Final Fantasy XIII
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
March 9th, 2010
Square Enix attempts to roll out the big guns with the 13th installment of its acclaimed Final Fantasy franchise. Each Final Fantasy title is different than its predecessor and usually features completely different characters and worlds. Final Fantasy XIII is one of these, in addition to the series’ first game on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Though they are never final, will FFXIII be the fantasy fans have been hoping for?
The world in a bubble... Cocoon. Daily life is possible only due to the benevolent Fal'Cie that can only be described as omnipresent demigods. Though Cocoon's inhabitants live a comfortable, sheltered life floating just above the planet of Gran Pulse, all is not always well. The whispers and rumors of the horrors of Pulse and Pulse Fal'Cie exist even long after the Pulse/Cocoon war ended. When an actual Pulse Fal'Cie shows up on Cocoon though, panic spreads fast. The Sanctum, Cocoon's government, moves quickly to destroy the Fal'Cie and purge Cocoon citizens that have come in contact with it, for fear they have become the 'objects of fate' or L'Cie. These tools of Fal'Cie are given a particularly cruel fate, fail your appointed task and become a mindless zombie Cie'th, succeed and be trapped in a crystal prison...
The a former Guardian Corps soldier known only as Lightning, Snow Villiers the leader of anti-Sanctum group NORA, former pilot Sazh Katzroy, the mysterious Vanille dia Oerba, and embittered youth Hope Estheim all find themselves cursed with the mark of a Pulse L'Cie. Each stranger has their own reasons for being there, but not much else in common. Even as the group wanders about, doomed to a horrid fate beyond their control, they begin to realize there is far less rigidity to their predicament than they first thought. Destroy Cocoon, or save it? Run and be hunted, or stand and fight? Lightning and the others become the defiers of fate and attempt the impossible to prevent the catastrophic events they all see in their minds as their "focus".
Square Enix has a long standing tradition of bringing out the best in any particular system or hardware they work on. Final Fantasy XIII is no exception. The designs for areas are truly spectacular and arguably grander than any Final Fantasy title before it. The floating home of Cocoon boasts so many diverse landscapes and environments that are absolutely breathtaking; you get the urge to take them and hang them up on your wall as art. The crystallized Lake Bresha prepares you for the awe inspiring tour through the vivid imaginations of Square Enix's spectacular design crew. Design for the characters themselves appear to be traditional Nomura (belts and zippers!) though to a more reserved extent to match the more realistic world they inhabit. The game even takes the full motion video scenes to a whole new level creating graphics that are easily on par with computer animated films with multimillion dollar budgets. Many are even so fast paced you wish this was
a movie so you could simply pop the game in and watch it whenever you want. Without a doubt this game is one of the most gorgeous you will ever see and on so many levels.
If that weren't enough the battle system seen in the more recent Final Fantasy games (XI and XII) has been retooled to appear vastly more exciting than before. Each character has battle animations designed to look every bit as exciting as combat should look. Thankfully they do a great job on this as well, as Lightning can be seen back flipping and shooting while in the air just as often as she can be seen rushing in and striking the enemy violently with her sword. Some character animations, while silly, still embody the characters they represent such as Vanille's waifish skip-run or Snow's loud in-your-face-and-loving-it victory dance. No character is ever simply standing still, which really gives you the feeling of being immersed in combat like few games before it.
Final Fantasy XIII will never disappoint you in terms on graphics in any conceivable category.
When it comes to sound and music, Final Fantasy XIII can represent vastly different opinions. While looking objectively I think it can be widely agreed upon that this game features an excellent soundtrack. Each track does a wonderful job enhancing the gorgeous visuals and settings you encounter, but series purists will, and have, taken issue with tracks that stray from normal Final Fantasy fare. One such poster child for fan boy reckoning is the "Chocobos de Cocoon" a synth-heavy bubblegum pop track that adds lyrics for the very first time to any Chocobo theme. I was surprised to hear them at first, but much like other "Toxic" songs it won't be long before you are shamelessly humming away. The game's different battle themes such as "Saber's Edge" and "Defiers of Fate" are great to listen to as well and feature a more traditional Final Fantasy sound. Even the track "Sunleth Waterscape" has an unexpected catchiness to it without ever overtaking the moment. Surprisingly Nobou Uetmatsu, long time veteran of Final Fantasy soundtracks, did not contribute to this endeavor which will explain to many why this soundtrack stands out among other Final Fantasy titles. Masashi Hamauzu instead gives us these songs and I believe his work should be celebrated as it clearly accomplishes what any good video game score does: greatly enhance the mood and environments seen within the game.
The voice work for Final Fantasy XIII is praiseworthy as well. Though certain characters are vilified for having "mary sue" development, the voice actors still give as much as they can to the project. Certain more famous voice over talents such as Ali Hillis can be heard voicing various characters throughout the game and certainly lend their considerable talent to the game.
Don't expect to be disappointed with the sound and music in this game, granted you can accept the music for what it is, and not any preconceived notions based on the title of the game.
Expect to be disappointed. Yes, there, I said it. While there are so many exemplary things to mention about this game, there is little to be found in gameplay. Before I, or anyone else starts screaming "the death of Final Fantasy as we know it" allow me to break it down for you.
As any RPG player knows, the genre as a whole has stopped giving us control over an entire party this generation (and even some last as well). Final Fantasy XIII is (unfortunately) no exception. You control the actions of one of (up to) three party members at a time. There wouldn't be a problem with this if the battle did not end in failure if your party leader died (while the other two are unscathed), or you could freely switch between characters, but either of the situations is not the case. This can lead to many infuriating moments. Whereas other games such as Dragon Age or Final Fantasy XII systems were available to program allies' actions to various situations, such options aren't available in XIII; you simply have to trust that allies will not derp around like paste-eaters at an Elmer's factory. For the most part they do not, but their roles are so over-simplified it would be difficult to mess them up; which leads us to the game's Paradigm system. Each character starts out with at least one role available to them with six in total. Each represents a basic RPG paradigm (get it?) that greatly affects how a character acts at any given time. In time each character has several to choose from and you can set specific layouts the main menu to switch between. This is referred to as a Paradigm Shift. So for instance a party of a Commando and two Ravagers will be great at dealing damage quickly, using a Paradigm Shift to change them to a party of a Sentinel, Synergist, and Medic will help you in tough fights. Once the mischief is managed you can simply shift back to COM/RAV/RAV and start putting boots to asses once more. Even though this allows for some useful strategies against tougher enemies later in the game, the game's difficulty is pretty laughable for nearly the first 10 hours, which has led many to describe his game as "Press "A" to win." Though the difficulty is quite light early on, the second half of the game does feature quite significant challenge such as optional bosses or brief access to tough side quests. By the end, the game is every bit as grueling as other Final Fantasy titles, but it is regrettable it takes so long to get there.
This sentiment rings true in other areas as well. This game has received harsh criticism in several areas, but none so much as the game's almost complete linearity. Terms like "hallway" have been used and it is certainly hard to refute. Many areas in the game, although strikingly beautiful, have one and only one direction in which to head. To increase this feeling, most towns, at least as we know them, have been completely removed. Quests are noticeably
absent for the first two-thirds of the game, and once they are available you probably won't want to do them as you'll just want to finish the game. I believe the game feels constricting to help the player feel the same "trapped by fate" feeling the characters do, but it succeeds too well. Whether this was an attempt at immersion by the game's planners or simply poor design, it doesn't change the fact that Final Fantasy XIII feels unnecessarily rigid in the wrong ways. Even leveling up feels like it is on rails, as each character's Crystarium are custom-less versions of Final Fantasy X's "Sphere Grid". One only needs to hold the A button down once again and see stats and abilities begin to unlock in a very predetermined way. The only choice players have in this regard is choosing which roles to level first. In the end every character at maximum level will have exactly the same stats as any other player anywhere else in the world. In a genre that prides itself on strategy, customization, and deep gameplay elements this is a huge setback.
Other disappointments include the broken weapon and item leveling system, in which the player throws random monster drops at equipment enhance their stats. Though there are technically "ultimate weapons" in the game they certainly don't give the player any reason to actually go out and get them. Since there is little to no work necessary to raise the level of equipment, most of the time I ignored it altogether, only finally enhancing my items literally before the final boss fight. In a game with a few critical missteps, even these small stumbles echo louder than they normally would.
Final Fantasy XIII is not all bad though. Aside from the complexity the Paradigm system allows, a strong point in my opinion are the Eidolons. Occasionally a character will find himself staring at a classic summon mixed with a little "Transformers". One such Eidolon is the Shiva Sisters. Nix and Stiria are a couple of hot-to-trot ice babes in the image of our good old Shiva with some motorcycle parts. Why the motorcycle parts? Well once you are able to summon the Shiva Sisters you can have them fight alongside you similar to Aeons in Final Fantasy X, or you can activate each Eidolon's Gestalt mode. In Gestalt mode these summons transform themselves into a vehicle you ride and you can deal some massive damage until time runs out, in which you will unleash another devastating attack before they finally leave. Each characters Eidolon comes at a set time in the story and can be summoned by spending Technical Points which accumulates through battles. If it is shallow to say Brynhildr turning into a race car is one of the coolest things ever, so be it, but I loved the heck out of these unique summons.
Players will be surprised to find this game is not as long as previous titles, with an end in sight around the 50 hour mark. Those not wishing to play the game over again can go back to Gran Pulse after the game is completed to polish up the final Crystarium levels, or finish any of the more challenging quests. As I mentioned before there are a few tougher challenges to go after, some of which will net you some hefty achievement points. Unfortunately aside from those aspects the game does not have much else to keep you entertained after the credits roll. Only major completionists or achievement hunters will put in more time than it takes to beat the game, and even they will have to struggle to find enough to keep them going for a decent amount of time.
Final Fantasy XIII is certainly a conflicted title. While most will claim the game does a lot to pander to a new generation of casual RPG players, the game does have legitimate merits. The story contains interesting themes and is good enough to draw you in, though some will complain a couple characters are developed poorly. The visual reorganization of combat is certainly a step forward, as well as the sheer quality of the music and graphics this title proudly displays. As praiseworthy as these are, steps backwards were taken in terms of depth of gameplay. Speaking not as a fan boy of Final Fantasy, not even as a fan of RPGs in general, but as a gamer I expected more. If it were not for the story I probably would not have continued this game until the end. I wouldn't lose hope just yet though. If you take a step back you can see this game for what it truly is: an attempt at transferring a long celebrated formula into a new age. Mistakes were made, yes, but ultimately Final Fantasy XIII is a game that many will enjoy. "Many" might not include every Final Fantasy die-hard or RPG aficionado, but rest assured for all the faults this game possesses there is something else to possibly distract you away from it.