Final Fantasy XIII – Staff Import Review

Final Fantasy XIII has been a long time coming, and there’s little doubt that some people are going in with certain expectations. The fact that it’s also the first main series Final Fantasy game for the current generation likely only adds to this. To the extent that it’s possible, one has to put that aside and focus on the game for what it is rather than thinking about the rest of the series. Final Fantasy XIII is rather unlike anything else in the series anyway. Of course, it certainly has its fair share of staples such as chocobos, cactuars, and tonberries in the game, but the gameplay emphasis is very different. Exploration is all but ignored for the most part, and dungeons are the game’s clear focus. Towns are almost non-existent and functionally replaced by shops that can be accessed from save points while inns are rendered obsolete by auto-healing. Bits of story are delivered at very specific intervals, and the pace is carefully controlled to a large degree by a number of design decisions such as most dungeons being purposely linear.

Given the emphasis placed on dungeons, it should come as little surprise that battles are the game’s centerpiece, and they have clearly been given a fitting level of attention. The battle system is similar to past Final Fantasy ATB systems, but the player controls only the party leader. The action has been sped up considerably in order to account for this, and the end result is a very fast-paced and exciting system with very little waiting around for turns. Two key elements build upon this in order to add a good deal of strategy as well, the first of which is the ability to break ones foes. All enemies have a break gauge and damage bonus that build up as attacks are piled up upon them. Accumulating attacks onto the same enemy will increase both the damage bonus and the length of the gauge, the latter of which will allow more time to pass between attacks without the damage bonus resetting. Once these values reach a certain critical point, the enemy will enter a “Break” state. In this state, the gauge will constantly decrease, but damage bonuses will go through the roof. Depending on the enemy, it may also become possible to launch them into the air or otherwise make it difficult for them to damage the party, making it an important defensive maneuver as well.

The battle system’s second major element, the Optima system, adds to this strategy by allowing each character to have a class of sorts. Attackers can deal out a fair amount of quick damage, and their attacks prevent the break gauge from depleting quickly, but their attacks don’t increase the damage bonus very much. Blasters are also damage-dealers, but they boost the damage bonus considerably at the cost of the break gauge draining faster — essentially the opposite of the Attacker. Jammers are kind of in the middle but inflict status attacks more than direct damage. Creating good combinations of these three offensive classes will make it far easier to break enemies. Healer, Enhancer, and Defender — the three defensive classes — can heal, buff, and protect the party respectively. The party leader is also capable of using special TP commands such as summoning in order to further influence battle, regardless of their current role. The Optima system can also be used to give rough orders to supporting party members by putting them into the desired role. The AI will still make mistakes now and then, most notably when it comes to classes such as Enhancer, but the AI is generally pretty good at figuring out what the player wants and acting accordingly. These systems would have made for fast-paced strategy-filled battles alone, but it’s also possible to quickly change classes in battle. If timed carefully, switching can even give the heroes a speed advantage. The downside to this is that it’s only possible to have six combinations for the entire party, but making the best of this limitation is part of the strategy, and the end result is top-notch.

With the power and flexibility that the battle system offers, it might sound like Final Fantasy XIII might be pretty easy, but this is simply not the case. Enemies have been given a great deal of power in order to force the player to take full advantage of the battle system’s flexibility. Bosses in particular can be quite a challenge, though even some regular enemies can cause some close calls if the player underestimates them. This alone would be a welcome challenge for many, especially given how many interesting optional bosses there are, but some of the difficulty present in the game seems forced. For example, if the party leader is knocked out, the entire party gets a Game Over even if the party has Phoenix Downs or the Raise spell. This isn’t helped by the fact that level caps subsequently cap HP, the game forces a specific party leader for most of the game, and some members have far more HP than others, making them more viable as party leaders. Most accessories have only a negligible effect on their bearers except when similar types are stacked, making it difficult to raise max HP, defend against damage, and block status effects. Even series staples such as the Ribbon or the upgraded Super Ribbon have such low odds of preventing status effects that it can be difficult to tell if they’re working at all. Add in the fact that many bosses use unblockable instant death countdown spells on the party leader, and the difficulty goes from an enjoyable challenge to an artificially high one that relies on luck to a small degree. The good news is that this is likely to be quite rare unless the player is extremely unlucky, but the possibility of a cheap “Game Over” is still there.

Putting all of that aside for the moment and focusing on the battle menus themselves, everything is quite streamlined and polished. It’s easy to select abilities, cancel a series of commands in the middle, switch classes, and do pretty much anything else the player would want to do in battle short of re-define selected Optima choices. There’s even a convenient option that has the game suggest a chain of commands when the player is in a rush or doesn’t feel the need to hand-pick abilities, though it’s by no means perfect. The interface is quite good out of battle as well, but it’s not without its annoyances. The largest of these are that switching party members will reset all Optima choices to the default, even if the proper classes have been unlocked. Another issue is that the equipment enhancement interface is designed in such as way that the player is likely to waste far more materials than they would if they knew what an item’s experience cap is. Even the worst of these issues isn’t more than a minor inconvenience. The interface is excellent as a whole and helps support the gameplay by minimizing the amount of time players spend tangled up in menus.

Also supporting the gameplay are some amazing visuals and music. Final Fantasy XIII is a next-gen console game, and the developers make full use of what the PlayStation 3 has to offer. The soundtrack is quite impressive, full of both remixes of the game’s central theme and unique pieces that show off an area’s diversity. It does a great job of conveying the general mood of particular portions of the adventure, and it’s backed up by mostly solid voice-acting. Everyone, even random NPCs, are fully voiced. The only minor complaint that comes to mind is that some dungeons simply go on for so long that the soundtrack begins to become a little bit repetitive. This is more noticeable in the large free-roaming area toward the end since players will likely be spending a lot of time there, but the music is good enough for this to not be much of an issue.

On the visual side, there’s no denying that it’s one of the best-looking games out there. Everything from characters to monsters to the vast environments are all detailed and extraordinarily good-looking. Dungeons may be long and fairly linear, but there’s still a good deal of visual diversity, and sometimes it can really pay to just stop and look around for a moment. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the graphics is that there seem to be very few of the visual glitches that tend to pop up fairly often in complex 3D games such as this. As an added bonus, there is minimal loading time except when starting up the game and moving between areas, making all the detail packed in seem all the more impressive. Sometimes there’s even a seamless transition from cutscene to battle, and that’s not even mentioning how well the visuals fully illustrate exactly what’s going on in real time in some seemingly Advent Children-style fights.

Of course, the sound and visuals do a good job of supporting the story as well. Despite the clear emphasis on the dungeons and battle system this time around, the overarching story is not forgotten. Final Fantasy XIII takes place in a vast world filled with tension over a looming war between the high-tech world of Cocoon and the lower world of Pulse. Powerful beings that make humanity’s way of life possible, the fal’Cie, have a fair amount of control over humanity as well, and they will often treat some as puppets. Those chosen by the fal’Cie to complete a specific task are known as l’Cie. Becoming a l’Cie is more or less a lose/lose situation because completing the given task will result in becoming a crystal, whereas failing will result in becoming a mindless zombie-like creature. Needless to say, Final Fantasy XIII‘s story deals heavily with these issues as well as what it’s like to be little more than a puppet. Overall, it’s a pretty good story, but its not without its share of problems.

The cast itself is interesting and evolves as the game progresses, but more than one of them is likely to have a somewhat exaggerated personality trait that might rub the player the wrong way before they finish growing. The biggest problem the story has is that the player gets to see only a very narrow view of the world and the events that take place within it. There are few NPCs to speak with, the few town-like areas in the game are barely interactive, and for all the potential that the world has, there is next to no ability to explore it freely and see more than what directly relates to the primary storyline like in past Final Fantasy titles.

This lack of freedom impacts more than just the storyline, and it’s likely to be a glaring problem that many players will have with the game. As suggested earlier in the review, the vast majority of the game is quite linear, to put it mildly. Backtracking is rarely allowed, even beyond certain key points in a chapter, and it’s very rarely encouraged. Since there is little ability to explore the world, speak with NPCs, and go off and do your own thing, dungeons will inevitably take up the greater portion of the playtime.

Dungeons, like the game’s structure, are extremely linear, typically consisting of following a semi-straight or curved path with the occasional branches that lead to treasure. There is, thankfully, an occasional choice of paths or an open room filled with enemies and treasure, but dungeons can still become rather dull from time to time, especially during extended periods of play, and it doesn’t help that most of them can go on for hours. This problem is further amplified by the fact that the bulk of the game is simply one very lengthy linear dungeon after another, with small story breaks at set points. As good as the battle system is, the developers seem to be relying on it far too heavily to carry the game, and many players will find a wonderful battle system eventually unable to counteract a dull feeling brought on by a slog through what is a seemingly endless dungeon. Some may even begin to find normal battles a tad tedious.

Other games have attempted similar dungeon-crawling models. The Digital Devil Saga subseries comes to mind in particular, as it also relies heavily on the battle system to entertain players through lengthy, though significantly less linear, dungeons. Perhaps the biggest reason that Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t do nearly as well here is that players are likely to feel shoved onto a set path through not only the story and dungeons, but in virtually everything from which skills and stat upgrades are purchased to who the current party leader and members are. Though there is some freedom when it comes to allocating experience, the constant level caps make that choice meaningless within an hour or two. Unless players are avoiding battles, they will hit or nearly hit the level cap before every major boss fight and will be ushered into the builds that the game wants them to have at that point. It doesn’t help that new classes unlocked late in the game have all of their upgrades in a straight line with absolutely no room for deviation. The only true freedom players have early on is in which weapons and accessories to upgrade, though there are some limits placed on that as well. While other dungeon-heavily RPGs tend to offer heavy customization in order to keep players entertained, Final Fantasy XIII practically forces players into a mold.

Thankfully, the entire game is not this way, and freedom is slowly added as the player progresses. For example, weapon and accessory upgrades become available, more classes unlock, and it becomes possible to select party members and their leader. Even better is that a meaty portion of the game takes place in a large and open area with a large number of branching paths. It occurs fairly late in the game, but some welcome freedom, exploration, and sidequests make their way into the game as well. Even the level cap is raised to a point that there’s a significant amount of time before characters can meet it, so skill and stat decisions actually have a real impact for once. At the very least, this portion of the game will add the variety and freedom that the rest of the game needed. Were the entire game like this, it would likely appeal to a larger portion of gamers. Sadly, dungeons return to being linear once again afterwards, but the open area can be returned to later on. It should be noted that there’s a significant amount of post-game material in the free-roaming region as well, giving a pretty rigid 40-60 hour game closer to 100 hours for the dedicated.

All in all, Final Fantasy XIII has an awesome battle system backed up by equally impressive graphics, excellent music and sound, and a good story, but as good as each of these major components are, the linearity and lack of freedom that pervades nearly everything is likely to disappoint a large number of gamers, particularly Final Fantasy fans who enjoyed the vast worlds and character customization that past titles offered. There is a lot of good in the game still, without a doubt, and the end product is quite solid as a whole, but it’s hard to get around the fact that most of it is very linear and must be played exactly the way that the developers want, especially in the beginning. Perhaps this design decision was meant to mirror the lack of freedom that the game’s l’Cie characters are dealing with, but the end result won’t appeal to most players nearly as much had such restrictions not been imposed.

This game was played to completion and reviewed using a retail version purchased by the reviewer.

One Comment

  1. admin:

    I am torn between reading this and waiting until I’ve played the game. Alas!

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