Can Final Fantasy Redeem Itself?
Note: This Final Fantasy 13 review reveals no plot details other than the first few seconds of the opening sequence. Character names and occasional area descriptions may be included, however, so read at your own risk.
Reuniting With A Lost Child
It took five long years (nine if you're of the camp that doesn't consider Final Fantasy 11 and 12 true Final Fantasies), but the most recent title in a legendary RPG series that'll either make you choke a moogle or elevate your happiness to Level 99 has finally arrived. Knowing that the latest popular JRPG is upon them, Final Fantasy's detractors are already hiding their hair gel and are watching Chuck Norris workout DVDs, so they aren't mistaken for one of Cloud Strife's secret admirers.
Fans of prior games in the most popular JRPG series in the West (that doesn't include pokeballs anyway) are doing something entirely different -- they're wondering if Final Fantasy 13 will entrap them with unwanted innovations, or if it will quickly become endearing with moments that rival the discovery that Gau has a father in Final Fantasy 6.
People in both camps will probably be shocked with how beautiful, innovative, and inaccessible Final Fantasy 13 is. It's a game that could make a teenage boy drop his favorite girly mag because of its stunning looks and originality -- even though the likelihood of him completing it free of frustration is just as implausible as his dreams of hooking up with Tila Tequila.
Appearances Aren't Everything...Screw It. Yes They Are.
From the first time you witness Lightning kicking ass, it's love. You'll notice Lightning's startlingly realistic hair that looks as if it's straight from the pages of a beauty magazine (not that I read those or anything). But that's nothing compared to her impressive acrobatic maneuvers in and out of combat.
Of course Lightning's backward flips and flurry of sword slashes would be nothing without Final Fantasy 13's amazing graphics engine and smooth animations that rival Nathan Drake's humanlike clumsiness in Uncharted 2. Whether you're in futuristic metropolises full of rotating highways and airships or a jungle with caves and changing weather patterns, it's impossible to deny that Final Fantasy 13 looks beautiful.
Its pathways (with a few exceptions) may be narrow, but you're free to look at your surroundings with the game's fully rotatable camera. This is a blessing, as viewing the world of Final Fantasy 13 feels like looking down upon a serene landscape from a lofty peak. Final Fantasy 13's crystalline lakes, Matrix-esque environments, and chaotic city streets are easily the most colorful, superbly rendered environments of this console generation.
Fortunately, these environments aren't merely pretty pictures -- they're also home to various types of wildlife and hair-gel using pilgrims. As with Final Fantasy 12, you'll find an assortment of beasts that roam the land. All enemies are visible on the field, so there are no surprises once a battle begins.
And just like their fearsome foes, three of your allies are always visible on the field. They'll speak occasionally as you traverse the game's many paths (which unfortunately is difficult to hear unless you remain stationary), but they'll also go off on their own to scout ahead. The fact that your comrades act independently has no effect on gameplay, but it makes your characters' fantastical journey feel just a tad more real.
Breathing in Final Fantasy's gorgeous scenery while exploring has always been a pleasure, but sadly, Final Fantasy 13's environments aren't perfect. Each of Final Fantasy 13's locations feels distinct and inviting, but at times, the game's labyrinths feel twice as long as they should have been. Exploring secret military installations and forests home to bio-weapons production was initially exciting, but as replicas of various rooms full of similar monsters began to appear more frequently, these environments lost their appeal and felt like an artificial game-extender.
Is Linearity A Game Breaker?
Some of Final Fantasy 13's detractors also decry its extreme linearity. Much like Final Fantasy 10, its dungeons are mostly point A to B excursions that are made simpler by a mini-map that points you to your objective. Occasionally, there are branching paths; one which usually contains a set of enemies and a treasure sphere, but there's generally just a single destination.
Fans of open-world games may see this as a negative, but personally, I appreciated this streamlined approach. I miss being able to fly an airship, but at least I was able to fully appreciate my pilgrimage to Cocoon since I never got lost.
A big stink also arose when it was mentioned that Final Fantasy 13 had no towns. This isn't entirely true, as you will travel to a few bustling metropolises and futuristic hamlets; it's just the way you interact with villagers that may be offsetting for longtime Final Fantasy fans.
Instead of chatting it up with the locals by approaching them and pressing 'x,' you'll walk by and hear them complain about missing children or other current events. I really didn't mind this new style of communication, but it was difficult to hear what these soft-spoken villagers had to say. Fortunately, the story and character interactions made this one-way communication unnecessary anyway.
Is The Open-World Portion Satisfying?
Due to Final Fantasy 13's untraditional approach to villages and linear locales, some fans have claimed that it isn't a true Final Fantasy -- that is, until a later open-world chapter. I disagree with this notion, because Final Fantasy was linear from its inception, and I actually felt that the single open-world chapter detracted from the experience.
When I reached this point, it was initially amazing standing in the middle of a vast, open plain staring into the distance -- until I realized there was nothing to do. I could run around fighting monsters to earn additional abilities and beef up character attributes, but there wasn't much else other than Marks, bareback chocobo-riding, and a few optional bosses.
The lack of direction was a bit disconcerting, but it was the pitiful side-quests and tedium of this chapter that affected the game's momentum like a banana peel tripping a sprinter. I found Final Fantasy 12's Hunts a poor excuse to extend the game's length, despite the appearance of classic baddies such as Gilgamesh, so I was disappointed to see them return in an even more mundane form in Final Fantasy 13.
Even treasure hunting atop large, yellow birds wasn't fulfilling. Final Fantasy 9 had an amazing treasure-hunting experience that gave you tangible rewards, while FF13's feel random and pointless. Riding these classic Final Fantasy mascots does allow you to battle the game's most challenging monsters, however, so hardcore grinders will want to seek them out.
A Boring Grind? Or Strategy Heaven?
Of course Final Fantasy 13's paltry offering of side-quests isn't central to the experience, so it'd be best to discuss something that is such as its innovative battle system. Final Fantasy 13's combat surprised me like a bug assaulting my eye -- but it didn't sting. It's an incredibly innovative, fast-paced system that plays out like a carefully choreographed Martial Arts duel.
As with all Final Fantasies post-FF6, you bring three characters into battle, but from there, it diverges from the familiar. Instead of inputting attacks in a standard Active Time Battle System or Final Fantasy 12's MMO-like combat, you perform several moves per turn with a single character while managing your other party members as if you were a football coach.
The single character you control can input as many moves as her ATB gauge allows. If her gauge is represented by four bars, then she scan allocate those four points among abilities that have different costs. Assuming Lightning is of the Commando class and all of her four bars are full, she can use 'Attack' four times, 'Blitz' (a multi-enemy attack) twice, and any combination of 'Attack' and 'Blitz.' In a way, this system is similar to that of Chrono Cross in that you can input several different moves in a single turn.
Despite only having direct control of a single character, there's a considerable amount of strategy involved. This is partly due to the fact that each of your six characters can eventually choose between six classes that significantly alter their fighting styles.
Six Essential Classes
The first of these classes, the Commando, is a fighter that primarily relies on weapons as opposed to magic. When paired up with Ravagers (who mostly cast spells and perform elemental weapon attacks), powerful combinations will ensue that can quickly bring your opponent into a state of submission.
In Final Fantasy 13, there's a chain gauge on the top right of the screen that's just as vital to your success as paying attention to green bars over your opponents' heads that represent their health. This chain gauge builds up quickly when you use your foes' weaknesses to your advantage, and once it's full, the enemy being attacked enters Stagger Mode.
While in Stagger Mode, enemy defenses are broken, so your allies can quickly annihilate their opponents by juggling them in the air and pummeling them with combos. Some enemies can only be defeated while in Stagger Mode, so determining enemy weaknesses is essential. Fortunately, the ability 'Libra' will pinpoint their Achilles' Heel, and your allies automatically respond by changing their techniques to suit the enemy's weaknesses.
Properly using Stagger Mode is key to your success, but so is understanding the other classes. The other classes include a Sentinel (a beefy defender that draws enemy attacks), a Synergist (casts spells such as protect and shell on allies), a Saboteur (debuffs enemies), and a Medic who heals allies.
Before battle, you can form paradigms in the menu that consist of combinations of these classes. There are several useful pre-made paradigms, and it's also possible to create your own.
It's wise to think ahead before entering combat, but fortunately, it's also possible to change paradigms during battle. At first, you may think this is unnecessary, but as the game slowly guides you, you'll begin to realize that Final Fantasy 13's strategic boss encounters necessitate shifting to different paradigms.
For example, while fighting monstrous opponents or hordes of enemies that that quickly pound away at your characters, it's wise to have a Sentinel draw their attacks, while other classes cast 'Haste' and lower the enemy's defenses with status debuff spells. Then, you can transform into a Commando and Ravagers to beat your enemy senseless -- or at least until you need to heal by shifting to a paradigm that includes Medics and Sentinels.
Innovative, But Not Flawless
Some boss battles (most notably, the eidolon encounters) require further refined strategies. You'll sometimes have to focus on enemy movements and stances, and look for a brief window of opportunity to strike with a specific ability.
These tactical encounters that rarely require grinding are one of Final Fantasy 13's strong suits, but occasionally, you'll come across opponents that necessitate lightning-fast reflexes and a little bit of luck, in addition to a very specific, unconventional strategy.
Unfortunately, these situations are frustrating enough to make newcomers quit. It's a shame that a few battles make it relatively inaccessible to RPG virgins, because Final Fantasy 13's strategic approach is a refreshing change from the mundane grinding that created pacing problems in Final Fantasy 12.
Sphere Grid: Part 2
To complete Final Fantasy 13, it's necessary to engage enemies in your path, so you can learn abilities from the Crystarium, which is an even more linear version of Final Fantasy 10's Sphere Grid System. Each character has their own path through each of the game's six classes, so you can assign them abilities of your choice, but initially, you're limited to three.
Final Fantasy 13 slowly feeds you new abilities and classes, and you're initially forced to play as certain characters with defined roles. I appreciated this, as Final Fantasy 13's battle system is quite complex, and it exposed me to characters I probably never would have experimented with otherwise. Some individuals may not appreciate decisions being made for them, however, but at least you can form your own party and classes during the final quarter of the game.
Cocoons Without The Butterflies
I appreciated Final Fantasy 13's progressive battle system, but I was even more impressed with its fantastic story and relatable characters. Final Fantasy 13 immediately engages the player by throwing them into the midst of a terrifying purge that is rocking the floating world of Cocoon.
Shortly before the game begins, inhabitants of a Cocoon city came into contact with a fal'Cie -- a powerful world-building being from the lower lands of Pulse, which Cocoon fears because of an ancient war that threatened its existence. There's more than one fal'Cie, and they inhabit both worlds, but the fal'Cie of Pulse are viewed as a poison, because they transform Cocoon citizens into l'Cie (i.e. magical beings that do their bidding).
Panic arises whenever a Pulse fal'Cie is discovered, and to quell the masses' unrest, those who encounter these entities are immediately deported. Final Fantasy 13 starts in the midst of one of these incidents, and the main character Lightning and a small resistance force are fighting this purge for reasons unknown.
As the game progresses, there's substantially more to the story -- as you might expect, but what sets Final Fantasy 13 apart from previous installments is its increased focus on character development and interactions between your band of heroes. The game includes numerous sub stories chalk full of touching moments, and there's a real sense of characters growing as individuals as Final Fantasy 13 progresses.
Say Goodbye to Vaan
It also helps that characters such as Sazh, Snow, and Vanille are such relatable people. While Sazh may appear to be a ridiculous stereotype on first glance, he's actually one of the most rational (albeit humorous) characters the Final Fantasy series has ever seen. As you slowly discover his backstory through flashbacks and in-game incidents, it's easy to identify with his feelings and reactions.
Likewise, I grew to appreciate Snow even though he's reckless and idealistic to a fault. Snow is a dependable, good-hearted individual despite the careless decisions he'd frequently make. Perhaps this is due to my pent up animosity towards so many effeminate Final Fantasy characters, but I really enjoyed playing as an ordinary-looking, yet charismatic man for once.
Unlike Snow, Vanille has an unusual voice (read: extremely high-pitched), but I still felt she was a great character despite her moans being akin to that of a porn star. I appreciated how she counteracted the habitually negative Hope by her frequent encouragement and friendliness towards other people.
Despite previously doubting Final Fantasy 13's ability to bring me back to the series, it immediately destroyed my skepticism. It was difficult putting the game down with its focus on strategy as opposed to grinding and its charming story full of plausible characters. Final Fantasy 13 isn't perfect; it has a relatively sparse (albeit high-quality, orchestrated soundtrack), occasionally frustrating boss encounters that require a bit of grinding and luck, and pacing problems towards the end of the game, but overall, it's a stunning achievement that'll win back those who lost faith in the Final Fantasy series.
· It features one of the most well-rounded casts in Final Fantasy history
· Includes an intriguing story inspired by real world scenarios
· Its revamped, tactical battle system moves at a brisk pace
· Features excellent orchestrated tunes and (mostly) talented voice actors
· The most graphically impressive game of this console generation
· Unnecessarily long dungeons
· Random difficulty spikes hurt the game's accessibility
· Variations of the same musical themes are repeated ad nauseam
· Pacing issues towards the end make the conclusion ineffectual