Final Fantasy XIII Import Review
It's this experimentation that has turned Final Fantasy into a worldwide phenomenon. As any Japanese scientist knows it takes years of trial and error to create the perfect specimen - but have those 20 years of work paid off here in the thirteenth title in the series?
The ingredients seem to be of a high quality. Yoshinori Kitase, Square Enix's staple battle director of titles such as Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII and Chrono Trigger is on board to Produce, as he did in the successful Final Fantasy X. He's assisted by the talents of Motomu Toriyama, whose body of work includes Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X and even some of the series spinoffs, from Crystal Chronicles to Ivalice Alliance.
The result of this partnership is a convoluted yet often intriguing story, graphics and cinematography to blow every other game on the market out of the water and action that would be the bane of any unsuspecting epileptic.
Final Fantasy XIII is set in a futuristic world called Pulse, a world tormented by celestial beings known as fal'Cie. These beings select humans to do their divine bidding - known as a Focus - and these humans bear the name L'cie. To be marked as a l'Cie is a veritable death sentence, as failure to fulfill one's focus results in undesirable, undead circumstances. On the other hand fulfillment of one's focus results in the l'Cie becoming Crystallized - turning the l'Cie in question into an immortal statue. l'Cie are considered highly dangerous and a threat to the safety of Cocoon.
Cocoon was created by a fal'Cie called Orphan and is a spherical sanctuary that humans live in, high above the dangers of the earth below. Cocoon is governed by the Holy Government, which shields them from the outside world and ensures humans who live or venture outside Cocoon become outcasts to society - which has led to the beginnings of a resistance force against the government.
Lead character Lightning is an agile military expatriate is in search of her sister Serah. She infriltrates Cocoon alongside her old friend Sazh, another military expat who is also in search of family - his ten year old son. Snow's a self-proclaimed 'hero' and leader of an anti-government organization who is also in search of Serah, who is his fiancé.
Hope is the youngest member of the party and ends up caught up in events, and Vanille and Fang are the final two vital party members - but any summary of their backgrounds would be too spoiler heavy for a review - but trust me, those two are vital to the story.
In short Lightning, Snow, Sazh and Hope are eventually marked as l'Cie themselves and their individual stories take them on interweaving paths as they separate and reunite to do battle with common foes.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII is a complex one, but it's very imaginative and fits the mould of a contemporary Final Fantasy perfectly. The game is narrated throughout by Vanille who conveys a sense of innocence in the story. Most important of all, each character's motives and reactions to different adversities is mostly satisfying and convincing.
It's an incredibly likeable, well developed cast overall, and benefits from being one of the smallest FF casts ever. The narrative is also one of if not the strongest in the series, though elements of it may disappoint some.
The potential the story has is thought provoking on paper, but sequestering our patience and indeed our sanity through the blistering pace, in-party bickering and constantly playing the role of the fugitive can dampen the experience of this somewhat magical story at times.
Fighting, enemy encounters, a zeitgeist to change the world and a few herbs and spices are all the main ingredients to your typical Final Fantasy and indeed Japanese RPG, though. So what's the problem?
I found two - most notably, Final Fantasy XIII really lacks a strong villain. There's no Sephiroth or Kefka here - there's not even a Kuja. The plot is more about facing adversity and the world - l'Cie are seen as enemies of humanity - but the main villain and his supporting cronies are all weakly developed and some are dispatched far too easily in plot terms.
The second issue lies with the pacing, which is often so fast that it works as a detriment to the story. Sometimes stories need time to breathe, and Final Fantasy XIII never gives the story that chance. Even the wonderfully-handled character development largely happens in the front half of the game, with the latter half a whirlwind of events around the already-established characters.
The story is always rattling forward at an alarming pace, and there's little potential to simply run amuck in towns or explore the amazing artwork the game offers without running into something that chases you down a flight of stairs.
Some have argued that the death of the town and the world map the more linear progression is revolutionary while others have bemoaned it as game-breaking. In truth it's neither, but it is a very brave decision on the part of the designers.
It would be a clever choice, but the gap that's left by these missing aspects of the game isn't plugged by anything else. The cutscenes are pretty and the world is incredibly well realized, but in gameplay it all feels rather sparse as when you're not fighting you're watching a cutscene or in the menus - there is literally nothing else to do.
There are a few key points where the game slows and practically becomes a portrait, with no enemies to annoy you and no cutscenes playing, but these moments are few and far between and there's nothing going on in them. Final Fantasy XIII is a rollercoaster ride that only ever goes downhill - it never takes time out for that slow, exciting, lump-in-your-throat climb before another drop.
The complaints about 'spaghetti' maps are true, but don’t think this is an issue. In most Final Fantasy titles you're merely moving from point A to point B - it's the fact that there's nothing extra to do between points A and B that's the issue.
The battle system is as highly polished, finely tuned and pretty-looking as everything else in Final Fantasy XIII. The Active Time Battle (ATB) system returns in this game but in a hybrid form, allowing characters to chain together several commands to be unleashed with the ATB gauge accrues.
Higher level commands take up more ATB slots and thus a forcing a choice between many weaker attacks or one large, powerful attack. Other abilities such as Quake, Libra and Summon are organized under the techniques menu, which uses technical points that a player gains by performing well in battles, making players earn the 'super attacks'.
You'll only have to control one member of the party at a time, with the rest controlled by AI. The one character you control will also spend some time under AI control, too. While you have the ability to choose your commands on the fly, the blistering pace of the game will often mean input times are unrealistic and you'll let the AI decide specifics for you.
The player still has a full control over the events of battle, but Final Fantasy XIII almost has as deep a focus on the importance of using the AI cleverly as Final Fantasy XII did thanks to Optima Changes - this game's take on the job system.
By allowing the game more agency over the character movement and actions in battle, Final Fantasy XIII is able to deliver intense action and exciting choreography but I also felt like I'd lost a sense of entitlement over my achievements in the game, as sometimes battles move so quickly that it feels like you as the player are contributing little, even if in reality you're contributing a lot.
It's strange, though, as despite all my complaints about how it functions and how it reads on paper I found the battles in the game highly enjoyable. It's challenging and satisfying, and the speed makes the game feel like more of an action RPG than an ATB system. The heightened level of control the game renders over battle may prove too suffocating for some, though.
The previously mentioned job system is known as the Optima System. Each character has three roles they are proficient in and three roles they're not so proficient in, with six roles in total in the game - Attacker, Blaster, Defender, Jammer, Enhancer and Healer.
Characters can only use abilities their current role dictates - and so you'll have to change roles during the heat of battle using the Optima Change command. When somebody needs healing you'll switch a character to healer role, while if you encounter an enemy with strong attacks you may want to switch to Defender.
The Optima Change feels like it was designed to combat the speed of the battles. The pursuit of speedy, Advent-Children looking battles has increased the tempo considerably, and the old, gigantic menus of commands would be useless in such a fast paced game, as you'd never be able to browse to the attack you need in time.
The Optima System splits the commands into smaller, separate roles, meaning the menus on screen are smaller and job-specific. However, each role in of itself really has no meat. In fact it takes you so long to unlock some of the more useful commands that by the time you do so, you've learned to go without.
Chatacter Progression is handled via the Crystarium System, which shares much in common with Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, with various paths characters can take leading to different skills for each Optima role. Upgrades to base statistics and new skills and abilities are purchased with Crystarium Points which are earned after every battle.
We wrote a full in-depth preview on how the system works, but all that needs to be said is that it's a natural fusion of the Sphere Grid with the ideas presented by eschewing levels entirely and focusing on the Optima Change system, focusing instead on developing the roles each character is proficient in on the grid.
The difficulty curve of Final Fantasy XIII can be frustrating, but the best adjective to describe it would be challenging. The first 20 hours of the game are constructed in a way that forces you to learn to use strategy to best your enemies instead of using brute force.
It does this through plenty of forced party member changes and limiting character growth to certain levels until you reach specific points in the game. On the upside you have the ability to level up your accessories and weapons as if they were characters in and of themselves, and this particular system is one of the brightest and most refreshing aspects of the game's character development.
The so-called 'level cap' has received some negative criticism from Japanese fans and importers, but it didn't really bother me. You're unlikely to reach the caps unless you grind hopelessly in an effort to make this title's more demanding battles easier, but it won't work. I think many fans were disappointed because this FF was harsher and harder than previous titles in the series, and grinding your way out of trouble is no longer an option.
Final Fantasy XIII is definitely very challenging - you're going to die in this game. When you die you're not sent back to the last save point but actually dumped back into the same scenario to take a second shot at the enemy that took you down. It's a nice touch, and a very welcome change from FFs of old that would ditch you back at the last save point, 3 hours in the wrong direction.
The fact that your party is fully healed after every battle doesn't make the game any easier, either, and boss battles are often particularly difficult with the Achilles' Heel of the bosses often not immediately apparent or easy to hit.
As previously mentioned in our in-depth previews, the main aim of the battle system is to chain as many attacks on the enemy as possible in order to put the enemy into 'break' status. Once the enemy is in break you can do substantial damage for a period of time, and this is the only way to defeat enemies swiftly and without dying.
The break gauge is the strongest addition to the traditional Final Fantasy formula, and works especially well here where even the most standard of enemies can have thousands of HP.
Managing to drive an enemy into Break status and then pile on the damage with excellent timing is incredibly satisfying and one of the moments when the Final Fantasy XIII team's vision of how they wanted battles to be is clearest. Mastering the Break system is crucial to success in the game.
If you like a challenge, my criticisms of the speed of the battle system and the optima change system shouldn't sway you. While I sometimes found myself wishing I had more time to select attacks and more direct control over my party, I still found the battle system incredibly satisfying and fun overall.
After several hours of gameplay all of the various facets the battle systems really begin to hit a sweet spot, and once every single facet of Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay is open to you the systems afford you some really fun options in terms of customization and battle tactics.
Even with its issues, the gameplay is a truly groundbreaking, seamless and challenging twist on the Japanese RPG genre, but like all games it has its quirks that are bound to irk some - parts certainly irked me.
There are many elements in this Final Fantasy I have fallen in love with. Chief on that list are the characters; In my opinion this is the most interesting, well developed and likeable ensemble of protagonists you will find in a Final Fantasy game to date.
At the beginning of the story when each of the characters are being introduced I was gripped with fear. Most felt like they filled niches and clichés that have already been explored in past Final Fantasy titles. Thankfully, I was mistaken.
As the character development began to blossom, these perfectly proportioned, photorealistic guys and gals grew on me. The biggest cliché character risk was Hope, a 14-year-old boy with serious 'attachment' issues, but I genuinely sympathized with the kid later in the game. Thankfully, Final Fantasy XIII saw fit to gloss over the self-pity.
The character development's strengths is owed in part to how stunningly well produced the game's cutscenes are. There's actually not that much CGI in Final Fantasy XIII, but you'll barely notice the difference thanks to how amazingly well-produced every in-engine cutscene is.
Words can't sufficiently describe how amazing and detailed every single scene is. From the vigorous in-game footage to the luscious CGI, every part of the sophisticated visuals is both beautiful and impressive from a technical standpoint.
The true trump card of Final Fantasy XIII lies in its graphical presentation, which aids the development of the characters and helps to build a world that is filled with environments that are truly humbling.
Even the difficult camera can't ruin the fact that this game is a visual feast for your eyes and truly a showcase of what can be achieved on gaming consoles if you only take your time. There's a bit of a 'look but don't touch' approach with linear paths through pretty areas, but I can accept that with how pretty it is.
You're in for some easy listening with the music of Final Fantasy XIII, from earthy electro-percussion to J-Pop about rainbows and sunshine and from soaring orchestral pieces to the kind of musical loops you'd expect to hear while on hold to some customer service call center. Oddly enough it all fits perfectly.
The trademark battle theme of this game is an impressive arrangement that I'm sure most of you have already heard, and the melodies of the battle theme and the main theme tune pleasingly weave themselves in and out of the fabric of the rest of the soundtrack, which I loved.
I didn't find the soundtrack particularly stand-out, but it's certainly a worthy addition to the Final Fantasy series' soundtracks and Masashi Hamauzu has done a fantastic job of stepping into Nobuo Uematsu's considerable shoes.
If you're scouring the internet looking for reasons to pour your hard-earned cash into a game this one is a no-brainer. If you're a Final Fantasy loyalist you might find yourself a little disenchanted by the break from tradition - but I'm of the persuasion that traditions were made to be broken.
No matter how hard you cling to your Final Fantasy VI or VII blanket I think you'll find something to love about Final Fantasy XIII. If approached as an all-new title and not a Final Fantasy title this game would be praised as an amazing feat of imagination.
That certain je ne sais quo Square Enix has been vehemently pursuing is perfection. Final Fantasy XIII is unsurprisingly not perfect, but no game is - not even those classic, revered Final Fantasy titles.
This gem will give you hours of playtime, hours of challenge and miles of scenery to leave even the biggest cynic wide-eyed with wonder. There's a strong, intriguing and fun take on the Final Fantasy battle formula and a satisfying character upgrade system - it's good.
It's the presentation that stands out here above all else though, with the sheer polish of it making everything - characters, battles and story - better by association. The issue is that once you strip away that presentation there are some clear, gaping flaws.
I could go on forever, but it's with ancient wisdom that I can best review Final Fantasy XIII. Confucius said "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." True, that.