periscope's Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3) review

A Disappointing Experiment

Final Fantasy XIII is the newest title in one of the most popular JRPG franchises in the world.  Available on the Playstation 3 and XBox 360, Final Fantasy XIII boasts a fast-paced battle system, massive summons, and new world to discover.  The only question now is: Is it any good?  Grab your sword and get ready to save the world (again).

Visuals
Final Fantasy XIII is easily one of the most beautiful games on the Playstation 3.  A game of two worlds, Pulse and Cocoon, the environments are remarkably varied giving the world an expansive feel despite its linearity.  

The isolated world Cocoon has a decidedly cyberpunk feel with bright colors and futuristic machinery that dazzles the eye.  An air of dystopia hangs over many of the environments creating an ambiance of despair that mirrors the emotions of the characters.  

If the world of Cocoon is cyberpunk, then Pulse falls into the category of steampunk with its patchwork machinery that lumbers through a world fallen into disrepair.  Add to this a (somewhat) open world to explore and the two locales appear as night and day, right down the type of clothing the people wear.



The main character designs are rather subdued for a Final Fantasy game while still being distinct and alien.  Some of the more “elaborate” designs can be seen in the games enemies and side characters like the members of team NORA.  Don’t worry, there’s enough crazy hair to go around.

It’s readily apparent that a lot of care went into the look of Final Fantasy XIII, in fact with how good the game engine visuals are it’s a wonder Square Enix still feels the need to create video cutscenes at all.  There are some framerate drops, most noticeably at the beginning of a new scene, but they don’t impact the gameplay in any significant way.

Sound
Final Fantasy XIII sports an eclectic soundtrack ranging from rock to jazz to opera from composer Masashi Hamauzu.  While there is a battle theme it’s often the case that the background score will simply carry over into the fight itself.  Most battles are over so quickly, however, that it doesn’t really matter.  What is disappointing is that, with the exception of Lightning’s Theme and perhaps a couple of other pieces, the soundtrack isn’t particularly memorable and the piece that accompanies the final boss is more of a whimper than a bang.

The main characters’ vocal performances are quite good with the notable exception of Vanille.  Maybe it’s the directing, maybe it’s the actor, but for at least the first half of the game Vanille’s voice work is like nails on a chalkboard.  Although she eventually tones it down, Vanille’s voice is almost schizophrenic in its inability to settle on one dialect, jumping from child-like to super serious in a single scene.

 
Gameplay
The real meat of Final Fantasy XIII is its battle system.  While it may seem overwhelming at first, the specifics of the battle system are meted out over a long period of time.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that Final Fantasy XIII is still delivering tutorials 15-20 hours into the game.

So how does it work?

There are six available classes in Final Fantasy XIII: Commando (Warrior), Ravager (Mage), Sentinel (Defense), Synergist (Party Buffs such as Shell/Protect, Saboteur (Enemy Debuffs such as poison/slow), and Medic (Healer).  Characters default to three classes (for instance, Lightning has Commando/Ravager/Medic available), but eventually are able to develop all six.  

Players take their party and mix and match the available classes to create up to six paradigms which can be switched at any time during a battle to adapt to situations as they arise.  For example, you may start the battle with a paradigm of three Ravagers to deal some quick damage, but then switch to a paradigm containing a Medic in order to heal the party.  

Rather than traditional leveling, when a battle ends the player is awarded Crystogen Points which can then be spent on the Crystarium, a system reminiscent of the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X, to acquire new abilities and stat boosts.  The Crystarium is divided in to levels which open up at pre-determined points in the story, effectively controlling the rate at which players can advance their characters. 
However, because there’s no limit on how many Crystogen Points a player can obtain, points can be stockpiled for later use if the player wants to put additional time and effort into fighting.

The goal of a battle is to stagger the enemy as quickly as possible.  Each enemy has a stagger bar which players fill by chaining together attacks as quickly as possible.  Once an enemy is “staggered” any damage dealt increases exponentially and continues to increase as long as the stagger is in effect.  Once the battle is over players are graded on their performance (namely the time it took to win) on a five star scale where a better score means a higher chance of acquiring better loot.

Players are only given direct control of one party member in a battle with the others acting in support.  This means that if the character the player controls is killed during the battle the game is over, even if the other two party members have full health.  On the plus side battles can be restarted at any point during the fight if it’s not going well and death only sends players back to the moment before the fight, not the last save point.  In order to keep up the fast pace of the battles characters are automatically healed after each fight.

Final Fantasy XIII still adheres to the ATB system of older games, but with a slight twist.  The Active Time Bar is divided into segments and each action requires a certain number of segments to be performed (for example, Attack takes one segment, but Fira requires two).  Players can either queue up the desired actions directly or choose the Auto-Battle option and have the AI decide which actions would be most effective.  Queued attacks can be executed at any time as long as they have the required number of segments on the bar and the bar itself can be expanded through the Crysatrium.

The problem is that battles are often so fast paced and chaotic that not only is it detrimental to try and queue up the abilities manually, but once an enemy’s weaknesses have been revealed it’s unnecessary to do so in all but the most difficult of encounters.  Perhaps if Final Fantasy XIII had dropped the ATB elements and given the player real time control over the battle the system would have worked better, but as stands battles are nearly automated events where the player needs only decide which paradigm best fits the situation.

There is almost no respite from the fighting, which often makes Final Fantasy XIII feel like a tedious grind.  Apart from cutscenes there are relatively few places where the game takes a moment to catch its breath.  There is no substantial gameplay beyond the battle system, even the side quests are a series of monster hunts, and because the game’s tempo is kept continuously high and it begins to feel exhausting very quickly.  Simply scaling back the number of battles would have done a lot to alleviate this problem.

Final Fantasy XIII is extremely linear for most of the game.  Linearity in itself is not a problem, in fact it make
s a lot of sense from a story perspective and makes the open world of Gran Pulse that much more impressive, but when coupled with the battle system Final Fantasy XIII begins to feel extremely repetitive.  For the most part towns are little more than battlegrounds to be overcome.  One instance of this is in Chapter 11 where what could have been an emotional point for certain characters instead becomes another series of fights, preventing the player from really experiencing the importance of the area.  

Story / Characters
Final Fantasy XIII is your typical Final Fantasy story of a rag tag group of attractive people in their teens and twenties (with one “old” guy thrown in for good measure) who through a series of events discover that only they can save the world. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, after all what’s important is how a story is told more so than what is told, but there’s very little substance to the story in Final Fantasy XIII.

In the early chapters of Final Fantasy XIII the narrative is structured around the game’s opening event.  There’s the side of the story that the player is in direct control of which takes place following the opening and then there are flashbacks of the thirteen days leading up to that event.  It’s an interesting idea which allows the player to piece together what precipitated the circumstances they find themselves in and learn more about the characters.

At times the dialog is terrible and usually consists of characters doing little more than making declarative statements that would be
right at home in a Sunday morning special.  Conversations often come across as monologues chained together as people talk at each other rather than to each other.  The voice actors do as good a job as can be expected, but there’s little hope for gems like “Heroes don’t need a plan” and “I want you to find the hope you were named for.”

There’s little depth to Final Fantasy XIII, what you see is what you get.  The themes of the game are shouted by the characters to the extent that you may feel beaten over the head with them.  Character motivations are exactly what they tell you they are, even if those motivations are paper thin.  Worse, Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t always do a very good job conveying information in a scene and it’s often necessary to refer to the menu’s Datalog to figure it all out. Final Fantasy XIII is too often content to tell rather than show the player what’s happening.

Closing Thoughts
Final Fantasy XIII is an interesting addition to the series, but one that is ultimately disappointing.  In an attempt to streamline the experience the developers stripped away everything but the bare essentials.  The endless battles make the game feel repetitive at best and exhausting at worst. Compounding the problem is that for the last few chapters the game’s difficulty spikes, presenting enemies that are in some cases more frustrating than boss fights, making things even more of a chore.

Though beautiful to behold there isn’t much under the surface here. The narrative begins with an interesting structure, but it falls to the wayside before long and what remains is a story that is poorly presented with dialog that is unrealistic and awkward.  

It’s safe to say that whether or not someone enjoys Final Fantasy XIII is going to largely depend on what they think of the battle system.  If you’re looking for a traditional JRPG, this isn’t it, but if you’re new to the genre, if you never liked this type of game before, or if you just want tot try something different, then Final Fantasy XIII may be worth a cautious look.
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