Final Fantasy XIII is a lush beauty that suffers character flaws.
Though part of the same series, each Final Fantasy gameplay wise is overhauled from each title to the next, a few RPG similarities aside they are completely different. In no way is this more apparent from XII to XIII then in it's focus. FFXIII is about as linear path wise as a game can get. For about the first 30 hours of the game your party of characters are directed along linear corridors and paths occasionally split up with the odd cutscene with nearly no branching off points. Throw in a lack of mini games, puzzles, towns or even npc's and what SquareEnix have almost created is the first on rails RPG.
Due to it's linear nature, FFXIIIs battle system becomes even more important as it really becomes the core of the game with such little exploration available. Fortunately, although slow going at first, the combat is surprisingly deep and tactical despite it's flashy nature. Each battle is fought using a maximum of three characters though only the party leader is ever directly controlled by the player, with the other two are AI controlled. The battles are all menu driven in real time with a bar that consistently fills allowing for spells, items or attacks to be used. The ATB bar is split into several sections however with each move or spell needing a different amount to cast. This allows for either one action or a whole string to be performed depending on how long the player waits. Although actions can be selected manually it's pretty slow, so more often then not the "auto" feature is the best option to select as it will automatically select the strongest attack / best spell depending on the enemy or the characters role.
The roles are really what give FFXIIIs battle system it's depth. There are six in all that range from Medic to Commando and have a variety of uses and are set up before hand in different combinations called paradigams. These role sets can be constantly changed in mid battle depending on the situation from healing, all out attack or nothing but buffs, the options are all down to the player and later on are crucial to victory as level grinding only works up to a certain point. Each enemy found throughout the game has different strengths and weaknesses so changing paradigams in battle as well as in menu to hit their stagger threshold becomes vital. The stagger bar is something each enemy has, once it hits a certain point, the enemies "crash" so to speak allowing for devastating damage to be dealt by your characters, in some cases this is nearly the only way to beat them.
After each battle the results get displayed giving a score out of 5 though it seems to have no real effect outside of trophies and none of your total ranks are recorded. CP is also gained after a victory, these points are what FFXIII uses to advance characters. Each role has different levels that are steadily unlocked. Each level is full of stat boosts and abilities (laid out in a similar fashion to FFXs sphere grid) that need a certain amount of CP which gets more and more a the game goes on from 10 - 120000. So having a diverse role set among characters becomes hugely important.
No Final Fantasy would be complete without it's trademark summons and Final Fantasy XIII is no different. Each character gets one assigned to them (6 in all) with some familiar faces like Odin and Bahamut. When summoned they appear in place of the whole party with a timer going down allowing them to attack with whoever summoned them before doing essentially an ultimate attack. While incredibly strong in most cases the damage they dealt didn't seem like it was truly worth over what the cast dealt.
One of the biggest expectations coming from a Final Fantasy title is nearly always the visuals, and Final Fantasy XIII hits the nail on the head in that department. Both artistically and technically the game shines, full of lush colour, varied environments and incredibly detailed character models, there is almost no part of FFXIII that won't impress when it come to graphics. At no point does it show more then during the cutscenes where every intricate detail is shown to full effect, the game is quite breath taking at times.
It's just a shame that XIII's other big expectation, the story, scars the beauty of those environments. The story is by all accounts, awful, and the plot that holds it together sadly is just as bad with most scenes being made up of emo crying followed by a pep talk, 30 hours of this tends to grate quickly. The character Hope, a child, is the biggest offender here, he seems to cry every scene which is not very endearing. Fortunately the game also holds two of the strongest female leads seen in an rpg in a long time which do help hold an otherwise pretty poor cast together. What makes it worse is that the story itself doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense without reading through constant entries that appear in the datalog after every scene which really breaks up the pace of the game.
The music, similar to the visuals is largely fantastic especially the high tempo main battle theme though some of the more ambient tracks used when in certain areas are equally satisfying and great for setting the mood of the characters surroundings. The voice acting is for the most part also competently performed with each character standing out from Lightnings husky voice to Fang and Vanille's Australian accents.
Despite Final Fantasy XIII's linear path it still takes a good 30 hours to complete. Though if trophies are your thing it will take a hell of a lot longer to max out each role, complete all the mark missions scattered and upgrade all weapons and accessories. Like most RPGs, to me it's good value for money.
In conclusion Final Fantasy XIII is a great game that unfortunately is hugely held back by it's cast and narrative. It's certainly different from previous entries in the series, even more so then normal, and certainly not one for everybody, but a great battle system and amazing production values will certainly help those who can see past it's weaknesses.
+ Stunning visuals, artistically and technically.
+ Brilliant music and atmosphere.
+ Great flashy looking battle system.
- Story and narrative are completely awful.
- Hope is a terrible character.