A wonderfully crafted character-driven experience.
Final Fantasy XIII is the latest installment of the 22 year-long series known as Final Fantasy. The game received a boatload of hype at E3 and around the net. Until the day it was released, the question lingered; will Final Fantasy XIII be any good?
My answer is yes. Final Fantasy XIIII is a wonderfully crafted game. Don't let those purists bring you down.
I've been a fan of Final Fantasy since Final Fantasy VII came out. I'm not one of the fans who scream that it is the best title in the series, but it is very impressive. Final Fantasy XIII seems to be a love letter of sorts to Final Fantasy VII. This isn't a bad thing, Final Fantasy VII (as overrated as it is) is still a very good game. The way in which I feel it is a love letter is quite simple: the game's plot and a few characters seem to be an ode to the most popular game in the series.
You begin play as Lightning, a former member of PSICOM who has boarded a train that is being sent to Gran Pulse, a dangerous land under her floating world of Cocoon. The reason she is on this train is because of The Purge, a ploy by members of the Sanctum (the ruling council of Cocoon) to make citizens of Cocoon feel safe when an outbreak of L'Cie (more on them later) appears. You break out of this train, slaying PSICOM members in an awesome cutscene, and begin play in a boss battle with a man named Sazh, who is on a quest to help his son.
You meet many other friends and characters along the way, each adding their own flavor to the epic that is Final Fantasy XIII. That being said, this game isn't about Lightning. It's not about her, Sazh, Hope, Snow, Vanille or Fang. It's about all of them. It's about their story and the battle to overcome their fate. Branded with the mark of a L'Cie, the six must fulfill an vague focus so that they may escape of the fate of becoming C'ieth, only to be preserved in crystal forever.
Being a L'Cie grants you special powers (this is where magic comes in). After a few hours of gameplay, you'll be given the ability to use magic. This makes a once-boring battle system exciting and fun. The game's battle system is a whole lot different from the other Final Fantasy games. You and three allies must combine your unique abilities and powers in order to succeed in battle. The game's paradigm system makes this possible. Each party member has a certain set of roles available to them when they first get their magic, and they get the remaining roles later in the game. The roles are Commando, Ravager, Medic, Saboteur, Synergist, and Sentinel. While more than one role is available to each character, they can only use one at a time in battle. This means that Lightning can use her Commando abilities whenever she pleases, but she can't use her Medic abilities unless she switches to that role in battle. You must make paradigm decks with the available abilities that you and your companions have. You can have up to six of these in battle, and you can switch them on the fly. There are two ways to battle, auto-battle and manual. You'll start by picking your moves manually, but in the end you'll realize that the auto-battle system picks the best moves for you faster.
Many people don't like the battle system...at first. It's boring at first, and in the end all you're going to be doing is pressing A over and over again to unleash your attacks, but this isn't a bad thing. Because you don't have to worry about picking your moves/spells, you can focus more on the strategy of the battle. The battles are more fast-paced and seem to be in more real-time than ever, and you will constantly switch paradigms in order to make the best of your opponent and team.
Of course, every Final Fantasy game needs summons. The games takes back the name of Eidolons for these powerful creatures, but you can't just get them like you would a weapon. You have to fight them, and these are some of the most challenging and fun fights of the game. A doom counter is set on your party leader (the one who this Eidolon is destined to belong to) and you must fill up the gestalt gauge before it runs out. The counter is set for three minutes. Each Eidolon has a different way to defeat it, for example, the Shiva Sisters yield to those with great defense. Once you fill the gestalt gauge, the Eidolon will transform into a vehicle and it will be yours to control. These Eidolons are also great allies in battle, when summoned, all of your party members regain full health and have all status ailments removed, on top of having a great companion to fight with for a limited time. Eidolons add another layer of strategy to this system.
Perhaps the only flaw in this battle system is that once your party leader is dead, it's game over, no matter how many Phoenix Downs or how close your medic is to casting Arise. This adds a sense of frustration, but also urgency in battle.
Many people complain of the game being "one long hallway", but at the same time these people enjoyed Final Fantasy X. This game is a hallway in the same sense that Final Fantasy X is, but it's not always a hallway. Halfway through the game (much like in Final Fantasy X) you are introduced to the world of Gran Pulse, where many beasts dwell and side-quests stand to challenge you. You can't access the majority of Gran Pulse until after you beat the main story, giving you the incentive of completing the game.
Many people also complain about the story being slow until the time you reach Gran Pulse, obviously these people don't realize that this game is a character-based story. This isn't plot-based like many other Final Fantasy games and RPGs in general. As you go through the game, you become invested in the characters and watch them grow. Who you once thought was annoying has matured and became a fighter. Who you once thought was laid-back is revealed to be a scarred soul. Each character has his/her own story that is worth seeing and playing through. The game has plenty of intense moments even before the arrival on Gran Pulse.
This game's soundtrack is the first Final Fantasy title without Nobuo Uetemasu at the head of it, and let me tell you it doesn't disappoint. The game doesn't fall short of former's work nor does it surpass it, but it matches it. The soundtrack fits the surreal sense of the story and the world around you. Fighting to save the people who damn you has never felt so intense. The final battle has one of the best final boss songs out of any Final Fantasy game, it's definitely in the same league as Dancing Mad and One-Winged Angel.
All in all, this game has made some major changes to the Final Fantasy franchise, and if you're a hardened veteran you may be turned off a bit. However, if you are ready for a game that will grab you and never let go until its climatic end, Final Fantasy XIII is definitely the game for you.