a whole, and some Final Fantasy XII supporters will see it as a regressive successor, but for those that are new to both Final Fantasy and JRPG’s in general and are seeking an accessible and streamlined entry point, Final Fantasy XIII with its alluring production values and ease of play comes as an inviting prospect.