FFXIII JPN review. Story content also reviewed.
It's been a long time since the last FF instalment hit home consoles. FFXIII is here to set that straight and more importantly it's also the first FF title to hit this generation of hardware. SE has since FFX flirted with some experimental changes to the FF formula as well as restructuring their internal localisation processes; as a result we can hope to see the English version of FFXIII in as little as under 4 months from the Japanese release. Until then though for those threatened from importing by the language barrier or otherwise you will have to make do with my impressions. Having gone through the main story and putting to rest around a 3rd of the additional side-quests I feel I can tell you roughly what is in store for those awaiting the March release of the English version of the game.
FFXIII being the first next generation high-profile JRPG brings with it a lot of hopes and expectations. It has to correct what many see as being wrong with both the FF series as well as the JRPG genre and on top of that somehow revolutionise and innovate whilst capitalising on the freedom the developers now have to express themselves thanks to the amount of processing muscle afforded to them this generation. If you are hoping FFXIII makes some major inroads in the genre then you should look elsewhere because FFXIII isn't that game. What it is, is a fairly solid 60 hour or so long RPG with a rock-solid battle system bundled with a lot of regret over how the game never quite is as good as it's own impressive backdrop would lead you to want to believe.
Speaking of the story the premise is something along these lines. There are two worlds in the game, Pulse and Cocoon. Many hundreds of years ago the two worlds were at war with the powerful Fal'Cie being the main instigators in the conflict. The Fal'Cie who control these worlds rarely directly intervene in conflicts and instead choose to bewitch humans to do their bidding, These bewitched people are known as the L'Cie (Cocoon L'Cie and Pulse L'Cie respectively depending on the origin of the Fal'Cie who cursed them). The L'Cie are given a mission purpose which is only vaguely known to them and are expected to carry it out in due time or become a zombie if the fail or crystallised if they succeed-a no win situation. Anyway, ever since the old war ended the people of Cocoon have feared that Pulse would one day strike back. And that time is at hand because one of Pulse's Fal'Cie saw fit to curse the heroes of the story into Pulse L'Cie whose mission is supposedly to destroy Cocoon. In a cruel twist of fate the main characters who want to desperately protect their home planet Cocoon end up becoming the much vilified "Pulse L'Cie" that the Cocoon people have feared would come to wreak havoc on Coccon ever since the end of the ancient war. It's a grand premise and one that quite frankly never really takes off. A lot of the back-story is relegated unceremoniously to an encyclopaedia in the game-menu. It's a shame that even though the game boasts such detailed lore that none of it is ever truly explored, in fact without the encyclopaedia a lot of the sub-references in the story to more obscure deities and events simply aren't made very clear. As a result one of the totally from left-field plot developments in the game about bringing some gods back or some nonsense fails even to make sense within FFXIII's own world(s). The progression of the story itself though is something that is best dealt with when considering how it works with in conjunction with the rest of the game which we will get back to later.
First and foremost visual presentation is largely excellent. Right from character design of the main characters and sub characters to the Coruscant-esque stylings of the architecture in Cocoon. The visual presentation is mostly immaculate with much attention hoarded on detailed facial expressions and spot on lip-synching. Believe it that FFXIII is as of now one of the most impressive showcases of facial nuances right down to the twitch and blinking of eyes and even as far as characters having differentiated skin-tones and complexions. Not that it is hard to notice these details as in the games cutscences (which are surprisingly small in number) play up focus on detailed close-ups on characters faces. With all this attention to micro-detail you'd be forgiven for thinking that FFXIII is only as good looking as it is because it is on a shoe-box scale but many eye-opening sequences at the end of the game will have you re-evaluating that stance. The sheer scale this game can impress upon you coupled with solid frame-rate round out the visual presentation. There are some ugly spots here and there though few in number. The most notable is that in the very largest of the field areas in the game enemies pop-into and out of existence depending on how close you are to them. Functionally this never becomes a problem because the enemies always materialise a good distance from you, but it is worth noting. Another issue is that later on in the game where the architecture shifts from simple indoor areas and gives way to vibrant natural locales, the seams of the textures and between certain areas around you display a slight seam-shimmer from time to time. Other than this the design of the game boasts style and often a garish sense of over-design; seeing smalls detail like how a bridge opens up through a complex mechanism (which you just know some person spent a week alone working on) unfold in front of you is both commendable and facepalm worthy.
On a sound design front the presentation isn't quite as impressive as the visual design but it is still up there. FF series veteran composer Uematsu Nobuo is conspicuous by absence but in his place is Masashi Hamauzu who ensures Nobuo will not go long missed. He has done an admirable job of giving this FF title its own flavour. The soundtrack for the game is in a word "epic", including several renditions of the games own theme-tune (including a stirring brass variant of the main theme which screams Air-piracy at it's finest) as well as several subtle versions of the battle theme. The game also has some remixes of the theme tune that play when you run around, complete with slightly techno-phonic vocal accompaniants which are…an interesting choice to say the least. Vocal undertones in themes are many in number and most work well enough (one near the end of the game in particular) but some odd choices of sci-fi cheese and a strangely placed happy-go-lucky English lyric version of the theme-tune (Which plays whilst exploring a forest for some reason) will raise an eyebrow or two. Sayuri Sugawara provides two fully vocal backed songs for the game, one of which is actually used within the one of the games early cinematics for good effect and then never heard from again. At the very least one of the final boss themes will go down next to One-Winged Angel as a fan favourite. The voice acting as well is also consistently excellent but there are hardly any surprises there. The characters Lightning and Hope in particular stand out.
The game segments of FFXIII are interesting because the game as a whole is basically 60 hours of running around and killing everything on screen. There is little to do between moving between areas other than killing everything between point a and b and collecting various treasure (which is often guarded by things that need killing anyway). There has been much made about the linear nature of this game but for those who haven't played the game it is hard to appreciate what is really meant by "linear" in the context of FFXIII. The linearity leads into some strange exploration issues, for instance even only a few hours into the game most players will be able to tell which parts along the path have treasure just from looking at the map and discerning it from the things like how a certain nook is curiously placed or how certain enemies seem to be grouping in a odd fashion. Nine times out of ten the player's suspicions about where things are pan out. You sort of know where to look without really having to explore which defeats the whole exploratory feel. The game structure itself basically funnels you along the tunnel like structure of the game until the very end. This isn't to say that the games paths don't twist but if it is just a matter of twisting and turning then it is worth pointing out that Scalextric tracks twist and turn as well. When playing through the main quest though this isn't an issue The real issue with this tunnel like design is just how long it can take to get from place to place, especially when trying to do side-quests where even transport and teleportation don't alleviate the really long scenic jogs you'll find yourself going on to reach the targets designated on the map. Although the game does eventually open up to include a large Hyrule like overworld you will find that invariably all the paths that come off this central area end up being long tunnels. Rest assured though the problem here isn't to do with the game being boring or compromised necessarily because of this design, it's more the fact that it is very tiresome to find yourself backtracking for ages through area that has already been treasure-plundered and knowing full well that the reason you are wasting so much time is because the game is spread uneconomically over long paths.
There is little in the way of distraction in the form of puzzles or other mini-games other than moving between areas and killing things. In fact the most complicated puzzle you will encounter during the main story is near the beginning where you are confronted with a scary looking moving-stair case puzzle which is subsequently solved by running 10 paces forward and hitting a single switch only to watch the entire puzzle solve itself…
It then falls on FFXIII's battle and levelling systems to keep the game upright. So it's just as well that FFXIII happens to have an excellent battle system and a highly rationalised take on character statistics.
The battles in FFXIII are lightning fast as there are basically no loads in or out of fights or drawn out end of battle stat draw ups. Impressive considering the game has no install option. To get into these battles you run into the enemies on the map. If you manage to run into the enemy without them noticing you start with a classic back-attack advantage-The enemy cannot back attack you. This allows you to pick and choose your fights but you'll find yourself taking on well over 80% of the battles anyway.
The game is also really lenient but this isn't to say there are compromises being made to difficulty. For example you can simply choose to cancel out of the fight at anytime and will be plonked just next to the enemy you were fighting which is useful if you feel you want to try again to get a back-attack or are finding you want to re-jig your equipment to better handle the fight. It's a little strange at first to be given total freedom to back out of any fight at will and be able to jump back in again with no penalty whatsoever (this even works on boss battles) but you soon learn to live with the convenience. The game also fully heals you between battles which is useful because it has allowed the developers to make each battle on a fight by fight basis much harder than the average RPG. This doesn't mean the battles are long slogs against HP-hoarding monsters as even the longest of battles in FFXIII are under 10 minutes, it's just that you have to concentrate and stay on edge the whole time during the fight. The hyper-concentration the player is under, especially during boss battles makes can make a five minute encounter feel considerably longer. After playing the game for a while you find that the auto-healing just sort of makes an inherent sense. The very idea that you would ever be expected to open a menu and heal yourself becomes laughably antiquated. The combination of these player friendly features doesn't damage the difficulty but simply improves playability; say there is an item guarded by two beastly looking creatures and you are afraid to try for it because you don't want to loose your progress-FFXIII encourages you to try and you will want to because the penalty even if you are defeated is a wasted few minutes. In the event that you do want to save the game you can find save points in abundance every 50 paces or less (it does make you wonder why they didn't just let you save anywhere).
The developers have also found other areas in the game to rationalise and strip down excess. For instance you can only equip one weapon and handful of accessories. No armour, no helmets, no boots and so on. This but only makes sense as in a typical RPG all these various forms of protection all serve the same end;-to boost your defence. Speaking of defence statistics…FFXIII doesn't have one. What this means is that the characters max HP and resistance levels become all the more important. In most RPG's there is always that one character who has tonnes of HP but such low defence that is renders their HP value obsolete; FFXIII has simply rationalised out these loopy quirks. This level of rationale applies to items as well which are few in number but all useful (you won't be getting a much backlog of crap from the beginning of the game that just becomes useless later on). The magic spells as well, likewise are few in number but they are all useful; even late on into the game you will find that there is ample motivation to cast the humble fire spell over firaga; magic, stat boosts and stat-weakening moves are all useful in this game and only become more useful as the game progresses-you won't find yourself confronted with a spreadsheet of useless culminated skills at any point in this game. It is unusual for a developer to lavish so much attention on the enemy difficulty/levelling curve/skills balance of the game, but this is one thing FFXIII has done very much right. This makes fighting and levelling a well rounded mechanic and a strong core part of the main game rather than simply making it the thing you just do because you aren't watching cutscenes.
The battle system is largely about controlling the various types of classes that you can assign to the characters. There are 3 characters in any given party. Each character can be one of 6 classes. Attackers that attack, Defenders that draw enemy fire and take damage for the team, Healers, Enhancers (stat-up magic casters), Jammers (stat-down magic casters) and finally an interesting "Blaster" class who do low damage but contribute greatly to pushing up Break Gauges (more on this later).
The battle system hinges on two major concepts; a real-time job class switching mechanic called "Optima Change" and the aforementioned "Break Gauge"; a combo-based damage-multiplier.
The Optima Change basically allows you to create pre-sets for which characters in your party have which class and then allows you to switch those presets on the fly during battles; for example you can start a fight up a "Defender, Enhancer, Healer" optima. What this would do is have the defender tank for you by inciting the enemy and essentially drawing all enemy fire to them (and the healer would ensure that the Defender can have the HP to keep on taking the punishment for the team), meanwhile as the enemies are distracted trying to take down the defender you have your Enhancer working diligently in the background to apply various stat-ups such as Haste, ATK+, Fire-resistance + and so on. Once you are done with this you could switch to another Optima configuration such as say, Attacker, Attacker, Jammer which would give you a huge amount of firepower as now two of the characters in the party are going all out on an offensive whilst the third is casting annoying stat-down spells on the enemy. That is quite simply how the Optima shift works. The process of switching between optimas is easy as well, you simply hit L1 and then choose from one of the up to 6 pre-sets you have made- it all happens in real-time and can be done at will. The nice thing about the way this works is that as you get used to where your Optima's are in the list you can begin to switch quickly without even looking at the menu items and as such the battles begin to flow and change tempo smoothly along with your optima alterations.
The other key part of the battle system is the Break Gauge which appears a over each enemy you fight. The meta-game of FFXIII is trying to get this bar to maximum and reap the damage multiplier rewards. To get this bar up you simply attack the enemy, the catch is that each time you hit the enemy the meter starts running back down…so you hit them more to get the gauge back up to where it was-however the more you hit the enemy the faster the meter begins to run back to zero which means that getting that meter up becomes frantic struggle to tip it over the edge whilst the meter becomes ever more insistent about running back down to zero. Once this meter tips "break mode" begins, the damage multiplier kicks in at say 3x damage and the meter begins to run down. It's a race against time to do as much damage so you can whilst you still have that damage multiplier. However the player is tasked with choosing to dish out damage via an Attacker class led offensive or prioritising pushing the damage multiplication even higher through Blaster class attacks which although weak are excellent at pushing up the break gauge multiplier. So what do you do? You have say 10 seconds to abuse the damage bonus; do you take it and make full use of that 3x bonus? Or do you spend precious few seconds pushing the multiplier up to say 5x, and the switch to an attack heavy optima to capitalise? It's on the players to choose whether they are willing to cash in all their chips early or make the leap to get an even higher damage multiplier at the risk of loosing the damage-multiplier altogether. Think fast, act even faster. There is more to it than this as there are various ways to make build the break meter in a way that makes it stable so you aren't fighting the running-down effect whilst trying build it up so much but they are best left for the player to discover.
Actually playing the battle system in FFXIII though might not be what some are expecting as you are only in control of one of the 3 party members. That and there are no AI settings in the game at all to govern or coax your CPU team-mates. Should the one party member you control be K.O'd it's gameover. Moreover a lot of the time instead of manually choosing attacks you will spam the 'recommended action' that simply cycles through the actions the computer deems most useful. It's easy to see how this hands-off approach could be construed as a disaster of epic proportions but this is actually were any preconceptions one might have over how a battle system works should be left firmly at the door because FFXIII hasn't had to make compromises to allow it's battle system to work in this way- it was designed from the ground up with this style in mind and as such it simply works.
For one thing the fact that the leader being KO'd leads to game-over simply lends weight to who you choose to have as the leader and not just who is in the party. For instance putting the character with strongest attack as the leader of the party would allow you to manually take down which enemies you want and end battles quickly but fact that the enemy AI ruthlessly stamps out the character who are causing it the most grief will mean that you will be seeing the gameover screen many a time. Make that character a follower to someone else's lead and you will find that even though that character is still prone to being taken out of action at least you can keep fighting if and when they are.
The CPU AI that fights along with you is also extremely intelligent as it prioritises healing correctly to ensure the leader stays alive and casts stat-up spells that are actually useful (you won't for instance see a CPU Enhancer casting Water Barrier magic when confronted with enemies that don't know water magic). In fact the AI smartly opens fights by throwing a random mixture of spell types at enemies and then discerns what has what effect and uses that information to maximise damage and reduce redundancy of ineffective spells. It's extremely rare to see the CPU slip up and even though you don't directly control your team-mates you can predict they will act in such-and-such a sensible fashion that you never feel too distantly removed from them. All this CPU-AI system does is take the control out of your hands for input. The same goes of the "recommended" function for the leader. This is important because not only is inputting attacks manually fiddly anyway, but also because the crux of FFXIII's battles isn't what you cast but rather when. The player might not choose the attacks but they choose when and how much time to expend when casting, when to cancel and reign back and wait and when to switch optimas. It sounds hands-off at first but the pace of the battles and the sheer amount happening means that you never feel like you are just sitting there and watching the AI do all the work but are instead waiting a second or two for the right moment to intervene and switch tempo; In essence the player acts as the conductor for the battle. There is a lot of depth and a lot of ways to exploit the interesting ways as well as get around some of the strange ways the computer AI behaves at times, but after a while you will understand the rationale behind why the computer is what it is doing and just accept ultimately that the weakest link in the team is not the CPU but you. Admitting that the AI is probably more proficient at the game than the average player may be hard for some but in the end if you see that game over screen it is assuredly your fault and not the AI's.
There are other interesting aspects within the battle system such as the ATB gauge which is divided into parts. All actions take up so many parts of an ATB gauge which acts as a check on balance to the relative power of those actions; more potent attacks take longer to cast. The number of points in your ATB gauge can be extended throughout the game. Although a full ATB gauge only takes around 5 seconds to fill up the fact that how you choose to use such a small short of amount time factors in as a major consideration should give you some idea of what playing the game is like; a feeling that can perhaps be best summed up as playing in pressurised time-condensed alternate dimension.
You also have TP attacks which ignore the conventional ATB system and cast instantly but you are limited to a mere 5 points of TP and these are the one thing that don't recover between fights. Moreover calling into play the Summons requires 3 TP which means you normally can't call them in twice in a single fight. The Summons in the game are a complicated subsystem in their own right which won't be detailed here because this review is already getting too long. Suffice to say that these creatures although very underwhelming in terms of damage output come with a few extras that can make them a saving grace at times. Having said that you won't call on their aid often and many Summons you may only call to see what they look like and upon dismissing them never see them again.
The levelling system in the game also deserves some mention. It is in a sense a multi-thronged version of the sphere grid from FFX. The way it works is that each character gains exp which can be expended to level up each of their separate classes. The skills they learn along the way are class-specific to the class-grid they learnt that skill. However the stat bonuses apply directly to the character. Although there are some choices in what you can learn when you will find that you generally have enough experience to learn everything you would want to, not least because the game caps how much you can level up for each part of the game. This essentially means that the statistics of your characters are set however on the flipside it ensures a balanced and challenging difficulty level that will be universal amongst all people playing the game. Someway into the game your options to level up explode and you can level any class almost without restriction. In theory you can make all the characters equally proficient at all classes but you will find that each character has 3 classes they are naturally more proficient at and the stat bonuses from levelling up those classes are much larger than the low stat-ups that can be gotten for the same exp. from an class that character isn't proficient at. This keeps each character unique and at the same time ensures that the perfectionist inside can be satisfied. What most players will likely experience is that they will level up the 3 proficient classes for each character and sub-specialise in a 4th class of their choice. This system is limited to be sure but the difficulty balancing that comes with it as well as the fact that it ensures all characters have a lot of utility in battles means that none of the characters can be written off as being useless. The result of this difficulty balancing is most apparent in the boss fights were you always feel on edge to do things correctly. Most of them will take multiple tries and for every one that you getting stumped on for a bit you will find that through overcoming said battle you will learn a new quirk about the battle system or something else that will make it feel like you are coming away having actually improved.
There are other aspects of the game such as weapon and accessory levelling up but these are not as interesting as the aforementioned mechanics and as such will be left for the player to discover as they are not well or badly conceived either way. The only thing that could have been worked on for the battle and levelling systems would have been capitalising more on the systems already in place. The break-gauge mechanic for example also applies to your party members who have break gauges of their own and yet not once will you ever see your party members come under the influence of the damage multiplier during the main quest. Fighting enemies who posses the optima-change would also have been nice. The sense that the game isn't quite as expansive and in-depth as it should be is what plagues the entire experience and not just the battle system. For instance the areas near the end of the game are huge but have little to do in them. The lore of the game-world is extremely expansive but you don't really explore it other than simply hearing about it. The premise of the story sets things off to a grand start but the story never quite takes off and the cringe-worthy way in which it comes to a close (friendship and belief overcome all hardship in a manner that doesn't even make sense within the context of the game) smacks of lazy if not outright bad story telling. There is also the issue of extended playability as FFXIII doesn't have a New-Game + but instead a Game+ mode which plonks you back right in front of the last boss again only with expanded levelling options. This is nice but to be honest at that point you are probably not going to be interested in the side-quests in the game which almost all involve going to x and smiting y. The battle system in FFXIII is very good but it was asking too much on the developers' part to carry the entire game on the back of a nice battle system and not having anything else to substantiate the experience. FFXIII isn't a bad game, but it isn't as fully fleshed out as it should have been.