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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Final Fantasy XIII (8.8/10)

The Final Fantasy franchise is known the world over as the quintessential Japanese role playing game. Over the last few incarnations, legendary developer Square Enix has taken some risks with their marquee franchise... some that were embraced by it's rabid fan base, and others that were almost violently opposed. With Final Fantasy XIII, they've leapt even further from their tried and tested methods, again trying to reinvent the genre that they have defined for 30 years.

For me, what truly makes the RPG experience is the story. The narrative of FFXIII, much like previous titles in the series, is a convoluted mess that somehow manages to come together brilliantly in the end. Upon (or inside depending on your point of view) the moon of Cocoon the government has ordered a purge of undesirables. Anyone who may have had direct contact with beings from Pulse, the cursed planet below, must be deported. Our bad tempered heroine, with the equally bad moniker of Lightning, has set out to save her sister Serah as the purges begin. Poor Serah has become a l'Cie after coming into contact with a fal'Cie from Pulse.

Um... huh? Howzat? A l'Cie? Yeah, I like to make up words too. For the first portion of the game terms like these are tossed around like you have some frame of reference. But I'll endeavor to explain... fal'Cie are giant demigods that were created by the Maker, and have an unknown connection to both Cocoon and Gran Pulse. They are huge in stature; powerful in magic. They also have the ability to enthrall humans to serve them. Those unfortunate buggers are known as l'Cie and have been 'branded' with a mark to show that they serve the will of the fal'Cie. L'Cie are given a 'Focus,' or task they must complete for their fal'Cie masters. If, however, they fail to complete their Focus, the victim will turn into a monstrous, mindless husk called a Cie'th. But if they do achieve their Focus they transform into crystal, an eternal tribute to their success. In either case though, they are not long for this world. So let's recap: Fal'Cie (demigods) control l'Cie (slaves) who must do their bidding lest they turn into Cie'th (monsters). Savvy?

Anyhoo, once you've got the terms down and how they relate to one another, then the story makes a lot more sense. Serah has received the Mark of the l'Cie, so Lightning, along with Serah's fiance Snow, set out to help her complete her Focus so she doesn't turn into a terrible monster. As the story progresses Lightning adds to her crew, sometimes by accident, sometimes by fate. Sazh is on the train when Lightning first begins her rescue mission. Hope joins the party after his mother dies trying to help Snow's revolutionaries. Vanille and Fang, whose past is a mystery, stumble onto the team as well.

The plot takes some come clever twists and turns, but does take an age to get going. It's full of heavily cliched dialogue, and some classic "Final Fantasy" moments. I don't think it's as good as FFX or FFVII or even Lost Odyssey, but if you can stick with it through the slow and confusing beginning, you'll be handsomely rewarded with a classic "Final Fantasy" tear-jerker ending.

Gone are the days of turn-based combat (and I'll be honest here, I miss those days!). Success in FF games has always been defined by figuring out the best strategy to use against a given foe... to expose their weaknesses and emphasize your strengths. The core gameplay in FFXIII revolves around switching back and forth between 'Paradigms' to best take our your enemies. Paradigms are essentially varying formations of the roles you can assign to your party members. There are six different roles, with some characters being more adept at certain roles than others.

For example, Lightning makes an excellent Commando and Ravager (dealing physical and magic attacks respectively) but is also a decent Medic (white mage healer). That said, she's rubbish as a Synergist (buffs such as Shell or Haste) or Saboteur (offensive buffs, like Slow of Poison). Other characters are better suited for these tactics. Then there is the Sentinel, who basically serves as your Tank/Sponge, soaking up all the enemy attacks. Sentinels aren't important early on, but the last third of the game is pretty much impossible without employing good use of your Sentinels. The skill comes in when figuring out how to comprise your team so that you can make use of all the roles without sacrificing too much, and learning when to switch between these strategies as the need arises.

The Paradigm 'Relentless Assualt' is made up of two Ravagers and a Commando. Obviously this is highly offensive, attack fast and early. Switch to 'Diversity' by sacrificing one of the Ravagers to become a Medic (giving you a Medic, Commando and Ravager) when you start taking damage. If you fall too far behind, you can then go with 'Combat Clinic' which is a Sentinel who soaks up all the enemy attacks while the other two characters healing as Medics. But as the game progresses and becomes much more difficult you need to make use of some other tactics. Towards the end I started every battle with 'Evened Odds' which employed Saboteur to Slow the enemy and hopefully lower their defense, a Synergist to buff our party, and a Medic to keep them alive long enough for them to do it! And that's just a few examples, there are plenty of others!

Then there are the famous Final Fantasy "Summons" where your character calls forth, in a flashing display of graphical superiority, a massive creature or god to deal a devastating blow to your foes. In FFXIII they are known as Eidolons, with one unique to each character. They must first be bested before they will battle along side you. To be honest, I only ever used my Eidolons in case of dire emergency, or if I was bored and wanted to watch the cool graphics. Personally, I didn't think they were anywhere near as effective as they have been in the past, although they look frickin' amazing!

Speaking of graphics, Final Fantasy games are known for their amazing graphics, specifically the cutscenes. In FFXIII everything looks simply fantastic. The environments are stunning. The animations, while repetitive, are also brilliant. It runs smoothly the whole time. As for the pre-rendered cutscenes, there are only a few titles than can compare... they are amazing, but almost too hectic. The super-fast anime style makes it hard to appreciate the brilliance of the animation!

The soundtrack is also great. The dialogue and voice acting isn't bad either, although it is written with the classic FF template... you'll be rolling your eyes a lot at the cheesiness these people spout! The score is quite well done, and still very obviously "Final Fantasy." But I have to say that, just like every other FF game, the battle music does get a little old.

So where does FFXIII fall short? Probably the most commonly heard complaint is how surprisingly linear the game is... there really isn't much to do in the way of exploring. Each level has a pretty straightforward path to follow, without much deviation. You can tell just by looking at the map! It's not until about 20 hours into the story that you finally reach an area that is truly open world. This was surprising, considering that the FF franchise is synonymous with wide open areas full of secrets. It's weird, but I think the biggest reason this upset so many ardent followers is because it's just so obvious.

Personally, my biggest complaint was the structure and accessibility of the 'Hunt Missions.' I loved this stuff in FFXII! These optional "super-monsters" are scattered throughout the game, and offer some real challenge. But in FFXIII almost all of these missions are only available after the credits role! What... the... hell!?! Once you have beaten the game you can go back to the last save point before the final battle and warp back into the main world to pursue these other missions. Um, seriously? I'll pour countless hours into a game like this, but when I am done with the final, penultimate battle... I'm spent! I'm not going to go back do more! The irony is that I could have spent another 20 hours hunting rare and dangerous monsters before the final encounter but afterward I can't be bothered!

Another annoyance is the fact that stores aren't located in villages anymore. In fact, there aren't really any villages to speak of... everything is accessed from the Save Stations. Um, really? That's pretty lame... I miss the joy of finding that oasis of tranquility, free of monsters, where you take a break from your questing, kick off your shoes and put your feet up. I always loved perusing the wares in a new store, comparing what was on offer to what I currently had and selling off the spoils from my conquests. It was an integral part of the RPG experience, and it's noticeably missing... which is a shame.

I've also heard people complain about the upgrading system, which has been revamped as well. When you gain experience in FFXIII you can 'spend' those points in the new 'Crystarium.' Basically each role has it's own branch of a crystal to unlock everything from hit points and magic to new accessory slots and spells, all the while opening new nodes. It works pretty well, even if it's really just a visualization of menus we've been using for ages now. Oh, and it's actually quite beautiful if I may say so...

Along a similar vein, the process of upgrading your weapons has been augmented. Weapons and accessories are upgraded by using 'Components.' These are either purchased in stores or taken from fallen enemies. Each character has their own specific 'type' of weapon (although accessories are interchangeable). Lightning has a gunblade, Sazh carries dual pistols, and Hope has a... um, boomerang (psssht! *snicker*).

The trick lies in finding what components will yield the most experience versus which ones have the greatest multiplying effect. It's an overly-complicated mathematical nightmare, one that would have made my high school algebra teacher blush. I'm not even going to endeavor to explain, other than to say "Thank god" for guidebooks! Short of that, Google it... I'm sure someone has gone to the trouble or providing all the specifics. While it's a clever idea, it's far too time consuming and confusing. I would have been much happier with classical looting and a bunch of different kinds of weapons... 

Final Fantasy XIII isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination... but it is different, a noticeable and sizable departure from what we have come to expect from this venerated franchise. If anything Square Enix went too far outside their comfort zone. But I sincerely hope that when Square Enix are hard at work on the next installment (and you know they are;^) they listen to their fans about what worked and, more importantly, what didn't. Sadly, if they had stuck with just a few more of the hallmarks that endeared the series to so many, FFXIII might have been better received... and not left so many of us disappointed this time out...


Score = 8.8 / 10


  1. I can't agree with your scoring of the graphics above 50. Not arguing with the fact that the game looks amazing, its just that now you've set the precident that scores above a 50 are achieveable. What happens when a different game next month or year has better graphics? A 53? And then one that's even better? A 54? And so on.

    Just my two cents.


  2. Glad you've been paying attention. GoW 3 got 55/50. Uncharted 2 will get over 50. It's okay to give extra credit when it's deserved. Gave Bioshock bonus points for the story...

  3. Its just a slippery slope, that's all. You can do whatever you want with the scores, I'm just pointing out that in theory, games will eventually be recieving 80/50, which would completely render your overall scores meaningless.

    Just mentioning it from a standpoint of someone who deals with scores and percents all the time. If 100% is perfect, you shouldn't go over it. You can't be more than perfect. Remember, as Mr. Burns' softball team pointed out, it is impossible to give 110% by the very definition of the concept.

  4. True, but let's be fair, the whole thing is pretty meaningless anyway. But I will keep that in mind, you're right of course. And FFXIII has pretty amazing graphics, the only I've seen better is GoW3 and Uncharted 2....

  5. This was my first Final Fantasy game I played and I was a little disappointed. Not only was it boring at some points but it didn't provide me with any of my own actions. I felt like I was playing Pokemon, only with people not cute little animals. I like being able to control my own character. But that is just a personal preference. I didn't give the game much of a chance but I guess I should try to a least finish the game (on Xbox 360 it is 3 discs).

    Cut scenes are the best part of this whole game for me and really enjoyed the well thought out environments.

  6. @Jane- It does take an AGE to get going, but I thought it ended well...