Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Final Fantasy XIII Review

Though I like the Final Fantasy series, I'm not just a huge fan of it. Don't get me wrong, I think all of the ones I've played so far are great, but what isn't so great is making an attempt at exploring a dungeon whilst having to deal with the ever-disruptive random encounters that pervaded the series' first ten installments. XII got rid of them (thank God), but its battle system wasn't really my cup of tea and so I didn't play much of it. Then came XIII. It was released in March of last year as the first HD Final Fantasy and was meant to be spun off into its own sub-series of games set in the same universe, with Versus XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0 and now XIII-2, a direct sequel, promised to come. It received massive hype and mostly good critical reviews, but a polarized response from the fanbase. Now that I've played through it to the end myself, let's see what I think of it and if I can understand why the overall reception has been so mixed.

(Note: This review does not reflect my current opinion of the game. I still think it's good, but I wouldn't be quite as forgiving with some things if I were to review it again, nor would I score it quite so high. ~T-Man 2013)


Allow me to begin my review by saying...dang, this game is beautiful. I own the 360 version, which runs at a lower resolution than the PS3 version and features some occasional framerate drops due to the 360's technical limitations. While these graphical flaws are there, the game is still certain to wow any gamer, and really, when a game is actually pushing the Xbox 360 past its limits, that is just something that needs to be lauded. As usual, Square has made pre-rendered cutscenes for many of the game's bigger and more action-packed moments, but the in-game graphics are fantastic too. The game's environments are all beautifully detailed, as are the character models and facial animations. Lip-syncing is mostly spot-on as well with only a few slip-ups, and they actually took the time to sync the lip movements of the pre-rendered cutscenes with the English voice track. Definitely a pleasent surprise. The music of Final Fantasy XIII is great as well, often complimenting the atmosphere of the area that you're in. Oh, and the battle theme is simply awesome.
Pictured above: Lighting (left) and Snow (right)
Of course, graphics don't make a game, and to me, one of the most important aspects of a JRPG such as Final Fantasy is its storyline. Gameplay is important, too, but we'll get to that later. Anyway, I've heard that Final Fantasy XII caught flack from fans for having a weak storyline and characters. Like I said, I didn't play much of 12 and as such I can't make that judgment, but anyone looking for a character-driven storyline definitely won't be disappointed with what Final Fantasy XIII has to offer. The storyline places a large emphasis on the emotions of the main cast (Lightning, Sazh, Snow, Hope, Vanille and Fang) and the interactions between them. In fact, chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the game are focused almost solely on the characters and their exploits as they are on the run from the military. Some may find the story to drag on during these sections, especially considering the length of the cutscenes (many can run for up to ten to fifteen minutes, some even longer) but personally I really enjoyed watching the characters interact and it helped me to really like all of them. Yes, even Hope and Vanille grew on me. Granted, though, Hope was my least favorite out of the group. Most people tend to cite his "whininess" for around half the game as being on the grounds for disliking him, but for me it's kind of the opposite. When he develops, he feels like he mainly exists to give morale-boosting motivational speeches that remind me too much of Sonic Heroes' dialogue about the "real superpower of teamwork" for comfort.

Of course, don't think that FF13 gets lazy with the main plot either. The plot as a whole is very engaging, and combined with the presentation values and often lengthy (yet enjoyable) cutscenes, it really tends to capture the feeling of watching an anime movie. The storyline itself actually revolves a lot around an interesting and rich mythology...that is never fully explained in-game but rather in the information-storing "Datalog" in the menu. That's my sole problem with the storyline, as when you start the game you will have to visit the Datalog for clarity on many important elements. I feel like some of this information should have been explained in-game, especially considering that there are other games going to be set in XIII's world. That said, as a feature in and of itself, the Datalog is highly appreciated, as it stores a written recap of the events happening in the game. I very rarely play through 50-hour-long games without eventually getting into something else, so when I came back to the game, this was a lifesaver.

So now that we have established that the storyline is great, how does the gameplay fare? Well, before we get to the main point of contention here, let's talk about what it does right when compared to previous games in the series. XIII offers a LOT of conveniences that previous games did not. Like XII, it - thank God - doesn't have any random encounters at all. Many battles can theoretically be avoided, although due to my obsessive need to upgrade my characters (more on that later), I usually didn't. Should you die during a battle, you will be offered to retry, in which case you will be sent right outside of the battle with all items you used in the previous struggle returned to you. Cutscenes are always skippable, which will very much come in handy if you ever die before a boss. Perhaps best of all, though, is that every party member's hit points are fully healed after each battle, preventing you from starting any battle at a disadvantage or having to bother with healing outside of battle. The only other JRPG that I've ever seen do that is Enchanted Arms. However, in Enchanted Arms there was a catch: every time you entered a battle, you lost some "Vitality Points", which had to be restored at VP Stations. If you ran out, you would start the next battle with - get this - one hit point and no magic power. Not to mention that that game had fairly frequent - *shudder* - random encounters. Not so in Final Fantasy XIII! Of course, don't think that the game doesn't take advantage of these new conveniences. In the other Final Fantasy games I played, bar FF8 where the enemies actually leveled up with you, most battles wouldn't be that difficult if you were at the right level - which was good, cause, you know, random encounters. XIII, however, gets very difficult as you get farther into the game, especially the bosses. Trust me, you'll be really thankful for the ability to avoid battles once you get to Gran Pulse.

Speaking of battles, FF13 has seen fit to give us a brand new battle system, and it works great. Rather than previous battle systems the series has used, FF13's battle system opts to blend cinema and a fast pace with strategy, and the result is actually pretty fantastic. It almost feels like an odd mix of the ATB system that the games prior to FF10 used and the real-time battle systems found in such games as those in the Tales series of RPG's. You can bring up to three party members into a battle at once, but two of them are AI controlled. You are only responsible for the actions of the party leader. The ATB gauge is still there, but it is broken up into segments, which allows you to chain together multiple different commands as it fills up. However, bear in mind that some abilities will take up more than one ATB gauge segment. You start out with only two segments, but as the game moves on you will be able to gain up to five. Your commands during battle are "auto-battle," which chooses commands for you; "abilities", which lets you choose them yourself; techniques, which lets you use special abilities requiring technical points (not the same as magic points); and "items", which allows you to, well...use items.

Just as you would expect, the main goal is to deplete all of the enemies' hit points, but FF13 makes things more interesting by adding the stagger gauge. As you attack an enemy, the stagger gauge will fill up, and once it fills up completely, you'll really be able to do some big damage. Many battles will take forever if you don't try to make use of this, and it's worth noting that the stagger gauge does gradually go down, so you can't stop attacking for too long. The main controversy surrounding the battle system is the "auto-battle" feature, which some claim allows the game to pretty much play itself. Now, I rarely found myself using this feature anyway, as a lot of times it would choose one set of commands when I thought another would fit the situation better. At worst, it chooses obvious commands or commands you would have chosen yourself. The way I see it, it's just there if you're feeling lazy, and you can even go to the options menu and set the cursor to start off on the "abilities" command rather than "auto-battle" when you enter a fight.

Of course, even if the auto-battle worked in such a way, the game definitely wouldn't be playing itself for one reason: the paradigm system. The paradigm system is introduced early on in the game, and is a very interesting take on the job system seen in previous games that actually allows you to switch classes during battle. How it works is that there are certain "roles" that each character can acquire throughout the game. Commandos are your physical attackers, Ravagers cast damaging magic, Medics cast healing magic on the party, Saboteurs lower the enemy's defense and can inflict status ailments on enemies, Sentinels are meat shields that raise your party's collective defense - very useful - and Synergists cast magic that strengthens the party. In the menu, you can create "paradigms" in which each character takes on a certain role. You can switch between them on the fly during battle, and this is why FF13 really doesn't play itself. You have to know which paradigms to use and when, as they're all useful for different situations, and you will often be required to change your strategy depending on what type of enemy you're facing. It's also worth noting that you can only have six paradigms ready at once, so you need to think about which ones will be useful in the area that you're in. The battle system in general is very unique, fast-paced and enjoyable, and actually pretty addictive.

I have one more thing to discuss regarding the battle system. Summoning works quite a bit differently this time around. Summoning requires three technical points. At first when you summon, the monster you summoned will replace your two AI controlled party members and fight alongside you. The whole time, said summon monster's "Gestalt" (don't ask me what that word means) gauge is going down, but there is one under your life bar that fills as you attack the enemy. At any time, you can press "X" to enter Gestalt mode, at which point you can use the control stick and "A" button to unleash the summon's most powerful attacks. These attacks cost varying amounts of points to use, and how many points you will have is determined by how high the Gestalt gauge under your life bar was when you entered Gestalt mode. Needless to say, summons in this game are pretty awesome.

Moving on now, I'm pretty sure I should talk about the upgrade system. Final Fantasy XIII uses the "Crystarium" as an upgrade system. Basically, as you fight battles, you earn "Crystogen Points" that can be used to upgrade your characters in the Crystarium. The Crystarium is pretty much a road that leads to upgrades. It's through the Crystarium that the characters will learn many of the abilities available for their roles, as well as upgrade stats like HP, magic power and strength. It's pretty similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, though I much prefer it for a few reasons. For one thing, it's much simpler and doesn't take as long to use, and for another you don't have to wait to level up or to have the correct sphere to get upgrades. You just have to win battles, and there ya go, Crystogen Points ready to be spent. Oh, and may I mention yet another conveniece this game has when compared to previous FF's: every playable character gains CP whether you use that character or not! It's about time, Square.

With that all out of the way, let's discuss the main reason why XIII is one of the more polarizing games in the Final Fantasy series: the linearity. Throughout much of its duration, Final Fantasy XIII keeps you moving forward on a set path with little exploration, a deviation from series tradition. There are branching paths at points that will lead to hidden items and whatnot, but for the most part you are on a straight path. For many fans, this caused the game to get boring, and though I can understand why, I really didn't have a problem with it. Actually, I felt like it aided the story progression, and besides that, the beautiful visuals and setpieces, the fun battle system and the storyline kept the game from getting boring at all. Now, it is worth mentioning that in Chapter 11, you are introduced to the world of Gran Pulse, where the game finally becomes very open-ended. There are numerous hunting sidequests to complete here, and the lush beauty of the area is unmatched even by most of the game's other locales. You will have to leave eventually, but there will be a point where you can come back if you want. In short, it's pretty amazing.

As for the problems I did have with Final Fantasy XIII, I already voiced my complaint about some important storyline information explained only through the Datalog, but there was one more thing that I found annoying. Up until a certain point in chapter 9, you have no control over who is in your party or who the party leader is, no matter how many characters are with you. I just felt like I should have been able to choose which characters I was using. Not a big deal, but annoying nonetheless.


XIII is definitely my favorite Final Fantasy of the ones I've played through so far. Sporting amazing visuals, a great battle system, and a highly engaging, character-driven storyline, I could recommend it to most RPG fans...that is, if you think you're down with the game's linearity. Though the PS3 version is the best of the two, if you don't own one, then the Xbox 360 version is still serviceable. If you're on the fence about buying it, you can always rent it first, or if you've got more money to spare, the PS3 greatest hits version and the Xbox 360 platinum hits version are only about twenty bucks on Amazon.com. It's a fantastic game, and here's to hoping that XIII-2 and Versus XIII are even better.

The Good:

+ Amazing graphics
+ Great, unique battle system
+ Very engaging storyline with an interesting mythology
+ At times feels like you're watching a movie...in a good way
+ Great soundtrack
+ The open-ended and beautiful world of Gran Pulse
+ Features conveniences that previous FF's lacked
+ Datalog stores plot information

The Bad:

- Can't switch out party members until chapter 9
- Some important mythology and plot information revealed only through Datalog
- Linearity featured in most of the game's environments will turn some off

Score: 9/10

My Scoring System:

- Amazing game. Flaws are minor at best. If you don't own it, you should be ashamed of yourself. (Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

9(.5) - Fantastic game. Perhaps a couple of notable annoyances, but still a must-have. (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep)

8(.5) - Very good game. Has a few flaws, but you won't be disappointed with your purchase. (Klonoa)

7(.5) - Pretty good game that either has several problems or is just too short for its price. Enjoyable to play, but you may want to wait for the price to drop a bit before picking it up. (Rayman 3D)

6(.5) - Passable game. Has its strengths, but unless you're a fan of the series or genre, you're probably better off not bothering. (Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2)

5(.5) - Mediocre game. Not a bad experience, but it's too flawed to be much fun. A bargain bin purchase at best, and only if you're a fan of the series. (Mega Man X7)

3 or 4(.5) - Bad game. A mostly negative experience, and whatever it does right fails to save it overall. Even if you're a fan, you're probably better off not playing it. (Sonic and the Secret Rings)

1 or 2(.5) - Utter garbage. An unholy abomination that we should do all in our power to avoid playing. In other words, STAY THE HECK AWAY! (Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Battle 22)

0 - ...No. Just freaking no. (Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing)

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