“A Final Fantasy like you’ve never seen before.”
As a diehard fan of what Final Fantasy used to be prior to Final Fantasy X, I approached the thirteenth installment in the popular RPG series very cautiously. The fact that the latest game had more in common with Final Fantasy XII than previous games almost turned me away, as I feel that XII is one of the weakest games in the numbered series. I heard from many that XIII did not look or sound like Final Fantasy, nor did it even play like it. Criticisms of the game being completely linear until twenty hours in worried me, and the names used in the game (Fang? Snow? Lightning?!) did not encourage me to sacrifice my hard earned money.
So after almost passing over this game, why did I ultimately decide to give it a try? Because, even though Square-Enix likes to push “being different” a little too far with Final Fantasy sometimes, they do always succeed in putting together decent games. I knew that despite my fears, XIII was probably a good game as well. Thankfully, this quiet belief turned out to be a very loud truth.
Final Fantasy XIII opens on a train in which conflict breaks out on almost immediately. Sound familiar? Well, it should. Despite taking many gambles with this game, Square-Enix knew that borrowing elements from previous games in the series wouldn’t harm this title at all. In fact, it would benefit it. This opening sequence introduces the player to two of the main characters, leading lady Lightning and sidekick Sazh, who is both jester-like and wise at the same time.
After watching the opening sequence play out, you are immediately given control of Lightning and Sazh as you begin the first chapter of the game. Within minutes, it becomes obvious that this is perhaps the most linear Final Fantasy to date, and it is worth noting X and XII cannot even compare to the linearity of XIII. This sounds like a bad thing, and it initially felt like a bad thing for me as I trudged through the first chapter of the game which is, literally, nothing more than a straight line with a few carefully placed obstacles such as stacked boxes which give you a slight feeling that you are not actually running in a straight line. This is only an illusion, and a quick look at the map screen will remind you that yes, you’re running in a straight line. You may not be too bothered by this however, due to the extremely beautiful and flashy presentation of the game. Make no mistake about it, this is a supremely gorgeous game.
Exploration in XIII is very limited until far in the game. Most locations that you traverse are essentially just single paths that you cannot stray from, and you will follow these paths for approximately an hour or two until you complete the chapter. While XII featured dungeons with many winding alternate routes, XIII is very straightforward. Alternate routes are almost unheard of except in a few locations. Fortunately, Final Fantasy XIII has two things working in favour of it which guarantees that the entire experience, surprisingly, does not feel linear at all. These two things happen to be the battle system and story telling.
The battle system is perhaps the most advanced that we have ever seen in the Final Fantasy series. On the surface, it appears to be nothing more than a fusion of old and new. Battles now take part on their own map again instead of on the field, complete with ATB bars and characters that are, for the most part, stationary. Returning from XII are AI controlled party members. Many abilities and spells also work the same as they did in XII as well. There is more to the battle system than just fusing new and old together however, as XIII introduces introduces the radical paradigm and crystarium systems.
The paradigm system is, in a way, a basic job system in disguise. You can assign different paradigms to your characters such as commando, ravager, or sentinel. In a nutshell, commandos are basic brute force melee fighters, ravagers are your specialized black magic spell casters, and sentinels focus on increasing their defense dramatically and drawing enemy attention to themselves. There are other paradigm roles as well, such as your debuffer and healer. Paradigms can be swapped in battle via the Paradigm Shift, which is absolutely vital during boss fights as you will have to think outside the box and come up with very precise strategies for taking down the baddies.
The crystarium system allows you to develop your characters in a way similar to X’s sphere grid, or XII’s license board. You will acquire crystarium points from winning battles, and you can use these to increase your party’s stats or enable them to perform their paradigm roles more effectively by learning new abilities and techniques that are unique to individual roles.
Using these two systems effectively is essential in winning battles, which are usually won almost as soon as you “stagger” an opponent. Staggering occurs when a monster sustains a certain amount of sustained damage which is always shown to you onscreen in a bar in the corner of the screen. By unleashing attacks on a monster, this bar will fill. However, the moment you stop, the bar begins to drop again. Your objective is to fill this bar so that the monster staggers, making it much easier to defeat. Staggered monsters usually just take more damage than usual, but some will receive elemental weaknesses and such that they do not normally have when they are not staggered. Staggering bosses is essential as well, as it can reduce the length of a fight by ten minutes in some cases.
Final Fantasy XIII also features a completely secondary battle type that plays entirely different from standard fights. This is when you happen to engage an Eidolon in combat. Eidolons act as your summonable companions in XIII, but before you gain access to them, you must conquer them in battle. This is not done by beating them into oblivion with powerful spells. Instead, you must examine the Eidolon using Libra and discover what makes it “yield” to you. This can range from healing your friends to debuffing the Eidolon. By performing these “yield” actions, a bar above the Eidolon, called the Gestalt bar. With each yield action you perform, this bar will fill slightly. When it reaches a certain point, you simply hit the square button and the Eidolon is yours. This is trickier than it sounds however, since Eidolons will cast the doom spell on your party leader at the start of the battle, giving you only two or three minutes to prove yourself to the Eidolon before the timer above your head hits zero.
Since you only control the party leader, their death also means game over. It is therefore vital that you make sure they stay alive. If they do die though, you will be able to “rewind” your game just before the fight and resume playing. This will allow you to try a different strategy or avoid the encounter entirely.
Final Fantasy XIII offers up the most impressive dialogue I’ve had the joy of experiencing in a fully voiced RPG. While the voice work isn’t always top notch, you can rest easy knowing that the writing is. All characters have very intriguing backgrounds and I found myself captivated by their personalities. Square-Enix certainly did a good job making the characters feel authentic and real.
The storyline is a different matter, and it suffers from a very serious problem. XIII’s setting utilizes many terms that will confuse the player for a while. Cocoon, Gran Pulse, L’Cie, Fal’Cie, Cie’th. This is just scratching the surface of what will be thrown at you throughout the game. These terms are never explained even once ingame during dialogue sequences. Instead, you have to peer into the ingame glossary and read up on what all of these things are. It’s not very enjoyable, especially if you’re not sure what terms to look up or when. Many terms are spoken several times before you are able to look them up in the glossary, which makes it difficult to know what the characters are talking about sometimes. This is, in a way, poor storytelling. It is understandable that Square-Enix wanted to make a very unique world with a fascinating culture and language, but they neglected to fully bring the player into the world by refusing to explain the world and plethora of terms on a better level. Still, the story is still very pleasing. The pacing is fairly slow like in the previous Final Fantasy game, but the narrative has improved and you never feel like the protagonists are just wandering around aimlessly, a problem that Vaan and company were guilty of in XII.
The soundtrack of XIII is worth mentioning as well. While it does not compare to the past masterpieces forged by the brilliant Nobuo Uematsu, the music is still very inviting and pleasant. The battle themes in particular are perhaps the best in several years. The voice work in the game compliments the music brilliantly thanks to the actors behind some of the more memorable characters such as Sazh. While the actors don’t always deliver the strongest performances you would expect, they do more than get the job done and, as I just mentioned, certain characters such as Sazh are just fantastic to listen to. He really does have a superb voice actor.
While all of the above certainly does not sound a lot like Final Fantasy, don’t fret. Carbuncle, Firaga, and tonberries have not been left out and the Final Fantasy mainstays and traditions that we’ve grown to love are all present in the game. At about the twelve hour mark, most long time Final Fantasy fans will undoubtedly feel warm inside at the sight of not one full grown chocobo, but several. Their familiar theme music returned as well, and it is at that moment that I sat back, smiled, and said to myself, “This is Final Fantasy.”
My initial fears that almost made me turn away from this game have completely dissolved, and in their place has developed a fond love for the game I decided to lay down the cash for.
This is indeed a great game, and the linear gameplay takes a surprising backseat. The overall experience is well worth the money. Whether you’re a casual gamer, devoted Final Fantasy fan, or science fiction enthusiast, you’re certain to find something that you like in this fantastic game. Give it a try, won’t regret it.