Since first being introduced to the PlayStation 2-era, the Final Fantasy formula has undergone a series of changes to the core experience that haven’t always gone over well with its most devout fans. From radical tinkering with battle systems and job classes, the developers at Squre-Enix have been far more experimental than some realize as they continue to strive to keep these never-ending fantasy adventures relevant in a changing world. With Final Fantasy XIII Square-Enix has delivered a technologically rich experience that should please most fans of the long-running franchise, even with some drastic changes to the formula that offer hints at where the next adventure might lead.
The latest fantasy takes place on the mysterious world of Pulse, and within the paradise-like floating city of Cocoon that was created eons ago by the fal’Cie, a metallic race under direction from a higher-power. The game’s opening moments introduce us to Lightning, former sergeant of the Guardian corps, and Sazh, former airship pilot, who now find themselves enemies of the state and on the run from the government called Sanctum. They’re also cursed by a specific fal’Cie, which forces them into situations and tasks against their will, and failing means becoming mindless monsters. It offers up a shifting narrative, accompanied by love-it or hate-it ATE (Active Time Events) which help tell the story from a multitude of different characters perspectives that whisk you from one character to another in proper cinematic fashion.
What follows is an expansive journey that groups Lightning and Sazh (complete with chocobo in the afro), as well as an expanding cast of misfits and fellow resisters, as they battle against the forces of both metal and magic to help save their world from destruction. While the plotting often comes dangerously close to the tired clichés of the genre, the emphasis on character depth and narrative help liven up and (dare I say) make this one of the most compelling and emotionally powerful in the series.
The gameplay and battle system is a blend of old and new mechanics, with the technical point (TP) gauge standing and the roles and paradigm system which are similar to job systems from previous titles. Essentially a simplified sphere grid called the Crystarium with you gaining crystal points (CP) to upgrade your various abilities and skills, effectively eliminating the need to level up for a more streamlined approach. The combat itself feels a bit more familiar, using a revised Active Time Battle (ATB) setup that benefits from being streamlined, and shouldn’t be too complicated for newcomers. What also helps is that upgrading your weapons in incredibly easy, as you’ll be using loot from vanquished enemies to upgrade them directly, opposed to selling it on the market.
With the right party set, tailored battles can quickly become something of an afterthought…until a boss rears its ugly head, in which case the only thing you’ll need is the Libra skill, which lets you know almost everything about the enemy, except how much HP they have left. It’s a shame that many boss battles aren’t as exciting as they should be, as several potentially epic encounters are eclipsed (at least in difficulty) by the occasional group of enemies that can get the upper hand.
The AI helps you decide the best ways to dispatch enemies, as the game doesn’t allow you to switch out party members until you’ve played through the first 20 or so hours. You’ll spend the majority of time in direct control of the leader, with the allies only as effective as you want them to be. But the in-game AI isn’t perfect, and this becomes more apparent when you can’t control much of what your allies will be doing. During battle your party will sometimes forget to heal themselves, and when the leader (that’s you) falls it’s game over. This means you’ll have to micromanage their health to keep them from dying, although you’ll still regain all health lost after every battle, and there are plenty of potions that heal everyone in the party.
Like much in the game, this simplification seems like a conscious choice to bring in new players, and might turn off some purists deriding the hands-off approach to combat and battling.
Another shift is the linear nature of the game itself, which is likely to divide those looking for a more traditional Final Fantasy experience and those willing to compromise. Many FF staples, such as exploring towns, shops, and other incidentals (like back-tracking) are completely absent from the game, excised (so we’re told) to make room for higher-definition characters and more impressive cinematic storytelling. Admittedly, this lack of flexibility can sometimes make this feel more like a movie than a videogame, but intense action sequences and compelling storyline help keep tedium at bay.
The game has benefited from its lengthy development cycle and hardware upgrade, as this is the first canon Final Fantasy to appear on a true high-definition platform, and it certainly shows. The artisans at Square-Enix left nothing to chance, as virtually every viewable area has been brushed through with loving detail and care, from highly-detailed character models (and their animation) to gloriously rendered CG cinemas; perhaps we’ve come to expect this from the series, but it still looks amazing, especially when running on capable high-definition displays. Some areas, such as caverns and other enclosures, may come off a little plain, but these are rarities in an otherwise strikingly beautiful game.
Composer Masashi Hamauzu (Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, Unlimited Saga) doesn’t disappoint with his first full-featured soundtrack in the series, and provides his own take on classic themes and instrumentals. Violin and piano pieces work together with brass sections for that genuinely epic feel. Where it really shines though is the inclusion of more native instruments like the didgeridoo from Australia when you’re exploring the lower world of Pulse, with the soundtrack often blending experimental jazz and blues with saxophone and complex rhythms. The soundtrack certainly branches itself and makes it a true Final Fantasy score, and is far more exciting than its relatively soulless predecessor. True fans will miss the opening harp that traditionally runs through the memorable theme music before starting up, and I’d have to agree with them.
Although I’d rather not comment on the unpleasant comparisons between the two platforms this game appears on, namely the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it’s easier to get their rather generic differences out of the way. Yes, the PlayStation 3 version does look slightly cleaner in gameplay and quite stunning in uncompressed, high-definition cut-scenes packed onto a single Blu-ray disc. But while the 3-dsic Xbox 360 version may lack such absolute fidelity, it appears to run a bit smoother during actual gameplay, and after installing all disc data to the hard drive, loads a bit faster.
Essentially, the two versions look and play almost identically, and all but the most unfortunate souls will find much to complain about after the title screen boots up and the game begins. Those looking to align themselves solely with the PlayStation 3 version should be grateful the franchise has yet again expanded its potential audience, and would be wise to remember its epic roots predate Sony’s platforms, too.
The game offers a unique experience, different from past games in the series. Final Fantasy XIII gives a fantastic story with a decent battle system. Though older fans of the series will more than likely complain, this is not something to miss. It’s a new era for this series and hopefully the other spin offs from this will deliver as much as this one.
Final Fantasy XIII may not be the exact game many were expecting, but its one that succeeds by offering a compelling storyline and unique gameplay that should surprise fans, and is an excellent addition to the long-running series. Its also a technological triumph, featuring some of the most impressive in-game visuals and cinematic moments currently available, and is almost indistinguishable on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. While the absence of genre staples like towns, NPCs, and greater exploration may frustrate some, my advice for those decrying the lack of features and the usual grind should spend more time focusing on the rather wonderful experience that it is, instead of worrying about what it’s not.