SE clearly spent a lot of time polishing this title...but possibly forgot to pay attention to the story...
Upon completion of this title's predecessor, Final Fantasy XII, I took a moment of silence to reflect on the masterpiece I had the privilege to play. Stunning visuals, an exciting cast, a wide world to explore, an excellent battle system matched only by the awesome License Board…an amazing experience that won't be soon forgotten…
Two years later I would finally get my hands on XIII, a game that I had high hopes for. After all, the franchise had moved in a very exciting direction, hadn't it? Well folks, forget you ever played FFXII because you won't find many similarities here. There are plenty of you out there that hated XII for various reasons, maybe this game is for you? Maybe not. Where Final Fantasy shines best is in the mostly technical aspects of the game…and where it comes up short is perhaps where it counts most: STORY.
You'll begin your quest with a regular "Odd Couple" of Sazh and our heroine Lightning. Unless you turn this option off, a tutorial will appear during battles through the beginning of the game whenever a new concept is introduced. I recommend keeping it turned on because the battle system takes some getting used to.
Battle Basics: You are only ever in control of the party leader. As such, your death results in a Game Over, so keep an eye on your own HP before you worry about the other party members. If you have someone set as a healer, they will usually do a pretty decent job of protecting the other members so it shouldn't be a problem. What's a healer? A healer is an Optima (paradigm in other versions of the game) and basically a tactic for that certain party member. Before battle you set a list of 6 Optimas for your team that you will need to cycle through during tougher battles. A basic Optima: Attacker, Jammer, Healer. You, the attacker, are a melee fighter with no use of magic, the Jammer's job is to cast status ailments on the enemy, and the Healer will heal and cure status ailments. There are 6 basic tactics: Attacker, Blaster (magic attack), Jammer, Healer, Enhancer (casts status enhancements), and Defender (blocks). It is wise to build a very diverse list of 6 combinations so that you can battle freely (change Optimas on the fly) in any situation. Sometimes you'll discover mid-battle that you need a different set-up…in this case it's time to restart your game and fix it before continuing. Your Optimas are everything.
When you kill your foes, you'll be shown a screen with various stats. Your battles are TIMED and taking too much time can potentially be harmful in certain parts of the game so be careful. No matter how you do however, your party's HP will be completely refilled and all status ailments will be erased. After a while, potions become obsolete…a welcome detour from the usual RPG recipe.
What all this complicated nonsense amounts to is a pretty cool battle system that gives FFXII a run for its money. Battling is fast paced and can be quite intense at times, keeping you at the edge of your seat for the trickier foes. Your left index finger will be put to the test with the L1 button as you jump through your Optimas trying to survive!
Leveling Basics: The leveling system in FFXIII is revolutionary…because it's basically nonexistent! Those who like to brag about what level they've got their party at will be left without anything to talk about. Rather, the game utilizes what's called the Crystarium, something similar Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid. After each battle you will be rewarded with CP (crystal points). These will be used to traverse what looks like a spider's web, picking up such things as +100HP, +30MagicStrength, and so on (including spells and whatnot). Each level of the Crystarium uses more and more CP, so by the top you will be hard-pressed, grinding for crystal points to become stronger.
Sound & Graphics
This is where Square Enix really shines. As we've come to expect from the famous (and sometimes infamous) developer, Final Fantasy XIII is chock-full of beautiful cinematic scenes, many of which use the game engine brilliantly. Draw distances, facial detail, and battle animations are all superb. To match, the game sounds excellent as well. All characters are voiced well, the music is quirky and unexpected…it's an impressive showing. I still feel that the Uncharted series still has this game's number in the texture department, but FFXIII is incredible nonetheless. Look closely at facial expressions if you get a chance, they're…PERFECT.
Ah, here's the rub. I won't divulge much of the plot so look at Wikipedia if you want that…
This is possibly the most fast paced RPG I've ever played. You are thrown into a bloody battle from the get-go and not given a rest until about 70% of the game later. You won't stop in towns to relax and go shopping (there are none), you won't talk with NPCs about side quests (there are none except the missions on Gran Pulse), you won't hunt for GIL to purchase valuable supplies (you won't need to buy anything)…you are just meant to keep battling and then watch the cut-scenes to see what's going on.
On top of that, there will be times when your party splits up and goes separate ways, forcing you to utilize characters you would otherwise not touch (really there's only one character I hated, so no big problem). What is a challenge however, is that all characters have different sets of Optimas they can use. You may have taught yourself to be an Enhancing pro, only to switch to a party without an Enhancer. You must adjust your strategies multiple times in order to progress through these areas.
Yes, there are those missions on Gran Pulse I mentioned…well, you'll be on you merry way to the Lower World after about 70% of the game! Until then, you'll be following what is essentially a straight path…
On one hand, completing the main quest and other missions will take over 70hrs of your time. On the other, there is little reason to replay. I tend to fall into the category of gamers that don't replay most games, so 70-90hrs is pretty decent considering the linearity through most of this title. The 64 missions you'll have access to on Gran Pulse ought to take up some time, and exploring new areas unlocked through the missions is always exciting.
What we face here is a conundrum. Final Fantasy XIII is heavily story-driven…and as such is very linear. Had the story been well-done, that formula would have worked perfectly and we'd be congratulating Square Enix on another masterpiece. Some of the scenes in the early going will really get your hopes up…but then something new happens, and something else, and then something else again…because it's paced very quickly. The main characters are likeable for the most part and all bring something interesting to the table, but we don't get any of that from the other side. The few human enemies you run across have very little story to themselves and amount to nothing more than road apples, waiting to be killed. What ever happened to the charismatic sorts of enemies that you could hate (or secretly love!) from RPGs past?
In a word, I feel a bit let down. Maybe I had my expectations set too high?
Don't get me wrong however, if I didn't like it I wouldn't have spent almost 70hrs (almost finished) playing for the last 2.5 weeks. Battling is fun and a genuine challenge, everything is beautiful to look at and listen to, the Crystarium gives you a great sense of accomplishment and is an intriguing way of leveling, and who knows…this might be exactly what you're looking for.
Final Fantasy XIII is definitely not for everyone. It plays a lot like Japanese anime, so if that's your thing then you might fall in love with this title…if not, well, then you had probably better wait for a price drop before you go out and get it!
OVERALL=7.75 (rounded up to 8 for Gamespot)