Tradition and Innovation
I have been waiting for Final Fantasy XIII since Square Enix released the first trailer for the game in early 2006. Four years of salivatory anticipation put my expectations for Final Fantasy XIII through the roof—after all, this game is the reason I originally ponied up for a Playstation 3. After all this time, can the game possibly live up to my expectations?
Oh my, yes. Final Fantasy XIII contains the perfect mixture of familiar and brand new that every successful game in the series has brought to the table. Its beauty lies in a profound combination of simplicity and grandeur that builds steadily all the way through the story’s emotional conclusion and beyond (more on the “beyond” in a bit).
The overarching plot deals with the typical save-the-planet fare of most FF games, but stays focused on the individual characters in your party, giving them the richest personalities and backstories of any FF game outside of X. And rest assured that this Final Fantasy, like its brethren, knows when not to take itself too seriously; the baby chicken living in one character’s hair is only the tip of the iceberg. As usual, I will avoid plot spoilers in my review. I couldn’t do FFXIII’s story justice in a paragraph or two anyway.
Square Enix put essentially the same development team behind FFX in charge of FFXIII, and it shows. The pacing, story, characters, and art style recall FFX more than any other game in the series. Though it should be noted that the story and characters also share many similarities with those in Final Fantasy VII. The lead character, Lightning, for example, was designed as a female version of Cloud Strife (she’s got spiky pink hair instead of spiky yellow hair).
As I mentioned in an earlier review, critics and pedestrian naysayers all across the internet were panning Final Fantasy XIII before it even came out for various reasons, the most common being that it is too linear. This is an understandable argument, but only for those who didn’t bother to finish the game. Just like FFX, the game only truly opens up in the final three chapters (of thirteen total). Chapter 11 alone seems almost as large as the first ten chapters put together!
Final Fantasy XIII is incredibly long, eclipsed in length only by XII. I watched the end credits roll after about 65 hours, having completed half of the 60+ optional side missions. And, without spoiling any of the outstanding story, you will have the option to teleport out of the final dungeon to tackle additional sidequests and level up your characters before returning to face the game’s end boss.
The traditional level cap for a Final Fantasy game—the highest level your characters can reach—is Level 99. FFXIII, however, does away with level numbers completely. Your characters’ abilities grow through the “Crystarium,” a multi-tiered system of orbs you can activate for higher Strength, Magic, Hitpoints, and new Abilities. These attributes are spread across six different Roles (similar to the Job system in FFV).
Understanding Roles is the key to success in FFXIII’s fast and hectic fights. The battle system is mercilessly difficult, but the game steadily and skillfully gives you all the tools to master it. Even after 25 hours, you may still see a tutorial screen pop up at the start of a battle. You can turn off tutorials, but that would be a huge mistake; strategies and abilities are rarely self-evident, and there’s no reason not to let the game teach you how to use them.
At any time you will have one to three members in your battle party. The game chooses the party for you until Chapter 11, but you are still responsible for creating Paradigms to control their behavior. (I know this is confusing but stick with me.) A Paradigm is a combination of Roles. For example, one possible Paradigm for three characters could be: Commando, Medic, Saboteur. You would control the Commando directly, and the game’s excellent artificial intelligence would tell the other characters what to do, depending on the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.
You can also choose “Auto-battle” for the character you control, which selects a series of logical actions to perform. This is the best choice in most cases, as the battles are too fast to micro-manage even one character. Your job as party leader, therefore, is to create and select the most efficient Paradigms for any situation. Luckily, once you encounter and scan an enemy one time, your party will always remember and exploit that enemy’s weaknesses. The whole system works very well.
Most Japanese role playing games allow (or force) players to “level grind,” meaning fight wave after wave of minor foes in order to become strong enough to take on end-level bosses. Final Fantasy games are no exception, but usually provide a few hotspots where patient players can exploit the leveling system. At one point in FFVII, for example, you can fasten a rubber band around two buttons on your controller, let the game run all night, and come back in the morning to a party of Level 99 characters.
Final Fantasy XIII once again shakes up the RPG formula by limiting the characters’ levels based on story progression. For seasoned RPG fans, such a limitation might feel like driving a Ferrari with a speed governor that shuts off the engine at 55mph. But on the positive side, all six characters level up regardless of which ones are in your battle party—a welcome first for the series. The biggest downside to this new system is your characters cannot attain their maximum levels until after you have beaten the game.
Wait, what? Leveling up AFTER you finish the game? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Defeating the final boss sends you back to the immense Chapter 11 and unlocks the most difficult monster-hunting sidequests, each of which makes the game’s “final” boss seem as meek as a dormouse in comparison. Nothing in FFXIII compares to the absurd 3-5 hour fight with Yiazmat in FFXII, but be warned that if you want to best (or in some cases locate) all of the game’s challenges, you will have to do some research online or in a strategy guide. But that’s just part of the fun of a Japanese RPG.If it’s not obvious from this review, Final Fantasy XIII is a grand slam. It looks and sounds better than most movies, tells a beautiful and compelling story, and maintains or improves on every tradition of an outstanding twenty-year series. This is as close to perfection as video games ever come.