I’m going to make this abundantly clear right off the bat: Final Fantasy is not only my favorite role-playing franchise, it’s also my favorite video game franchise ever. Most all of the entries in this series have provided me with some of my most memorable gaming experiences of all time, which is why whenever a new FF arrives, it’s a special moment for me. However, as I sit and attempt to write a review for Final Fantasy XIII , I’m struck with a serious conundrum to which there appears to be no easy solution: as a gamer who appreciates great games simply for the sake of being great, I’m thrilled with FFXIII. On the other hand, for a long-time fan of RPGs and the franchise in question…not so much. I say this with a large amount of sadness and I try to be firm with myself; to admit that it’s due in large part to nostalgia; that I should learn to embrace the future and simply reward the game based purely on its merits. But hard as I might, I just can’t do it. There’s no doubt that FFXIII is a fantastic achievement and I love the game (I can’t stress that enough). But…well, you’ll see.
With every new Final Fantasy , we can usually expect anther “bar-setter” in terms of visuals, especially in regards to cut-scenes. Well, I will say this- once again, you will be blown away by the cut-scenes, which are some of the most exquisitely choreographed, beautifully artistic non-interactive pieces of media ever to hit your TV screen. That’s a given. But we’ve seen so many huge advances over the past year and it would be inaccurate to say that FFXIII’s in-game graphics are the best yet; past titles like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves , Killzone 2 and the recently released Heavy Rain set a new standard for gameplay visuals. This isn’t to say FFXIII isn’t gorgeous while playing, though. The environments, despite featuring linear paths, are large and wonderfully constructed, the character detail is excellent, and the overall effects and design are a pleasure to view. But you will notice a bit of blurriness here and there, a few minor hiccups, and a lack of shiny polish we saw with something like Uncharted 2 . All that being said, I doubt people will complain.
The sound is just as good, as we receive the great benefit of a fantastic original score – another common highlight of these titles – and tremendous special effects at every turn. Everything is spot-on and at no point do you experience a balancing issue where the music or effects compete with one another for the spotlight. The voice acting is interesting… We don’t have the single best cast for a game but we do have a competent one, even if some characters can begin to chafe after a while. You might grow tired of Lightning’s gruffness and Vanille’s bounciness in the early goings but they begin to show new emotions as you progress. The dialogue still needs work, though; it reminds me of George Lucas to some extent, in that the stories are great but he can’t write dialogue for beans. But really, just about everything will sound nigh-on heavenly, especially if you’ve got a decent sound setup. This may actually be one of the more musical FFs we’ve ever had; new and surprisingly complex pieces will accompany your adventuring at all times and although I still miss that classic battle theme, I suppose I can let it slide. The effects and music are just that good.
Okay, here we go; the meat and potatoes. Let’s get the facts out of the way first, and then we’ll move into the commentary and critique. Any game that’s as story-driven as this one requires me to be discreet about the plot and characters, so I’ll just say the storyline in FFXIII is very, very good and ultimately quite satisfying, as we’ve all come to expect from this series. Technically, the main character is Lightning, a former soldier who embarked on a brave – even rash – quest to save her sister, Serah, who has been turned into a l’Cie in order to serve the fal’Cie. You’ll learn more about those strange words and the back story behind them when you play; you should also appreciate the added writing and explanation provided by the invaluable Datalog. Now, as for game progression, it is indeed very linear for the first half of the game; you are pushed along a set path at all times, with very little in the way of exploration involved. Some will compare this to FFX but at least we had towns and other standard stops along the way, and we could usually backtrack, too.
Yes, it’s true: there are no towns to wander through in FFXIII. Much has been made about this absence, and when you combine it with a lack of levels (we didn’t have levels in FFX, either, remember), and several other elements that tend to make an RPG an RPG, the negative feedback must be expected. I’ll get back to this but for now; let’s just say that most of the game feels less like an FF or an RPG and more like a straightforward action/adventure game. You will encounter enemies in pseudo-real-time in the field; they will rove about as they did in FFXII but unlike the latter installment, where you simply encountered them right there on the same field of exploration, touching an enemy in FFXIII brings you to a separate battle screen. This is a throwback to the old days, but that’s where the resemblance to the “old days” ends. Once in battle, everything plays out in real-time; you can’t even pause the combat as you could in FFXII. You also can only control the leader and if he/she dies, it’s game over. You can resurrect fallen allies but you must stay alive at all costs.
You also don’t move your character manually, as you did in FFXII. All you really do is input commands and keep an eye on the action. You have an ATB bar – a definite standard – and when it fills, you can unleash your chosen abilities. The ATB bar is broken up into segments; you’ll have two at the start and that will grow as you move forward. This will dictate the actions you choose: for instance, Lightning’s Blitz requires 2 ATB segments so the bar must be that high before she can unleash that skill. You have the option of waiting until the entire bar fills and the character will automatically execute the chosen commands, or you can press Triangle at any time to have the character execute the commands available. So if you really just want to finish an enemy quick and you only need one more strike, you don’t need to wait for the ATB bar to fill entirely so you can attack three consecutive times. How your characters operate in battle is dictated by the Paradigm System. A Paradigm sets the classes for each character in battle; for instance, DualStrike is Ravager/Ravager for two party members while Tide Turner is Synergist and Saboteur. Same idea with three party members and you can fully customize any Paradigms. Classes include Commando, Enhancer, Medic, and others.
Character advancement is done via the Crystarium, which is a simpler version of the Sphere Grid from FFX. You basically move around circular graphs and grab skills and stat boosters; the added twist is that there are separate Crystariums for each class, and each class can be upped in level. You earn Crystarium Points from battles and can distribute them however you see fit. Any abilities you learn will be automatically added to your battle queue and with the help of Libra (Scan, essentially), AI-controlled characters will know which of their learned skills works best against a particular enemy. Finally, there’s the weapon and accessory upgrade system, which is also quite simple: all those seemingly useless items you collect from battles each can be applied to a weapon or accessory, and each is worth a certain amount of experience. So if a Thickened Hide grants you 8 EXP (I forget if it does; this is just an example) and you put 5 of them on your weapon, you’ll get 40 EXP. If the weapon requires 400 EXP to level up…well, you get the picture. Now, all of this works exceedingly well.
The AI is damn good, switching between Paradigms is fast and easy, and the micromanagement outside of battle (upgrading, Crystarium, Paradigm, etc.) will satisfy most any RPG buff. Heck, I didn’t even mention the Eidolons, which are technically the Summons; they join you in combat and you can even jump on ‘em and deal even more damage. In short, the depth is here. It takes a good 7-8 hours to unlock it all, but it’s there, and it’s most satisfactory. The originality of this combat mechanic – who ever heard of a real-time system that doesn’t actually have you control the characters? – is refreshing, the challenge is significant, and the possible strategies for players are almost limitless. Once you hit the 10-hour mark, everything gels together so beautifully, it’s tough to put the controller down. Add in the great story, the likeable characters, the unbelievable CGI, the top-notch music and effects, and the overall polish and refinement, and Final Fantasy XIII is one amazing production. …and yet, I have a problem. Like I said earlier, I can’t help it.
Look, despite the depth, this just feels as if too much of the control has been wrenched from my grasp for the sake of streamlining very fast battles. I wrote an article earlier about how twitch-gaming may have affected FFXIII and I can only conclude that this is definitely the case. This is for people who quite honestly can’t sit still for ten consecutive seconds. Even the cut-scenes, notoriously long in the series, have been cut down a lot. Just because there are a lot of things to consider doesn’t mean I feel that depth in combat; too much is happening automatically behind the scenes. You can’t ever control other characters in combat and although you don’t need to, that’s beside the point. You can’t even choose your own party until you reach Pulse and even then, your options are always limited. Some of my favorite things about RPGs was setting up the party I wanted, exploring the landscape and visiting the towns, and feeling as if I were part of a virtual world . And you know, people can rag on turn-based all they want; as far as I’m concerned, that has always allowed the most amount of depth and intricacy because you had time to select from endless lists of commands.
Well, Square-Enix obviously wanted to keep that depth but in order to appease those who have to constantly press buttons throughout a battle, they were forced to automate most of it. Think about having all the options of past FFs thrown at you in total real-time with full control over each character…wouldn’t even be possible, would it? So this time, when I cast Libra to learn the attributes of an enemy, I don’t need to actually do anything with that knowledge. All I need to do is hit Auto-Battle and my character will automatically select the best possible attacks based on that information, and my other characters will do the same thing. You know what else? I like to actually see the effect my party members have on enemies. I get Comet, I wanna see Comet. One of the coolest parts of RPGs is to test out new skills to see what they look like. Sure, you can catch glimpses of special skills in FFXIII but most of the time, I find I’m just watching a bunch of bars. I’m watching health bars for my allies and enemies, the Stagger bar, the Gestalt bar; it’s just a lot of bar-watching and I only realized a little while ago that I’m not actually seeing much.
In the end, I find myself in a real pickle. I have difficulty finding anything significantly wrong or flawed about this game. It all just works so, so, so well. If this was my first Final Fantasy or even my first RPG, I’d think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever played. But I really can’t shake the recurring feeling that Square-Enix has taken something away from me. It’s hard to pin it down exactly, but it’s the void I feel when I subtract so many beloved role-playing elements; the sneaking yet distinct suspicion that I’m not playing an RPG. Maybe that shouldn’t matter. Maybe I should take the bare-bones, almost entirely objective view on this and simply score the game based on its merits alone and without the influence of the past. In fact, I know it’s probably the right thing to do. And maybe I’d manage that if this were anything but FF; if this were anything but an entry in a franchise that has had such a profoundly positive and memorable impact on my gaming career. I mean, the camera can be a bit of an issue and control isn’t entirely perfect, but that’s not enough to knock it down below a 9.
Especially not when you consider everything that’s so damn great about this game. But hey, I’m human and I’m a fan. Perhaps I’m a human and a fan before I’m a critic. And because of that, I have to do this…I have to assign it the score you see above. However, I feel better that you all have an appropriate explanation as to why and I hope you won’t hold it against me.