|Platform:||PlayStation 3, Xbox 360|
It's hard to write about a game such as Final Fantasy XIII without bringing into account its storied history. Being in development for the better part of a half decade, Final Fantasy XIII achieved a near cult status among gamers as a beacon of superiority that PlayStation 3 owners could hold over everyone else derisively. Then came the announcement of the end of the game's exclusivity, which caused many to literally break down to tears at the perceived betrayal. Conspiracy theories about corporate corruption flew, angry forum posts were posted, petitions were signed, and boycotts were sworn, but the Square Enix continued concurrent development of the game on both systems despite the outrage.
The mere moniker 'Final Fantasy' incites countless debates of quality and its 'right' to bear the Final Fantasy name. There are many who pride themselves in 'just knowing' what a Final Fantasy game 'should be,' and cling desperately to the 'tradition' of the series, but in truth of fact each entry is very nearly a franchise in of itself. Each new game takes the series in a new direction, meant to be a fresh experience for all. Perhaps the only 'tradition' of a Final Fantasy game is the inevitability that each entry will divide the fanbase into enthusiastic supporters and vicious detractors. The question I always ask of a game that is riding on the Final Fantasy namesake is if it evolves or raises the bar in a certain aspect of the series in any meaningful way. Does it improve upon its predecessors, whether in story or in gameplay?
To maintain as much objectivity as possible - and also because I had a negligible interest in the game itself - I played the game with no real expectations and without any intent to judge it one way or the other. It is telling, then, that despite this, I still came away from the game with a somewhat tangible amount of disappointment.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII takes place on the world of Pulse, inhabited by Godlike machine beings called fal'Cie, each of whom watches over the humans living under its area of jurisdiction. Floating above Pulse is the city of Cocoon, also maintained by its own fal'Cie. Each fal'Cie can choose humans under its jurisdiction to become l'Cie - agents under its employ that must fulfill a certain role, or Focus. Those who fulfill their Focus turn into crystal and are granted eternal life, while those who do not are turned into hideous monsters called Cie'th. The problem lies in the fact that no l'Cie is ever given clear knowledge as to what his or her Focus is, and thus must find out and fulfill it or face transformation.
Cocoon and Pulse live in fear of each other, both in constant terror that the other side is preparing for an all out assault - an attack that has not come despite centuries of propaganda painting the other side as vicious monsters. The fear is such that anyone in cocoon who comes into contact with any trace of Pulse is quarantined and sent away (or "Purged"), along with anyone who is associated with them in even the most remote fashion. As the story begins, a group of Cocoon residents are branded as Pulse l'Cie, but instead of submitting to the unfair practice of Purging, the small group of ragtag warriors fight against their chosen fate.
The story itself is serviceable, but at its base level it achieves none of the standards set by previous games in the series. The characters don't develop in a meaningful or realistic manner, and much of their motivations and personal revelations end up being absurd or unbelievably thin. The only main character I found to be believable was Sazh; while the other characters suffer from terrible writing and trite motivations, Sazh's relationship with his son and desire to keep his child safe offers possibly the most moving characterization in the game. The relative dearth of believable character development detracts from the overall story, which itself is not groundbreaking or even particularly well written. This wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that the game was designed in total service to the story. From the battle system to the dungeon design, the game was crafted to completely accommodate the narrative.
Make no mistake, the story is not bad so much as it is generic and clichéd. The fact that the first half of the game suffers from an abysmally uneven pacing (possibly the worst in recent memory) only serves to highlight the inadequacy of the story. While many interesting themes are touched upon - such as blind discrimination against innocent outsiders and mindless loyalty to obviously unjust state policies - they are never really explored in any meaningful way, instead bludgeoning players with the message that "A is right, and B is wrong." It seems almost like the developers were attempting to make a commentary on current social norms but chickened out when push came to shove. After the incredible character development of the main character in X, and the excellent execution of the story in XII, the step back on all fronts is genuinely disheartening. This may be a problem with the base script itself, but even then a superior presentation could have salvaged it - Square Enix is no stranger to excellent localizations, as games like Final Fantasy XII, Vagrant Story, and War of the Lions attest to.
Fortunately, the same cannot be said of the visuals; the graphics in Final Fantasy XIII are absolutely gorgeous, no two ways about it. Even during cutscenes utilizing the in-game engine, the meticulous attention to detail, not only of the characters but also their surroundings, is honestly staggering - to say nothing of the actual CG cutscenes that are littered throughout the game. Square Enix has always been an industry leader when it comes to production values, but they've really outdone themselves with this game - it's hard to believe that it can possibly be surpassed in terms of graphical quality by future games. It should be noted that, despite a slightly noticeable lack of visual fidelity, the port to 360 is still breathtaking in every sense of the word. Of course, it shouldn't be any surprise that Square Enix's flagship series has gorgeous visuals, but the obvious attention to the stellar graphics is to be commended.
Aurally, Final Fantasy XIII is a mixed bag. The soundtrack is generally forgettable - since Nobuo Uematsu passed on the project in favor of scoring the music for Final Fantasy XIV, Masashi Hamauzu took up the helm in composing the music in XIII. While none of the music is outright bad, the soundtrack as a whole isn't terribly remarkable; most of the tracks are forgettable, with certain notable exceptions. The battle music, in particular, will most likely be stuck in your head for weeks after the game's conclusion. The voicework of the game is excellent, and each of the voice actors gives an incredible performance that is head and shoulders above most other JRPG localizations. Troy Baker does an admirable job as Snow, and Reno Wilson as Sazh always delivers some enjoyable lines in the form of bizarre colloquial terms.
The area where Final Fantasy XIII will truly be divisive among players is the gameplay. Let's get the most controversial aspects out of the way first: Final Fantasy XIII is linear, almost to a fault. Each dungeon is large, but ends up being what amounts to an incredibly long road from point A to point B with some small branches that lead to either dead ends with enemy encounters or treasure orbs that give mostly negligible spoils. This extends to towns, as well - each town is basically a dungeon without battles. There are no townsfolk to converse with, no shops to buy items from (as all shopping is done through save points), and no sidequests to embark on. In short, almost every locale in the first half of the game only act as links from one story point to the next; even small glimmers of exploration possibilities are stifled as the player will realize that even some places the minimap indicates can be traversed end up being blocked by invisible walls or NPCs.
About halfway through the game the areas open up, and the game gives players access to large open fields ripe for exploration, but by this time the many players who couldn't stomach the 20 or so hours of running through one-way dungeons would probably have already dismissed the game. The question is whether the mere existence of an area with the potential for exploration late in the game negates or eclipses the sheer linearity of the preceding 20 to 25 hours. This of course is up to each individual player, but I found myself nearly giving up before reaching this point due to the fact that the game was doing nothing but shepherding me along without even giving me the choice of party composition for much of my time playing it.
As always, the meat of the game is in the battles. Final Fantasy XIII features the return of the ATB combat system that has now all but become synonymous with the Final Fantasy name. Players control one character (the party leader) out of a potential party of three, and when the leader's HP reaches 0, the game is over. However, the most notable element of battle is that now the default command is 'Auto Battle.' Auto battle usually chooses the best abilities that fit the situation, and using Libra (which shows enemy weaknesses and resistances) allows auto battle to choose the strongest attacks against enemies. While players can still manually choose the abilities that their characters use each turn, they are strongly encouraged to use auto battle due to the frantic pace of battles. However, this does not give players carte blanche to keep mashing the confirm button to cruise through battles. Instead of dictating the actions of their party leader manually, players need to focus on Paradigm Shifts.
Each character can become one of six major classes that fit into attack, defense, and support. Paradigm Shifts are commands executed in battle that change the classes of the party into configurations that are decided by the player in the menu screen. At any given time the player may have six different Paradigm configurations to select in battle. Most boss battles (and some normal ones) simply can't be beat with one specific set of classes, and as such, effective use of the Paradigm system is required to progress. The system rewards players that approach battles from a different angle when a prior one fails. If the party suffers from a devastating attack, it would be prudent to spend time in a defensive paradigm to recover before continuing the offensive.
The other major aspect of the battle system is staggering. A requirement to fighting some of the stronger enemies in the game is to stagger them. While staggered, the damage against them is increased significantly and they become much more manageable. To stagger enemies, their chain gauge needs to be completely filled, and dealing damage to them is the most effective method to do this. However, the gauge slowly decreases when the enemy is not attacked, so skillful use of Commandos (who slow the decrease of the chain gauge) and Ravagers (who increase the chain gauge quickly) is a necessity. Added to this is the existence of battle techniques, abilities that give tangible benefits in combat. These include abilities such as Libra (which identifies enemy weaknesses), Quake (which increases the chain bonus for enemies), and Summon (which is self explanatory). These abilities expend TP, which can be recovered by doing well in battles. Because TP is incredibly limited, and the best battle techniques often use a large amount of TP, these options should be used sparingly, and only for the most arduous of fights.
The problem with battles becomes thus: the developers' desire for visual panache permeates the battle system as well, and this can cause some unnecessary headaches. Too many of the characters decide that they need to pose dramatically while they attack, and during this animation it is all too easy to knock them out of whatever they're doing, wasting precious time and possibly canceling one of their attacks. This doesn't just extend to combat actions, either; whenever a Paradigm Shift is executed, party members do a Dragonball-esque 'Power Charging' pose that stops them in their tracks, while the enemy still has free reign to attack as it sees fit. This means that a lot of the damage the player incurs isn't due to bad planning, but rather the developers' habit to make characters act like they're performing in a Matrix film. While this isn't a major problem, it has cost me more than a handful of battles that I otherwise would most likely have won.
Individual characters progress stat-wise through the Crystallium, which serves as the leveling system of the game. It is essentially a cross of the Sphere Grid system in Final Fantasy X and the job system in Final Fantasy V. There are six main classes in Final Fantasy XIII, and characters expend CP gained from battles to advance their progress in each class. However, each character progresses through each class in different ways; one may obtain more powerful curative spells first, whereas another may only be given a first level Cure for most of the game but early access to the revival ability. This strikes a near perfect balance between having each character being the same ability wise and having each character be functionally unique. Each character leans towards particular roles in battle, but can fulfill any role competently.
Final Fantasy XIII is a long game. Those who stop playing a game right after the end credits roll are looking at a minimum of 30 hours of game time, which is extended considerably if the player partakes in activities such as maximizing character abilities and monster hunts. However, there is still not much in the way of auxiliary content; having to grind for CP and items to progress each character to their maximum potential is a poor substitute for actual sidequests and extra content that could otherwise enrich the unique and beautiful world that the developers have created. As it stands, Pulse and Cocoon feel sort of empty and artificial.
From the general tone of my review, some may believe that I disliked Final Fantasy XIII, and this assumption couldn't be farther from the truth. I honestly enjoyed the game a great deal. As an RPG, it is an excellent experience that provides a beautifully crafted world and engaging battle system. However, as a Final Fantasy game, it falls short of expectations somewhat. While its forebears always pushed the envelope in some respect, Final Fantasy XIII is an all around above average game that fails to set the bar for any one area. The beautiful environments feel hollow and lifeless, and the otherwise decent story is bogged down by bland or nonexistent character development and a lack of depth in execution. Considering the amount of time spent in development, what we got was underwhelming. However, this does not change what Final Fantasy XIII is: a beautiful and enjoyable, if flawed, entry to the series.