Hype can easily be dangerous for a game. Expectations can mean a lot, and the longer one is waiting for a title, the less likely it will be that it lives up to one's lofty ideals. For a game like Final Fantasy XIII, which has been in production for at least four years, hype can be near-fatal. The latest entry in the Final Fantasy franchise has a lot of expectations riding on it. Final Fantasy is perhaps the biggest name in RPGs, and Final Fantasy XIII is the first true addition to the franchise since the end days of the PS2. The unfortunate truth is that Final Fantasy XIII probably isn't going to live up to the many years of hype and fervor built around its release. It isn't a genre-defining game, nor is it the best RPG ever made, but if you can look beyond the inflated expectations, you'll find that Final Fantasy XIII is a solid game, even if it's not the revolution that many were expecting.
Final Fantasy XIII begins in the floating city of Cocoon. Located high above the wild world of Pulse, it is the only human civilization of which the people of Cocoon are aware, and it was created by a member of the fal'Cie, a bio-mechanical race of god-like creatures who are generally distant from human affairs. The exception is the l'Cie, humans who have been branded with a mark and granted magical powers by the fal'Cie for a specific purpose, known as a Focus. The downside is that this power is also a death sentence; completing the Focus permanently turns the l'Cie into a crystal, and failing to complete the Focus turns them into a monster called a Cie'th.
Cocoon is run by a theocratic government known as Sanctum, who control the city with an iron fist and consider the l'Cie to be enemies. The story opens when a fal'Cie marks a woman named Serah as an l'Cie, causing her sister Lightning and fiancé Snow to find a way to rescue her. Through an unfortunate series of events, Serah completes her Focus and is turned to crystal, while Lightning, Snow, and a small group of others are turned into l'Cie. Now the ragtag group finds themselves on the run from the government and seemingly doomed.
The title is about its characters and how they change and grow during the course of the story, so your enjoyment of Final Fantasy XIII's plot is going to come down to how much you enjoy the characters. There are villains to fight, and an overarching plot involves the fal'Cie and the origins of Cocoon, but in most ways, that is secondary to how the characters develop. The villains are lackluster and unmemorable, and most of the mysteries of the game are straightforward.
Unfortunately, this means that if you dislike any of the characters, sections of the game are going to grow tedious or annoying. This is a bit of a problem, as Final Fantasy XIII has some characters who are extremely easy to dislike. Vanille, the narrator and requisite peppy cheerful girl, is almost intolerable in some of the early sections. She forces a bright cheerfulness into every scene that feels completely out of place. Watching her happily encourage a teenager moments after he witnesses his mother die horribly is rather off-putting. There is a reason for this behavior, but it is learned later in the game and does little to satisfy annoyed players who've already put up with her for hours. If you grow to care about the characters, then you'll find a lot to enjoy in Final Fantasy XIII's plot. If you don't, things get a bit tougher.
Luckily, there are a few fun and interesting characters. Sazh, a middle-aged single father, is easily one of Square Enix's most likeable and interesting characters to date, and he easily steals the show when he is on-screen. Lightning is a surprisingly likeable protagonist, if only because of her willingness to punch Snow in the face when he's unbearable.
Final Fantasy XIII does away with a lot of the basic things that you've come to expect from RPGs. A lot of game elements are streamlined or simplified to the point where only the bare essentials remain. While most of the changes to Final Fantasy XIII have been for the better, one particularly notable change is going to be very controversial. A large portion of Final Fantasy XIII is extremely linear. Until you reach a section of the game called Gran Pulse, your time is spent traveling through linear areas, interrupted only by the occasional cut scene. There is no world map, no side-quests, no branching paths, and perhaps most unusual of all, no towns to explore. You only encounter dungeon area after dungeon area. You don't even get to select your party until nearly 20 hours into the game.
In many ways, it feels more akin to Xenosaga than a Final Fantasy title, even the notoriously linear Final Fantasy X. To be fair, the linearity makes perfect sense for the plot. You're never in any one area for too long, and your characters are constantly moving to new places. You get the sense of being railroaded, but considering that you're on the run from an oppressive, controlling government, this isn't unreasonable. Story aside, you do feel shoehorned into a certain path. This changes once you reach Gran Pulse. Suddenly being given the freedom to explore and do side-quests feels almost overwhelming after 20-plus hours of cut scenes and story. However, getting to that point may be frustrating for some gamers, especially those who are coming off the freedom of titles like Mass Effect 2.
Dungeon exploration in Final Fantasy XIII is very straightforward. Unlike many of the earlier games in the series, there are no random encounters. Instead, enemies wander the screen, and you must touch them to initiate combat. You can try to run past enemies to avoid fights, or you can sneak up behind the enemies, which gives you a Preemptive Attack. It's not possible to run away from battles in Final Fantasy XIII, so it is very important to determine whether or not you want to attack enemies before combat begins. This isn't too important early on, but in later areas, attacking an enemy for whom you're unprepared is akin to suicide.
Fortunately, dying in combat simply gives you a chance to restart from a nearby checkpoint, so you won't lose hours of progress by accidentally attacking the wrong enemy. You can also use certain items to buff your characters before battle or sneak past enemies. It's also worth noting that you can't use items or spells outside of combat, so your HP is automatically refilled after every fight. This may sound like it destroys any difficulty, but the opposite is true. By making sure that you're going into every fight with full resources, Square Enix made enemies more powerful and dangerous.
Before we can even discuss combat in Final Fantasy XIII, we have to discuss its new leveling system. This system is rather reminiscent of the two Final Fantasy X games, and it plays much like a fusion of the two. After the characters become l'Cie, they gain the ability to power themselves up using the Crystarium system. There are six jobs that a player can take in battle: commando, medic, ravager, saboteur, sentinel and synergist. A commando is a fighter who's focused on dealing non-elemental damage, a medic heals, and a ravager is a ranged attacker who uses elemental magic spells. The saboteur debuffs enemies, a sentinel draws enemy aggro and defends against enemy attacks, and a synergist buffs allies. Each job is called a role and has a unique place in combat. Instead of leveling up your characters traditionally, you instead level up their roles using Crystal Points (CP), which are earned at the end of combat.
Each role is set up like a board game, with a series of interconnecting spheres comprising the Crystarium. You have to spend CP to travel between each sphere, and when you reach the next sphere, your character is given a bonus in the form of a status increase or new ability. Status increases apply to all roles while skills are unique to a role. If you level up a commando heavily, then the hit point and magic bonuses will apply to all of that character's roles. If your character isn't in a synergist role, he can't use buffing spells, and if he's not a medic, he can't heal. It is straightforward to level up the Crystarium. There are branching paths, and you can step off the main path to gain additional skills or stat upgrades, but you'll always be traveling along a set path. While there are six roles, not every character has the same Crystarium in the same role. For example, Hope and Sazh both begin with the synergist role, but Hope focuses mainly on defensive spells, while Sazh focuses on offensive spells. They may both be synergists, but they serve very different roles in combat.
However, the Crystarium is significantly more limited than Final Fantasy XIII's Sphere Grid. To begin with, each character has three roles in which he or she specializes. For the first 20 hours of the game, your characters are only going to have access to those roles. Even after you unlock the ability for a character to use every role, you're going to have to pay significantly to use any roles that are outside of a character's specialization. It's possible to make a character a jack of all trades, but you'll have to do some exceptional grinding to pull it off.
The second — and likely more controversial — limitation is that your Crystarium are limited by the plot. Early on, you can only reach low-level Crystarium, and even if you have enough CP, the higher tiers are locked until you defeat a boss. Each major boss you defeat unlocks another level of the Crystarium, which allows you to level up further. This effectively means that it is impossible to power-level for most of the game in Final Fantasy XIII.
This new leveling system may sound oppressive and confusing, but there are benefits. Recent Final Fantasy titles have had the problem of your characters being almost interchangeable. Final Fantasy XIII strikes a nice balance; at lower levels, each character is unique and useful in his or her way. Even once you've maxed out the Crystarium and fully leveled all your characters, there is enough variation between each because not every character gets every spell and ability. Restricting your level growth may sound frustrating, but it allows the game to have a better difficulty curve. You'll rarely be too powerful for a certain boss, but at the same time, you'll always have access to everything you need to defeat them. By the time you have a full party and access to all roles, you know exactly what to do and how to use them. It may be the longest tutorial in video game history, but it ensures that even the most casual gamer understands how to use all of his abilities.
These roles are the focus of Final Fantasy XIII's combat system. While Final Fantasy XIII still is a turn-based combat game, the turn-based combat is so unusual and different that it is almost unrecognizable. In a move taken from Persona 3, players control only the leader of their party, and the two other team members are AI-controlled. If your leader character dies, the game is over, and it isn't possible to switch leaders in battle. Your main character has an Active Time Battle (ATB) bar that fills up very quickly during combat. Every action the character can take — such as attacking, casting magic spells, or defending — takes up a chunk of this bar. The longer you wait, the more bar you can access, and the more actions you can take at once.
Magic and special attacks no longer require Magic Points, but while you're waiting for your leader's ATB bar to fill, the enemies are also taking action. It only takes a second or two for your ATB bar to refill, but that can drastically alter the course of battle. Sometimes it is wiser to attack with a smaller bar in order to heal before a boss can attack or interrupt an enemy's attack. This comes into play significantly when trying to take advantage of the game's Stagger system, or during certain boss fights when the timing of your attacks matters.
Those with memories of Persona 3 may be wincing at the idea of AI-controlled partners, but Final Fantasy XIII has the best AI-controlled allies I've ever seen in a game. A big part of this is due to how the Paradigm Shift system works. As mentioned above, every character has three combat roles, and the combination of these roles is called a paradigm, which you set up prior to a fight. At any time during battle, you can perform a Paradigm Shift to alter the paradigm you are using. For example, you can use a commando/ravager/medic to attack enemies and stay alive, and then switch to commando/ravager/ravager for an all-out assault. Switching paradigms not only alters your abilities, but also your partner's AI patterns.
The ally AI is ridiculously clever and knows exactly what to do in every situation. They'll cast elemental attacks to strike enemy weaknesses or buffs to protect your characters against the enemy's elemental damages. If they don't know the enemy's weakness, they'll cast every kind of magic until they hit it and then begin exploiting it at will. A syngergist knows to cast the Haste spell on himself before buffing others, and a medic knows who to heal with precision. In some cases, the ally AI can seem too effective! It feels odd to complain that an AI can be too smart, but in some cases, Final Fantasy XIII feels that way.
One of the game's options is an auto-attack feature for the leader, which effectively lets you put him under AI control as well. In some cases, this can be ridiculously effective and all the player has to do is manage Paradigm Shifting instead of selecting particular attacks. If you're switching paradigms properly, the game's auto-attack feature can sometimes carry you through battles.
The Paradigm Shift system plays heavily into the Stagger mechanic. Every enemy has a Stagger meter, which is filled by magic attacks from ravagers. The more a ravager attacks, the more the bar fills. However, the bar also drains just as rapidly, and to lower the rate of drainage, you must have a commando or saboteur attacking as well. Maintaining this chain of attacks is incredibly essential. If you Paradigm Shift poorly during combat and end up needing emergency healing and defense, it's very possible to lose all the Stagger you've built up on a boss because you don't have a commando alive to keep the bar full while your medic and sentinel try to recover.
When an enemy's Stagger meter is full, he goes into Stagger state and has tremendously decreased defenses. He'll take a lot more damage from attacks and can be knocked into the air by a commando for incredibly powerful air combos. An enemy's defense against status effects is also severely reduced in the Stagger state, allowing you to pile on every bad status effect in your arsenal.
While there is no MP in Final Fantasy XIII, there are Tactical Points, which are used for a few rare spells that can significantly alter the tide of combat. For example, Libra allows you to quickly see part of an enemy's stats so you won't have to guess at them. Unlike regular spells, TP doesn't regenerate during battle; you earn a small amount of TP after each skirmish and can hold up to 5 TP at once. You should only use TP when you need to, since it takes time to regenerate it. There are items that can be used to regenerate TP, but they're rare enough that they should be saved for emergencies, not squandered on weak enemies.
The most notable of these tactical abilities are summons. One of the benefits of being l'Cie is that each character also gains a summon monster that he can call into battle for 3 TP. A summon monster will replace the other two characters in battle and begin fighting on its own. Fighting alongside a summon monster builds up its Gestalt meter, and once you have filled the meter, you can press the Square button to activate Gestalt mode and transform the character's summon monster into another form that the summoner directly controls.
Once in Gestalt mode, players have access to a series of attacks that are performed by certain button combinations. Each attack takes a certain amount of points from your Gestalt meter, or you can use the remaining points to perform a powerful finishing attack. Once all the points are spent, the summon monster vanishes. The summon monsters also instantly heal the main character when used and revive any downed characters when they leave, making them a very useful panic button during combat.
Final Fantasy XIII is one of the more difficult Final Fantasy games in recent memory. While it is never unfair and won't be as tough as games like Demon's Souls, the power level of enemies is a bit higher than in comparison to other games. Since you recover HP at the end of every fight, enemies are designed to assume that you have full resources so they don't hold back. They hit hard, use status effects often, and some of the Gran Pulse enemies will kill you in a single hit if you're not careful. It is possible to limp across the finish line of the toughest battle. Proper use of the sentinel and medic roles makes it pretty difficult to die, even if you plink away at a boss for two hours.
You're graded at the end of every fight, with a score ranging from 0 to 5 stars, and this affects the drops you receive from enemies. A five-star ranking earns you a ridiculous 8x multiplier and rare item drops from enemies, while a low ranking has no multiplier and makes it impossible to get rare items. You may progress if you fight a boss poorly, but you'll lose out on some nice rewards. On the plus side, zero-star ranking increases the amount of special map use items you get, allowing you to avoid fights or enter fights with advantages if you're not a good gamer. This actually balances things quite well. Gamers who are skilled and plan to do the side-quests in Gran Pulse will earn a variety of rewards they can use to make things easier.
Equipped items are less important in Final Fantasy XIII than in any previous game. There is less customization to your characters than even in Final Fantasy X, although there is a fair amount. There are only a handful of weapons in the game for each character, and the weapons are divided into three tiers. Tier 1 weapons can be purchased in shops and have their own attributes. Some are better at physical attacks, while others have improved magic. In order to get Tier 2 weapons, you have to level up the Tier 1 weapons by using items you find. Once a weapon has leveled up enough, you can evolve it to Tier 2, and later to Tier 3. Depending on the upgrade path you choose, your Tier 3 ultimate weapon may have different attributes. You have to plan ahead to craft the best weapons, and the same applies to accessories. You don't need to touch this mechanic to complete the game, but it certainly makes it a lot easier and is almost essential for some side-quests.
It's no surprise, but Final Fantasy XIII is an utterly amazing-looking game. The character animation and location design are absolutely incredible. Final Fantasy XIII easily has some of the best-looking hair I've seen in games, and it's just a mind-numbingly gorgeous title. Part of this is aided by the linearity, since the developers could focus everything on making the backgrounds look pretty. The world design is breathtaking, and battles look fantastic, if a little crowded. Until you get used to the incredibly hectic battles, it can be difficult to keep track of what is going on, especially when you have commandos and ravagers launching tons of shiny spells in every direction. Even more than the beautiful visuals, what stands out is the amazing soundtrack. Composer Masahashi Hamauzu's work is among the very best soundtracks that Final Fantasy has ever had, and it features some of the most memorable songs in the franchise's history. In particular, the new battle theme is so peppy and infectious that I found myself getting into fights simply to hear it play.
Despite its flaws, Final Fantasy XIII is a fun and well-put-together RPG with an interesting combat system and top-notch visuals. It is burdened by an overly linear design for a large portion of the game, and a story that depends too much on potentially annoying characters. Even with those complaints, it is difficult to ignore Final Fantasy XIII's strengths. It's a visual treat, with some of the best-looking graphics to hit the system, and it has a top-notch soundtrack that deserves as much praise as can be heaped upon it. The game mechanics are incredibly solid and enjoyable, and it has one of the best combat systems in the franchise's history. The fights are fast, fun and interesting, and combat can be enjoyed, rather than being a roadblock on the way to the next plot point. Sometimes the AI is so smart that it feels like it's playing itself, even if you're managing the paradigms. The game mechanics have been tuned and balanced to make them accessible, although that comes at the cost of customization and freedom. Final Fantasy XIII may not live up to the hype, but any fan of Japanese-style RPGs will find a lot to like here.
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