The Final Fantasy series of games has become almost legendary over the course of its, soon-to-be thirteen, iterations. It is, without a shadow of doubt, the poster-child for RPG gaming. The latest game to bear the title has been in development for what seems like an age, with Square Enix drip-feeding us screens and videos and little bits of teasing information since the inevitable title was formally announced.
Final Fantasy XIII is fairly typical of the franchise in visual representation. It starts with an intro video which is nothing short of astounding and leaves the player, jaw agape, with a white menu screen bearing the familiarly-styled logo splash. Everything about this game reeks of polish. Some of the cut-scenes are stunning in their graphical prowess, the others are simply better than anything else around. In-game graphics are certainly not perfect with some sharp corners comprising what are supposed to be curves but let’s not get too finicky about it. The game looks amazing and anything less than huge amounts of praise would be churlish.
The menus are quick and intuitive enough to serve their purpose, speeding you through the various options and mechanics of setting up your squad and engaging in successful battles. The music is sometimes repetitive and very occasionally it’s slightly out of place but at other times it is beautifully delicate and expertly matched with the proceedings. I think we can forgive the occasional jarring if it means that, for the most part, we get the melodic symphonies to match the visual spectacle.
The characters are rigid stereotypes with little dimension to them outside of what is needed to corral the story into something that the player can empathise with. There is a certain degree of back-story to each one and a couple of them develop later and in slightly more surprising ways but on the whole they are only there to fit their part in the over-arching story. Whether or not this can be seen as a negative is debatable. I would like to see a little more genuine personality in each of my squad members but with such an intricate and lengthy story to follow would it over-complicate things and muddy the waters?
The dialogue and voice acting is mildly irritating at times due to the propensity to play to the cutesy anime-styled side of the market this game is pitched at. I would prefer my speech to be less bizarre and uncomfortable and more realistic and meaningful. Again, whether this is a negative or not will depend on your tastes but for a mature audience outside of Japan it might be a little difficult to marry the child-like dialogue with the grown-up story and combat.
It may be worth noting that there are a few brief uncomfortable moments based around the implied sexual objectification of a very young woman by a much older man. It’s nothing too worrying but there are obvious (and obviously intended to be humorous) signals that there may be improper thought going on. Of course, the man also has a baby Chocobo living in his hair so perhaps we’re not supposed to take anything about him too seriously. But then why the angst-ridden sub-plot which is based around him?
In general the plot is well-conceived and intelligently worked. All of the characters diverge and reconvene at various points in the story and they all have links to each other. Some links are more important than others but there is an element of symbiosis to each character’s story. It is clear that a lot of forethought and planning has gone into the way the story progresses, with the relationships between characters sparking off at interesting moments. The plot moves along briskly enough for the genre with elements of exposition approximately every half hour.
Final Fantasy XIII is a traditional RPG with short bursts of movement interspersed with numerous battles and regular story-progressing cut-scenes. In any game of this nature the battle system is the single most important element as it essentially makes up the playable sections. Square Enix have tried to mix a turn-based system with elements of real-time danger and they have been extremely successful.
You begin a battle by running into an enemy or group of enemies who are visible on the terrain (they are usually unavoidable). If you approach without being spotted you will get a pre-emptive strike and start at a huge advantage. Your character possesses an “Active Time” bar which consists of a number of segments which recharge between uses. Each action taken by your player has an AT cost, using up a certain number of sections from the bar. Meanwhile, each supporting member of your squad will automatically attack or support based on which “Paradigm” you have set and what they consider to be the best method of attack.
Paradigms are basic tactic-groupings which allow you to set the role of each member in your group and quickly switch between them during a battle. So the aim is to use the “Paradigm Shift” function during a battle to alternate between offensive and defensive formations in an effort to deal the maximum damage to your enemy whilst allowing your own squad the opportunity to heal.
In order to deal maximum damage you should be aiming to “Stagger” your enemy (each has its own “Stagger Point” which can be learned, along with other stats, via a special function during battle) by chaining together as many successful strikes as possible. Once an enemy is staggered it takes much more damage and its attacks are hugely weakened, often to the point of no longer attacking at all.
There are six roles ranging from Commando to Medic and encompassing the usual array of protective (Sentinel), defensive and support (Synergist) roles including magic specialists (Ravager) and a Saboteur role which weakens enemies and allows much more damage to be dealt with each attack.
As well as your AT bar you also have “Tactical Points” which are used to perform certain tasks to gain a tactical edge on the battlefield. Chief among these tactical options is the ability to summon “Eidolons” which are essentially large, shape-shifting avatars linked magically to each character. Each character’s Eidolon must be defeated in combat before they can be used, via a series of button combinations, after summoning.
While it may sound complicated initially there are multiple tutorials which introduce each element of the combat system (similar for the upgrade system but we’ll come to that in a moment). Within a few battles the menus and switching systems will become second nature. And they will need to be; despite initially easy battles there are a few extremely tricky confrontations at key points which require lightning navigation of the battle menu and plenty of tactical knowledge to get the balance and timing of your Paradigm Shifts right.
There are occasional spikes in battle difficulty which will result in multiple game-over screens and retries. Usually these are fairly quick to get you back into the action but there was at least once where a retry point was a minute before the battle, running up a corridor and before points and tactics had been assigned. So for every death the short journey and the squad arrangement had to be redone. It isn’t a big issue but it is extremely tedious when you have to go through it for the sixth time because an enemy difficulty is far beyond anything previously encountered.
At the successful conclusion of a battle you will be rewarded with “Tactical Points”, “Crystogen Points” and, potentially, “Spoils”. We have already talked about TP so that leaves us with Crystogen Points and Spoils. The latter are simply items of loot, dropped by defeated enemies, which can be used to upgrade your weaponry and accessories. The former is a reward which the player must take into the “Crystarium”, a kind of 3D molecular diagram which plots each character’s abilities. CP can be used to upgrade each character’s proficiency with each role as they become available with the player deciding which areas to focus on.
Initially the game is extremely linear with rigid pathways, often only wide enough for you to move directly along, and very rare and inconsequential branches which allow your squad to select between one path or another. Each path will arrive at a converging point within a few seconds but they occasionally give you a route to sneak up on enemies for the pre-emptive strike bonus on a round of combat.
After a period of time the game opens up somewhat to allow a certain degree of freedom and side-mission selection but even these elements feel inconsequential to the progression of the story. The backdrops to the, almost tunnel-like, levels are visually arresting but that only serves to compound the issue. It looks so stunning but we can’t get to it, we can’t look closer. The use of the outdated “invisible wall” is also frustrating at times and the regular background dialogue warning us to choose our path carefully are, at best, unfortunately ironic.
- Well executed battle system.
- Visually astounding in many places.
- Great original score which is usually well-placed.
- Despite the potential shown, the characters remain slightly shallow.
- Completely linear for the first half and never opens up enough.
- Quirky dialogue is mildly grating after a while.
The battle system is quick and offers an excitement which is often difficult to establish within traditional RPG mechanics but the story progression is extremely linear with little to inspire a second play-through. While the visual spectacle is second to none and the sound design is, at times, able to stand comparison with the best there are very small and very occasional niggling issues with both.
Ultimately your enjoyment of the game will depend on your tastes but for fans of traditional RPG games (and especially for fans of the Final Fantasy series) this should be unmissable. However, for those more casual players or newcomers to the genre it may be slightly overwhelming and the repetitive nature and sheer linearity of the early level design might be quite a disappointment for fans hoping for more from this generation’s first Final Fantasy RPG.