In just about 5 weeks, the latest installment of the venerated Final Fantasy franchise makes its way to the US for PS3 and 360. The hype preceding it is typical of any of the titles in the main Final Fantasy canon (well, except perhaps for XI); however, the amount of uncertainty and doubt about this title appears to be unprecedented for a game in this series. Those of you following initial reactions to how this title differs from previous FF titles are likely a combination of excited and apprehensive. Having played through an imported copy of the game, I feel compelled to share the good news and bad news. The bad news is that everything you’ve read about this game’s style and design is absolutely true. The good news is that it’s a fun title with one of the most epic stories in the series, and that most of the changes are very well done, with some minor exceptions.
I’ll try to keep details on the story minimal, but what stood out to me was the degree of backstory given to each of the six party members. I immediately identified with all of the protagonists. Strangely, the promotional material largely centers around Lightning; playing through the game, I found that all of the characters were equal in their level of motivation to travel. She’s the main character in marketing only. The story is about all six of them, and that’s evident by the fact of Vanille being the narrator for the game. Likewise, the supporting cast and villains in the game are appropriately despicable. The arcs and directions this story takes are well done as well as surprising. The varying scenes and environments work well like most RPGs, conjuring the spirit of epic stories that encompass a wide array of locations. As much as I enjoyed FFXII, I found its story to be a paper thin cliché that was placed on top of a phenomenal game engine. The script for FFXIII is every bit as excellent as FFXII’s was anemic. I found the story compelling, engaging, and passionate. When the game aggravated me, I found my desire to see the story unfold helped me get through the difficult battles.
But the meat of the game is the game itself, of course. I kept trying to think of some snide shorthand way of describing the gameplay, and “QTE meets Devil May Cry” kept coming to mind. But it’s far more complex than that. I can appreciate what changes have been made to advance the RPG gameplay, as most all FF titles have done. But I feel that it has some notable flaws. First, let’s discuss the controversial changes:
- You control one character. This is a partial truth. You can select the specific
actions of one character in your party of three. But the Paradigm Shift system gives you a modicum of control over the jobs your party has. You create schemes (lineups based on jobs of attacker, magicians, healers, enhancers that cast buffs on your party, jammers that cast debuffs on enemies, or defenders that serve as tanks and draw attention and attacks in their direction) that serve your specific needs. Up to six "lineups" can be created based on the party that you can swap on the fly mid-battle. So you have control over the range
of actions your party can take based on the job system, even if you don’t have control over the specific actions each takes. For the most part, it works exceptionally well. Your enhancers won’t cast shield on a player who already has it if another needs it – and if you’ve revealed a specific enemy type’s weaknesses, your AI blaster (black magician) will exploit that by casting that spell almost exclusively. By the way, unlike prior games, repeated battles against enemy types, or one cast of Libra, will permanently reveal those traits for enemies.
- The downside of this system is that is does have hiccups. They are incredibly infrequent, and the AI is almost always accurate. But the “almost” sometimes means a misguided heal spell. When the party member you control gets KO’d, it’s game over, even if the other two are at full health.
- There is no MP. This is, I feel, a benefit in the gameplay. There is “TP,” which is used to summon eidolons, and is regained based on the success over multiple battles (in short, so you don’t spam summons every battle – not that you’d want to, as I found summons almost wholly useless).
- When you are KO’d, you can restart the game right before the battle where your game just ended. This makes the game “easier,” so to speak, but given the restrictions (main party member KO = automatic game over), and given how slight hiccups can help cause that KO, it’s a welcome trait.
- The pace of the battles is incredibly fast for an RPG. The pace, combined with the ATB system, may lead to players simply mashing on the x button to get an attack in, and swapping the Paradigm Shift in order to get the supporting AI cast to do most of the legwork. The pace of the battles was the most off-putting thing to me, at first. After about 3 hours I began to adapt. There is an option to switch from this “Normal” ATB speed to a “Slower” speed. The slower has a pace and feel that is much, much more like a FF-style game. By the time I tried out the slower system, I was too ingrained in the faster pace, and it felt very sluggish to me. Without a doubt, the pace of the battles will be a major source of contention to gamers; and the slower option will be a welcome pace for those who prefer a more traditional RPG feel. As much as I finally enjoyed the battle system, I feel the game would be much weaker without the slower option – otherwise, there would be a large number of gamers who would hate this game and never try to play it.
You’ve also read that the game is linear. You have no idea just how linear it is. The game is broken up into 13 chapters, and all of them, except for 1, are incredibly linear. There are side quests in the form of missions similar to FFXII. They’re all located in chapter 11 and later in the game, and can be returned to at any time, even after the main quest is completed. They’re all monster hunts, but some of them are just stunning. The aforementioned pace of the battle can be positively breathtaking when you’re fighting an enemy with over 7 million HP for 20 minutes – in an entirely good way. But the way the story pulls you in, the linearity is hardly noticeable as you continue pushing on to see what happens next.
Lastly, it is the first title since Final Fantasy 2 to deviate and drop a character level system entirely; the Crystarium system is highly reminiscent of FFX’s sphere grid system. It is how you add HP, attack/defense power, learn spells, and gain accessory slots. You also level up your weapons with items dropped by enemies, and can transform them into new, better weapons. Levels make an appearance in the game for enemies, but there didn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason or pattern behind them. In fact, one boss who makes more than one appearance has more than double the HP in a subsequent battle, but is two levels lower than their previous appearance. The levels for enemies is baffling, but more of a distraction than anything else.
Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII is a game that feels very familiar, yet its uniqueness cannot be properly conveyed in a written review. As I noted, everything you’ve read about this game is true (including the frequency of cutscenes, but thankfully they stay brief, never coming close to approaching Xenosaga-length proportions). But outside of a few hiccups in the AI during battles and largely useless summons, it works together seamlessly to provide an experience that weaves together a phenomenal story with unique and invigorating gameplay. Perhaps recognizing that it might not appeal to all gamers, it also offers the slower ATB mode for those who want a more traditional RPG pace in their game. So, for as much as it deviates from RPG tradition, and for a game whose hype seems to be equal parts anticipation and apprehension, it certainly delivers.
Score (out of 10, and only because someone asked): 9.0
Final Fantasy XIII was provided to me by me by way of paying for it - but I'd happily freeload if I could. It was played through to completion in just over 52 hours. Of those 52, about 4 were spent grinding characters and trying out C'ieth missions in the Gran Pulse area; the remaining 48 were spent on the main quest.