Final Fantasy XIII Reader Review
Thinking about who Square-Enix were trying to cater for with this newest instalment in their evergreen Final Fantasy franchise makes my head hurt. This isn’t our game. It isn’t. By ‘our’, I mean us. Folks like you and me who play (J)RPG’s because we like our freedom to do what we want in somebody else’s fantastical guise; to develop those alter-egos as we see fit, to explore and do what we want, when we want. Coming on the heels of the most divisive and non-casual friendly Final Fantasy title ever, it seems as if Square-Enix trying to make up for a game that was so unapologetically deep with a title that is so simplified, linear and restrictive that it appears to lose a lot of what we loved about Final Fantasy in the first place.
Their reasoning for the lack of hub towns, world map and the need for a linear approach was down to budgetary concerns; it would have simply been too costly and took too much time to render these with same sort of fidelity as seen in the final product. While such claims may possess questionable merit, especially off of the back of information pointing to the fact that it’s sequel, Final Fantasy Versus XIII has reinstated a non-linear approach and a world map, we’re here to look at the final product and by all accounts it isn’t the unbridled travesty that most would have you believe.
In stark contrast to previous Final Fantasy titles, Final Fantasy XIII’s pacing has perhaps more in common with the similarly cinematic Metal Gear Solid 4 with the battle, cut-scene, battle, cut-scene rhythm feeling a little tired ten hours or so in. The game does switches gears though at around the Chapter Eleven mark, where the relentless assault of cut-scenes give way to a medium sized sandbox hub which can be explored to take on various side-missions and high level encounters.
The open world sections themselves evoke a Monster Hunter feel as you tackle progressively stronger monsters in the hope of achieving higher item giving grades, yet as one would imagine with a game so cautious and conservative in its design, it does little else to merit a serious comparison to Capcom’s open world epic franchise.
With the tremendous art and staggering visuals (on PS3 at least) comes the feeling that you are being led by the hand through a beautiful prison, one with walls that you cannot always see but one that like any other, cruelly hints and prods at what other great beauty lies outside. Constantly held by the hand and shoved down a particular route, it truly feels like there is no sense of freedom here and antiquated invisible walls do little to assuage the player. In almost every way this appears to be an ‘RPG-lite’ title and is the polar opposite of the hardcore MMO-esque trappings that were seen in the series PS2 swansong outing, Final Fantasy XII.
Certainly, if we’re looking at it from an aesthetical perspective, Final Fantasy XIII shines brighter than most this console generation. Characters faces are highly emotive and the level of detail is very impressive with all manner of skin aspects such as freckles, veins and fine muscular detail all vibrantly illustrated and apparent.
The worlds themselves are a heady mixture of lush sci-fi cityscapes and staggering naturalistic landscape vistas, with their jaw-dropping visuals and dramatic flair matched only be the disappointment that you can go only where you’re told to. Whichever way you cut it, Final Fantasy XIII is one hugely beautiful looking game and is all the more impressive for being able to shift such staggering detail around the screen at a retina pleasing smooth 30 Frames Per Second.
On a related note, Square-Enix’s reliably stellar CG team again bring the goods with pre-rendered cut scenes that are as beautiful as they are frantic, fully leveraging all of the definition, colour and smoothness of contemporary HD displays and technology. The fruits of their labour really are a sight to behold here.
Our story is concerned with Lightning, a grim-faced female soldier tasked with stopping the ‘Purge’, a wide sweeping measure by the overlords of her world, Cocoon, to eliminate anybody who may have been in contact with the l’cie; human puppets of a supreme intelligence known as the Fal’cie.
The Fal’cie, and by proxy their l’cie human thrall are apparently hell bent on destroying Cocoon, hence the paranoia of the Cocoon folk to get rid of any l’cie and their potential collaborators wherever they may be. As one might guess, nothing is really as it seems and there are twists and turns throughout, but the story nonetheless remains largely forgettable fare. The characters, for better or worse are more memorable than the plotlines that they partake in.
The main protagonist, Lightning, cuts a serious po-faced, cynically minded figure. In many ways she is evocative of Cloud from FFVII, but with a very dry, sardonic edge to her humour. Perhaps more entertaining in the first half of the game than the second, Lightning nevertheless is a compelling personality. Next up is the easy going Sazh, a former pilot with an afro that a chocobo chick has made into its mobile nest. Often a source of comic relief and an always entertaining counterpoint to Lightning’s acerbic demeanour, Sazh is easily my favourite character. Transcending his goofy sidekick comic roots early on, Sazh has a real depth of personality to him and is perhaps the most likeable, and human, of all the characters in FFXIII.
From here on however, the quality of characters take a groan inducing dip into bog standard JRPG archetypes with the emo pretty boy Hope being nothing less than outright annoying with his incessant whining and dunderheaded optimism. In the later stages of the game, he does become marginally more tolerable, by which point you have no emotional investment in such a miserable cardboard cut-out of a character anyway.
The over sexualised Vanille almost constantly annoys, with her relentlessly cheerful conversations horribly mired in wince inducing sugary delivery. Additionally, when she is not speaking she is making high pitch groans and making silly noises that make you want to stab a rusty spoon in your ear.
And Snow… well, let’s just say that if I was Lightning I would be dumping him on his rear end at every opportunity too. His consistent need to be the ‘hero’ and the centrepiece of every scene, makes him come across as a big dumb jock that needs to be reigned the heck in. Finally, the forceful Fang is perhaps the best of the rest, with a headstrong personality and a similar indomitable will to Lightning. The main problem with her however, is the scenario writers often make her motives confusing, with her changing sides and motives so many times during the course of the game, that you just become bewildered at whose side she is on and what her motivations actually are.
Plot and characters aside, the meat of the game is the rhythm of fight, cut-scene, fight, cut-scene and while the audio-visual presentation is superb, it falls to the combat and character development mechanics to truly satisfy; which for the most part it does.
The Crystarium is the hub of character advancement in Final Fantasy XIII and in many ways is not unlike the character dress sphere grid from Square-Enix’s earlier Final Fantasy franchise effort, Final Fantasy X-2. The multi-layered circular hub, besides looking very pretty, allows characters to develop in the roles available to them with Crystarium Points which are earned from battle. The more ‘CP’ you have accumulated, the further around your Crystarium ring you can go, unlocking spheres on the way that might provide extra magic, strength or HP to each party member. Using CP on the Crystarium, also allows you to unlock abilities for your role such as a higher level spell for Ravagers , a more devastating physical attack for Commandos or extra accessory slots for additional equipment.
While it possesses a nice addictive hook to upgrade your characters as much as you can, the stat and ability distribution for the Crystarium is imperfect.
One instance of this is the Medic role has the ‘Stopaga’ ability in their Crystarium, an ability typically associated with the debuff happy Saboteur role; so why not just have an additional relevant medic ability instead of an ability that would more suited to the correct role? Another example is there are also a silly amount of strength spheres in the magic user Crystariums that are just a waste of CP as users of those roles would logically speaking, never be involved in physical combat. It’s like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts and being told to hit the weights every day; it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Levelling up any of the non-starting roles when they become available, is largely a pointless endeavour unless you are planning to return to the game to finish everything off, since the stat increases are extremely small and the skills that you unlock cost a great deal of Crystarium points that would be better used on one of the primary roles.
The design theme of restrictiveness and linearity permeates here also, as even though your Crystarium for all roles may be filled out, you cannot unlock the next Crystarium level until you reach specific points in the story. Experienced RPG players will rightfully bulk at this, as this is yet again another layer of traditional freedom that has been stripped away; no longer allowing players to develop their characters on their own terms. Additionally, some characters appear to be pre-made for higher performance in some roles too, with Vanille specifically making the best use out of medic role due to her naturally higher magic stats and magic based attuned gear, and Fang being a more suitable Commando candidate due to her natural higher strength and larger strength Crystarium spheres.
The Crystarium system in turn feeds into the combat system, which on a despairing initial impression, appears to be almost completely automated, taking away any kind of meaningful interaction from the player outside of just mashing the same button over and over to win. You would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the case throughout, but after a staggered five hour or so tutorial, you begin to appreciate the hidden depths of this initially over-simplified seeming system.
Defeating enemies largely revolves around the new Stagger system. The stagger system is based on the principle that the more magical damage you do to an enemy, the closer you are to getting them to stagger. Once they are in a staggered state, they will take a great deal more damage and thusly, will be vanquished quicker too. The trick with the system however, is that not only do some enemies take far longer to stagger than others, but to maintain a successful staggered state, a decent amount of physical based damage needs to be dealt out by at least one member of your group. Should this not be done, the enemy will no longer be staggered and will revert back to their normal state, requiring you to force them to their stagger threshold once more if you want all that extra damage goodness.
Seemingly taking further strides in the direction of blanket accessibility, the combat system no longer permits individual commands to be assigned to individual party members. Instead you only have control of the party leader and can defer commands to ‘auto’, with the CPU deciding which abilities are best to use, or you may manually queue up the commands yourself. The auto command is a blessing and a curse, but is perhaps more of the latter than the former as it essentially forms the catalyst for the ‘button bashing’ that you can do to plough through the game.
Additional special abilities are also available for use in combat and can be spent using a variable amount of renewable Technical Points or ‘TP’, with the cost varying depending on the potency of the ability. Unfortunately a great deal of abilities on offer are without use and you’ll generally find that the only thing that you use TP for is for the ‘Renew’ ability which resurrects any dead party members and heals the party, or possibly for the ‘Summon’ ability which, like previous titles in the series, summons a big beastie to fight for you. Ah yes, the summons.
A hallmark of the Final Fantasy series, they have been terribly mishandled here, both in appearance and execution. The summons, or ‘eidolons’ as they are known here, are nothing more than pretty set pieces, whose low damage and high TP cost restricts the manner in which they can be used meaningfully in battle. They truly are a far cry from the epic, devastating boss crushing GF summons seen in the earlier PS1 instalments of the franchise. The added silliness of our heroes using the Eidolons are bikes, cars, and all other manner of transformable vehicles just comes across as laughable and pointlessly goofy with the vehicle based attacks looking stunted, ineffective and dealing little damage.
Another piece of the combat puzzle are Paradigms. Paradigms are party-wide strategies which can be pre-configured before battle to allow a number of different roles to work in synergy. For example, you could have a mixture of physical damage roles(Commandos) and magical damage roles (Ravagers) to facilitate the quick takedown of an enemy after a successful stagger, but you may also want a tank to soak damage (Sentinel) and a healer to resurrect or heal folks too (Medic).
Certainly, assuming you have the right Paradigms in place at the right time (something that I will touch on in a bit), you can pretty much defer everything to the CPU and win most battles, with only the trickiest side-mission bosses requiring your own manual tweaking to defeat.
The key to success in battles largely hinges on using the right paradigm in the right circumstances, using a Triple Ravager setup might be great for getting the bad guys to the stagger for example, but when the damage starts pouring in you’ll need to switch to a paradigm that at the very least has a medic role encompassed within it.
It’s largely a satisfying system and by setting these roles to specific characters beforehand, you can initiate a ‘Paradigm Shift’ mid-fight to adapt to your enemy. Indeed, your mastery of the paradigm system and how quickly you can down your foes results in a star rating being assigned post-combat, which potentially can reward the party with better loot so the scope for mastery is both plentiful and worthwhile.
That said, the mastery of the combat system is mostly satisfying but failure in combat is too easily forgiven with the fear of dying being heavily diluted by the over-compensating restart and checkpoint system. More specifically, the save points in question seem to be no more than five minutes away from each other and death to an enemy merely puts your party in front of the enemy before the fight began.
Outside of the combat though, there is very little else to do in Final Fantasy XIII. Gone are the free-roaming cities, additional distractions and world maps of previous FF titles, instead they are replaced by all-in-one save points that have all of the shops in one menu and a game world that has a degree of linearity that would sadly entirely exclude the requirement for a world map in the first place.
There is at least some cause for replayability once the game has been completed, primarily a battle with a post-game boss and the need to get each characters crystariums and ultimate weapons maxed out, but aside from this FFXIII is not a terribly compelling proposition for revisiting.
The RPG genre is perhaps the last bastion of non-casual gaming. It is a genre that demands many hours from its players, emotional involvement in its narrative and characters and the twenty-two year strong Final Fantasy franchise has demonstrated this as much as any other.
Yet with Final Fantasy XIII, Square-Enix have taken a beautiful RPG and brutally dumbed it down in every sense of the word. The end result is a game that while enjoyable in short doses as its linear mandate allows, is an alien proposition to the RPG faithful that has placed the franchise on the pedestal that it currently enjoys.
Oh, and that casual RPG market? Don’t count on it.