With a glittering legacy that spans over 20 years it’s inevitable that a whole heap of expectation rides on the wings of every Final Fantasy game’s release. Living up to that sort of pressure and creating a game worthy of bearing the Final Fantasy name is an unenviable task, but Square Enix consistently delivers, creating worlds that demand to be explored. It’s clear that this developer loves its most precious franchise more than most. You only have to scratch the surface of the series to see the attention to detail to character building and the highly polished audio and visual experiences that have now become synonymous with its name. Delve even deeper and strip away its glossy exterior and you’ll find a world of creative story-telling, innovation and rich and rewarding gameplay. With all that in mind, Final Fantasy XIII is a disappointment.
Okay, so you’ve already seen the high score we’ve awarded it, right? Ah yes, well, before you jump on our backs and call us hypocrites, we want you to know that our disappointment is only slight, and it’s only because we had our own vision on what Square Enix would deliver on PS3. We hoped that our Blu-ray disc would come packed to the rafters with sprawling open-world locations littered with tons of quests to embark on and hundreds of NPCs to interact with — a world where we could really let our imaginations run wild. In that respect, Final Fantasy XIII disappoints us ever so slightly so we won’t be putting it on a pedestal and labeling it today as our favorite Final Fantasy game of all time. It is still, however, a brilliant, combat-heavy RPG that does deserve your attention.
From an audio and visual standpoint, FFXIII delivers a bedazzling display of creativity, artistry and sheer wizardry. The stunning opening cinematic sets the tone for the game perfectly and each and every cut-scene from that point forth blends seamlessly into the action, playing an important part in immersing you fully in the universe and its array of bewitching characters. Moving from the finely detailed and compact city of Cocoon to the larger area and lush green setting of Pulse has a profound visual impact, while the wandering piano solos and warm sounds of violins and cellos create an impressive audio backdrop that shifts and drops in tempo alongside the gameplay. During a fight sequence a fanfare of brass instruments will interrupt the tranquil sounds to work alongside the frantic action to create and build intensity. FFXIII is a feast for your senses and a predictably brilliant and engaging audio and visual Final Fantasy experience.
Recurring elements and themes from past games, including weapon and magic-based combat, party and upgrade systems, gives FFXIII that familiar feel, but in terms of gameplay it gets off to a slow and unfamiliar start. For the first 12-14 hours of gameplay you’re taken by the hand and lead through the game world, moving from ‘A’ to ‘B,’ from one fight to another, before tackling a big boss. There’s little chance to explore, or discover the hidden depths of the battle system — that comes later. It’s the storyline that drives you forward at this point, which alongside the impressive visuals and charming characters, just about manages to make up for the lack of gripping gameplay. Despite the frequent battles, this is a slow starter and a streamlined game with focus and direction and not the sprawling universe that some may have hoped for, although it’s worth noting that it does open up far more as soon as you hit Pulse.
Chances are, if you’re considering the notion or indeed have already bought FFXIII, you know that it isn’t a short game; you’re going to be in it for the long haul, right? Well clocking in at between 70-100 hours this first batch of fairly slow-paced, but still utterly engaging campaign, will soon be forgotten as you discover the real depths of the game, including the character development and the interweaving storyline that is driven superbly by the characters and personalities of the six party members that you’ll meet. It’s after a dozen hours or so that you’ll also start to enjoy even more the strategic depths and technical brilliance of the battle system as you get to issue commands to your party members, shape your team and assign points to various skill trees.
In a departure from the battles in Final Fantasy XII, the fights take place on another dimension where you’re transported from your location to fight against your enemy. In control of the party leader, you can issue multiple commands and stack them so they can be chained together to perform a flourish of fast-paced combos. You can also assign commands and roles to your other party members and switch on the fly to change tactics in real-time. The battles are energetic, full of pace and have a real sense of urgency about them, which adds immensely to the feeling of excitement. When full, the combo meter allows you to unleash a barrage of attacks and is a decent reward for your hard work.
The Paradigm system builds brilliantly on top of the battle system to add another layer of tactical opportunity by introducing six skill trees where you can assign points to roles, therefore working towards making your party members stronger. Square Enix has all bases covered, from the non-elemental, powerhouse that is the Commando, to the magically enhanced Synergist. With six roles to choose from and switch in between it’s a real balancing act working out the right strategy to use and it’s an extremely challenging and enjoyable system to attempt to master. As you grow in strength the number of command slots increases and you get even more chance to chain together some visually and technically impressive combos. Though you can assign auto tactics and allow your teammate A.I. to do some of the work for you, it does feel like you’re in total control of what happens. The fights are challenging so there’s a real sense of satisfaction gained from knowing that it took skill to achieve
Eidolons, those magical creatures that you can summon (from Final Fantasy IX and X,) are also back to help you in battle and each of the six party members has their own creature with their own special ability. What’s so entertaining about these magical beings is that you have to tame them before you can utilize their power, or ride them across the grasslands. This results in a battle itself with you and your party members teaming up for some enjoyable and challenging fights where you have to pull together a variety of strategies. To beat Odin, Lightening’s creature, for example, we had to heal and buff our character constantly throughout the fight and choose and switch load-outs swiftly to tame him.
And this is what FFXIII is really all about, the fighting. Yes, there are places to explore, a storyline to unfold, characters to meet and shops to peruse, but largely, in between soaking up some of the great cut-scenes, you’re going to be building up your team and getting stuck into some furiously fast battles. Everything revolves around combat — even the points system, where you gain Crystarium from fallen foes to then spend on your character roles. It’s a good job then that the combat is also the best thing about FFXIII. Working out appropriate load-outs and how you’re going to stagger an enemy before unleashing a barrage of attacking moves is a lot of fun and visually the whole battle system, from the interface to the fights themselves, have been handled with a great deal of care and style.
Despite the underlying negative attitude in our review, the world of Final Fantasy XIII is a wondrous place that is well worth a visit. The corridor design and fast-paced battles are obviously designed to streamline the whole experience, to evolve the series and cut-out elements of the gameplay that Square Enix now possibly deems as unnecessary for a modern day audience. As a result we’re sure that some hardcore fans will be as disappointed as we were with the first section of gameplay and the lack of freedom to explore. You’d be wise to stick with it though because at some point in the game you’ll kind of get what Square Enix was trying to do here. This is about striking a balance between gaining new and keeping old fans. This is a JRPG that oozes Final Fantasy out of every pore, yet strips some of its predecessor’s core features down to deliver a game that has just enough depth to appeal to fans of the series, yet enough accessibility and pace to appeal to those wanting a more action-orientated experience. It does work; it just feels a little different, that’s all.