There is nothing quite like the release of a long-standing franchise giant like Final Fantasy XIII to get some great gaming discussions going. Square-Enix’s new entry to the well known franchise has started a slew of discussions from fanboys, haters and regular gamers alike, all armed with their own talking points about a franchise with an esteemed history, and how the newest addition stacks up compared to its long line of ancestors.
Final Fantasy XIII was first introduced at E3 2006, promising lush visuals, a deep and rich story, and some things we’ve never seen from this set of games before. Since then, people the world over have been itching to play it, to see if Square-Enix could continue to deliver on the leaps that the previous two titles had made. After a cross platform announcement and its own set of development issues, the game is finally here. So, how is it? Let’s talk about that.
I should go ahead and get it out of the way that while I have certainly not played every single Final Fantasy entry, I would still consider myself a former fanboy of the series, and JRPGs in general. The idea of playing a Final Fantasy on our current consoles has kept me excited for quite some time, even though the long development cycle instilled a few fears about the end product. Is a game that takes that long destined for failure because of the hype that its absence will bring? Or does it just mean that they’ve had time to perfect every last little thing? Honestly, I think the answer might be a little bit of both.
Final Fantasy XIII is a good game. A great one, too, at times. Like any Final Fantasy, it is a JRPG that takes a group of hapless heroes from small origins to fighting the world’s villains on a major scale. Along the way there are mysterious heroes, mysterious bad guys, chocobos, an airship, a dude named Cid, tons of battles and some sweet music. That’s the series primer for any of you who have missed the other ones. Since each game is different, the story and characters don’t really have much of a bearing on whether or not you’ll be able to hop right in. FF13 follows Lightning, a defecting soldier, as she battles to save her sister, who has been cursed. There’s more to it to that, of course, which I’ll get in to in a moment. A game this big (it took me 54 hours to complete) is kind of hard to tackle fluidly, so I’ll attempt to do it by the staples of the franchise.
Story. As I mentioned above, FF13 is primarily about Lightning, a young soldier who is attempting to save her sister. Simple enough. But what is she saving her sister from? Well that’s where things get more complicated.
Pulse and Cocoon. These are the two forces that oppose each other in the game. Cocoon is a shield world that floats in the sky, created by the gods known as Fal’cie. Pulse is the lower world where many of the monsters live, and it has its own Fal’cie as well. The two sides hate each other. Any human that comes into contact with a Fal’cie gets branded and turned into a L’cie, a servant of the gods. It is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the l’cie is granted with great power; a curse because if they do not follow the mission that the god has set out for it (also known as the “focus”), then they will turn into a monster.
Some time in the past, Pulse attacked Cocoon and destroyed a piece of its outer shell. The people of Cocoon repaired their world with wreckage they scrapped together from Pulse below. However, they unknowingly brought a Pulse Fal’cie back with them in the wreckage. The game begins shortly after this Fal’cie has been discovered in a small district, and everyone in the town is being purged by the government and shipped off of Cocoon. It turns out that Lightning’s sister is one of these people, yet she was indeed branded as l’cie. In attempting to stop her from fulfilling her focus (which turns the l’cie into a crystal), Lightning and company are unwittingly turned into l’cie themselves, and are set out on a course laid out for them by the gods and even more nefarious creatures. Their choice? Destroy the world or die.
Now, the game would have benefited greatly if it had given all that information early on to the player, the way I just did. Instead, I had to work to figure that out myself over the course of the first fourth of the game. I’m not a lazy story participant by any means when I take part in games or movies, so that is saying something.
You see, one of the weakest points of FF13 is not in the story itself, but in the way that the story is presented to the player. Without any kind of proper exposition to get the plot rolling, the player is thrust headlong into a world in which they have no bearings, no guiding post, and are forced to watch and listen to things that don’t make sense until about 15 to 20 hours in. Even then, there are elements of the story that I didn’t understand at the end of the game. The story itself and the world that Square Enix created is a marvel to behold, but they hide it from you until it’s almost too late.
Despite all that, the story has some great twists and turns, fairly endearing (if one dimensional) characters and some incredibly emotional and memorable moments by the time all is said and done. As always, Square Enix raises the bar with its phenomenal cut scenes, which really add a lot to the tale even in a day where the line between CG and in-game graphics have become blurry. The game is gorgeous to look at, and all of the dialogue scenes are really well done. In fact, I’d say this is one of the best looking games I’ve ever played.
However, I must point out that early on, the characters can be pretty grating. After playing the well written likes of Mass Effect 2, a character named Snow who constantly bleats that he’s “going to save Cocoon and Sarah” gets fairly old. By the end of it though, the guy kind of grew on me, even if he was a douche at times.
Battles. To me, the heart and soul of Final Fantasy XIII lies in its battle system, which is superbly crafted, easy to dip your toes into and rewarding when you finally master it. While previous FF games were overly turn-based and often boring, in my opinion (press Attack over and over and over again, with the occasional spell), XIII brings tons of new elements to the mix, like XII did before it. Every battle has an ebb and flow to go with it, from bosses to even the tiniest minions.
The two main things that make up the battle system would have to be staggers and paradigms. Stagger is kind of a limit bar for the enemy you are fighting. Every attack adds to the stagger bar, which is constantly re-draining after you’ve added to it. It’s basically a race to get the bar to completion. Once you do, the enemy suddenly becomes much more vulnerable to massive damage, and it’s possible to stagger an enemy up to 999.99% of the damage that your attacks dish out. It’s a pretty cool feature, and makes every single battle about how to quickly stagger an enemy, and maximize the opportunity once you’ve done so.
In addition to staggering, paradigms must be managed throughout the battle. Paradigms are what you would traditionally call classes in a typical RPG. These classes can be swapped on the fly in battle, and many battles require you to do so if you want to make it past the enemy’s first slew of attacks. This is where the game really diverges from the normal FF formula, where battles were fairly forgiving and needed little attention, save for the epic boss battles. Here, if you make one mistake and don’t switch paradigms fast enough, you might be ill equipped to handle the next large attack. The ease of switching between a paradigm that has two casters and one attacker to one that has a medic, a buffer and a tank is addictive, and makes for lots of fun when coming up with new combinations with which to face baddies. My only complaint about this system is that it erases your saved paradigms every time you change party members, so you have to re-build them again each time. It’s not a big deal, but it did make things annoying occasionally.
Battles have also been simplified to where you control only one character in the party at a time. Everyone still gets turns, but the only turn you’re worrying about is the party leader, while the other characters act on their own. Their AI is fairly impressive as well, as I never had to worry that they were doing things I didn’t want them to do. There is so much to negotiate in the battle that this is actually a welcome change, though early on (before paradigms are introduced), it feels like you aren’t really doing much in battle. Eventually though, you’ll be thankful that one person is all that needs to be managed. Because by the end of the game, there are extremely challenging fights that take all of your concentration, timing and forethought to tackle correctly, making this battle system probably my favorite in the entire series.
The World. So, when it’s all said and done, how does this all fit together? Well, that’s an interesting question. At times, it fits together terribly. The first 10-20 hours were a chore for me to get through, honestly. The game holds your hand like crazy and teaches you things incrementally until you finally get the hang of the battles. While on these training wheels, the game is literally putting you down tunnels repeatedly. It’s sad, really. So much of the first half of the game is running down a straight path (a la Uncharted), battling, and then watching a cut scene. There’s little to no variation there, and I worried about how the game would continue to remain entertaining.
However, right around the 30 hour mark, the game opens up like crazy, and it feels like Final Fantasy again. Getting to explore a wide open world is such a treat after all the narrow passageways, and getting to tackle sidequests is fun, even if the options are limited. The most fun I had with the game was right in this area. The middle chunk is a JRPG done perfectly, and it really stands miles above its competition in that regard. Unfortunately, the last 10 hours or so go back to the style of the beginning, but at that point you’re invested, and the story has a decent enough pay off.
All in all, I’d say it’s hard to rate a game like this (hence the ginormous review). It started off as a C, then turned into an A, and then downgraded towards the end. But overall, I really enjoyed it, and when it was great, it was heads and shoulders above many quality titles that are on the market today, especially in the RPG department. I’d say if you were a fan of JRPGs or Final Fantasy in general, do yourself a favor and play this game.
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