Final Fantasy XIII occupies an important place at a crucial time in RPG development. It may bring in a new wave of fans, but it might also weather the series' decaying fan foundation. While it's an experiment that doesn't always get everything right, but it undoubtedly provides a unique experience for anyone willing to invest the time.
- Battle system focuses more on strategy
- Gorgeous visuals and great music
- Streamlined experience trims the bloat
- Takes forever for the game to truly blossom
- Annoying quirks within the battle system
- Hardcore fans may revolt in light of dramatic changes
Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a weekend rental, it’s a commitment. Sure, that sounds obvious to any fan of the blockbuster role-playing series, but Square Enix’s dramatic changes to its formula will prove jarring to many longtime fans. Not everyone will enjoy being thrust into a world of chaotic action and feverous flipping of menus. Don’t get me wrong, the new battle system is more of an evolution of previous systems rather than a cheap gimmick. But even as a longtime fan of the series, I wonder how others will come to terms with so many drastic changes. I, for one, grew to truly enjoy it.
Of Clouds and Lighting…
It all begins on the planet city of Cocoon -- a world on the verge of breaking wide open. Fear of foreign sleeper agents spreads like wildfire through the streets. Men, women, and children indicated as a foreign threat by only a special mark are forced to board packed trains in order to be “relocated” back to their homeland of Gran Pulse. Of course, the trains never make it there. Those who know where the trains really go fight against the totalitarian government (if you can’t connect the dots at this point, I’m not going to do it for you).
Check your expectations about party members at the door. Pink-haired Lightning is not the game’s core heroine. Neither is Snow, the snowboarder-looking fellow the hero, nor Sazh, the guy with the Afro. FF13 instead spreads the focus across the six main characters and how they interact with one another. After contracting the mark of the l’Cie -- think of it as a Doom spell with a loophole -- this ragtag team must work together to overcome their differences in order to survive. The story surrounding the characters just isn’t as strong as the characters’ personal interactions. Lighting tries to overcome her loathing of Snow in order to protect him from a vindictive Hope. Sazh balances his hatred of l’Cies, the military detaining his son, and the sinking suspicion that someone in the group is the cause of all his problems. It has all the marking of a “Lost” episode with more Chocobos.
With that said, Square often lays on the soft piano a little too thick. Not every cutscene has to be an After School Special. You’ll be inundated with enough big blurry eyes and gritted teeth in the first twenty hours alone that you’ll wonder how they ever make it through a battle without having an emotional breakdown. The clips may have the sheen of "Advent Children,” but it’s hard to care about the problems of your characters when they seem to whine about them with every close-up.
There’s no “I” in “Battle System”
The key term here is “strategy.” Characters start with three different roles to begin with but can later expand to all of them around the half way point of the game. These roles dictate what a character will do in battle. For example, healers heal. Ravagers focus on black magic. Sentinels pull enemies towards them. But a healer won’t be able to attack nor can a ravager heal himself. With only three members to a team, you’ll need to find the right mix of offense and defense to get the job done. But that’s not the tricky part.
You don’t control the roles of the individual members but you develop up to six sets (or paradigms, as FF13 calls them) that you use to change tactics according to need. Do you need everyone to hold back and heal or go all out for a single attack? You have to time your paradigms so that as one tactic ends, you set another one up. If you plan the paradigm shifts correctly, it’s like an active reload in shooter games, and you’ll be rewarded with a full time bar to open up more attacks. Square ingeniously pulls the focus from single actions to something that functions as team effort. Shifting a member from one job or starting out with a different paradigm actually has a significant effect on the battle. One of the big drawbacks to this, however, is an inability to command your other party members during battle, which can make the difference between life and death.
While most of your choices take place on a 2D menu, the action actually happens on a 3D plane, with characters and pieces moving all the time - and all without your prompt. Every attack and spell in the game is bigger and does more damage, both from you to enemies, and vice versa. That’s a problem when you assign one character to act as the sentinel (i.e. the Lighting Rod of Hate) and there’s no prompt to keep your teammates clear of danger. Likewise, there’s nothing in your bag of tricks that will keep your members from clustering around the same spot. Adding insult to injury, losing your leader means losing the battle. The other two members of your party may be master healers, but once you go down, it’s all over. There are always way to work around some of these issues, though.
Even with these little problems, the game outside of battle is more than forgiving. Dying in battle does little more than put you back to where you were right before you stepped into a fight. Even if you haven’t saved for hours and you’ve used every potion in your inventory, you still leave the battle no worse for wear and a little wiser for it. FF13 encourages you to take risks and experiment. Your health goes back to full after every battle as well, so there’s no need to look for that inn after a fight. Also, perhaps, because there isn’t one…
The Lazy Susan of Monsters
FF13 is a streamlined run from one boss to the next. No towns. No inns. No shops. And for the most part, that describes the questing on Cocoon, which fills in the first 20 to 25 hours of the game. Save points scattered throughout the world after every five or so battles act as your shop. But the game is so tight-fisted with coins that you’ll only buy the occasional potion or Phoenix Down to keep you going. Honestly, I don’t miss shops or inns as much as having some sense of progress. In past Final Fantasy games, towns always gave you a reference point in your journey -- “How far am I from the last town?” “How close am I to the next?”
Without those landmarks, it’s hard to tell how far down the rabbit hole you’ve tumbled. More or less, FF13’s low points on Cocoon resemble a conveyor belt of enemies coming at you with the occasional cutscene thrown onto the assembly line. It seems that Square Enix has designed the game so that there’s a litany of creatures, minus the grind, and cutscenes peppered throughout the experience to keep you motivated in a land that has nothing to explore. The absence of towns doesn’t change the way you play, but it’s a jarring experience that some may never forgive.
Can you Get Stockholm Syndrome from a Game?
The real core of the game doesn’t start until you finally hit Gran Pulse – a large sprawling land of free-roaming fields and quests. While some of the sections in the later half of the game still won’t give you much wiggle room, Pulse provides warps to different sections to take on particularly nasty enemies once you’re strong enough to survive the fights. Quests provide not only a distraction from the main game, but new challenges that you won’t encounter in the main quest; there’s a good chance you’ll need a second playthrough. The wizards at Square Enix, however, were smart enough to let you skip the first part of the game and dive right back into the wild wasteland that is Gran Pulse.
Regarding visuals, FF13 is a stunning showcase for for HD gaming. From the vivid fields of Gran Pulse to the smaller sections of the game, it’s filled with beautiful details that can be only picked up with a big hi-def screen. When the characters aren’t crying their little eyes out, the battle scenes strike that “Advent Children”-like chord that many fans will appreciate. Though the heroes’ super iridescent skin sometimes spoils the illusion, FF13 presents a package pretty enough to hang on your walls.
And of course, there’s also the music. Though this is the first Final Fantasy game without Uematsu as the main composer, FF13 presents a rich soundtrack that matches its visuals, though I could have done without a couple of guitar rifts and sad piano moments. What hurts the soundtrack the most is that none of the songs are very memorable. After 60 hours of gameplay, I can’t remember a single song but I can still hum Celle’s Aria from Final Fantasy VI.
Can you Spare Some Change?
Final Fantasy XIII occupies an important place at a crucial time in RPG development. It may bring in a new wave of fans, but it might also weather the series’ decaying fan foundation. At times, the game feels like Square Enix’s last stand against the tidal wave of action games and Western RPGs sweeping the landscape. It eschews the grinding, getting lost, and the time loss after botching a fight, but at the cost of the positives you got from those things (player-set leveling goals and exploration, for example). The shift from individual actions to team strategy not only fits the story theme but presents a unique gameplay element to the genre. Once you actually have your team together, battles become more a matter of strategy than strength. Final Fantasy XIII is an experiment that doesn’t always get everything right, but it undoubtedly provides a unique experience for anyone willing to invest the time.