Final Fantasy XIII Review
Thirteenth time's the charm?
By Ben Salter
Final Fantasy XIII has been a long time coming. Perhaps a little too long, as hardcore fans have grown tired of being forced to make do with Wii and handheld spin-offs. PS3 gamers have every right to be upset, not just because what was once expected to be an exclusive title has wondered across to the Xbox 360, but because the 360 port has been responsible for its massive delay. That aside, it’s here now, with a simplified approach to target a new audience; but does it live up to the expectations of series veterans?
Straight out I’m going to level with you and say that I’m far from a Final Fantasy fanboy. I’ve played Final Fantasy VII, like any good gamer, and Final Fantasy X on PS2, as well as spin-offs on handhelds, the Wii and GameCube. Truth be told, I never completed any of them. To the hardcore Final Fantasy fans out there I apologize for not sharing your level of enthusiasm. As such, I went into Final Fantasy XIII not expecting to like it. But I have to say, the new approach is actually quite welcoming to newcomers and those yet to be converted to the Final Fantasy side of life.
Even with limited Final Fantasy experience, the first change becomes apparent within the first hour. Square Enix has not crafted a run of the mill RPG, full of exploration and countless backtracking. It’s a story driven adventure with gorgeous cinematics and energetic characters. At times it throws back to FInal Fantasy X with its focus on linear exploration, but other than that it’s like no other Final Fantasy game you’ve played before. Sure, the core elements, namely combat and narrative, remain largely unchanged, but beyond that Final Fantasy fans won’t know what hit them. FFXIII is either a benefactor or victim of the casual gamer. Don’t take that the wrong way and assume this is a game for mum and grandpa, quite the contrary. But it’s hard to ignore the influence casual gaming is having on more hardcore markets. Square Enix has done away with anything that might have made the previous games too confusing or daunting for newcomers. Omitting exploration is the big one, but such mindless wondering is often the cause of people despising RPGs. Random battle encounters, its partner in crime, is also absent.
This simplified approach won’t be to everybody’s taste and extends to battles and even your party; you don’t get to choose who’s in your team for the first 20-25 hours. Party-based strategy games, like the Final Fantasy series, are all about building the best possible team. To not have this option for over 20 hours is somewhat bazaar, but it’s all in the name of making things simpler. You have limited options and no longer have to worry about individual character ranks. Instead you simply purchase new abilities and items from the main menu when you’re good and ready. Likewise the game looks after you by replenishing health after each battle. “Easy” comes to mind after that description, but it hardly does FFXIII any justice. Perhaps if we say “made easy”, as there’s far less to worry about than in previous Final Fantasy games, but that’s not to say it’s a joyride from start to finish.
With so much removed from the core Final Fantasy experience, what’s left? Final Fantasy XIII is all about combat and story. To an extent nothing else matters. You’re led along an extremely linear path by a relatively engaging story. That works in an action game or FPS, so it’s no surprise to see combat as the main gameplay element in FFXIII. While having to wait over 20 hours to be given full access to battle and party options is far from ideal, the battle system in Final Fantasy XIII is the best I’ve seen in the series. The system revolves around “paradigms”. Essentially each character can be trained in 6 different skill sets, Medic, Ravager, Commando, Sentinel, Synergist and Saboteur, but can only use one at any given time (e.g. can only attack with ravager or heal etc). Creating a powerful combination therefore becomes imperative for success in what is a tactical, but challenging, turn-based battle system. Paradigm Switch allows them to be swapped around during the course of battle, which in itself becomes an art-form. Switching Paradigms to suit the situation is something that has to be learned through practice. It takes a little while but once you’ve mastered it Paradigm Switch becomes a reflex.
Button-mashing is ruled out past the first few encounters, as you’ll rarely encounter an opponent that doesn’t require you to come up with a new gameplan. This initially appears to be somewhat hindered by the fact that the remainder of your party is A.I. controlled, but once again that all boils down to keeping it simple and something that works well once you’ve adjusted. The advantage of A.I. assisted combat is it frees you up to focus on specific tactics and to lead the party as more of a commander, without having to do all the legwork. While button-mashing has gone out of fashion it’s hardly required due to the "auto-battle" command, which you will grow to rely on. Set-up a role for your protagonist and the A.I. will take control of it’s next move, as it does with the remainder of your party. It sounds horrifyingly boring on paper but controlling your Paradigm roles is where the fun’s at.
The overall story is far from perfect, yet it’s clearly the most important aspect of Final Fantasy XIII. It’s good, but for a game that places such a large emphasis on its narrative it really needed to be extraordinary. The first part of the game is spent on the sky-world of Cocoon, a futuristic but angry si-fi society that is afraid of the underlying planet of Pulse - where the second half of the story takes place. A group from Cocoon are branded as l'Cie, servants of the Magical Gods, which grants them access to all types of magic. There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, but the biggest problem is you’re bombarded with strange terminology immediately and struggle to comprehend what they’re talking about most of the time. There are many, many, other terms along the lines of “l'Cie”, but frankly I can’t for the life of me remember them.
While the story and its foreign terms are confusing, the characters gel together nicely. You take control of six different characters in a multistory adventure that actually works quite well. Jumping between a number of protagonists is a risky move, especially when it’s not always clear how the stories will interact. It works very well in the epic adventure that is Final Fantasy XIII, and while they each try to split and go their separate ways, the underlying narrative was always going to pull them back together.
Final Fantasy XIII looks incredible. From the in-game graphics, to the menus and cut-scenes, it’s all amazing. The characters models are immensely detailed, right down to the last piece of stitching. The battles are spectacular and most of the environments live up to the high standard. The only complaint is we suffered some minor slowdown every now and again, but nothing serious enough to detract from the overall experience. I only got a chance to play the PS3 version and the general consensus is that it’s the superior of the two. It almost goes without saying, seeing how Final Fantasy XIII is one of the few games to be developed on the PS3 and ported to the 360. It’s spread out over 3 discs on 360 and apparently has a lower resolution. If you’re fortunate enough to own both consoles it looks as if this is one of the few games that is must have on the PS3.
The sound track is perhaps not as epic as that of past Final Fantasy games, but it’s still quite good. More importantly the voice acting is fantastic. I’m not a massive fan of the script, which at times is deplorably bad for a game that’s all about narrative, but you can’t fault the work of the actors.
The Final Verdict
Final Fantasy XIII
is a decent attempt at making the series more appealing to to a wider audience whilst keeping what’s made it a favourite in Japan for so many years. It leaves out so many features we associate with RPGs, but the battle system is as good as, if not better than, any other Final Fantasy game and the overall gameplay is a lot simpler than it has been in the past. It’s much easier to get into if you’ve found yourself struggling with the complex nature of past games, but for that reason hardcore Final Fantasy fans mightn’t enjoy it all that much. The story for mine was one of the biggest letdowns as it’s the central focus of an epic 60 hour adventure. It’s not bad, but with such a strong emphasis it just had to be mind blowing.
Great new battle system and simplified gameplay. Diehard RPG fans might be disappointed, however, it’s more accessible to new gamers.
Amazing (at least on the PS3). The character models, environments and cinematics are all great and only let down slightly by minor slowdown.
Great voice acting with a good sound track.
It’ll take you 60 hours to play through, but the first 20 are almost a tutorial and some people mightn’t be willing to do that. There are no side quests in the first half of the game, which is a little disappointing.
A score between 8.0 and 8.4 represents a title that does plenty right and but may have a low value quality or issues on the gameplay front.