Final Fantasy XIII ReviewPatrick Honeyman
Final Fantasy. A game franchise that by name alone is known throughout the gaming community and even among the general public experiencing the popularity of similarly famous titles such as Street Fighter, Mario and Sonic. That the game is now in its 13th numbered iteration with the recent release of Final Fantasy and you can tell that this is a series that is still going strong and will be around for some time yet. Fans have waited almost five years since FFXII was released for the next main title in the franchise and does the long wait deliver a Final Fantasy game worth getting excited and worked up over? Read on to find out.
Like prior entries in the series Square Enix endeavour to give FF a new setting and characters with which to get to grips with. This time around players are introduced to the world of Cocoon and Grand Pulse, two worlds that exist in the same galaxy with you getting to explore both as you play the game. For the first time since FFVI the main character you take control of is the female soldier named Lighting (discounting FFXI as you could have your own custom character in that game) who may remind players of former main characters from the earlier games, particularly Cloud. Soon after we are introduced to some of the other characters you will get to play through the game as well as the main thrust of the game.
The world of Cocoon is watched over by Gods named L'Cie. They basically keep things in balance and look after the people of Cocoon as long as they do not come into direct contact with them as if this happens they risk being branded and turned into a Fal' Cie (i.e they get a tattoo somewhere on their body). They are then give an objective to fulfil which the game terms as a 'focus' from the L'Cie but they are not told what it is and instead have to work this out themselves. As a result if those with a focus do not fulfil it then over time they will either turn into a remnant (a senseless monster) or turn into crystal if their focus is fulfilled. It's all rather jargon heavy and basically comes down to doing what the Gods have fated their human underlings to do otherwise they will bear a terrible fate. As expected, our playable troupe end up through the story being turned into Fal' Cie and endeavour to find a way to either complete their focus or find another way to break the binds of L'Cie. Now with the basic outline of the games story laid down we can have a look at what the most recent FF offers players new and old for this generation.
I can not deny that Final Fantasy XIII looks gorgeous. The main characters in the game have certainly had a lot of care and attention put into their looks and bringing them to life so that they are believable enough within the story. Although most of the detail has gone into the face of the characters I feel it would petty for me to say that less detail on areas such as hands and fingers is a bad thing as they still look very good none the less. Creatures and enemies look great too and the environments are varied and beautiful in equal measure. I wont spoil later parts of the game but this is a game definitely worth playing through to experience all the environments it has to offer. The music in the game is also of high quality and props to the composer (who also worked on FFX) for not only re-imagining the main battle theme well but creating a score that encompasses many genres and really evokes just the right mood for each respective scene/area in the game. I emphasise that you seek out the soundtrack for this game I believe it to be so good (minus a couple of slightly too bouncy/poppy tracks but these are few and far between). Although it is a shame that there is no Japanese language track available on either version of the game the English voices are fairly well done on the whole with solid performances put in by the voice actors for Lightning, Sazh, Hope and Fang. Snow and Vanille are okay but they come across a bit too heavy in the single-minded hero and dippy girlie type manner a little too much and a little too often, plus the voice actress for Vanille could for the life of me decide which accent she was going to use through the game. I'm pretty sure it continually fluctuated between English, Australian and American in equal measure and although players are smart enough to understand those different accents a but of consistency would have been nice. Together with the villains of the game coming across as wishy-washy and very Saturday morning, besides these minor setbacks everyone else performs valiantly with what they are given. Aesthetic elements aside, how does the most recent FF play?
In all honesty, not too bad. Compared with previous entries in the series, here players are given control of the main character in their party and the remaining two members in play are controlled by AI. Rather than select a single command players wait for a bar to fill up (this starts with three slots) where they can appoint actions the main character will carry out in battle. This can also be interrupted to make various combinations in battle or use one stock, for example, to attack and then allow the bar to fill up quicker the second time and strike with three attacks or one attack and a magic command. As you play through the game there is the ability to expand this in order to increase the amount of attacks you can unleash on your opponent together with making some interesting combos (more on this later). It certainly brings FF out of the old style of Japanese RPGs and keeps the player on their toes as they attempt to make sure that their main and sub characters remain healed and fighting ready throughout the battle so as to avoid a quick game over (in FFXIII if your main character dies that's it, time to start again). Even from the start of the game when the player takes control of Lighting and from the first few battles Square Enix are not only expecting but is making the player get used to the new system as there is little room for tactics from old FF games here. Of course the basis of battle is the same as is the case in many other JRPGS but players who rely solely on constant attacking only will find their one-track plan backfire no more than an hour into the game. This is good for FF as I'm pretty sure franchise fans will adapt to the new system with time and new players will like the changes that Square Enix have implemented to their beloved franchise.
In order to keep the battling in the game fresh and exciting Square Enix have also added the Paradigm Shift system to the game. This allows players to allocate job roles to the members of their team (such as Commando, Ravager, Synergist, Medic and so on) and switch between a manner of setups that have either been automatically generated in the status menu or the player has customised themselves. This really adds a large element of risk-reward to battles as players will find themselves switching between paradigms frequently in battles so as to maintain the upper hand on the opponent and really put the beat down on them as you work at targeting their weaknesses and racing to finish them off.
Another significant change that has been added to the gameplay is the ability to stagger enemies. In battle each enemy has a stagger gauge that can be built up by continually attacking them over time. Magic attacks will build the gauge quicker but drain it faster where as physical attacks will do the opposite to this. The advantage to filling the enemy's stagger gauge is that it typically puts them in an exposed state, allowing the player to lay down some heavy damage, knock them up in the air for easy attacking or just have them lay off assaulting you for a while. Balancing this together with keeping your party healthy and changing paradigms in battle and you can see that even if you are only controlling the main character most of the time you are still given a lot to do when playing. Summons are also available in the game (here named Eidolons) which you can switch to and have them fight by your side until the Gestalt Gauge (basically a timer) runs out or you can have them transform to do even bigger and flashier attacks on the enemy and take them down with spectacular results. All in all the changes made to the battling in FFXIII make for more exciting fare than previous iterations and doesn't let the player resort to just pressing the X button repeatedly.
Players will also find that there are no shops in the game in a traditional sense. These are now accessed at save points and will allow players to buy the usual items, weapons and accessories. It also allows you to level up your weapons and accessories as well. That's right, rather than get progressively stronger weapons as you play, FFXIII expects you to pick a weapon whose base stats you prefer and work on levelling that up as you play through the game. Although the method of levelling these up is explained in the game the player is left wondering what is most effective to increase their experience multiplier, what gems to use as a fusion catalyst for modifying their weapon and how many levels they have to increase before they will max out the level of their current weapon/accessories. It's the sort of stuff you may have to consult a guide for but I guess Square Enix want players to experiment rather than knowing straight away the exact combination they need to work towards to get the best weapon to early.
As ever, there are some issues with Final Fantasy XIII that stop it from being a faultless game. For all that has been explained above regarding the option a player can use in battle there is also an autobattle option that will usually pick the most useful choices for your character in battle and then go on to do them. This is sometimes useful but harks back to the former games' habit of grinding to level up where you repeatedly attack in battles and pretty much nothing else. The option can be used in most random battles but get to later in the game or try to take some of the tougher bosses on and you will die, repeatedly. You are almost being told at these points to play the game yourself rather than relying on the game to battle for you so the autobattle option is double-edged sword.
Many have commented that the game is linear for the first 15-20 hours. This is absolutely true. For all the accolades I can give for how pretty, spectacular and believable the world of FFXIII looks, as you pass through the different areas in the beginning part of the game you will basically run down variants of a straight corridor, fighting enemies, then a boss, have a cut scene and move onto the next area. Fans coming off the back of FFXII may feel super restricted by this, new players may feel cared for but ultimately bored before they get to the more open areas of the game and this again is a double-edged sword and a big risk that Square Enix have taken by making the opening areas of the game so channelled and straight-forward progression wise. I likened them to being as linear as a 30cm ruler and here that sly comparison is not far off.
It must also be noted that the game's story will not break any new ground or set any player's world on fire. For all the terminology and grandioseness that is thrown around the tale in FFXIII boils down to breaking the bonds of fate and beating the big bad in order to do it whilst going on a grand journey to get there. For all the solid development you get with characters like Sazh, Hope and Lightning you're set two steps back with the wishy-washy attempts to give depth to characters Snow and Vanille which comes of more like fan-fiction than from the hands of an experienced writer who knows how to bring the whole range of emotions out in people. The story could be changed with any other high profile RPG release and it would be just another RPG and in that respect I feel that FFXIII trades on the notoriety of the franchise to give it a little more sway amongst as being more significant than it actually is (see a game like Resonance of Fate for an RPG that doesn't take itself to seriously).
Those things said, good and bad points aside Square Enix have tried hard here to bring Final Fantasy XIII into the modern day games market. They have endeavoured to please both old and new fans by maintaining the staples of the franchise that allow players to identify it as a Final Fantasy title and be a refreshing gameplay experience too. FFXIII weighs in well in the areas of gameplay and graphics with both being great and through in equal measure and although the negative points to drag the game down from being a must-have title the do not derail it enough from being a high-quality, well-realised and enjoyable RPG to play. IS FFXIII truly the Final Fantasy? What with FFXIV around the corner and as long as there are fans of Square Enix's beloved franchise, I don't see this disappearing from gamers' radars for a long time. Worth your time if you are considering picking this up but persevere with its linearity to get the best out of what it has to offer.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.