Final Fantasy XIII Review

Dan Webb

There seems to be a tradition in my household every Christmas that spurs one of our family members to take one of their gifts for their loved ones, stick it in a box and apply enough wrapping paper and layers of Sellotape that it would be enough to contain a small nuclear explosion. To them it’s hilarious, but to the poor unsuspecting soul, it’s a painful way to open up something they’ve waited so long for. That in a nutshell is Final Fantasy XIII with the real meat of the game buried beneath 20+ hours of barely bearable and linear gameplay. For the first time on the Xbox 360, the world’s longest standing franchise – probably – is back, with some slick impressive visuals, but it’s not all as plain sailing as it sounds.

Take that sucker! I lit you up like a badboy!

As one has come to expect with the Final Fantasy franchise, Final Fantasy XIII backs a group of uncouth, floppy haired individuals into a corner to – yes, you guessed it – save the world. Your crew of bizarrely named individuals – Lightning, Snow, Hope and co. – embark on an adventure to save the world of Cocoon against a terror Square Enix like to call the L’Cie. The story in Final Fantasy XIII is admittedly a little deeper than the stories the franchise usually rustles up, with plenty of conflicting motivations and nice little twists that our band of heroes face along the way, but it suffers from being a convoluted affair that takes a good few hours to truly grasp. The crux of it is, there are these divine and all-powerful beings called the Fal’Cie who can create the L’Cie to do their dirty work. These L’Cie are stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between either completing their mission – a la their Focus – whilst causing misery along the way but gaining eternal life through the peaceful slumber of crystal stasis, or not completing it and turning into a mindless monster the inhabitants of Cocoon call the Cie’th. Our gaggle of unlikely heroes must band together to fight with their so-called destiny, making plenty of hard decisions along the way. Some of you reading that might be a little confused, but don’t worry, we were for the first 5 hours.

The world that Square Enix has created to tell this story though ranks up there with the best of them and although linear at times, the universe boasts an incredible diversity to it, with environments ranging from crystal jungles and picturesque oakwood forests that contain all the colours of the kaleidoscope, to the neon city of Nautilus and the vast, wild plains of Gran Pulse. Visually, they look stunning – as do the characters and the cutscenes – but the more ambitious locations do suffer from the odd frame-rate issues – Nautilus and Gran Pulse especially. Each environment even has an equally as epic score attached to it – created by FFVII and FFX’s composer, Masashi Hamauzu – which seems to carry more of a Western vibe to it whilst still retaining the rather perky Final Fantasy charm.

The problem with the world, and most of the game for that matter of fact, is that it’s terribly linear. At times, it doesn’t even feel like a Final Fantasy title. You’ll find that you spend a vast majority of time navigating thin walkways and paths with either one of two ways to go: towards the objective or down a path that leads to an item. Side quests in this latest instalment are few and far between and it’s very rare you’ll step off the golden brick road to indulge in some random task that’s not tied to fighting your destiny.

One of the many creatures on Gran Pulse

The linearity extends to the RPG aspects as well which now takes the form of a Crystalarium. Square Enix makes a couple of fatal mistakes in this aspect because not only does the whole levelling aspect take 4 hours to unlock – which is frankly shocking – but the whole system seems dumbed down and over-simplified. It’s essentially setup via a tree of sorts with a main path to take, with the odd branch sticking out at times. The problem is, you only simply have to hold A and it levels up for you. In fact, the whole simplified notion extends across into the new battle system as well.

Replacing the traditional turn-based antics of years gone by is a more action-orientated battle system that’s still turn-based at its roots. The battle system is now based on an “ATB” gauge – which is essentially your battle meter – requiring you to queue up moves dependent on how many segments you have at your disposal. This new system runs on a timer, so it’s not a matter of mashing one move consecutively. It sounds complicated, but is in fact the exact opposite as the inclusion of an “auto” button pretty much renders any tactics obsolete. You don’t have to use it... but you do in a way. In the early stages, getting by on your own skills is easy enough, but reach the latter parts of the game and you’ll be forced into using it because you literally have to be quick on the button – no time for working out what to use and when.

The tactics and strategy actually come from another angle instead; a class system known in the game as “paradigms.” A paradigm is essentially your character’s class alignment, whether it’s a “commando” who’s attack-centric or a “ravager” which is your magic class. There are 6 classes in all – both defensive and offensive – and switching who is using what at the right time is the key to success in Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a fairly simplistic system when used with the “auto” button, but it does require thought and is a lot deeper than on first inspection. It is essential that you get your party in tandem with one another, so they can land enough successive and powerful hits as to raise your foe’s “chain gauge” and ultimately stagger them. Staggering them allows you to inflict a much greater amount of damage.

In Final Fantasy games – and other JRPGs come to think of it – the summons have usually played a big part, but it must be said in this case that the summons – Eidolons as they're known here – have stunning intro sequences, but they’re severely under-powered. So much so, that the only time I used them was to act as a damage sponge against some of the game’s stronger enemies.

Town areas are a thing of the past it seems if Final Fantasy XIII is anything to go by, if you don’t include the brief stroll through certain cities that are literally nothing but a walk in the park. Shops can now be found on save points, which in truth is actually quite handy. From the floating hubs in-game, you’ll be able to upgrade weapons and equipment – salvaging stuff you find on your travels – buy new weapons/potions/equipment and of course, save. Whilst the towns are missed for their spectacle and off-the-beaten path fun, the new hubs are handy as hell and you’re never too far away from one.

You can see for miles on the surface of the lowerworld.

If only the same could be said about the achievements, although compared to Final Fantasy XI, this is closer to Avatar! You’re looking at a ton of grinding and levelling if you want the full 1,000 points, with achievements for collecting all the items, levelling all your characters to the max and tackling a ton of the game’s bigger beasties. There are also 64 “Cie’th” stone missions to complete dotted around Gran Pulse which require you pick up a mission, then basically hunt down a specific beastie. In all, you’re looking at anywhere between 100 and 150 hours, but as far as RPG lists generally go, it’s actually a pretty solid and entertaining list.

The linearity and general ease of the title is only a minor qualm if I’m being honest because once you hit a certain point in the game, things become a hell of a lot trickier – in fact, depending on how easily you grasp the chain system and paradigms, depends on whether you’ll need to grind to get through a few later bosses. A simply fantastic save and checkpoint system means that shouldn’t be a problem though and heading into a battle that you’re likely to lose will only result in a loss of a few minutes of gameplay – plus, you start every battle with full health and there is no traditional magic reserve that you can waste, so it fits perfectly.

What I was trying to say was, the problem with Final Fantasy XIII is its pacing. To say it’s a slow starter is like trying to say that Oliver Reed enjoyed a small glass of wine with his evening meal. It’s safe to say that if the game was being rated on the first 20-25 hours alone, it wouldn’t score above 70%. If the game was rated on its first 4 hours, 40% would be about right; and 10 hours, it would be around 50%. To lock the levelling aspect in an RPG until around the 3 or 4 hour mark is possibly the worst decision in video games... ever, and to truly get the most out of Final Fantasy XIII, you need to stick it out until at least the 25 hour mark, where the game comes into its own. It’s a lot to ask of people to stick around through 20+ hours of mediocrity but those that have the determination and willpower will definitely get the reward come the end of the game. If I was totally frank, if you cut out the first 25 hours of the game, it would be an easy 90% plus title. Despite that, Final Fantasy XIII is a great title that I recommend you experience the first chance you get.

A superb musical score and one that blends the traditional quirky Japanese influence that Square Enix has continued to bring to the franchise again and again, along with the drum n’ bass beats of the Western culture. Superb stuff. The voice acting is traditional Final Fantasy as well. Cheesy and a little obnoxious, but that’s part of its charm.

Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly one of the best looking games on the 360 and the fidelity of the characters is nothing short of impressive. The frame-rate can be a little stodgy here and there, whilst the cutscenes can look a little hazy at times, but I suspect that’s the console’s technical limitations rather than anything else.

Despite Square Enix feeling the need to give you tutorials all the way up to the 10 hour mark, the game is surprisingly simple and easy to pick up and play. The paradigm system is the game’s true craft and beneath its shallow exterior lies a system that takes some time to master.

Too linear to start with and not enough side missions. The RPG aspects have been streamlined down too much as well – no towns and a repetitive battle system. A great save and checkpoint system that other JRPGs should take note of... they may have already, but I can’t remember one being this impressive.

Not a bad list actually and easily attainable. Plenty of grinding but we expect that almost with a JRPG these days. You’re looking at between 100 and 150 hours for the full 1,000, but after the initial 25 hours, the game is a hell of a lot of fun.

Final Fantasy XIII at times doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game; what with its traditional mechanics streamlined down to next to nothing and not much outside the main scope of the game to get on with. If you can put that aside though and sit through a painfully slow beginning, then Final Fantasy XIII is as rewarding as any JRPG on the console. With a fantastic score, traditionally convoluted story and stunning visuals, you’ll be getting your money’s worth and more than a few hours entertainment out of it.

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