Overall Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Final Fantasy XIII by the Square Enix team represents the first Final Fantasy video game for the Playstation 3 generation of console gaming systems. The Final Fantasy series, a long-standing standard-setter of the role-playing game genre, especially the Japanese iterations (JRPG for short), has been among the most popular and best-selling franchises of all time, since their entry onto the scene in 1987.
With FFXIII, Square Enix decides to cast away much of the previous “sacred cow” conventions of the RPG. Gone are such assumed mainstays as relevant shops, open-end exploration, true turn-based combat, and complete control over team-battle aspects. Instead, what is presented is perhaps a reflection of what is perceived to be meeting the needs of current-generation gamers, in a more linear, faster-paced format. With a solid mixture of both long-term fans bristling at the changes yet others praising the innovations to remain relevant, Final Fantasy XIII, at the very least, offers an undoubtedly memorable experience.
The first, foremost, most eye-opening out-of-the-box features of Final Fantasy XIII is that the first 20-25 hours of its plotline are completely linear, even literally. Gameplay begins in a painfully straightforward fashion, with no control given over battle mechanics, party members, storyline choice, or free-end exploration. Instead, the game takes the player-character through a tunnel of endless enemies, with boss fights resulting in lush cinematic sequences before play is thrust back into the tunnel-digging of frenetic foe-slaughtering action.
This alone can be a huge turn-off for both long-time RPG fans and newcomers alike, but once the player has slogged through enough gameplay, they are rewarded by a more pleasing environment in which they can explore and, to some degree, choose their encounter. The story gets convoluted at times, but revolves around the Cocoon, a low-atmosphere living station where people live in a society overseen by deity characters, who assign the populace tasks (or a “Focus”) that they must complete in order to fulfill their destiny. The cast of characters is caught up in an ethical quandary as they fight against their fate, and are cast as enemies of the state as they are sent to the planet below, a more hostile setting full of monstrous beasts and more compelling elements that launch into a full-fledged thriller toward the final, riveting (and challenging) conclusion.
The battle system is interesting; although real-time bar-filling is nothing entirely revolutionary, with earlier RPG classics such as Chrono Trigger incorporating it, Final Fantasy XIII take the real-time angle a step or two further. For example, rather than the job tree of previous FF chapters, FFXIII has jobs that party members can fulfill, but also “paradigms” that the three-character sets can fulfill, designated for specific allotments of jobs per threesome. These can be switched between in real-time during battle, which adds a tactical wrinkle. For instance, you may start a fight in the Paradigm for two medics and a fighting type, only to later switch to a more offensive party scheme at a pivotal point. In fact, one provocateur toward these pivotal points is the “Stagger” state that enemies enter. Carefully driven to that point, once foes are there, they are more susceptible to damage for a limited time, thus necessitating perhaps a change in tactics toward a newly chosen Paradigm. Although these customizable, on-the-fly selections are very limited for the first bulk of the game, they later provide a very fluid, dynamic, strategy-based fighting system.
The graphics of Final Fantasy XIII are gorgeous, especially once on Pulse (or Gran Pulse, as the planet is called, around which the utopian Cocoon orbits). There, the enemies are gigantic monstrosities, the natural formations (such as the crystal forest, a sight that alone almost makes the arduous journey there worthwhile) are irresistibly visually appealing, and the cities, while not as interactive as the classic JRPG mold would usually provide, are incredibly detailed and rich in their imaginative appearance. Honestly, even the menu screens are among the most gorgeous that can be seen in a video game setting.
The soundtrack is professional-grade, high-class stuff. For Final Fantasy XIII, the composer has pulled out all the stops in order to provide atmospheric orchestral background to associate with the playtime, in addition to pulse-pounding (no Pulse-related pun intended) battle themes. One weakness, though, is that, for the uninitiated, some of the themes presented are rather cheesy and over-the-top; it can seem a little over-saccharine at times, but those used to Final Fantasy’s larger-than-life views will be numb to the effect. The writing that accompanies the cutscenes reflects similarly: Though written well, every once in a while it still falls short of compelling originality.
Creativity & Innovation
The primary catalysts of creativity have already been mentioned: The freshened-up battle system that emphasizes real-time decision-making for Paradigms (although not until after 25 hours of gameplay), along with the spectacular visuals, especially on the Gran Pulse.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII is an intricately provocative game. By its own merits, it is a watershed discussion point among RPG enthusiasts: Does it represent the future of the role-playing market, in the face of a gamer crowd that demands more action efficiency? Or does it show a surrender by the genre to the whims of the lowest common denominator? Whatever the case may be, although it is a visual feast and a bold new turn in the Final Fantasy mythos, ultimately chapter XIII is a somewhat watered-down, compromising pill of a game. It is solid, yes, but lacks the overwhelming free-flow epic grandiose feel of a true RPG classic. For such a constraining effort, especially for the first two-thirds of a game, it can earn no higher than three and a half stars out of five.