Final Fantasy XIII – Staff Review

Since its announcement in 2006, fans of the series have eagerly anticipated Final Fantasy XIII. It was arguably one of the biggest stories to come out of E3 that year, and considering all of the announcements that year, that’s saying something.  And then in 2008, Microsoft finally dropped the bombshell that people had been expecting for years; Final Fantasy XIII was coming to PS3 and 360.  The net result has been four years of almost nonstop hype, which made the wait for the game all the longer.  So now, the question remains; was it worth the wait?  I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that it was.

The game starts off on a train while a narrator explains that the past thirteen days have been chaotic.  As the scene proceeds, we are introduced to protagonists Lightning and Sazh Kilroy.  Suddenly, Lightning springs into action and singlehandedly defeats every soldier she comes in contact with, and Sazh follows her somewhat like a lost, complaining puppy.  Naturally, the train crashes and the pair are greeted by a giant mechanical monstrosity.  After destroying it, the pair is thrown into a conflict that the player has almost no way of understanding.

This is, perhaps, the game’s greatest flaw.  Final Fantasy XIII chooses to throw everyone into a plot that has been in motion for thirteen days with zero backstory.  Instead of explaining even a little what strange terms like Fal’cie or l’cie mean, players must push forward and have the plot revealed in pieces over the span of the game.  The bulk of the story is explained by the time players reach the third or fourth of the game’s thirteen chapters, but the beginning is quite jarring.  Even a short intro text, possibly like what you see at the beginning of Final Fantasy VI would have made the beginning flow a bit better.  Regardless, once the plot gets going, it is a thrilling tale from beginning to end.  There is also an in-game encyclopedia which fills in the gaps for the player as you play, which really helps to make the game make more sense.

Where do they get off calling ME a bridezilla?  THEY are the ones that brought white geese instead of the SWANS I specifically asked for
Where do they get off calling ME a bridezilla? THEY are the ones that brought white geese instead of the SWANS I specifically asked for.

The six playable characters are split up, and the game constantly switches between as many as three separate stories in an almost Quentin Tarantino-like fashion that happen simultaneously. This split storytelling method is seen for about the first half of the game, and much like with the plot as a whole, this makes the characterization start off kind of slowly.  Since we’re only introduced to characters for little bits at a time, it can take a while for some characters to grow on you.  In a bit of a catch 22, you finally have children in an RPG that actually act their age, which makes them much more believable.  At the same time, they act like whiny, emo, teenaged children.  Fortunately, everyone grows up a fair bit by the end of the game, so everything gets vastly better by the time the game reaches its conclusion.

As with any RPG, one of the most important features is the battle system, and this is where Final Fantasy XIII really shines.  Initially, most of the battle system is locked, but once you get to chapter 3, the battle system opens up to be one of the best and most innovative ones yet.  In all, you will only control your main character, and any support characters will act automatically, similar to the Gambit system from Final Fantasy XII.  This lack of control sounds disconcerting at first, but the AI is surprisingly good.  Most times, your teammates will do exactly what you would have told them to do in the first place.  And not only that, but you can have the AI suggest actions for your main character as well. You can go with your own commands if you want, but in general, the computer is pretty smart at figuring out your best course of action.  How does the computer know what to pick?  For instance, you can scan a monster to find its weaknesses or, if you’d rather save Technique Points (TP), methodically test various attacks to find it out the old-fashioned way.  The AI will pick up on what works best and will use the most effective attacks automatically, including picking up on small details like the type of physical attacks to use; Commando units can use attacks based on strength or magic stats.

And that brings me to the most important part of the battle system: Paradigms.  Every character can have one of six roles.  Although each character will eventually gain access to all roles, everyone has three roles that they will specialize in.  Each role has its own abilities and will bestow some bonus to the party as a whole.  Commandos get a boost to attacks and help maintain Stagger chains.  Ravagers specialize in attack magic and quickly build up Stagger chains.  Medics heal and revive allies.  Synergists and Saboteurs wield stat-altering spells that help the party or hinder enemies respectively.  And finally, Sentinels are the tanks that aren’t able to dish out much damage, but they can absorb massive hits and thus protect other party members.  From these six roles, you can make up to six decks that assign a role to each member.  For instance, you might have a Paradigm with one Commando and two Ravagers to quickly stagger opponents, or you might go with something more defensive like a Medic, a Sentinel, and a Synergist.  Ultimately, it will depend upon your play style what method you prefer, though the game does skew itself toward staggering enemies as the primary strategy.  Enemies are staggered by filling up their stagger gauge, at which point it will slowly drain.  When an enemy’s stagger gauge is full, they’ll be temporarily weakened and take extra damage from attacks. They can also be launched into the air in this state, increasing the damage bonus and rendering them helpless.

So once you build your six Paradigm decks, you’re ready to begin combat.  At any time, you can switch between your six Paradigms, which will be necessary. Even though a character may have abilities from multiple roles, they can only use abilities when in that role.  So even though Vanille is an excellent mage, she cannot wield all types of magic simultaneously.  When someone is weakened, you’ll have to switch Paradigms to allow her to heal.  She’ll immediately sling some curative magic your way, and then you can immediately assume an offensive stance once again.  During boss fights, expect to have to change Paradigms frequently, sometimes every couple seconds as the needs of the battle change.

There are a few other major changes to the battle system that need to be addressed as well.  At the end of every battle, everyone is restored to full HP, including those that fell in battle.  This might make it sound like this would make the game overly easy, but it actually makes things harder.  Since you’re always going to start at full health for every battle, the developers made random battles significantly more difficult.  Expect to die.  A lot.  But unlike in other games, death comes with no penalty.  You merely restart right before the battle began, and you have full access to your Paradigm decks to change up strategies as needed.  You might also be able to ambush your opponents by sneaking up on them from behind, and if a fight is going poorly, you can restart it rather than wait for your lead character to be killed.

OK.  Here's the plan.  All we need to win this fight is a couple snow speeders and MAYBE a Jedi.
OK. Here’s the plan. All we need to win this fight is a couple snow speeders and MAYBE a Jedi.

And that’s the other main change to the battle system.  If your lead character dies, the fight’s over.  Though it sounds like this would be a major problem, with proper strategy, it is rarely an issue.  There is but one exception to this rule, and it is the last boss.  The last boss has an attack that cannot be blocked by equipping items, and if it is successful, it instantly KOs the target.  You could, for instance, spend nearly two hours repeatedly trying to kill the blasted boss, have it down to approximately 2% of it’s HP, have full HP yourself, and then have your game suddenly end because your main character was targeted by the instant death move.  And before you ask, yes, I am a little bitter.  In all honesty, the game mechanic works pretty well for 99.9% of the game, it’s just that the end is a little bit game breaking.  Ultimately finishing the game comes down more to luck than skill.

Another major factor that can influence the outcome of battle is the way in which you initiate the battle itself.  Enemies are visible on the world map around you, and it is possible to sneak up on them either by stealth or by using special aerosol items.  Making contact with an unawares foe starts a pre-emptive strike, which means that every enemy will be nearly staggered.  For some of the harder to kill monsters, this can mean the difference between a fight being over in 20 seconds versus a fight taking a couple minutes to finish.  This is important because the amount of experience gained depends on how quickly you win, and it can be worth the time spent restarting fights until you get that preemptive strike.  And some fights in the last third of the game may be nearly unwinnable unless you sneak up on your target first.

Once you win your fights, you earn Crystogen Points, or CP, which is this game’s version of experience points.  From about the third chapter on, you are able to progress your characters throughout their various skill trees by expending CP.  The system is very similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid in that there are nodes that you activate sequentially.  Where it begins to be different is that unlike FFX, each node does not cost the same amount of CP.  In general, higher nodes cost more than lower ones do.  Also, some classes may have more expensive nodes than others.  One final difference is that every character has a unique Crystarium, even for the same class.  For example, even though Hope and Sazh both have the synergist role available from the beginning, Hope’s tree begins with skills that boost defensive abilities and Sazh’s skill tree starts off with abilities to increase damage.  Unlike earlier games in the series, the skill trees do not ultimately end up the same way, so all six characters will remain unique, even if you completely max out their Crystarium.

The other main purpose of the Crystarium is that it serves as a level cap for areas.  No matter how much you grind, you cannot get access to very powerful skills early.  At best, you would only be able to max out the ever-expanding Crystarium as it grows throughout the game.  The other extremely nice feature is that all characters gain CP, even if they are away from the current party.  So when the group splits up later, all CP earned by one group are automatically given to the others.  This keeps all six characters on exactly level footing, so it is impossible to have one character underleveled unless you choose not to spend their CP in the Crystarium.

If having a solid battle and character growth system were not enough, Final Fantasy XIII also excels visually.  Square Enix has taken the past few years to present what is possibly the best looking game of this generation.  Everywhere you look, there are little details that make the world of Cocoon come alive.  Also, Square Enix’s hallmark CG cutscenes are so well animated they are almost lifelike.  In a word, Final Fantasy XIII is gorgeous and will undoubtedly set the bar for some time to come.

Cactaurella's plan to elope with Cletus was spoiled when her father caught them making their getaway.
Cactaurella’s plan to elope with Cletus was spoiled when her father caught them making their getaway.

These amazing graphics allow the game to shed itself of the world map, a long staple of RPGs as a genre.  In the old days, characters marched in place over tiles to go from place to place as a limitation of graphical ability.  Though many will miss the idea of an overworld map, you get around Cocoon the same way you’d get around your town.  Every aspect of the world is fully rendered.  One would think it would get boring pretty quickly, but the small size of the gameworld helps keep things interesting.  Terrains quickly change, and it never feels too contrived.

The other area where hardcore fans of the series may find fault is with the music.  It’s not that the music is bad.  In fact, it’s excellent. But it doesn’t sound like Final Fantasy.  You won’t hear the victory fanfare when winning fights, and don’t expect to hear the melodious crystal theme that we’ve all come to know.  Despite the fact that some purists may not like that some series staples have been omitted, the music is well suited to the game.  Many of the songs are quite catchy, and the lyrics to the Chocobo song seem like they always should have been there.

That brings us to the area of voice work.  In general, the voices fit the characters very well.  The only character that stands out in any negative way is Vanille.  She’s a little too perky, and for the first half of the game, her accent seems to change nearly constantly.  Aside from that, the voice work is generally superb, and lines are delivered in such a way as to make them more believable.  Final Fantasy XIII manages to do much more good than harm with the voice acting, which is very commendable these days.

Finishing Final Fantasy XIII can take anywhere from 50-70 hours depending on how much you want to grind and how many of the marks you hunt down.  Also, once you finish the game, your Crystarium exapands one final time, giving you the ability to begin hunting down the hardest marks.  Plus, there are weapons and equipment to craft, so it would be easy to spend another 20 hours or more on post-game content if you were so inclined.  Simply defeating the final boss is by no means the end of the game if you want to take your characters to the max.

The other issue with the plot that needs to be addressed is that the game is extremely linear.  Some people just will not like having every plot point laid out in breadcrumb fashion.  For those that enjoyed games like Final Fantasy IV, EarthBound, or The World Ends With You, the odds are, you will like Final Fantasy XIII. If you’re more a fan of open exploration, or even the 50/50 mix seen in classics like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger, this might be a letdown.

As for the difficulty, in general, the game is pretty fair.  Some of the fights at the end can be punishingly hard, but there are very few fights that cannot be won by simply adapting your strategy to fit what is required at the time.  Random battles are certainly difficult, but considering you’ll start off at full health each time and you can usually begin with a pre-emptive strike, even the hardest fights can be won if you just figure out what you need to do.  All in all, it is one of the most balanced RPGs to date with the exception of the last dungeon and final boss, with its one-hit kills.

One last point that needs to be brought up is the baby chocobo that lives in Sazh’s afro.  It is one of the cutest mascot characters to ever grace a game, and quite frankly, every game needs more baby chocobo.  Every time you see it fly out, you can be relatively assured that it will be cute, probably funny, and it will undoubtedly leave a smile on your face.  It is hands down the best character in the entire game.

In the end, Final Fantasy XIII is a game that is nearly perfect, especially if you like linear games.  The battle system is fun, the graphics are breathtaking, and the music is catchy.  The frustrations of the bad mechanics at the end coupled with the convoluted plot that the player is just dropped into without explanation are the only real negatives to be seen.  It’s not even that the plot is bad; it’s just that for the first few hours, you will have no idea what’s going on.  When you add it all together, you get one of the best games in the series and easily the best RPG on PS3.  I can heartily say that it has been worth the wait.

This game was played to completion, including some post-game content and reviewed using a  copy provided by Square Enix.

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