A cocky self-proclaimed hero with a charming sneer and a heart of gold. A sultry, no-nonsense ally you can rely on for a sly quip and a warm hug. These characters sound like standard role-playing stereotypes, but to Final Fantasy XIII's credit, they transcend formula and wriggle into your heart. Like many other Final Fantasy ensemble casts, the misfits at the center of this tale feel like old friends, and like old friends, they will excite your spirit, move your heart, and sometimes exasperate you. Their story is grand and compelling--as absorbing as you could hope for in a long role-playing game. That's just as well, given the fun but flawed game woven around this excellent tale. This is an intensely focused, exceptionally linear adventure that offers a few illusions of choice but never makes good on them. Fortunately, the battle system is fun and engaging once all of its elements fall into place, and it will keep you pushing forward even when the story lulls in the second half. Yet don't let the flaws dissuade you from playing and enjoying Final Fantasy XIII. It's a gorgeous RPG that delivers the emotional poignancy and slick production values you expect from this beloved series.
The aforementioned cocky hero is Snow, the spiritual leader of a ragtag group of rebels in the world of Cocoon, though he isn't the soul of Final Fantasy XIII's story. That honor goes to Lightning, a likeable, strong-willed beauty on a vision quest to save her sister. In the first few moments of the game, you meet both Lightning and her accidental companion, Sazh, a good-hearted former pilot whose afro serves as home to a chocobo chick. (Don't worry: This bit of silly humor is not taken to extremes.) Eventually, this duo is joined by four others, drawn together by dramatic events, intertwined pasts, and a seemingly unachievable goal. The cast is diverse and the members play off of each other well. Tension between the resolute Lightning and the stubborn Snow is relieved when anger gives way to honesty. A young man called Hope blindly lets revenge cloud his judgment, even while admitting that nothing will stop his broken heart from bleeding. With a single exception, these are winning characters that are easy to relate to, providing a haven of comfort and familiarity in a beautiful but unusual world. That exception is Vanille, an incessantly irritating waif whose superbubbly voice and high-pitched monosyllabic chirps exceed tolerable limits, even in a genre known for squeaky, bright-eyed heroines. Fortunately, the bulk of the voice acting and dialogue is quite good, though RPG purists should take note that there's no option to hear the original Japanese voice tracks.
It's best to discover the intricacies of the narrative on your own, given the constant stream of shocks and high drama it provides. But the excellent setting deserves special mention. Metal behemoths called fal'Cie lord over two distinct worlds: The raw and dangerous underworld called Pulse and the high-tech, elaborately designed world of Cocoon that floats above it. Cocoon is all shiny sleekness and crystalline craftwork, a fascinating marriage of the organic and the synthetic. Sophisticated machinery and finely wrought buildings dominate the urban backgrounds, and every last stone and spire looks as if great care went into creating it. The attention to detail is astounding, so there's always something to catch your eye, whether it is the fancy latticework of a fence, the decorative patterns spreading across a wall like ivy, or the complex networks of pipes and planks. The art design is beautiful and varied, yet it's also consistent. Not a single detail seems out of place.
The splendor begins with the art, but the technology that brings it to life is almost as impressive. A few rare frame rate drops aside, nearly every battle and every leg of the journey moves fluidly. In combat, party members and monsters flit about the battle arena while damage numbers float about and bright spell effects saturate the screen. Outside of combat, the idyllic landscapes and awe-inspiring cutscenes always impress. You may notice some bland textures if you look closely, particularly in the prehistoric-looking area that also happens to be the largest environment in the game you can explore. But Final Fantasy looks so lovely and runs so smoothly that such gripes seem minor. It almost goes without saying that the beautiful visuals are accompanied by an equally enchanting soundtrack, which is notable for both the theatrical swells and the quieter themes that contrast them.
As you make your way across airships and through crystal caverns, the journey's narrow focus will be almost as striking as the pretty environments. Some games in the series have been markedly linear, but Final Fantasy XIII is even more conspicuous in this regard than its predecessors. While there are some exceptions, such as in the previously mentioned primeval grassland, you are generally moving in one direction: forward. If you feel outmatched in battle, you can backtrack to take advantage of respawning enemies and grow a bit stronger before moving on, but you'll rarely need to do so. The linearity is even more pronounced because the walkways and corridors you follow are usually rather narrow, and there are few extraneous tasks to provide variety--no minigames to complete, no puzzles to solve, and aside from a few key moments, no populated towns to investigate.
The upside to the linearity is that the story maintains its superb stride through the first half. Final Fantasy XIII opens up during a central stretch, letting you take on a few side quests that involve killing a certain monster or group of monsters. Unfortunately, this is when the story begins to lose some of its edge; the characters lose focus and the game follows suit, doing little to break up the wandering. A jaunt through a tall tower that follows drags on for too long--perhaps ironically so, given that it will make you wish for the game to return to its previous pace, linearity and all. When the final chapters get underway, the plot becomes thrilling once again and the earlier tempo is restored. It's easy to appreciate the stretch of freedom considering its rarity, but the story needn't have languished so drastically.
Fortunately, the action drives ever forward. It starts simply, but by the end of the game, it'll be testing your fingers, as well as your wits. Combat is menu driven, and while you only directly control a single party member, you do maintain indirect control of the other two adventurers that join you. Each action you take, whether it is an attack or a spell, uses up a certain number of segments in your ATB gauge (that is, your action bar). The gauge is always moving upward, so battles take place in real time, though the combat's reliance on menus and the gauge's innate limitations make fights feel like more of a turn-based/real-time hybrid. When it reaches its upper limit, it will carry out the sequence of actions you've queued up. (Conversely, you can interrupt the bar and unleash your accumulated moves before it reaches that point.) The trick is that you can't access your skills willy-nilly. Rather, each party member assumes certain roles--medic, commando, saboteur, and so on. If you've entered combat as a saboteur, you'll only be able to perform saboteur actions (poison, curse, slow, and the like), though you can switch roles at any time, provided you've trained in the role you wish to assume.
Don't let the easygoing nature of the early combat fool you: Maintaining these roles is crucial to winning battles in the second half of the game. You put together different combinations of roles called paradigms and can switch to any of them whenever you like during battle, though doing so interrupts any action currently in progress. Final Fantasy XIII assigns clever names to these paradigms, such as combat clinic and perpetual magic, though it would have been nice to customize your own titles--if only to help keep better track of which one does what in the heat of battle. Nevertheless, if you have a particular need, you can slot in a paradigm to help you. For a hefty dose of buffing and debuffing, activate superiority; if you want to ravage a great beast with magic, give tri-disaster a go. Eventually, different combinations of monsters with different strengths and weaknesses will have you furiously switching back and forth between paradigms as you react to events on the battlefield and discover your enemies' weak points.
It's all quite fun and engaging, particularly during boss fights. Several of these fights are difficult and will require a few tries, a few different party member combinations, and a few different paradigm layouts before you triumph. Much of the joy of combat comes from the way characters like Fang and Snow speed about, beating up on imps and wyverns. It also comes from the way the camera moves around, framing the flashy moves while letting you take in important visual feedback like the name of a boss's spell or the countdown timer that appears over your head when doom is cast. Although controlling only a single character at a time sounds limiting, don't assume battles are hands-off affairs. While you can let the game choose a default set of actions on your behalf, some late-game battles benefit from a bit of skill micromanagement on top of the usual paradigm fiddling. There will be smart challenges waiting for you once you overcome the ease of the early hours.
And you'll be up to the challenge with the help of your summons, which are also called Eidolons (just as they were in Final Fantasy IX). You've heard some of these names before: Bahamut, Odin, Alexander, and so on. Using a summon is an unsurprisingly dramatic affair, initiating an ostentatious cinematic that has all of the visual spectacle and swooping orchestral fanfare you expect in such a scene. But as is appropriate given Cocoon's organic-meets-industrial art style, summons are sort of like transforming robots. Snow's summon, the Shiva sisters, combines to become a motorcycle; Sazh's summon, Brynhildr, morphs into a sports car. The transformer aspect sounds a bit cheesy, but the scenes are over the top in mostly the right ways. Thankfully, if you're not in the mood to watch lengthy summoning mini-movies, you can skip over them. In fact, Final Fantasy XIII makes several improvements to general usability, letting you skip and pause cutscenes, and should you lose a battle, you'll be returned to the spot you were in just before the fight started.
Of course, it takes time to earn the spells and attacks you need to fight the big baddies. As you defeat your foes, you earn crystogen points that you then spend to progress. To advance, you visit the Crystarium, which is a slick-looking net of skills and attribute enhancements that might at first remind you of Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. The appearance, however, is only skin deep. Each character has his or her own Crystarium, and at first, he or she starts off with access to only a few combat roles. The small branches off the main path are ostensibly optional, but there's no reason to skip them, given that you can almost always hit every point on the grid before you gain access to the next level of skills--at least during the period when you're limited to just three combat roles per character. Like the exploration, character progression is linear; any sense of freedom the Crystarium may provide is simple trickery.
Eventually, you can spend crystogen points on each character in any of the six roles, but by that point, squandering points on lesser enhancements and skills doesn't make much sense. It's more effective to spend them on major improvements in roles you already possess (100 hit points or a high-level fire spell, for example) than to waste them on low-level improvements (15 hit points or a low-level buff) in roles you'll never use. The most freedom you get to develop your characters comes from the weapons and accessories you equip. You can improve your possessions using the monster tidbits and other morsels you'll earn as spoils or purchase from the scattered save nodes that double as shopping centers. It's rewarding to watch your stuff gain levels by adding fangs and particle accelerators to them, and you can even drastically change an item's attributes if you apply the right components.
There are some elements that keep Final Fantasy XIII from being everything it could have been. Even so, it is still a legitimately great game for its stunning beauty, fantastic story, and enjoyable battles, which means it has a lot in common with the Final Fantasy games that came before it. The stubborn gal in the blue sari, the steely blue-eyed star, and even the apprehensive, spiky-haired adolescent are easy to root for, and their journey is as memorable as any other in the series. Even if the gameplay doesn't reach those same heights, almost any RPG lover can still get lost in Final Fantasy XIII.