Final Fantasy XIII - A Truly Unique Game
Each and every one of these sequels featured its own cast of characters, story, and world to explore, but at the same time some of the same gameplay elements remained. While the earlier games focused more on a fantasy setting, later games such as Final Fantasy VI (released as Final Fantasy III in the west) focused on a more modern day/sci-fi setting. Because each game was in fact different, fan bases formed for each and every single one, and even still today the Final Fantasy fan base as a whole is split. While some fans prefer the characters, story, and fantasy setting of Final Fantasy IV, others may like the modern day (and more mature) styled Final Fantasy VII. Despite having favorites, fans of the series have just about always looked forward to the newest entry in their favorite franchise, and Final Fantasy XIII was no exception.
Final Fantasy XIII is the 13th main entry in the Final Fantasy series (excluding spin offs, and sequels to other main entry titles), and it was also the first Final Fantasy game to be released on an HD console. Originally developed as a PlayStation 3 exclusive, the game was released on both PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2009 in Japan, and 2010 in the west. The game featured amazing visuals, a catchy soundtrack, and it was going to be the biggest Final Fantasy game to date; however things do change.
The thing is, Final Fantasy XIII is NOT your standard Final Fantasy game, and when going into this game you really have to understand that. The truth is, Final Fantasy XIII is more along the lines of a stand alone title, just with the Final Fantasy name. This simple fact has caused quite the outrage among fans, and still to this day (4/8/2013) it is the topic of very much debate. So, for this review I am going to be putting that all aside, and review this game how it was meant to be. It is a game of its own, and it is NOT a sequel to any other Final Fantasy game. This game is the flagship title of the "Fabula Nova Crystallis" series, and it really shows.
The Story of Final Fantasy XIII:
Final Fantasy XIII opens up with a train of prisoners being transported to a place known as "Gran Pulse." Pulse is a large planet the smaller planet of "Cocoon" orbits around, and it is known as "hell on Earth." Since they are born, the people of Cocoon are taught horror stories about Pulse, as well as the great war that broke out between the rulers of Pulse and Cocoon; the creatures known as fal'Cie.
In this world, the fal'Cie are great and powerful beasts which control just about everything. While one acts as the "sun" of the world, another is the source of all electricity, and others simply take care of the world itself. Although the fal'Cie of Cocoon do everything they can to help and protect the people that live there, the fal'Cie of Pulse only want to destroy all life, and that is why they create L'Cie.
If chosen by a fal'Cie, a human can be transformed into what is known as a L'Cie to barrow the fal'Cie's power. L'Cies gain the power to use magic, and they are also given a "focus" to complete. Focuses are basically missions the L'Cie must carry out for the fal'Cie, and if they do so they'll be transformed into a crystal and live forever; however if they fail, they'll turn into a monster and be cursed for the rest of their lives.
After a Pulse fal'Cie is found near the town of Bodhum, the government exiles everyone in the town to Gran Pulse by train; including a young girl named Sarah Farron who had been turned into a Pulse L'Cie. In order to save her sister, heroine Lightning Farron hijacks the train, frees the prisoners, and soon finds herself caught up in a massive battle with the government's special forces.
As a resistance group lead by Snow (who just happens to be Sarah's fiance) and his gang "NORA" battles the government's special forces, Lightning along with a middle aged man named Sazh make their way toward the ruins where Sarah was being held. Meanwhile a young boy named Hope, and a young girl name Vanille are pulled into the battle as well, after Hope's mother volunteers to help Snow, only to be then killed in the process. In the end, all five characters find themselves in the ruins where Sarah was being held.
The opening of Final Fantasy XIII is flat out chaos. It is very hard to understand what is going on, you really have no idea who these characters are or why they ended up getting mixed up in this mess, and terms are thrown around like crazy. The good news is there is a log you can read to help clear up the confusion, but for the most part you stay in the dark until later on in the game. Throughout the game scenes from the "13 days," which was originally included in a prequel novel, become unlocked to help fill you in, but until you've seen them all the story can be quite confusing.
Soon after arriving in the ruins, all of the characters find themselves face to face with the Pulse fal'Cie, Sarah is turned into a crystal, and as a result they become L'Cies themselves. With no other choice, the party of strangers go on the run with no real destination in mind. They are wanted criminals, they are L'Cie, and the entire world fears them.
The thing about Final Fantasy XIII is, the game is heavily story based, and it is not an easy story to understand. The simple fact is, if you only play through the game you'll be missing out on a lot of the story, and you may not even be able to understand what is actually going on. A lot of the game's story is told in the datalog where you can find background information over every aspect of the Final Fantasy XIII world, and even learn more about each character's motives. This may not be the best way to tell a story I'll admit, but it does provide a deep and complex story most JRPGs tend to lack. The story on its own is a truly unique story, and it is filled with quite a few plot twists as well. Unlike most Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy XIII's story isn't a generic save the world story, rather a more personal one.
Like in most Final Fantasy games, each character in FF13 has their own unique personality, and that really helps bring the game to life. While Lightning (the female Cloud as Square Enix calls her) is the strong willed soldier with a hidden softer side, Snow is the jock who is full of himself, Hope is your standard 14 year old who doesn't want to have anything to do with what is going on, Vanille is the happy go lucky girl of the group, Sazh is the father figure who is willing to do anything for his son, and Fang is the woman with a mysterious past who you just can't help but not trust at first. The entire cast is lively, and they really complement each other.
The New Gameplay Style:
As I said before, when playing Final Fantasy XIII you really need to see it as a game of its own. While past Final Fantasy games featured a world map to travel, towns to explore, and dungeons you had to complete from time to time, Final Fantasy XIII has NONE of that! The game plays out in a linear fashion, and is unlike any other JRPG out there.
The entire game is basically you traveling from point A to point B. Now from time to time the path will split off, or give you the option to explore and look around, but for the most part you are on the run! In the opening scene of the game you're trying to make your way to the ruins, soon after you're running from the government, and not too long after that you'll be in a city trying to make your way to one of the key character's houses. The game plays out a lot like a movie, and for the most part you will never find yourself backtracking; in fact you can't even return to earlier areas in this game. Each chapter plays out like a chapter in an action game, and that may be a problem if you were expecting a standard Final Fantasy game.
Now although the game is in fact linear, that really doesn't mean it is a bad game. Now sure it is not a standard Final Fantasy, but that also means XIII is able to do things other games were unable to. Since each area is linear, you get to explore some very unique areas, there is a tighter focus on the story, and it also allows for some pretty impressive set pieces which have been very limited in past games. Now sure games like Final Fantasy VIII featured sections where you could run through battlefields, but them scenes were pretty limited, and very rare as well. In XIII you'll be making crazy jumps, watching some crazy action based cutscenes, and you'll get to see some impressive landscapes while doing so. You never see generic open world maps, you never see generic cave based dungeons, and you never have to worry about solving the same puzzle more than once. Once you finish an area in game, it is done for good, and you'll never have to play it again unless you restart the game; however this isn't the only difference in XIII's gameplay.
Another major difference is the fact that the game doesn't use a standard shop system. You'll get items from the enemies you fight, and all weapons will actually be found as you go through the game, meaning you can actually miss out on weapons in this game; however even that isn't too much of a problem. Instead of buying new pieces of equipment, this time around you use items you find to upgrade your weapons into higher levels. Now although some weapons do in fact have different abilities, all weapons do end up being around the same near the end of the game, so it is really up to you to decide which ones you want to use; same goes for the accessories you can equip.
Different accessories you find in game will give you different abilities that can help you out in the long run, but they aren't really key to surviving. Sure it can be nice to have that extra boost in power, but none of the equipment is truly life saving, and it is really up to you to decide how to handle it all.
On top of that, enemies do in fact appear in front of you, and you enter battle when you touch them. If you want to fight them you can, but if not you can simply avoid them. For anyone who hates random battles, this is a great addition, and it allows you to choose your own battles. Don't want to fight that type of monster? Well then don't! Once you get into battle however, things are a LOT different, even considering how different the rest of this game is.
The Battle System:
Battles in Final Fantasy XIII play out in real time, but the game is still in fact menu based. While in past Final Fantasy games you picked an attack/move for each character and then selected an enemy to attack when it came time for your turn, this game does away with all of that. This time around you only play as the party leader, and you have a wide verity of attacks to pick from. On the left side of the screen you have an ATB bar which is broken up into sections, and each attack requires a section of that bar to use. By mixing and matching attacks, you can create your own custom combos to unleash on the enemy all while the rest of your party attacks on their own. For example you could use an attack, attack, attack, magic, magic combo on your enemy, or you could even chain a combo of buffs together to save on time and get your buffs over with. On top of that you don't actually have to use all of your bar in a combo, and you can simply attack by hitting a button after you're done picking your moves.
The game also features an "auto battle" system where the game picks what it feels the best attacks are, but this can really take away the fun. If you really want to just mash auto battle and let the game do all the work for you, you can, but it is always better to just do it on your own. Later on the game actually stops holding your hand, and the level difficulty really takes a step up. Sure you could try to auto battle it if you really want to, but chances are you'll be dying quite a lot; however even that is different from past games in the series.
This time around if you die in battle, you'll actually be given the option to either retry the battle, or you'll simply respawn right in front of the monster that killed you. You cannot get a true game over in this one, and since save points are so spaced out that is really a good thing! Its never fun to run half an hour into a level only to be killed by a random monster along the way.
Paradigm and Leveing Up:
The Class system and Level Up system are two features most Final Fantasy games have used. Different characters would be able to use different weapon types, they'd gain different abilities, and as you killed monsters you would gain EXP to level up. This is just a standard for Final Fantasy, as well as most other RPGs; however this too has been changed in Final Fantasy XIII.
Replacing the class system is what is known as the Paradigm system. Paradigms are different roles your characters can take on, and each one has different abilities associated with them. For example the "Commando" role is your standard combat role which focuses on melee attacks, while Ravager is your magic using role. Each character starts out with three roles for them to use, but others become unlocked later on.
While outside of battle, you can actually create "decks" to be used in battle. These decks allow you to set what your character's roles in battle will be, and it allows you to switch to them on the fly. For example you may have a deck where Lighting is a Commando, Snow is a Commando, and Hope is a Medic, but you might also have a deck where Lightning is a Ravager, Snow is a Ravager, and Hope is a Ravager as well. Although you cannot change characters roles individually, the deck system is fast and easy to use, and it allows you to create some unique teams. Also by switching between these roles the moment your current attack combo ends in battle, you can actually cause the ATB bar to refill to max without waiting. It is a great way to keep your combos going, and a great way to quickly switch between roles as well since it cuts down on the wait time.
As for the level up system of Final Fantasy XIII, it too is very different. Whenever you kill an enemy you actually earn points which can be then spent to level up your Paradigms. Each role has a sort of grid sphere system where you can spend points to move to the next sphere. Each sphere will either unlock a new ability or attack for you to use in battle, or it'll increase your stats. For example in the Commando role you'll be finding more spheres that'll increase your attack power, while in the Ravager role you'll be finding more that increase your magic ability. This allows you to customize your characters, but at the same time it also keeps you on track. As you progress through the game more abilities are added to the grid, and until you reach that point in the game you'll be unable to advance in level. This prevents you from ever being over leveled, and it keeps your stats around the level they should be.
Like in other games, summons do return to Final Fantasy XIII, but they have been changed as well (what a shock)! Each character in game will receive an Eidolon, which will be gained after fighting them at specific parts in the story. To get an Eidolon you have to either beat it by force, which can be quite challenging and possibly a game ender for some, or you can do a specific action to "tame" them over time. Either way the Eidolon battles are in fact some of the hardest parts of the game, and they may even prevent people from advancing any farther; however once gaining an Eidolon things become a lot easier!
When in battle you can summon your Eidolon to take the place of your other two party members for a short amount of time, or you can transform the Eidolon into a vehicle/mech/some sort of creature your character will then ride on. When in this state a series of button promps show up on screen for different moves, and you can then unleash a series of special moves on your enemies. This can really help change up battles and give you an advantage, especially since summons heal your party as well, but for the most part they really aren't all that necessary. With the exception of a few battles, Eidolons are normally pointless to use, and you really shouldn't need them to give you an edge in battle. Still they are quite fun to use from time to time!
The Good and the Bad:
Final Fantasy XIII is a hard game to judge when it comes to its pros and cons. If you look at it from a Final Fantasy standpoint, the game really isn't that good compared to the rest of the series. No world map, no towns, its very linear, and it has completely changed the formula! For anyone who is looking for a standard Final Fantasy game, they won't be finding it here; however if you judge this game as its own game, then that's when the pros come into light.
First of all the game looks flat out amazing! The HD visuals are really nice to look at, and the entire game is just filled with eye candy. You'll be running through some simply stunning areas, and you'll actually want to take the time to slow down and take a look around. On top of that these areas are accompanied by a very nice soundtrack which you may find yourself standing around just to listen to! Overall the entire presentation of the game is great, and it really helps make it a lot more enjoyable.
The gameplay of Final Fantasy XIII can also be seen as a really nice aspect as well. XIII is unlike any other JRPG out there, and that in my book really makes the game worth it. Sure it isn't the standard Final Fantasy most were hoping for, but once again try to put that aside to see this game for what it is. Most JRPGs have you running around a standard world map, you go to a town, you find out something happened, you get pulled into some mini story you might not even care about, and then you travel to the next town just to do it allover again. This is the type of game JRPG fans have been playing for many years now, and it can become quite old after awhile. Final Fantasy XIII actually breaks away from the mold, offers us a completely new experience, and is a very nice break from the same old style we've became used to. The battle system is fast and fun, the set pieces are nice, and its nice to be able to progress without ever getting lost for hours. You always know where you are going, and the game runs a lot smoother because of it. Now later on the game does in fact open up with a MASSIVE open area for you to explore, with hundreds of side quests and bosses for you to battle, but that doesn't happen until the second half of the game.
Although many people may consider how different this game is to be a bad point, there are also a few bad points about the game itself as a "stand alone" game. First of all, the game is HUGE in file size, and that causes problems for the Xbox 360 version as well as problems with the PS3 version. While on the Xbox 360 the game had to be broken up into three discs with reduced visuals, the PS3 version is on a single disc WITHOUT an install option! Now this may not sound like a bad point, but since the game is on a dual layered disc, it can be quite hard on the PlayStation 3 console's disc drive, and that can cause problems in the future. Now for the most part this isn't something you should worry about (heck a lot of PS3 games are in fact the same way even in 2013), but it could be an issue for older PS3 models. Second of all the game has a very strange camera system which some people might have a hard time getting used to. The camera swings and moves all around the character a lot like a camera in a movie. Now this does give the game a cinematic feel, but it can also be hard to see where you are going, and it can take quite some time to get used to it.
The final downside of Final Fantasy XIII is actually one I have mixed feelings about. Even when you get to the larger open area near the end of the game, there still aren't any standard RPG areas to go to. Now I'm not saying the game needs towns, NPCs, and other standard elements to be good, I'm just saying that it would have been nice to have more of a verity. When you reach the end of the game it actually turns into a grind which could have been easily avoided. You'll have to fight monsters hoping they drop materials you need, and you'll be spending a lot of time trying to get rare drops just to make cash. If there were some kind of extra area that wasn't an open field or side quest based area, then a lot of this needless grinding could have been cut short.
All and all, Final Fantasy XIII really isn't a bad game. If you're looking for a standard Final Fantasy game, you wont find it here, but if you're looking for a completely new JRPG experience then this is the game for you! If you consider XIII to be its own stand alone game, then you'll find that it is actually a great game worth picking up.
In the end I give Final Fantasy XIII for the PS3 and Xbox 360 an 8/10. Personally I love the game, but it does have a few drawbacks which prevent it from being a "perfect" unique title.