Sitting down and typing the review for Final Fantasy XIII is kind of surreal. Announced almost a full four years ago at E3 2006, the game has felt for a long time like it was never going to come out. After a multitude of issues, delays, the game is finally here in the disc drives of my Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.
The most interesting thing about Final Fantasy XIII has been fully explored in our past articles about it. We had an import review that explained the game mechanics months ago, but we also had full, detailed articles on how The Battles and Character Progression work – and I highly suggest you read them if you want full, detailed information on how the game works.
Final Fantasy XIII is an interesting change in direction for the series, pushing away from the turn-based traditions of the main-line Final Fantasy titles and edging closer to a more action-RPG style of battle system. While the game still technically runs on the turn-based Active Time Battle (ATB) system that was introduced way back in Final Fantasy IV all the action happens so quickly it usually doesn’t feel turn-based at all.
Speed is the name of the game in Final Fantasy XIII, and everything moves with veritable light-speed. The game tries to discourage players from manually selecting commands, offering a smart, intuitive auto-battle button that picks out the best attacks to hit the enemy for you.
The auto-battle is pleasingly intelligent – cast Libra to discover an enemy’s weaknesses and it will read that Libra information and begin using the attacks that’ll deal the most damage, eschewing those powers that the enemy would be immune to entirely.
Hitting auto-battle doesn’t take the challenge out of Final Fantasy XIII – it’s just challenging in a different place. The game is built around the Paradigm system, which essentially are Job Classes. Paradigms offer different skills – for example, powerful healing magic is exclusive to the Healer Paradigm, while Ravagers can deal out heavy black magic attacks. Commandos are the offense specialists, using powerful physical attacks to devastate the enemy.
There are six Paradigms in total, and while all of the cast can fill any role each character excels at three in particular. Lightning is best as a Commando, Ravager or Medic – kind of putting her in the traditional Knight role, while Snow is more of a monk, with plenty of HP and the Sentinel class, which provokes enemy attacks and counters them.
Your task is to manage your team’s paradigms while also managing the moves of your main character. You control the party leader, while paradigm roles and mostly competent AI control your allies.
If an enemy is particularly weak to magic, you might want to switch to a team of Ravagers to try to deal heavy magic damage quickly – or you may want to have a Sentinel in there to draw the enemy attacks while the other two members of the team cast powerful magic.
Another option would to use a Sentinel, a Medic and a Synergist – the Sentinel draws attacks, the Medic keeps the Sentinel healthy, and the Synergist casts buffs on the party – and then you can switch Paradigm and become more offensive – the choice is yours, and this is the main key to the gameplay of Final Fantasy XIII.
By definition, a paradigm is your team load-out. You can have six in total, each comprising of any combination of the six classes on your three characters. You can then switch Paradigm in battle by hitting L1 or the Left Bumper.
Switching Paradigm is incredibly important, as if you’re not in the right position to heal when you need it or deal damage when the enemy is vulnerable in Final Fantasy XIII it can cost you dearly. This is a fast paced game and every second counts, and I fast found myself developing detailed strategies for how to despatch even difficult enemies quickly.
Any decent strategy for killing enemies in Final Fantasy XIII should involve staggering the enemy, which was known as Breaking them in the Japanese version. Every enemy in the game essentially has a breaking point which is reached by chaining attacks together for a set period of time.
Magic attacks build up the stagger bar more quickly, so Ravagers should be your go-to class to build up the meter, but it’s possible to even stagger an enemy by repeatedly bombarding them with status debuffs.
When an enemy is staggered their defence lowers and you can deal massive, massive damage. The goal in any battle in Final Fantasy XIII is to stagger the enemy as quickly as possible, then reverting to traditional damage-dealing classes like Commando as quickly as possible to dish out the pain. Every time you see a screenshot with an orange-glowing enemy launched into the air, they’re staggered – Launch is one of many abilities that can only be used on staggered enemies.
After playing the game so much I’m not sure if this system sounds incredibly complicated or simplistic on paper, but I can say that it looks like hell from a distance. It looks chaotic, difficult to understand and confusing – but it’s not. When you’re in the moment, Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system is easy to understand and play – it just requires your full attention at all times and speedy decisions from the player on how to act.
You can still select individual moves from your abilities bar, but the benefits of doing so are few and how much it slows you down will likely hinder more than help – so get used to hitting auto battle and paying attentions to your paradigms instead, which often be enough of a handful as it is.
Each character will gain an Eidolon - a Summonable Beast - who will help them in battle. Eidolons don't feature in the story as heavily as in Final Fantasy IX or X but the moment they appear is a major turning point for every character. They're very well animated, and after fighting alongside you for a while you can activate Gestalt mode, which causes the summon to transform and let you ride or drive it for a set period of time. The summons sadly aren't as powerful as some normal attacks once you start to progress, but they're very cool to watch a few times.
The core game is largely unchanged from the Japanese version, with some slight tweaks here and there to fix balance, graphics and performance issues. The game is just as fiendishly difficult as it was in the Japanese release, and you’d better prepare yourself to see game-over screens often.
The battle system of Final Fantasy XIII is a truly interesting one and while I feel it doesn’t quite fulfil its potential, once it opens up it becomes an incredibly fun, interesting and unique system to play around with, and most of the battles in the game are extremely challenging.
The idea of Paradigm Shift is an intriguing fusion of some traditional Final Fantasy ideas (most notably jobs) with the speed and action-packed appearance of an Action title. It works well, though it can sometimes be frustrating accidentally slipping and hitting the wrong paradigm when switching, either losing valuable seconds or worse - dying.
On paper I don’t like the paradigm system, but in practice I found it fun to play. The amount of control the game exerts for you may prove suffocating for FF traditionalists, or even action players who are used to full control, so it may well not be for everyone.
Everything revolves around this system – even character growth. There are no levels in Final Fantasy XIII – instead you get access to Crystarium, which is a prettier, 3D version of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Instead of developing your character overall, you spend Crystarium Points on developing individual roles for each character.
In other words, you could plough all your points for one character into one class, or you could develop all the classes evenly but have less powerful skills. Stuff like HP, Strength, Magic stat increases and extra accessory slots affect your character globally, regardless of class, but any skills gained on Crystarium are locked to whatever class ‘board’ they’ve been purchased on.
It works just as well as the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X – that is to say very – and allows characters to do pretty much anything within reason. Characters unlock roles as the story progresses, but all classes are unlocked for all characters way too late in the story to be effective – Chapter 10 of 13.
Even then, the cost of developing characters in any role but the three they’re naturally apt at is so high as to be prohibitive. I for one felt that Final Fantasy X and XII’s systems were far too open, but Final Fantasy XIII’s are really a tad too boxed-in.
Boxed-in may well be the best way of describing all of Final Fantasy XIII’s problems. What you’ve all heard about spaghetti maps and no traditional towns is largely true, though that really isn’t the problem – it’s the rather dead-feeling world that is.
Final Fantasy XIII actually has no 'talk' option – you can’t approach and talk to any NPC in the traditional sense. You can stand nearby and overhear conversations, but you can’t actively engage and talk to anyone outside of a few specific events, and it is something I really, deeply miss.
Final Fantasy XIII essentially sees you play as fugitives, so the reason for constantly moving and never chatting to people seems obvious, but at the same time the world feels incredibly lacking as a result. You don’t find out quirky facts or information about the world at large and you only ever really gain perspective from things the main cast say – perhaps this is the biggest casualty of the linear structure.
The world of Final Fantasy XIII is meticulously designed and it is beautiful, with amazing designs reminiscent of Midgar one chapter, ruins evocative of Final Fantasy XII the next and gorgeous, fantastical natural wildlife the next after that. It’s a shame that the lack of development leaves those wonderful designs lacking something of a soul.
Areas often feel like corridors you’re passing through to get to the next amazing visual feast, challenging battle or story event – I honestly couldn’t name any real defining factor about Palumporom, or... the place on Cocoon where there are Chocobos. See? That was a major location, home to some of the most intense story events in the game – and I can’t even remember what it was called.
The lack of a fleshed out world isn’t helped by the sidequests, which are almost exclusively hunts where a nameless, faceless stone (yes, literally a rock) asks you to go and kill a monster. You kill it; you get a reward – that’s it. That is the sum total of Final Fantasy XIII’s side missions. The combat is fun, but I’d like more to do than just fight – but there’s nothing here.
It’s strange that the world lacks such development, as the cast in Final Fantasy XIII is one of the strongest the series has ever seen. It’s smaller and tighter than most FF casts, numbering only six, and benefits from it. All the characters feel real and while they still conform to certain anime and Japanese RPG stereotypes they are still interesting and likable characters.
The effort put into the lip-sync and localization shines here, with some really powerful emotional scenes really having fantastic voice acting. Hope, Vanille and Sazh’s voice actors all deserve shout-outs especially for putting in a great performance, but in general the whole localization is incredibly well done, and hearing it in my native tongue only serves to enhance the character development that we praised so highly in our import review.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII follows the cast as they try to change their fate as l’Cie, marked by the gods to perform a terrible task. They’re hunted by the government, the Sanctum, because of what they’ve been tasked with doing, and there are plenty of emotionally charged scenes as characters try to decide just whose side they are on.
The translation is solid and Square Enix have taken the bold step of truly making the game English. All the Japanese-language songs are gone, either localized or replaced completely, and key system or plot elements have been renamed rather than directly translated to sound better. It’s as strong a translation as I’ve seen from Square Enix.
The story places an interesting emphasis on character, and it’s over halfway through the game before the entire cast is united as one. For much of the game the characters are split into teams of two or three, each undertaking their own sub-plots and chasing their own goals.
It’s a welcome change from the approach of most other Final Fantasy titles where the party rolls around as a group of seven or eight for the entire game, and is most similar to Final Fantasy VI and IX in this respect – not surprising, as they’re two of the Final Fantasy titles with stronger ensemble casts – now XIII joins that list.
The story still fits that Final Fantasy mould of an unlikely ragtag group of people rising up to save the world, but it twists that with a love story that appears to be doomed from the start and by tackling some interesting themes including parenthood, growing up and just what it’s like to be hated.
The story has the same issues it had in Japanese, though. It’s brimming with potential, but later on previously interesting characters spout clichés and constantly playing the role of the fugitive sometimes do more harm than good.
The glaring issue with the story is the lack of a major villain. As our import review said, there’s no Sephiroth, Kefka or even a Kuja here, with the plot more focused on facing the entire world as fugitives. The main villain and his supporting cronies are weakly developed and some are dispatched quickly and easily, throwing away that potential before it’s even had the chance to blossom.
The other obvious issue lies in the pacing, which is often so fast that it works as a detriment to the story. Final Fantasy XIII rockets along at an impressive pace, but it means that sometimes the more gentle moments of character development feel rushed with another battle on the very near horizon.
The pacing is at its worst early on, but for a different reason. Final Fantasy XIII gradually introduces its gameplay elements, and you spend the first few hours able to do nothing but hit Auto Battle – no paradigm shift, no Crystarium, nothing. Frankly, those opening hours sucked, and the only thing that kept me playing was the story.
It takes some ten hours for Final Fantasy XIII to begin to open up and hit its stride for gameplay, and it took me over thirty before I had complete freedom. While I understand Square Enix have done this in the name of accessibility, I feel like the game just takes far too long to get going and those boring opening segments could turn a ton of players off the game.
If one thing is still perfect in the opening, it’s the graphical presentation. Everything is absolutely stunning-looking, and while it can look a little rough in spots with terrible ground textures and its linear design the overall visual quality in Final Fantasy XIII is stunning in both the in-game and CGI sequences. There is a noticeable difference between cutscenes and gameplay, even in the cutscenes that aren’t CGI – but that gap is getting considerably smaller.
The game does feel like a bit of a rollercoaster sometimes with you passing through an intensely beautiful world rather than interacting with it, but even then the visual excellence of the game is really something to behold. The game is probably worth playing to see some of the amazing designs alone.
The music is pretty damn good, too. Masashi Hamazu has contributed an interesting soundtrack that changes from sweeping orchestral motifs one minute to strange, semi-techno sounding tracks with vocals in the next. A couple of the pieces from the Japanese release are gone, notably Eternal Love, Snow and Serah’s love theme. I didn’t miss it, as I felt that song was a cheesy disaster in the Japanese version anyway, and it’s been switched for the rather pretty Serah’s Theme.
The main battle theme is addictively hummable as any Final Fantasy battle music should be, and it weaves itself in and out of the regular soundtrack, with the main motifs of that theme and Serah’s Theme dominating the entire game. I’m a big fan of games with soundtracks that do this, so Hamazu gets two thumbs up for this, his final work in-house at Square Enix.
In a sentence, all this amounts to a pretty simple statement: The things Final Fantasy XIII does well, it does really well. The things it does badly are really, truly disappointing.
Final Fantasy XIII has a lot of potential in its design, be it visual, gameplay or story. The areas where it fulfils that potential – the character development, the visual design, the music and the attempt to bridge the gap between Action and Turn-Based gameplay – are truly remarkable and something for other developers to admire and learn from.
The areas where it has failed to fulfil that potential – villains, sidequests, and the development of Cocoon and Pulse as actual places rather than playgrounds to fight in – are really poor. The missed potential and opportunity to build something truly special in all areas is what keeps Final Fantasy XIII from true greatness.
Missed potential aside, Final Fantasy XIII will give you hours of enjoyment, a considerable challenge, stunning visuals and a satisfying storyline experience. It’s still a brilliant game in the face of all its faults.
Once again, I defer to our import review. As Nathan said there, you could go on forever reviewing this game, but it is best summed up with a piece of wisdom over a thousand years old: "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." Good old Confucius; this fits Final Fantasy XIII like a glove.