kombat's Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3) review

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The Deepest Fantasy Yet. Eventually.

Final Fantasy XIII comes off initially as a very standard Japanese role-playing game.  As the player, you’re introduced to a cast of characters, each with their individual tale of woe, and you’re pushed into a simplistic combat system that fails to be in any way interesting.  To put it bluntly, the general first impression of this latest installment in Square’s most beloved franchise is that it’s boring beyond repair.  But, while said ingression does go on to last a near full three hours, it gives way to an infinitely more engrossing system of play immediately afterwards, and the narrative slowly becomes one of the more involved that the series has known.

Lightning is the game’s central protagonist, at least at first, but it becomes promptly clear that her story is simply one of many presented throughout the ensemble of heroes.  None of these characters are pushed to the fore, and not one of them seem at all more important than the others.  The whole tale is more focused on the cast themselves rather than the impending doom of the world, though there’s certainly some of that mixed in.  

The tale focuses heavily on a utopian world called Cocoon, and the clearly irrational fear that its denizens hold toward a group of people known as the l’Cie, specifically those hailing from the neighboring world of Pulse.  Both planets are governed by pseudo-deities called the fal’Cie, and it is they who transform humans into l’Cie, branding them with a specific focus that must be fulfilled within a certain amount of time lest they be transformed into near-mindless creatures known as Cie’th.  Through the hostility shared between the two planets, Pulse fal’Cie begin appearing on Cocoon and turning all people who come in contact with them into Pulse l’Cie, and ultimately into unwilling enemies of the state.

Much of the narrative and general character design is heavily inspired by what you might see in some of the more popular anime out there.  The setting has taken a futuristic twist for the first time in a few numerical installments, with jet packs, machine guns, and rocket launchers being of the relative norm.  The narrative set against this backdrop follows the usual Final Fantasy formula.  You’re pretty much going to be in the dark as to what’s really going on throughout most of your playtime, but after a series of twists and curves, things will become clear.

There’s a rather extreme sense of linearity dominating the first half of the experience, and that can be mostly attributed to the rather startling shake-up in the typical Final Fantasy formula.  Rather than collecting companions as the game progresses, you’re going to be introduced to most of the main cast straight from the first couple of hours.  From there, the pathway branches off, alternating the perspective between different groups of characters as they pursue their own interests before you’ll finally grasp a control over all of them.  This process can be a painful one, and in my own experience it always seemed that a character I liked was paired off with a character I loathed quite extensively.  It’s easy to see the benefits of how the first half of this title played out after it’s all said and done, but while it’s going on it can feel oftentimes like a chore in shallow disguise.

The in-engine textures are rendered almost flawlessly, making the cutscenes a pleasure to behold.  While the narrative certainly has a compelling nature to it, and while many of the characters show some promise, none of it is delivered particularly well.  It too often feels like you’re staring into the lip-quivering, teary-eyed face of one of the protagonists as they deal with one of their many internal conflicts.  That said, most of the issues these characters face are quite sympathetic, but it’s hard to continue projecting said sympathy after the dozenth time one of them breaks down and goes on some long-winded rant about their feelings and just why it’s just not fair that they’re in the position and they’re in.

Where the story intitially falls short of my own expectations, I don’t have any sort of problem with claiming that Final Fantasy XIII comes packaged with perhaps the best battle system that the series has yet seen.  Though the early hours will almost undoubtedly leave you grossly unsatisfied with the combat, getting through that specific hurdle will reward you with the Paradigm System.  During battle only the party leader can be directly controlled.  The rest of the battle team is directed by the AI through various role settings called Paradigms.  These include the melee role Commando, the damage-absorbing role Sentinel, the restorative role Medic, and a few others.  You set up character roles in the Paradigms, and swap between those to change the strategic composition of the party.

Even the more mundane encounters begin to require some varying level of strategy as the adventure progresses.  If a lot of hard-hitting enemies seem to be appearing, it’s a good idea to have one character play the Sentinel role, pulling in all of the attention and the damage while the remaining two characters lay down the pain.  If the Sentinel gets low on health, swap to a Paradigm containing a Medic and heal him or her up before going right back to it.  That example might seem rudimentary, and it is; things get considerably more complex that that, especially in the boss encounters.

Character progression is an integral piece of the Final Fantasy formula that the developers have unfortunately left to be introduced until after the lengthy tutorial has come to a close. The old-school method of gaining levels and passively increasing stats has been kicked to the curb.  The result is nearly identical to what was presented in Final Fantasy X.  Through battles each character -- including those not presented in your battle team, or even your party -- will gain points that are used in the Crystarium to purchase stat boosts, abilities, additional accessory slots, and a few other things.  Each role has its own Crystarium, and each are leveled up separately from one another.  If you pick up Blizzard in Lightning’s Ravager board, don’t expect for her to be able to use when when she’s playing the Commander role.  It’s not happening.  However, stat boosts -- increases in strength, health, etc. -- factor into the characters across all roles, regardless of which role they were purchased on within the Crystarium.

The game’s linearity does drop off somewhere around the halfway point, which is to say around twenty hours in.  You’ll be dropped into an open and extensive world filled with a few ridiculously overpowered opponents and quite a number of quests to complete.  It’s at about this point where it all feels like the Final Fantasy successor that everyone’s been holding their breath for, and while I do feel like it’s worth playing through a mixture of entertainment and rubbish to reach said stage in the game, I can’t honestly say that anyone should be expected to, regardless of their loyalty or lack thereof to the series at large.  It’s at this point also where each character can perform every available Paradigm role in the game rather than being limited to just a few.  Along with all of that, the plot becomes infinitely more interesting.  It’s a real shame that a lot of players likely won’t make it this far.

Looking at the bigger picture, Final Fantasy XIII does so much right.  All of that can be so easily overshadowed by some relatively brief segments of mediocrity, and it all works quite harshly against what could have been a highly entertaining product throughout.    Those willing to plunge through the abrasive exterior, however, will find the deep role-playing experience that they came in looking for, and those delving even deeper will uncover something even more rewarding to top of this forty-plus hour title.  This is a no-brainer for fans of the series, but those looking in from the outside might want to shy away, at least this time.        

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