The lights are on
I love role playing games. My favorite game of all time may well be Dragon Warrior on the Nintendo. It was a completely new experience for me at such a young age... I was totally obsessed with it. In a roundabout way, it's the reason I'm such a gamer today. Then Final Fantasy came along and took the genre to the next level. 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 marquis 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. To say it's confusing is to say water is wet. 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. FFXIII got bashed in quite a few reviews about the story, but I rather liked it. 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.
One thing I particularly liked was that in the menu you can check out 'recaps' which makes things so much more clear. And, when loading from a saved game, it catches you up with that on the loading screen. As you progress through the game there are a series of flashbacks about the "Thirteen Days" prior to Lightning's assault on the train at the beginning of the game. These scenes aren't in order, and deal with all the characters. As more little pieces of the puzzle fall into place and the story slowly takes shape and you realize that there has been a common connection between the party members all along... and the magnitude of the mess they find themselves in is much worse than they realize. I won't spoil it for you, but I had the "Ohhhhhh, now I see!" reaction more than once.
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. You'll only control one player, the party leader, and the others will do what makes the most sense in the situation depending on their assigned roles. 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.
For example, 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 really tell what's going on. It all happens so fast... it makes it difficult 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... in other words 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. After a while, my girlfriend would be muttering constantly "How can you STAND that music over and over and over!?!"
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! This was surprising, considering that the FF franchise is synonymous with wide open worlds 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. It's not until about 20 hours into the story that you finally reach an area that is truly open world, but even then some areas aren't accessible and others are way above your paygrade... as in the monsters found therein will kill your party with one hit!
But for me, 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. But be wary, the higher the level the more the upgrade costs. By the time you get to the final ring of the Crystarium, each node costs about 60000 CP each! I didn't even max out one by the time I had finished the main story... but oh well. 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 as well. 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 very confusing, and needlessly complicated... some components rapidly upgrade your multiplier, meaning you'll get up to x3.0 total experience when you apply other components. You want to use those components with the highest experience while the multiplier is maxed because those components will lower the multiplier and you'll have to use more of the other type to get the multiplier back up. Whew... yeah, it's actually really annoying. You can find out online about what stuff works best, otherwise it takes a lot of trial and error. 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. I understand the desire to break the mold and try new things; to keep things from getting stale and predictable. If anything Square Enix went too far outside their comfort zone. They tried to do too much, and the end result is a pretty good game with stunning graphics and a clever plot, but is ultimately held back by some drastic design changes and pacing problems. 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...
REPLAY VALUE 26/50
341/400 = 85.3% =
FINAL SCORE of 85.3
*Sighs*... I want to give Final Fantasy XIII a better score, I really do. Were I to toss a score out off the top of my head, it would probably be an A-/B+, but because of my empirical scoring system FFXIII loses some serious points in some categories (Replay value: I honestly don't know when I'll ever play it again... as it was I put in over 60 hours and didn't do any of the hunt missions, and Design: the linearity complaints and the inaccessible hunt missions really annoyed me, but that's the developers fault). As a result the overall score suffers. If you like RPG's and don't mind something a bit different I'd still highly recommend it despite those issues... but you can tell upon playing it why it pissed off the purists so much, and was ultimately a disappointment to me. As it stands, as good a game as FFXIII was, it probably could (and should) have been better.
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