Inside Pulse 12

Review: Final Fantasy XIII (Sony PS3)

Final Fantasy XIII
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 03/09/2010

The visuals look pretty, as they always do in a major Final Fantasy title. The game cues up promising hints of adventure and excitement, drawing you into what you hope is going to be a magnificent ride across this land you’re seeing in the intro. Then you start the story, and realize that something is just missing, and while it has the main staples of a great Final Fantasy title, something has gone very wrong here. While the characters are interesting, you’ve just invested yourself in a 25 hour tutorial, with no branches in sight. But will it get better outside the tunnel and make the experience worth all the character melodrama with little plot? Let’s take a look.

Story/Modes

As far as the story goes, you start off in the world of Cocoon, a world that seems to operate as something like a big Dyson’s Sphere (Star Trek the Next Generation fans will get the reference) where there is a structure built around a big power source with atmosphere and living things on the shell. The people of Cocoon live in fear of Pulse, a nearby world where chaos is said to reign supreme, or the propaganda would have you believe. The leaders of Cocoon have discovered a Pulse Fal’Cie, one of the life giving energy sources that happen to be sentient, on Cocoon and anyone who’s associated with it and the Fal’Cie are being dumped from Cocoon to Pulse in true paranoid military fashion. But the Fal’Cie have ways of defending themselves, and can recruit people to do things for them, called a focus, to be accomplished in a certain amount of time or you turn into a monster. On the other hand, complete your focus and you turn into a crystal. Not a great incentive either way.

Your group is a haphazard mix of people from around Cocoon, or so you think, just trying to escape the Purge, the Cocoon government’s attempt to rid themselves of anything Pulse. Although one, Lightning, has it in her head to take out the Pulse Fal’Cie to protect her sister who has become a Pulse L’Cie, one of the Fal’Cie’s unwitting and sometimes unwilling recruits. Lightning thinks this will save her. Cocoon’s forces go overboard, and Lightning and crew get zapped by the Pulse Fal’Cie, gaining a focus, but not really understanding what it means. What follows is a haphazard mess of story telling that Michael Bay would be more than capable of delivering, and while there are some great character moments, much of this arc of the story is long and unnecessarily drawn out. In essence, it gets very old very fast. While I wanted to learn more about these people, I didn’t enjoy jumping all over the place and being forced to run with certain squad members as the story demanded it, when you could easily have flip flopped the control for the same effect, giving the player some sense of control over where things were going.

While this story could have a great depth to it what with the imminent death or transformation into a crystal hanging in the balance, the main plot really never moves anywhere the first 25 hours or so you play the game. Any good tabletop GM will tell you that railroading your players for more than a four hour session will probably get you lynched or fired from the position, and here this game is doing it to you for over six sessions! It’s not a great way to tell a story. My favorite console and PC RPG this year, Mass Effect 2, got the intro out of the way in about an hour. It taught you how to play, gave you the necessary tools you’d need, introduced the world for new players, got you your starting crew, and made things move plot-wise keeping you interested. As far as telling a truly compelling RPG story that wanted to keep me playing, Final Fantasy XIII missed the mark by a huge margin. I like character drama, but character drama without advancing anything remotely plot-wise gets old and tired.

Story/Modes Rating: Poor

Graphics

One thing in this series, that the devs have never skimped on is visuals. Whichever generation of console they’re on, the main Final Fantasy games have tried to push the visuals and make things as pretty or believable as they could get them with that generation of console, and where they couldn’t do something easily with in-game cinematics, they jumped to CGI or animated cutscenes. The line between cutscene and CGI in Final Fantasy XIII is extremely blurred. While in FF XII, FF X, and X-2 you could instantly tell between the CGI and in game graphics, it’s not so easy here. While the hair can usually be a dead giveaway, they’ve really did their best to make it match as much as possible and most of the cutscenes are done within the game engine and it is gorgeous.

They’ve gone back to jumping battle areas from where you start the fight to a bigger area that is similar to where you were fighting like they’d done in the past, whereas in FF XII you fought right where you encountered the enemy. The effect is pretty simple, but the others are really well done and not as simple. Battle animations and animations in general look fantastic and are lacking that “stand in one place and turn” animation that has plagued every Final Fantasy game I’d played to this point. The details in the environments are outstanding and while everything looks fantastical, it still carries the air of realism and symmetry that make you believe this is all in the same world or at least capable of being a part of it.

One of the places it fails, though, is in the status bars and menus. While they look pretty, apparently no one played this on an HDTV smaller than 60 inches, because on my 32 inch HDTV I struggled to really read what the bars said or where I was on the leveling gems. I find it hard to believe that a company as meticulous with the Final Fantasy titles in the past would overlook this, but I have to be able to read to play and that wasn’t always possible. Some points lost there.

Graphics Rating: Incredible

Sound

The music in this game is quite varied and each area and character seems to have a theme as varied as the next. There’s a lot of nice sounds going on musically and I found myself wishing I could find a soundtrack for when I wasn’t playing to bop along to some of the tunes. And then there were other themes or sounds where I wish I could never hear again because they were grating beyond belief, but they play continuously where you can farm out some decent points to open up new skills and levels, like alarm klaxons. And then there was the timing. Some of this great music is played over these tremendously chaotic battles and boss fights; basically, imagine in Transformers where Megatron and Optimus are dukeing it out and listening to Celene Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’. It just didn’t work, and I found that issue cropping up fairly often. And I’m used to fairly dramatic and slow music over battles, and it does work in some cases, but often the ones playing where I was were too poppish and out of place.

Then there’s the voice acting. Most of the English cast does a superb job. But there are times when certain characters just grate on you and they’re meant to be cute. Unfortunately it’s usually where the voice director was probably trying to match the pitch or tone of the Japanese version and it just didn’t work coming out of the English actor with that particular dialogue. It happens a lot in dubbed anime I watch and it just makes you cringe. It doesn’t always need to be exact, and in fact works better when you really think of the audience it’s for.

Sound Rating: Good

Control and Gameplay

Controls in this game are very responsive and I didn’t have any problems with lag at all. The left stick controls movement, the right stick controls camera direction. Face buttons control your interactions with things and people, as well as getting in and out of menus. The directional pad handles navigating the menus. The left button handles using shrouds, items to buff you and your party before a battle or to help avoid them. Very simple and straightforward like most of the other games in the series.

Gameplay has seen some changes this time around like any other Final Fantasy title, only this one borrows a bit more from any of the others in the series rather than set off in any real new direction. One of the things that drives me up a wall in this one is that you only have any real control over one character in combat at a time where in the past number of titles, not only could you control everyone on screen but could swap them out on the fly. This feels incredibly restricting, especially when your main drops and the other two for some reason can’t use a phoenix down to bring you back up and you basically have to start the fight all over again because it’s game over.

That being said, I like that I could change out my entire party’s role on the fly based on what you needed in combat at that moment through the Paradigm Shifts. Each character can take on different roles, be they offensive, defensive, or healing. Some are better at it than others. Each setup for your three characters has a different name, and they fall under Paradigms. Most of the Paradigms you’ll find in the game are ready to go, but almost every time you form up in the first part of the game, you’ll have to go in and add at least two new Paradigms because they are useful and you’ll end up using these new ones more than the others they give you to start with.

Your actions are timed, but once you’ve charged up an action in the gauge you can fire your own off early to speed things up or get a key attack in, but for the most part waiting for the gauge to fill up works just as well. One of the nice benefits of swapping out your team’s Paradigm is that it automatically fills up your action gauge, but it’s not advisable to keep swapping out your team’s Paradigm as it’ll interrupt attacks or heals that are in action. Enemies have a Chain Gauge that fill up with attacks and once it fills, enemies get staggered. When they’re staggered, other party attacks can kick in and the enemy takes a lot more damage from your attacks. The enemies who are staggered also attack less often, which is to your advantage. It’s easy to score big on the chain gauge using your casting abilities, but the gauge drains quickly that way. You have to mix things up with melee to solidify that hit on the gauge and keep it from draining too quickly before your next round of attacks.

As you move through the game, you pick up Eidolons, the equivalent of the summons from the other games, but tied directly to each individual character. Eidolons have two modes, a normal attack mode and a gestalt mode where that character rides them as a vehicle. The Eidolons have a limited amount of attacks before they exit, but depending on how you use them, they can be particularly devastating. Using the summons and a few other skills though drains your Technical Points. Technical Points are replenished slowly through scoring highly on battles or through using different shrouds. Battles are the cheaper way, and the faster and more damage you deal the better your score will be.

Also, while I’m thinking about battles, there are lots of instances where you can skip them entirely. There aren’t any random battles, and no, you can’t skip boss battles, but you can move around most enemies if you think they’re too much for you or if they just aren’t worth the resources to fight them. There are several cases in the first part of the game, and many cases later in the game where you’re just not up to a level to take a bigger creature on just yet.

You can level up your gear by upgrading it, using items you’ve gathered, or buying from shops. Character leveling is something like the system from X-2 and X cobbled together. In X-2 you had dress spheres you leveled up and you could swap those in battle to be a different role, much like in this game, and you get points to spend in the Crystarium to level up the roles you’ve unlocked in the game for each character. The Crystarium itself though works like the grid system in X where you move along a path making choices as to what you’re spending your level up points on as you go. You can unlock everything for each character, but not every character will have the same ability for each role, and it does get expensive, so if you do plan on unlocking everything, be prepared to grind for hours upon hours to get those points you need to level.

Even though much of the system seems borrowed from other games, the battles can be challenging and require a bit of strategy and planning. Some of the battles are fairly straightforward and you won’t have to shift your Paradigm much to accommodate the situation, while others you’ll be swapping all over the place to heal and jump back to buffing your team and de-buffing the enemy and then back to dishing the damage out. It takes a long time for you to truly have any control over your party’s make up, and to compensate for that at the same time you really get to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses. The game does tend to put people in the lead I never would have and frankly would have left on the sidelines. It’s good from a storytelling perspective, and gives you some insight into the character, but it also drags things out far longer than it should have.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable

Replayability

There isn’t much to get you to play through this title again, especially if you didn’t like the long winding grind through Cocoon. Luckily I have save files for the key scenes I like there. One thing that’s interesting about this title though, is that unlike other FF titles from the past, when you finish the main quest, there are still things to do: all those side quests. In fact, many of the side quests you can’t really even do until after you’ve beaten the main game. So if you can get through the first 25 hours and the main quest, there is still plenty of things to do afterward. Most of the achievements you can unlock you’ll have to follow this path as well, and with the unlocking of achievements you can unlock things to use outside of the game, like themes.

Replayability Rating: Good

Balance

While much of the game pits you in areas and against monsters you can handle as you move through it, there are some big issues with boss fights and where the drop them on you. The game itself has a retry mechanic built into it to give you a second chance at the fight which lets you go in and change stats and equipment load outs. This is especially handy earlier in the game when they switch between the members roaming around, and you have to go back to another pair or solo it and you’re in the middle of an impossible fight because right after the cutscene you got dumped there with no chance to level up or distribute gear. The planning here adds a nice bit of ease to the game as if you’re bombing out bad you can jump out and retry the battle, but at the same time it’s infuriating that they didn’t bother giving you a chance to change out your gear or level up in the first place before dumping you in against nearly impossible odds.

You do get a massive amount of play time here, like with any Final Fantasy RPG, at least 100 hours or so. So it’s well worth the price tag. But at the same time, is it worth the frustration over a quarter of that being so linear as to bore the player? It’s a tough call. The boss fights can be excessively hard after a breeze through level, especially if you can’t figure out the right tactic to use before they wipe the floor with you. Add to that not being able to raise your lead character if you drop even if you have a ton of phoenix downs on you and the frustration builds. A little bit of effort in giving the player a chance to change load outs before the fights could have balanced out the frustration a bit and made it feel less like the game was mocking you.

Balance Rating: Above Average

Originality

While this game feels fresh and new, there is a lot here that is just a simple recycling of past Final Fantasy titles and story ideas. The combat system has a few tweaks, but it’s basically the timed battle system from Final Fantasy VII with a few variations thrown in. The level up system is a combination of XII and X with the spheres and level up points. Plus, the ultimate goal in the game is to, of course, survive and save the world. One thing that is actually missing from the game is a love story between your party members, so that’s a new point at least, but may leave many of the female players a bit put out. There is a lot of the tried and true Final Fantasy fare in here with some new spins on it, but at the same time, being the 13th entry into the series, a lot of what’s here is old hat, especially for those of us who remember Final Fantasy VII so well as many of the tech monsters look similar and have similar attacks.

Originality Rating: Poor

Addictiveness

One thing about RPGs on a console, or a PC, or even playing on the tabletop, is that you’re supposed to have a feeling of control, of taking on a role within the game and getting immersed in the world. Unfortunately, this game takes all of that and throws it out the window for the first 25 hours you play it. It feels like a grind and the only reason I hung in as long as I did was because I was hoping it would get better, and it didn’t. This is the first time since I started playing the Final Fantasy titles that I had to force myself to play it. Sure I liked the characters, but I can appreciate them in the strategy guide or artbook and don’t have to play the game to get that exposure. It got much better once I could lay out my own party and run around picking my fights more, but it took way too long to get to that point at all.

Addictiveness Rating: Dreadful

Appeal Factor

Being accessible to North American gamers on both the Xbox 360 and on the PS3, this title has a lot going for it. At the same time, word has spread like wildfire about the insanely long ‘tutorial’, as people keep calling it, and a lot of people find that a really big turn off. But Final Fantasy does have a lot of fans and it appeals to a wide audience across the globe, but I think many people aren’t going to be too happy with their initial experience playing the game and will be put off with the apparent lack of freedom to do what you want after a long string of other hit RPGs out there that do.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

Miscellaneous

One of the things about console RPGs that I’ve always liked is that despite their limitations, you’ve always felt like you had some kind of semblance of control with what’s going on and that you were taking on this role, hence the moniker role-playing game. I’ve played a lot of tabletop RPGs with people, MMOs, console and PC versions of tabletops and many original ones as well. One thing a good storyteller does is make you feel like you’re doing something and having an impact. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII fails quite a bit in this aspect. You’re stuck moving in a straight line (literally if you look at the maps in the strategy guide) for so long that it feels less like an RPG than like a movie where you’re conducting the battles, and even then it’s one where you have little to no say in how they play out.

It is an interesting experiment and I can see what they were trying to do with it, it just didn’t resonate as well with me as I thought it would. I do love most of the characters, and think it is an interesting world and an great concept, but I think cutting some of the unnecessary moments out of the game would have been nice, like where I had to run in several places for a long while with no enemies in sight and it seemed like it was in there just to show how amazing the game engine made the world look. I don’t chalk this one up to one of my favorite RPGs, or even one of my favorite games. Once you get into certain points of it really does open up quite a bit and lets you go nuts with what you can do with your party and setups, but halfway through the game is far too long to keep that all bottled up for most people and they’ll pass on it.

Sure this has been one of the biggest selling Final Fantasy titles to date, but I think it’s capitalizing on a well known name and most fans feel obligated to pick it up at this point. I’ll be curious to see how Final Fantasy Versus XIII turns out and if it’ll be more of what we were expecting in an RPG from Square Enix. Am I disappointed? A little. Do I feel ripped off? No, there’s a ton of content and lots to do and experience. I would have just preferred a bit more freedom to do that in the beginning, or at least the illusion that I had that freedom.

Miscellaneous Rating: Enjoyable

The Scores
Story/Modes Rating: Poor
Graphics Rating: Incredible
Sound Rating: Good
Control and Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable
Replayability Rating: Good
Balance Rating: Above Average
Originality Rating: Poor
Addictiveness Rating: Dreadful
Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre
Miscellaneous Rating: Enjoyable
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
asheresize While Final Fantasy XIII continues the tradition of a really well polished and fantastic looking game, there are some issues with the story and the way the game is formed overall that really make it not as much of a fantastic game to play. I found it very difficult to make my way through the first part of the game, not because it was hard, but because I’d grown increasingly tired of the overdrawn out story here that really goes nowhere fast. The gameplay doesn’t offer much in terms of innovation to the series, instead relying on old mechanics pulled from other games in the series and cobbled together another way. It feels very restricting, especially after the freedom you had to expand your team in Final Fantasy XII, and for those old school tabletop RPG players out there you can really see the rails this train is riding. I do enjoy certain aspects of it, but the game feels like a retread and I was expecting much more out of one of Square Enix’s flagship titles. This is one of those games that people are either going to love or hate, and if you are on the fence about picking it up, I’d wait until it goes on sale or a greatest hits list. It’ll keep.

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