The newest Final Fantasy is probably the most beautiful, but alas: it's also nothing more than an interactive movie...
One spectacular train wreck later, you are in control of your first battle. The characters look fantastic, the enemies no less, and the backgrounds are nothing short of amazing. Oh yeah, the first Final Fantasy on PS3 has us drooling from the start!
Then, the first small disappointment shows up: you only control one character, and there's really nothing more you can do than press X as soon as your ATB (Active Time Bar) fills up. Everything else is on automatic. Ah well, FF VI only gave you cool powers after several hours, so this must be something similar. You must get to know the world first, after all.
Final Fantasy 13 takes place in the floating world of Cocoon, a sort of shell- world in orbit around the bigger world Gran Pulse. Beings from Pulse are evil, so you are told, and everyone on Cocoon has great hatred and fear of the inhabitants of the hated world.
Immensely powerful beings, known as fal'Cie, control everything on Cocoon, and apparently stopped an invasion from Pulse many years ago. The fal'Cie give everyone food, sunlight, control the weather, and so on. They practically take care of everything, but only one ever talks to the ruling government. Old names pop up: Titan, Phoenix, Carbuncle,… are all fal'Cie.
When a fal'Cie is in need of a certain task to be done, (s)he turns the closest human into a l'Cie, a sort of servant or slave. The victim is branded with a mark, and is given a Focus, which is a task the fal'Cie wants to be done, within a time frame. If you fail, you are turned into an undead- like thing: a Cie'th. Complete your focus and you get "eternal life". I won't spoil anything more.
L'Cie are feared as well, because most of those are branded by a Pulse fal'Cie. There's even a special branch of the army trained in tracking and destroying the hated l'Cie. Fear is a great factor in this game, probably because only l'Cie have the strange power known as "magic". And since most l'Cie are from Pulse, they must be hated enemies of Cocoon, right?
But as we are aware, in Final Fantasy games, the plot thickens, and things aren't always what they seem…
So much for the story when the game begins, and we already covered the magnificent beauty of the game. Now, on to the rest: gameplay and characters. And this is where the newest Final Fantasy fails…
You can go one way, and one way only. The map reminds a bit of FF X, but you can't sidetrack anywhere. You follow the yellow bricked road, Dorothy, and that's it. At the end of that road, you get a visually impressive cutscene, and then you go to the next part of the road. Multiply this by many hours, it's the only thing you will do. There's no mention of sidequests of any kind, you won't do any exploring at all, and you won't find yourself in a city to talk to people or just wander about. There's never even a minigame!
The next big downside is the characters. Apart from maybe one, most are as annoying as can be. Lightning is a heartless cold soldier, Vanille has an IQ which clearly does not exceed two digits (not to mention the most annoying voice you ever heard an airhead like her produce), Hope is the most disgusting adolescent in puberty you will find (oh, I'm so mad at everyone and everything! I hate you all! Nobody understands me! I hate you again and even more! Etc…), Snow is an over-the-top Captain America who thinks he's the greatest hero the world has ever known, and Fang has a ridiculous Australian accent which will want to make you claw your ears out.
Only Sazh, a black man who's a bit overzealous towards fal'Cie and l'Cie, invokes a bit of sympathy in the beginning. Yes, the characters do evolve, and you get to know them better, so their behavior is explained. Most of them, especially Vanille, remain annoying though.
So, combating the enemies might be the salvation this game needs, and even that's not really something to write home about. As the game progresses, you can develop your characters into different roles, changing combinations to best suit every individual battle. You never control someone else than the team captain though, so you have to rely on the AI of you teammates to do what's best. Changing the roles of the team (called paradigms) can actually be fun, because even normal battles are sometimes difficult enough to make you sweat. The role switching does remind of FF X-2 though. Still, battles are fast and not easy sometimes, so that's good.
Upgrading your characters is done by earning CP's (crystarium points) and spending them on a trail of the Crystarium. For example: you spend 480 points for the next stop on the trail, which permanently gives you +20 HP, or +3 strength, or a new magic, and so on. You do this for every job a character has. Unfortunately, once again, there's only one way to go, with a rare single branch sometimes. You upgrade what the game wants, not what you want. Lightning is a soldier, she doesn't need to cast "Slow" spells, even if you would want that.
After a very long time, the Crystarium does give you the option to take every role you like. Of course, those upgrades are so ridiculously expensive you probably won't even consider it, unless you really have points to spare after fully upgrading your "normal" roles.
So, is Final Fantasy 13 such a big failure? Not worth playing? No, not really. As I said: it's graphically amazing, and the battles can be fun when you're past 20 hours playing. The summons, once again called Eidolons, are spectacular as usual, although they don't come in handy that often. And the story is quite good too, if you can look past the character flaws I mentioned. There's a down side to the story as well, unfortunately: virtually all the time, you have a sense of depression and dread that the characters share, simply because there's never a clear goal in sight.
There used to be a time when you had a goal. For example, in FF IX: protect Garnet and defeat Kuja. But you better do some side quests to get some good gear and spells before you do that, and so on…
This game doesn't offer anything of the sort. Half the time, you don't know where you're going, or why. Even the characters don't know! That's a big flaw, in my opinion. Once you get to Pulse, things do change a bit. You get a vast field to explore, similar to the Calm Lands in FF X, and here you actually do get some side quests. It's always "search and destroy certain monster X", but it does change the one way street you were going through. It does take about 40 hours of gameplay to get here though.
So, in closing: Final Fantasy XIII disappoints. I'm a huge fan of the series, I own them all since the VI, but this is nothing more than a very beautiful interactive movie. There is no RPG element to be found, there is nothing to explore except in chapter 11, and the characters evolve like the game: one track only. Upgrading your weapons and gear isn't that much fun either.
No, I'm certain this game would never get such a big score from critics if it wasn't a Final Fantasy. The only thing it's really good at, is the amazing graphics. If you're a big FF fan like me, and you don't mind going one single way all the time, you might have some fun with this game. But if you want a great RPG game with a good story,and lots of things to do and explore: get yourself Dragon Age instead. You'll have a lot more fun.