After three weeks of off and on play, I'm finished. I logged 60 hours and 13 minutes as of yesterday. I'm finally finished with Final Fantasy XIII, the Japanese version.
Rather than give you straight impressions or a review, I've put together a top ten list of things I loved about Square Enix's latest epic. Rest assured, a full Destructoid review of the English version of the game is in the works. Naturally, we felt it was better to review the version you'll actually be playing.
There's probably nothing I can say to change the minds of the gamers that have written off the franchise forever. If you want to write off a game you haven't even played yet, be my guest. I will say that this ranks highly for me, sitting alongside my favorites in the series, like Final Fantasy VI. For those of you that do have intentions to play this game when it's released next month here in the U.S., I think you'll be interested in my impressions. I was definitely surprised. I think the jaded cynic will also be surprised, though.
Read on for our spoiler-free impressions of Final Fantasy XIII.
1. The Cutscenes:
What would a Final Fantasy be without cutscenes? What would the first Blu-ray Final Fantasy be without high-definiton cutscenes? Sure, they're a given for this game, but they're very good, and not a drawback. And before you start bitching about how the game is likely to be all cutscene and no game play, well, that's simply not the case here. There are smaller clips that spread about, accentuating the action rather than pulling from it. Of course, there are still a few breaks where there's an epic story movie. Those are, as expected, stunning, and totally worth the watch time. Some are absolutely epic in scope. I was wowed by most of them, moved by a few, and appreciative of all. I saw both restraint and finesse in how the cutscenes were handled.
2. No Healing Between Battles
I know this has been done before in other role-playing games, but this is something that Final Fantasy has always needed. In this case, it made this game a better game. A faster game. A more focused game. There's no silly downtime spent grinding away at enemies to save up the money to have on-hand healing items. For Final Fantasy XIII, you start every battle with full hit points. It kind of goes with the title's focus on faster, more involving game play. I was appreciative that the 60 hours I put into this game were spent playing and not doing monotonous tasks.
3. The Music
Masashi Hamauzu put his best into the score of Final Fantasy XIII. Simply put, I have never heard a Final Fantasy score better than this. To me, this score tops Final Fantasy VI, VII and VIII in both quality of composition and range of style. The work ranges from dark and mystical to crazy and upbeat, with each piece really cementing the feel of the varied worlds of the game. Some songs feature nice touches like interspersed vocal accents, while others were live performances that you'd normally only expect on a big-budget arranged album. This is a fantastic score, and a new high mark for the series and videogames in general.
Both key themes, performed by Japanese artist Sayuri Sugawara, were a perfect fit. It's a shame that these were dumped for something different (worse) for the North American release.
4. The Leveling System
Alternative character leveling is nothing new to Final Fantasy. They've been playing with the formula for some time now -- who could forget jamming Materia orbs into weapons. Watching your character "level up" after a certain number of amassed experience points is a thing of the past.
Final Fantasy XIII uses Crystal Points, which are awarded to each character after battle. These points are spent in the Crystarium, a sparkly winding map that lets you customize your character to your heart's content. The map is spread over various job paths, with nodes scattered over each path. You spend enough points to reach and clear a node, giving you that node's perk (example: +20 to your attack power). Spells and abilities are also acquired in this way. You're free to spend those points in whatever way you wish. For example, you could make one character a really powerful attacker. Another could be a versed in all abilities equally. Spend enough time and you can level up all six job roles for each character. It was nice to have control over how my characters ended up.
Abilities are also tied into weapons and items, which can also be leveled. Raw materials found during exploration can be applied to a weapon/item to increase or change its abilities. When equipped, the character receives all the benefits of that weapon/items. Weapons and items can also evolve given the right item, adding new abilities and perks. The customization options are nearly endless with the item system, and in some cases can make or break your successes in battles. Coming across the best materials to make the best items was like a game within the game.
5. The Missions and Exploration
All of the people that quit playing Final Fantasy XIII after 5 hours will tell you that it's a linear game. If they would have continued on, they would have found a part of the game so vast that I got lost in it multiple times. The sheer scope of this world is something that has to be seen to be believed. I think that discussing it in depth would lead to spoilers, but know that it's big enough that you'll need a chocobo to get around. It's big enough that you'll actually feel like you're exploring a world. The vastness and freedom of exploration actually remind me of a massively multiplayer game. Beautiful vistas, strange creatures, and impossible challenges are abound. What starts off as a mostly linear game opens up in an amazing way. It's like a payoff for hard work.
Final Fantasy XIII is also jam-packed with optional missions. It's easy to walk past the opportunity to perform most of these missions, which is a shame, because they're incredibly satisfying. There's over 60 missions that reward you with everything from new items and abilities to access to new areas and new enemies to take down. Just with the missions alone, I'd estimate there is a good 30+ hours of exploration and game play. They're fun and well-designed too.
6. Big Boss Battles
My first impressions of the challenge that Final Fantasy XIII presented were not wholly positive. The first few boss encounters were insultingly simple, and the battle system provided little in the way of options to take down the baddies. I was worried that I would simply walk through this game with little to no challenge. That changed quickly. It turns out that they were just getting players warmed up. The case is exactly the opposite: Final Fantasy XIII is packed with huge, epic, ball-busting and immensely gratifying boss battles. We're talking the kind of battles of the RPGs of days gone by, where you'd have to mentally prepare for difficult, involved clashes that take you to wits end. You will die. You will have to try multiple strategies. And when you finally do succeed, expect to jump out of your seat, dance and curse your television/PS3 for ever thinking you wouldn't.
What's great is how the common enemies in the latter stages of the game are all like little sub-boss battles. I've never continued so many times in an RPG.
The last boss battle? Grand. Beautiful. Expect something that could even give Kefka a run for his money.
7. The Throwbacks
To divulge would be to spoil, but I will say that Final Fantasy series fans can expect to come across a number of throwbacks to older series games in Final Fantasy XIII. At first it's just names and nods and a few characters. Later, for those that really get into the game and its missions and optional game play, you'll find some throwbacks that will make you both nostalgic and glad you spent the time to find them. There's a lot of Final Fantasy love in this game.
8. The Battle System
Simply put, Final Fantasy XIII's battle system really makes the game. Fast-paced, challenging, and fresh is how I'd describe it. It's crazy and never boring, save for the training stages in the beginning. When the full system is unlocked to you, your fingers will be flying and your mind will be scattered, trying to manage your party's actions at the same time you're fending off attackers.
The game's Optima system has you assigning and re-assigning jobs for each of your three party members on-the-fly style during battle. The jobs are: Attacker, Healer, Blaster (offensive magic), Jammer (status debuffing magic), Enhancer (status enhancing magic) and Defender. There's six Optima slots that you can freely assign each character's job to prior to battle. In battle, you'll pick the best Optima slot for the occasion by hitting the L1 button and selecting one. On the offensive? Go with a Attacker/Blaster/Attacker formation. Getting reamed? Go for the quick heal by switching to a Healer/Defender/Healer formation. After setting your Optima formation, you'll input your own commands, while the other two party members are left to do the jobs you've assigned them.
This all works in conjunction with the Break mechanic. Each enemy has a weakness, which is usually elemental. Your regular attacks do regular damage, but should you find this weakness, you can exploit it to fill up a Break meter. Once that meter is full, your regular damage will be multiplied. With each enemy having separate weaknesses, this keeps battles fresh and fun, reminding me of the battle mechanic used in Persona 3 and 4.
The Optima system, combined with this Break mechanic, presents all kinds of opportunities for interesting enemy challenges. It seems like Square Enix thought of them all, and you'll have to use strategy to unlock each, making each new encounter like a puzzle. There are definitely some stumpers in the mix. The end result is a lively and engaging battle system, and not a tired and boring one.
9. The Ending
I can't say that I've liked many of the Final Fantasy endings. I usually find myself saying that "it's all about the journey," writing off the long-winded and confusing CG movies that don't really leave me satisfied. Surprisingly, the ending to Final Fantasy XIII struck me as something they really put some thought into. Its all-encompassing finality hit me in a "wow" moment that proved to be both beautiful and elegantly subdued. Get this: it's short and not wordy. In the end, it's poetic and lovely, and I can't think of another series game that ended better.
10. The Replay Value
RPG and replay value don't usually end up in the same sentence. Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, openly invites you to come back and try it again. It's nearly impossible to do everything the first time through, with some bonus content seemingly created to have you back in the mix after completion. Later in the game you'll realize that you've been seeing challenges that were intended for you to come back and tackle. No need to start back at the beginning, though. They've designed the game so that those that just finished can jump back in and do everything they missed the first time. These people will find that powers and abilities they couldn't access the first time. If you missed some of the missions, they're all there too. Don't go thinking you'll mow down every enemy you come across -- new ones are sure to have you dying and retrying.
Final Fantasy XIII isn't a game you could play again. It's actually smartly designed to invite you back in, giving you more value for your buck.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the things I didn't like as much about Final Fantasy XIII.