A Terrific Addition to a Legendary RPG Franchise
The Final Fantasy series is one of the most well known and prolific in all of video gaming. Every time a new game in the series is released, is it undoubtedly a huge event, even if not every fan cares for it at the end of the day. Recently, Final Fantasy XIII was released in North America for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and while it is not quite the absolute best game in the franchise, it is still a terrific RPG and a fantastic addition to the series.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII is about the war between two worlds; the floating technological haven city Cocoon and the wild, monster infested world Gran Pulse below. Both worlds are overseen by god-like beings known as fal'Cie who mark humans to do their bidding, known as l'Cie. The fighting becomes so intense and the public so stricken by fear in Cocoon that it's government, the Sanctum, begins to exile anyone suspected of being influenced by Gran Pulse or it's fal'Cie. Enter our group of heroes, Lightning, Snow, Hope, Sazh, Fang, and Vanille, who by chance all become l'Cie marked by the Gran Pulse fal'Cie Anima (nice FFX referrence). Now hunted by the Sanctum and the entire population of Cocoon, the six heroes must find a way to escape their fate, find out exactly what the fal'Cie actually want them to do, and ultimately find a way to end the constant waring between the two worlds.
All these characters have different reasons for fighting the Sanctum and the fal'Cie, all of which is explored in a clever combination of flashbacks leading to the exile of Cocoon citizens to Gran Pulse and through in game cutscenes. All of the characters are very well written and fleshed out, even if the story can be a little melodramatic at points. Everyone feels like a real person and you end up liking everyone in your party and even sympathize with some of the villains. What also really surprized me about the story is that it is both a classic FF story and contemporary. There are some elements of society's modern day fear of terrorism in the story, from the exiling of Cocoon citizens to the very nature of the fal'Cie marking people to do their bidding, without any care about human lives lost. Overall, it is a great story that will have people hooked from beginning to end.
The game's structure has been a point of contention for a long time now, as it is very linear in nature, and doesn't open up until around the halfway point of the game. For the most part, you'll be running down corridors, fighting monsters and finding tressure chests along the way, but you're never really allowed to completely explore the world around you. There aren't even towns in the traditional sense. Whenever you are in a town, they're treated like dungeons and are just as linear as everything else in the game. I never found this to be a problem since the pacing is very good throughout the game, though some people might have a problem with the constant linear design of the game. More variety in environments would have been nice, having a better mix of linear and open world levels, but as it is, it's not a deal breaker in any sense.
Outside of exploring the world, you'll be fighting lots and lots of monsters. Thankfully the battle system here is fantastic and rivals some of the best in the entire FF series. It uses a modified version of the Active Time Battle System (ATB) seen in many other past games. The main difference is that the time bar is divided into separate parts, and all actions take up a certain number of parts. For example, attacking takes up 1 segment of the gauge, while a powerful fire spell may take up 2 or even 3 segments. You stack up commands so that they are all executed in a combo once the time bar is filled all flowing into the next. As a consequence, there is no MP in this game, every action just takes up varrying amounts of the time bar to execute. Its a very fast paced battle system that definitely requries you to pay attention at all times, but its still very, very fun. There's a separate gauge governing Techniques, which are special attacks such as using Summons, Libra, and other spells that should be used for emergencies only.
There are two huge focal points to FFXIII's battle system, the Stagger gauge and the Paradigm Shift. Every enemy has a stagger gauge, and constantly attacking him will charge the percentage of his stagger gauge. Once the percentage on the left of the gauge matches the percentage on the right, the enemy becomes staggered, meaning his defenses are completely broken and he is suspect to massive damage. This tactic is required to get through all of the bosses and many of the enemies throughout the game. It encourages the player to think about combat offensively and really helps to bring the pace of combat up. At the same time, it does require a good bit of strategy to raise the stagger gauge, since every enemy requries different tactics in order to be staggered and open up his defenses for an assault.
The Paradigm Shift is the crux of the entire battle system in FFXIII. Basically, all of your characters are profecient in 3 different battle classes (or roles). There are six roles, Commando which focuses on attacking enemies, Ravager which specializes in elemental spells, Sentinel which basically is a fortress for your party, Synergist which buffs your party, Saboteur who debuffs the enemy, and Medic who heals your party members. In the main menu, you are able to customise different combinations of roles between all of your party members, and you are able to create up to 6 combinations. During battle, by pressing the L1 button, you are able to cycle through all of your role combinations (or paradigms) and shift between them on the fly during battle. You only directly control one character on the battle field, while the game's excellent AI governs the other two along with the role they are currently in. The game requires experimentation with different role combinations in order to best fit the given situation and really encourages you to experiment with new strategies and party configurations. The Paradigm Shift is a great way to take the monotoy out of field battles and does a lot to energizing combat. With all of these new elements, its surprizing how similar the combat feels to other games in the FF series. It definitely feels like an FF battle system, while at the same time giving combat a new energized spin and direction. The only real issue I had with the battle system is that if your main character dies, it's an instant game over. It makes some fights end prematurely and can be irritating at points to say the least. Besides that one fault, the battle system in FFXIII is a great, fast-paced combat system that other JRPGs should study and learn from.
You use Crystogen points you earn in battle in order to level up your characters using a board game like system called the Crystarium. Using Crystogen points, you activate nodes on the board that do things from increasing your HP, strength, magic, and teaching you new abilities altogether. Each character role has a unique Crystarium layout for each character, so while the roles for each character eventually learn all the abilities for that role, the characters learn them at different times and have certain affinities for different stats. For example, both Hope and Sazh are able to learn the Synergist role, yet Sazh is able to learn Haste much more quickly than Hope and has more attack boosting nodes. Likewise, Hope learns abilities such as Barthunder (give a weapon Thunder elemental damage) before Sazh and has more magic boosting nodes. This system works very similarly to FFX's Sphere grid, and gives a nice amount of individuality to all of the characters by making the roles similar yet different for each character. It's a very good way to motivate you to keep fighting on since you know by just getting 500 more points will allow Lightning to learn her special attack, Army of One, and things of that nature. And since the battle system is so fun on top of that, it is never a chore to level up and upgrade characters.
Summons work similarly to FFX where your Eidolons replace the other two members of your party once called in. You fight along side them continuing to attack the enemy and can execute combos as well. You can combine with your summon in something called Gestalt mode, in which your summon transforms into a vehicle (just go with it), and your character mounts him in order to execute more powerful attacks and to execute the summon's ultimate attack. The summons are used mainly in emergencies, but are still very usefull throughout the game. Their steep TP costs discourages you from using them all the time, but as a get out of jail free card, they succeed.
The final gameplay system is upgrading weapons and accessories. You basically use monster droppings and materials found in the world to add experience to weapons and accessories which over time levels them up and makes them much more powerful. Once you have maxed out a weapon or accessory, you are able to transform the item into a completely new, more powerful one and start the cycle over again.
Some other changes from previous FF games include being able to retry any battle for no penalty, having your health recharged at the end of every battle, and using save points to go to shops as opposed to towns.
The graphics in FFXIII are in a word gorgeous. The world is very bright and colorful, making it a joy to explore whenevery you're in it. There's a very interesting techno-organic theme in everything in the game, ranging from the many environments your explore, to the monsters, the character designs themselves. The detail is unmatched by any game I've played recently and overall you will be constantly amazed by how good this game looks. Finally, the music is fantastic and fits the world perfectly. Some tracks are better than others, but this is definitely one of the better soundtracks in the FF series, and some of the songs are going to be remembered for a long, long time to come.
Final Fantasy XIII is one of the best RPGs of this console generation and the new high point for subsequent JRPGs to follow. Not every design choice is flawless and the game doesn't reach the point of being the best in the entire FF series, but rest assured, if you love the FF series, you need to buy this game immediately. For everyone else, I still recommend you at least check it out, you may be surprised.
I give Final Fantasy XIII, an A-.