Final Fantasy XIII (PS3) review
It's been four years since the last mainline Final Fantasy game and since then I've moved on to other games to get my JRPG fix such as Dragon Quest, Persona and the Tales series. My opinion of quality JRPGs has shifted dramatically as a result of these titles. Final Fantasy XIII has proven that the series is still relevant today.
Explaining the story of Final Fantasy XIII is quite a feat, as it's not as straightforward as you would expect from these kinds of games. From the outset, you're rushed right into the middle of a conflict that involves the utopian society of Cocoon, a floating structure above the savage world of Pulse. Entities known as fal'Cie rule the world of Pulse and curse humans as l'Cie, which are given the ability to cast magic, but are given a single task called a Focus. Those who complete their Focus are immortalized in crystal, while those who fail in the allotted time become Cie'th and wander the world as meandering monsters. Those who are discovered to be l'Cie or have been in contact with them are captured and executed by Cocoon's government. Think of it as the holocaust, except Jews don't transform into monsters. As such, the people of Cocoon live in fear of the government's propaganda and detest the l'Cie.
The main characters are all involved in this conflict as either deportees or as part of a resistance group that is trying to stop these executions. These characters include: Lightning, a strong-willed, aloof woman who wields a gunblade; Sazh, a black man who roosts a baby chocobo in his afro; Snow, the reckless resistance leader who is engaged to Lightning's younger sister Serah; Hope, an emo kid who no one cares about; Vanille, a scantily-clad, bubbly girl; and Fang, who is Vanille's compatriot and joins the party much later in the game. All of the characters are marked by a fal'Cie and thus, rejected by the world in which they seek to protect.
While the story doesn't stop to explain everything for you, the game's battle system does. For the first few hours, you'll slowly acclimate to the system through the game's tutorials and receive additional tutorials every few hours upward to 20 hours into the game as new aspects are introduced.
Battles involve controlling one character while the other characters in the party are AI-controlled. If your character dies, it's game over. You have multiple active time battle (ATB) bars that fill up and each one counts as an attack; some attacks require multiple bars, however. You have the choice to insert your attacks manually with the Abilities command or let the computer do it for you with Auto-battle. In most cases, the computer does a decent job of fighting for you and you can only pray that AI works in your favor as often your allies will just stand there and do nothing. You can also use special moves called Techniques that require Technical Points (TP) to use. These moves include Libra for analyzing your enemies, Renew for restoring everyone's health instantly, Summon for summoning a character's Eidolon who fights alongside them, and so on. You can also use items, which don't require an ATB bar to use.
The system gets complicated once the class-changing system from Final Fantasy X-2 is included. Every character will have three classes, with the option of all six being available to them later. The six classes include: Commando, a physical attacker; Ravager, a magic attacker; Medic, a healer; Sentinel, a defender; Synergist, which increase your party's attributes with spells like Haste and Protect; and Saboteur, which reduce enemy attributes and inflict status effects. Mastering these classes is key to succeeding in battle as you'll constantly be switching classes in a maneuver called Paradigm Shift. Prior to entering combat, you'll customize your party's class structure as Paradigms. For example, a balanced Paradigm would include a Commando, a Ravager and a Medic. A more offensive Paradigm would include a Commando and two Ravagers and a defensive Paradigm would be a Sentinel, Medic and Synergist. You can switch Paradigms at any time in battle by pressing L1 and selecting from your list that includes up to six at a time.
The one problem I had with this system is it doesn't let you save Paradigm arrangements for future use if you were to switch party members. To clarify: my usual group is Lightning, Vanille and Sazh and I have a solid list of Paradigms for them. In the few instances where I needed a Sentinel, I'd switch in Snow for Lightning and have an appropriate list of Paradigms for that party, however I have to manually set my Paradigms each and every time I switch teams.
Battles are more or less trial and error as you attempt to find the correct strategy for winning battles. If you aren't using the correct classes at a given instance, a normal battle that would take 30 seconds to complete can take upward of 10 minutes. A major element to keep in mind is the stagger bar. As you attack an enemy, their stagger bar increases. When it completely fills, they become staggered and their defense is significantly reduced and you proceed to bumrush said target. On the other hand, enemies (bosses specifically) have a nasty habit of instantly killing your leader just because they can. It's frustrating at first and it's only after several more attempts of tweaking your strategy that you meet the winning conditions. Winning appears to be a matter of 70 percent strategy and 30 percent luck, with these factors often flipping from time to time. Battles are more fast-paced than what you expect from turn-based combat, even if you mostly opt for the Auto-battle command. You'll constantly be swapping Paradigms in battle to satisfy the ever-changing conditions.
After battles you aren't rewarded with experience points, but instead crystagen points (CP, not to be confused with a certain 4chan topic of interest). Every character has a Crystarium, which is more or less a 3D model of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Each class has a series of nodes that improve one's attributes and give them new abilities, and each node requires a certain amount of CP to acquire. Characters have three attributes: HP, strength and magic. These attributes build upon one another with each class, while the abilities remain with their respective classes; a commando won't have fire spells and a ravager won't have cure spells.
The in-game database, known as the Datalog chronicles, all of the story's characters, events, people, history, mythos and so on to clarify everything for you as the game's cinematics don't stop to let you know what's going on. Not bothering to look through the Datalog for a good 10-15 hours, I had no clue what Pulse, Purge, Sanctum, Fal'Cie were and it was even harder trying to explain it to others.
I embraced the streamlined nature of leveling as well as the game's pace. The game takes a linear approach and there's no backtracking or overworld exploration. The environments involve taking a straight path, battling enemies and collecting items. About 25-30 hours in, the game does open up as you're able to take on many optional side missions that involve killing a designated target. Aside from the option of taking on these missions, the game retains its linear nature for remainder of its length.
It's also noteworthy to mention the absence of towns in the practical sense. Shopping for equipment has been reduced to a series of menus, which you access from the abundant save points that litter the area. New shops become available as you progress through the story as does the upgrade option. Weapons and accessories can be upgraded by combining them with the materials you collect from battles such as beast claws and machinery components like bolts. Each item has a set amount of experience points that are needed to level up your equipment. The organic items don'tt offer much XP, but can trigger XP multipliers of up to times three. The fabricated items offer greater XP values and are best used after a piece of equipment has an XP multiplayer. Your equipment levels up to a certain point, where it is then designated as a star and if a transforming catalyst is applied, the weapon will change. In which case, it can be combined with a mineral component and transformed into a different piece of equipment.
Being a Final Fantasy game, you can expect fantastic visuals and lengthy cinematics. I'd go as far as saying every 10 minutes (not counting battles) there is a new cutscene. Owners of the Xbox 360 version won't notice a huge jump between the in-game cinematics and the CGI ones. While the PS3 version (the one I played) looks amazing in its complete, uncompressed glory. I personally enjoyed watching the montage of CGI scenes in the opening movie whenever I booted the game up.
Fans will be disappointed that aside from the chocobo theme, which features a lyrical cover, none of the classic tunes or jingles from the series are to be found in the game; not even The Prelude or the victory fanfare. Instead we get many variations of Serah's Theme throughout the game, which I admit grew on me after hearing it more than a dozen times. There was much hype involving Leona Lewis' song "My Hands" as the game's theme song, but it only plays during the last scene of the game. I felt the battle theme was very catchy, despite it being spoiled in the initial trailer for the game.
Say what you want about JRPG voice acting, I thought the cast for this game was solid. Vanille's ambiguous accent was a little jarring at times, but I got over it. The same actor as Kanji-kun of Persona 4 fame voices Snow and I was hoping he would shout "Get bent!" somewhere in the game, but no such incident occurred.
Final Fantasy XIII has made some substantial changes to its structure that I believe are what made me enjoy and actually finish the game. I didn't mind the linearity or the lack of customization early in the game like other players have. The story appears convoluted at first, but if you spend an hour reading the Datalog, you'll appreciate it more. The PS3 version is the definitive version in terms of presentation as it simply looks better than its 360 counterpart. If you love Final Fantasy or JRPGs definitely check this game out.