Final Fantasy, as a series and cultural phenomenon, has evolved far beyond its roots, growing and molding into something of an institution. The name alone invokes a thousand emotions, admirations, complaints and disturbing amounts of fan fiction and cosplay. Arguably, each and every game in the series has, in one way or another, altered the dimensions and scope of what a JRPG can accomplish and how bold, epic and apocalyptic stories can be told.
After 3 and a half long years, Final Fantasy XIII has finally arrived on the shores of the West, promising to bolster the increasingly irrelevant and dry genre that was itself birthed over 2 decades ago. Has the Yoshinori Kitase lead team succeeded in refreshing the stale stable of innovation that has been sorely lacking within this console generation, or is Final Fantasy destined to become its namesake?
Square Enix have never been afraid to defy the laws of a genre. Almost every single one of their titles features almost completely different methods of gameplay, from battle systems to character and plot progression, all of them becoming one-off experiments in the art of perfecting the “experience”. While some of these experiments work so well that they become standards, others find themselves pariahs within the development community.
Final Fantasy XIII finds itself in the precarious position of the Frankenstein of game development past. While it’s predecessor, XII, made drastic (some might say disastrous) attempts to completely overhaul the traditional battle and exploratory systems, XIII finds itself on an equally ambitious yet conciliatory path toward merging new and old players back into the series.
This is important, since XII had a notoriously difficult and complex battle system (Gambit), which tended to entrench hardcore players and prohibited new players from getting into the series. In XIII, many of the changes to the original ATB (Active Time Battle) system involve more active strategy, while at the same time encompassing elements of the Gambit system, which enables the player to direct the battle for their allies rather then directly controlling their actions.
This is done via the well known “job system” of previous titles. In XIII, characters are assigned a number of possible roles, such as a Commander (focusing on chaining together melee attacks), Ravager (damage focused magic user) or Medic (white magic healer). Encompassing a much improved version of the “license grid” from X, the “Crystarium”allows each character to be customised and focused to a particular job.
At the end of each battle, all characters, whether they were in your party or not, recieve Crystarium points. These points are used to acquire new skills, spells and stat improvements as you follow the path along your chosen job. It’s a great system; while job selection is limited initially, more variety is slowly available as the game unfolds itself, thus forcing you to get used to every combination and the appropriate synergy required, during battle, of the various roles.
Which leads us to the other game changing and strategically significant portion of the battle system, the Paradigm. Paradigms, essentially, are preset modes of 3 job types that can be changed within your current party at any time during battle. In most battles that occur after the first 8 hours or so, you’ll find yourself experimenting with different types depending on the weakness of your enemy. Moreover, as direct control over your party no longer exists, it’s imperative that a vigilant eye is kept on the health of weaker players, thus changing paradigms to suit the situation (one member takes damage while another heals the entire party).
The combat is what, ultimately, will decide where many will sit when it comes to enjoyment of the game. Personally, the hybrid construct removes the problems associated with random battles, (longevity, micromanagement and frequency) while allowing you to focus on the long-term objectives of the battle; as in, what “type of attack” works, rather than “what spell or spell category“. No longer are you stuck in a situation where you have to “healers” in your party; now everyone has an alternative.
Which is good, since you’ll be fighting, in true Final Fantasy style, a hell of a lot. Traversing the world of Cocoon and beyond is simple, making it almost impossible to get lost or distracted, and keeping you completely focused on the story at hand. That’s right folks, Square liked the feeling of directorial power that it held over the player in FFX, thus the never-ending corridor has made it’s second appearance, albeit with a bit of a twist.
You’re given a small minimap, along with a wider map available at the push of a button, which lays out your path along with any possible enemies, save points and cut-scene carryovers. Within this path, you fight, you save, you shop and yes, you get to play mini-games. The illusion has finally been pulled out from under us, dear players. The humble town, along with its inn, empty houses and weapon stores, has been put out to pasture.
Where towns were already nothing more then blips on the point-to-point system of old, they did provide somewhat of a break from the intense amount of lore that was sliced thick and served on a bed of cinema. That said, removing the humble tavern from the formula provides a welcome sense of continuity to the story and forces the designers to stay on message. Where it was almost impossible to remember where you had been and what you had done in FFVII after you came back from a break, there is definitely no such problem in XIII.
For those who are determined to get their fill of an open world, your patience will be rewarded. Once our heroes reach the world of Pulse, the linearity tends to be relaxed and players can indulge in side quests, experience grinding, and even a couple of minigames. I found this compromise to be somewhat trivial, since re-adding the illusion of an open world doesn’t help to convince players that the decision to change the status-quo was an unequivocal one.
For the sake of those who like their storylines untainted and pure, I’ll keep it brief. FFXIII takes a much more serious and darker tone then more recent episodes in the series, focusing on topics involving exclusion, fear, trust, loyalty and resistance. Square has heard the cries of the masses; thus, the adventure that revolves around the central character, bad-arse albeit slightly emo Lightening, is remarkably deep. It’s impossible to ignore the ties to series favourites VI and VII, which both featured more mature themes.
But the problems begin when the characters begin to talk, and it’s almost instantly obvious that some lines just don’t translate well from Japanese. While many of the characters are able to communicate without the awkward one-liners and corny catch phrases that JRPG’s seem to find so enduring, there are still far too many examples of derivative and almost completely useless dialogue. Actions speak louder then words; thus, sometimes silence can be enduring rather than an opportunity for comic relief.
Dialogue aside, the plot expands from a relatively slow beginning and opens up (almost literally from a gameplay perspective). After the first ten hours or so, the narrative begins to firm and you understand what your mission ultimately is. The game peaks, and stays that way until the conclusion, which is satisfying in a way that only Final Fantasy can be. It’s not the revolutionary tale of sacrifice and loyalty that we had been eagerly awaiting, but it’s a great ride all the same.
What does, however, live up to almost every expectation are the graphics and sound. It’s no mean feat to make cutscenes and real-time effects look completely seamless, but it hasn’t been since FFVII blew us all away with it’s cutscenes that I’ve seen a game look this good. Everything, from the incredibly well animated and choreographed action scenes, to the intense, constant 60fps battle scenes in glorious HD look crisp, sharp and beautiful.
There has been some discussion of the quality differences between the PS3 and the Xbox360 editions, and there are. A Digital Foundry review of both found that while the PS3 version is displayed in beautiful 720p, the Xbox 360 version, due to storage issues, is stuck at a very last-gen 576p. Both, in any case, are upscaled to 1080, but if you have both systems and are looking for a slight edge, this (along with disc swapping) would be it. FFXIII was designed for the PS3 and it shows.
Final Fantasy XIII has the ability, like every one of its predecessors, to polarise casual and hardcore fans alike. It makes drastic and sweeping changes to what many would consider essential genre staples, and its slow, tutorial heavy beginning threatens to scare away twitchy gamers that are used to quick and easy repatriation. There are no levels to gain, no towns to explore, no brick and mortar shops to peruse.
But the dilution and disillusionment that has plagued the genre as of late required drastic action, and the developers here showed they had the balls to do just that. Changes aside, there is no doubt that there is a gorgeous, thrilling, and well designed game here, one deserving of more kudos then many have been willing to provide. XIII has blown new life and energy into a dying genre, along with creating another world and cast that we can lose ourselves in, once again.
The reviewer played the Playstation 3 version for the purposes of this review, although has also briefly played the Xbox 360 version as well.
This is the best looking Final Fantasy, or in fact, JRPG that has been developed. Square have done a phenomenal job with the new Crystal tools engine and it shows. Xbox 360 owners may feel a little disappointed in their port, but this game was designed from the ground up for the PS3.
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Aside from a few changes, this is classic Final Fantasy at it's core. ATB, Random Battles, cheesy minigames and crazy summons. If you're a fan of the series, and don't mind a bit of a slow start, you won't be disappointed.
Square Enix still has a little while to go in perfecting the art of English voice acting, along with some translation problems, but the score lives up to others in the series, allowing for a rousing orchestral announcement to follow you on your adventure through Cocoon.
If you watch everything, do everything and go everywhere, you could easy suck 35-40 hours out of this one. Whether you feel the need to play through again is down to your level of devotion.
Final Fantasy is back, and it's not afraid to take a few risks along the way. Square Enix have taken a giant leap towards genre reform and should be congratulated for it. This is the best JRPG of this console generation by far.