You’d be hard pressed to find a game franchise with a more passionate audience than Final Fantasy. If you need proof, then you probably haven’t been looking around too many message boards or comment sections for the numerous other Final Fantasy XIII reviews posted throughout the internet.
This could be attributed to the fact that, for many people, the series represents the seminal stories of their childhood in the same way that The Lord of The Rings was for the children of the 1960‘s. I played Final Fantasy VII when I was ten, Final Fantasy VIII when I was twelve, Final Fantasy IX when I was thirteen, and Final Fantasy X when I was fourteen. When you spend hours on end immersing yourself in these worlds, these characters, and these stories at such a impressionable young age, it’s bound to leave a lasting impact on you, so I understand the passion.
Your opinion on Final Fantasy XIII will depend greatly on your ability to like the story, or rather its storytelling method. More than any Final Fantasy game before it, XIII’s storytelling is derived from anime, and if you don’t like anime for its melodrama, long winded dialogue, and over exaggerated movement, I don’t think you’ll be too happy when the characters start spouting extemporaneous prose posing as conversation at each other like a couple of professional wrestlers cutting a promo in the middle of a ring. This style of storytelling derives from the theatre of ancient Greece, where the primary purpose of their morality plays was further development of their characters, and it is here where XIII’s story truly shines.
The interactions and evolution of the six main characters is the cornerstone of the story. While the overarching plot is still the classic ‘band of heroes saving the world’ plot, the way the story is portrayed is very personal and introspective. Each character resembles a familiar archetype (the loner, the hero, the tough gal, the jive talkin’ black man, etc.), however the game plays off and warps the very stereotypes its franchise created, which helps to create a emotional connection due to their ability to surprise you with their actions. By the end of this game, each character is a completely different person from where they started, and their progression as a group from borderline killing each other to the cohesive unit they become shows a complexity in character development that is rarely seen in games.
Establishing these emotional bonds with the cast is key, and Final Fantasy XIII’s biggest controversy is the reason it works. The first 60% of XIII isn’t just linear, it’s a straight line. There’s very few branching paths to speak of, and the ones that are there aren’t very big. Chapters one through twelve are designed for two things: to tell you a story and to train you how to fight. This sounds like a long tutorial, and it somewhat is, but there’s not a lot of downtime. You’re constantly learning new things, developing the story, changing locales, and you are always moving forward and never backward.
Long time fans of the series may find this somewhat troubling, but once you hit chapter thirteen, that all changes. Suddenly you’ll be in a big open world with all the optional areas, side quests, and treasure you can shake a magic staff at. This is where Final Fantasy XIII the game really starts to live up to its potential. Just be careful to not fight everything you see, because there’s a good chance you’re going to waltz right into something that can eat you for breakfast, which brings me to my next point: Final Fantasy XIII is a hard game. You will frequently die during routine encounters if you’re not on your toes, and this is probably the hardest entry in the series since Final Fantasy IV.
Even hardcore fans of the series are going to have some difficult fights ahead, as XIII’s combat is a very different beast. The combat doesn’t get off to the same blistering speed as the story does, as the game spends the first ten or so hours slowly feeding you the basics of the battle system and this is a good thing, as throwing the unique and complex mechanics at once could’ve been too much to handle for some. In a first for the series, you only have control over the party leader, and instead of micromanaging what each character does, any point during combat, you can initiate a paradigm shift to change the role that each character plays in battle. The combinations of classes your characters can be at any given time are limited to pre determined commands that you can select in the options menu before battle.
Imagine unloading on a boss with a offensive paradigm that features a commando (soldier) and two ravagers (black mages), then if your health is running low, you could switch to a defensive minded paradigm with a couple of medics and a sentinel (damage sponge) to build yourself back up, and then you could use a support styled paradigm with a synergist (party stat booster) and a saboteur (enemy stat nerfer) to help even the odds. The key to success in combat is discovering your opponent’s weakness and exploiting it. As you fight and learn about each enemies’ strengths and weaknesses, your party learns along with you and will act accordingly, so there’s no need to tell your party to use lightning attacks when you realize a enemy is weak against lightning, as your party learns with you. You could make the argument that the game plays itself half the time, but I didn’t really see that as a problem given what your role on the battlefield is. The game is so fast paced that you’d be dead before you were able to tell each individual party member exactly what to do, and the AI does a pretty good job of not doing anything stupid.
If Final Fantasy XIII is remembered for one thing, it will be the sheer spectacle it puts on display. This might be the single most lavishly produced game in history with hours of stunningly rendered CG and some of the finest graphics, both technically and artistically, ever seen on a console. The in-game character models are leaps and bounds above pretty much anything else on the market right now, and the facial expressions in particular are truly stunning thanks to Square Enix using that extra three months of development between eastern and western releases to re synch the lip movement with the fantastic English voice work to add that extra layer of immersion. The musical score by Masashi Hamauzu is great at points and grating at others. For every sweeping melody there’s a unfitting techno beat, but there’s plenty of great music here that can get lodged in your head.
Also, for the first time, you have a choice at launch as to which system you want to play a Final Fantasy game on. I went with the PS3 version while my PS3 lacking roommate bought the 360 version, and I definitely made the right choice. If you put them side by side and you know what to look for, the PS3 version of the game is a bit sharper and the load screens are a bit quicker, but the big difference comes in the pre-rendered cinematics, which are crystal clear on PS3 and somewhat compressed on the 360. However these problems really aren’t going to detract from your play experience, as even with the slight decrease in fidelity, this is still a incredible feast for the eyes and probably the best looking game on the 360, but go with the PS3 version if you have the option.
Longtime fans of the series have been criticizing XIII for the changes it makes to the core formula, which I find puzzling given that the series claim to fame has been its constant evolving nature, and how no two games in the series are alike. The JRPG genre has been one that has been starving for innovation and a refreshing change of pace, and Final Fantasy XIII is certainly that. Its originality derives from its streamlined nature and its no-nonsense approach to progression. Is this going to please everybody? Obviously it hasn’t, but you know what? That’s okay.
In short: You’ve never played a JRPG quite like Final Fantasy XIII, and for that it is noteworthy and worth experiencing.
+ Have you seen those screenshots? Yeah, it really does look like that
+ A wonderful, sweeping story the way only Final Fantasy can
+ It actually takes some risks with decades old conventions…
– …that longtime fans could legitimately not appreciate
– The music can be inconsistent at times
– While the 360 version still looks unreal, it doesn’t look quite as unreal as its PS3 counterpart