A deep, satisfying role-playing game backed by a thrilling story
I'm gonna be honest with ya: for the first few hours, I wasn't really likin' Final Fantasy XIII. The story wasn't grabbing me, I wasn't really caring about the characters, the gameplay wasn't terribly engaging, and, worst of all, it just wasn't much fun.
But then, after a few hours of enduring that, the game clicked. Everything just started coming together: the story had picked up and had gotten me hooked, the characters had become more interesting, the gameplay was engaging, and, most importantly, it was fun.
The change in opinion comes mostly from the fact that the game begins to flourish after getting past the slow beginning, which doesn't do the best job of getting you engrossed with the story.
The tale is the standard, unoriginal set up of "ragtag group of individuals who are brought together by chance (or fate, depending on the circumstances) set out to save the world from certain doom." But while it's nothing original, the writers take on it is at least interesting.
The game is set a world whose inhabitants are ruled over by god-like machines called fal'Cie. These beings see over the lower world "hell" of Pulse, and the floating utopia of Cocoon. Both worlds have a deep fear and hatred for each other that eventually causes the Cocoon government to "purge" much of its citizens for fear of them having been tainted by the "evil" magic of a recently discovered Pulse fal'Cie in Cocoon. It's during this purge that our hero's become entangled in a plot to destroy the world that, shockingly, places them as the ones who are to carry out the sinister deed.
As interesting as this all is, however, the game does a poor job of conveying that in the early stages of the game. This is because the game opts for a "let the player figure it out" approach, as evident by the huge amounts of info and backstory that's kept hidden in the game's massive datalog. From the way fal'Cie operate and what exactly it means to be cursed by them, to, well, everything else, the datalog is where you'll find everything you'd want to know about the world and its inhabitants.
After learning about it, you'll probably want to explore and see what secrets the world may hold. Only there's one problem: you can't. From the very start there is only way to go: forward. There are no diverting paths aside from the odd short, branching path that leads to a dead-end containing a chest, nor are there any towns (though the story pretty much explains why that is). It makes the world feel much smaller than it actually it is as a result.
It's not all bad though, as there are some good things that come from the linear design. For one thing, it keeps you from ever getting lost (something I have a tendency to do in role-playing games). And it keeps the story moving along at a nice steady pace, which is especially good since it keeps the story from hitting any slogs along the way. In fact, because of it I hardly ever thought, "Man, this would be so much better if I could go wherever I want" (though it still would have been nice), because the story had me hooked to the point where that alone was enough to keep driving me onward. Well, that and the excellent combat system, that is.
The battle system is essentially a blend of the real-time and turn-based systems of past Final Fantasy's. Battles move in real-time and at a very fast-pace, but actions are input via menus and cannot be performed until the ATB (Active-Time battle) gauge is filled. The gauge is split into segments, and each action takes a certain number of those to be used. This places some importance on deciding which actions to use, as choosing the wrong actions can result in a swift death.
The biggest difference between this and its predecessors, however, is that you only have control of one of your party members instead of all three. The other two are controlled by some relatively smart artificial intelligence, and even you, if you so choose, have an Auto-battle option that makes the game decide your actions for you. It doesn't always choose the best actions (hey, technology ain't perfect), but seeing as the battles get pretty crazy later on, you'll probably want to use it, anyway, if only to spare yourself the time of manually inputting the most simple of actions. I mean, come on, do you really wanna input "attack" multiple times when you don't have to?
One other important aspect of battle is the Paradigm system. Each character has three roles they specialize in called Paradigms. The types available range from attackers (Commando and Ravager) and tanks (Sentinel), to supporters (Synergest and Saboteur) and healers (Medic). These roles can be used to form up to six sets of Paradigms that you can switch between during battle. Composing those sets is where most the of the strategy comes in, as switching between them is what you'll mostly being doing because the aforementioned auto-battle option will be doing most of the work for you.
Battles themselves are relatively easy, frantic affairs that only require only a modicum of strategy to overcome. Enemies are easily bested in combat with bit of smart Paradigm usage and exploitation of their weaknesses despite putting up a decent fight. This is because the game keeps you and your enemies on par with each other throughout the game, which eliminates much the challenge that would normally come from battles. Bosses are where you'll find much of the challenge comes from, as they are much stronger and smarter than your average foe, and much of the time require some trial-and-error when it comes to beating them.
But while most battles are easy, they still manage to entertain thanks to their cinematic flair. Each and every fight starts off the same way: in pure chaos. Right from the start, spells start being flung about the field, covering the screen in bright lights and explosions as the two sides exchange blows. While all that is happening, the camera moves about the scene, zooming in whenever your controlled character moves in up-close for the attack, allowing you to survey the mayhem you've unleashed from some very cinematic angles that make watching them as engaging as actually playing them. Though that last part is achieved partly because of the gorgeous visuals.
Everything from Cocoon's sleek and shiny, futuristic, and crystalline world to Pulse's expansive natural, untouched fields are intricately designed, and look as though loads of care were put into their creation. The bright, saturated colors of Cocoon's towering architecture, and the vast natural splendor of Pulse will no doubt be the big eye-catchers, but even the little details like the networks of pipes that littler the underground tunnels of Cocoon will amaze you for how much work was put into even the smallest details to bring these worlds to life. It's really something.
The music is also, unsurprisingly, excellent, featuring beautiful sounding orchestrated tracks that effectively help invoke the tone of the story, and perfectly set the stage for battle. The voice work is good as well. Some characters can be a bit grating at first, but they all settle into their roles quickly and deliver their lines well throughout.
Final Fantasy XIII may start off slow in the story and gameplay departments, but don't let that hinder your enjoyment. Because if you stick with it long enough, you'll be rewarded with a grand, beautiful adventure, featuring some excellent combat. The linear design may be grating at times, but once you get lost in the excellent story, you'll all but forget that it's even there.