It goes without saying that the Final Fantasy series is an institution in the gaming world. Though the series has spawned innumerable spin-off and sequel franchises, nothing galvanizes fans quite like the enumerated series. Final Fantasy XIII is no exception, and on launch night, fans appeared in droves to pick up this new entry in the series. As the first numbered title to appear on a current-generation console, and the only Final Fantasy game to launch on two consoles simultaneously, it is safe to say that expectations are high for this title. Whether it delivers on those expectations, however, depends on what you expect of an RPG.
The Final Fantasy series has always been renowned for its powerful storylines. Final Fantasy XIII opens with a mysterious explosion on a train, and gives the player just enough information through multiple perspectives to reveal the story. While the beginning is very confusing, I appreciate the fact that nothing is spelled out concretely, and the player has to figure out what is going on by putting the pieces together themselves. Longtime fans may recognize this mechanic from Final Fantasy VI. However, because there are so many characters, players can expect to spend a lot of the beginning watching cutscenes instead of doing battle.
Although long and frequent cutscenes at the game’s opening may sound like par for the course for a Final Fantasy game, there are some huge differences that come into play rather quickly. For instance, in the beginning of the game (while you are switching perspectives) you can’t level up or customize your character. In fact, you have to wait till almost four hours into the game to do anything involving a party, your character’s stats, or party tactics. Although this sort of beginning is great for setting up the game’s plot, if you are expecting to jump right into battle or wanting to do some preliminary grinding, you will be sorely disappointed. Enemies will fight you, but you’ll be limited to one or two attacks, and their onslaught won’t net you any experience you can use later (since leveling is disabled in the first few levels).
Still, if you can make it through the game’s beginning, once the battle system opens up, you’ll be able to do quite a lot with it. The battle system is both active and turn based, and though that may sound like an oxymoron, the way Final Fantasy XIII has melded these two different styles of battle is amazingly unique. Each character, whether ally or enemy, has a timed gauge that must be filled in order for them to take action. While this gauge fills, your character can select a string of attacks, spells, or other actions that will take away portions of the filled gauge. As you grow your allies, they will be able to fit more attacks and complex actions into this gauge, which work together to form combos.
Combos are very important in the battle system, as they can cause enemies to enter a “stagger” status. When an enemy enters this status, they are off-guard and will not be able to fill their timed gauge as fast and their attacks will not be as powerful. Getting the enemy to enter stagger status is an important part of the gameplay, and forms the basis for nearly every boss battle.
However, you can’t bring an enemy down on your own, and you’ll have to have a strong team behind you to get the job done. Final Fantasy XIII does not give you direct control over your allies, but instead gives you a robust tactical system that allows you to select a “paradigm” for each character in your party to follow. The paradigm system is an evolution of the job class system, and allows you to specifically target and grow a set of skills and behaviors for each character. There are six different paradigms you can use including Medic, Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Synergist, and Saboteur. Each role contains unique bonuses and upgrade paths, and the key to success will be playing to each character’s strength and selecting paradigms that complement each ally.
Of course, these paradigms can be set on the fly, and you can shift from having an all-commando team (which will go after an enemy without reservation) to a defensive one (with medics and synergists) that focus more on defense and protecting the central character after the enemy has entered stagger mode. Tweaking the different paradigms is a lot of fun, and is one of the most memorable and fun elements of the battle system.
Though the battle system is superb, sometimes the gameplay gets in the way. One of my favorite things to do in an RPG is to level my character up early with lots of heavy grinding before the first boss. However, the game follows a very linear path, and it is hard to find enough enemies to fight in order to level up your characters’ skills. I found myself constantly scouring what seemed to be vast hallways with only a handful of enemies. Even past the initial levels, there really isn’t much room to explore or level up, and I felt like the level design was a little too constrictive at times.
Unfortunately, the lack of flexibility within the level design affects more than just your ability to level up quickly. Because of the almost rail-like quality of the levels, Final Fantasy XIII lacks some of the special content that made its predecessors so memorable. Instead of exploring towns and talking to NPCs, you’ll just wander down vast, tunnel-like areas, fighting enemies as they come. Although later levels do give you a bit more freedom, the majority of the game is spent just going forwards or backwards and exploring large rooms as they appear.
The linear structure of the game also limits the amount of side quests your character can take on. Getting 100% completion in previous Final Fantasy games was quite a tall order, but in Final Fantasy XIII, this feat will require little more than a few spare hours. This not only limits the value of the initial playthrough, but also any subsequent playthroughs.
Technically speaking, Final Fantasy XIII is as sound as they come. Visually, the game is a masterpiece. Cinema scenes are beautifully rendered with plenty of detail. The in-engine graphics don’t have as much detail as the cutscenes, but they still look amazing. The audio in the game is also of top quality. The soundtrack is composed by Masashi Hamauzu, who is best known for scoring the Chocobo’s Dungeon series. Although the style is much more varied than series favorite Nobuo Uematsu, the same orchestral feel is there, and the game’s main theme “My Hands” is expertly used throughout the game to much dramatic effect.
Final Fantasy XIII is an amazing game. With an engrossing story and a thrilling new battle system, this is one title you can’t afford to miss as an RPG fan. However, though it succeeds on the most important fronts, there are some notable areas where the game could have been better. The linear level design is a fairly large stumbling block, and if you are used to open-world games, it can make the entire experience feel a little claustrophobic. In addition, the lack of side quests can make this title fall short of any 100+ hour expectations. Still, if you can get past these issues, you are in for a sumptuous, exhilarating adventure that is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.9 Graphics
Cinema scenes are gorgeously rendered, and in-engine graphics are nearly on par with the cutscenes. Visuals are definitely a sight to behold. 4.8 Control
The menu-based control is a breeze and active elements do not detract from the game’s classic feel. 4.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The soundtrack is beautiful, and the majority of the voice work is well done. 3.7 Play Value
The game is a little too linear at times, and the lack of meaningful side quests limits replay potential. Beginning Cocoon levels may turn off some players. 4.5 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.