Final Fantasy. The name of one of the largest and most well-known franchises in the industry. Here's a fun fact: the first Final Fantasy was actually a desperation move by a near-bankrupt Squaresoft (what Square-Enix was before they merged with Enix), hence the name "Final" Fantasy. Fortunately for them (and arguably for us), it hit all the right cords, and carried the company to prosperity. Fast forward a couple decades, and we have Final Fantasy XIII. SE's been working on this baby for a few years now (much longer than most games take to make), trying to take the franchise into a new era, and boy does it show.
As per tradition, despite this being an entry in a long-running series, it has its own universe, setting and plot. There are some references and borrowed elements (Chocobos, Cid, summons, etc.), but story-wise it is entirely unrelated to other entires in the series. Speaking of tradition, SE did away with quite a bit of it here.
Final Fantasy XIII follows the stressful life of six different people who are forced together by unfortunate circumstances, and find themselves united against an unfair fate bestowed upon them by higher beings. They come from all walks of life, from main character Lightning, who is a soldier, to Sazh, a civilian pilot.
The setting is Cocoon, a gigantic planetoid of sorts where humanity lives in peace and prosperity, enjoying an age of advanced technology under the guidance of the fal'cie, godlike entities who are heralded as higher beings. Cocoon floats high above the surface of the planet Gran Pulse, known as a wild and untamed place where the strong survive and weak are weeded out. Everyone on Cocooon fears Gran Pulse something fierce. Being associated with anything related to the world below is like a highly contagious disease. If you're suspected of it, you and everyone else living in the same area as you are rounded up and Purged (banished down to Pulse). With Pulse being the equivalent of hell in the minds of most Cocoon residents, this is worse than capital punishment.
When the fal'cie need a specific task done, they pick out a human and make them l'cie by bestowing special marks upon them. While l'cie, being the only humans capable of magic, are known to be very powerful, they are treated similarly to those associated with Pulse: that is, with fear and extreme prejudice. Becoming a l'cie means the end of life as you know it. Suddenly you are hated and hunted by the government, feared by the people you once called friends, and everyone associated with you is liable to be punished by law. What's more, the task you are given by the fal'cie is only hinted at in a glimpse of a vision. Still more, you have only a certain amount of time to complete the task before you turn into a c'ieth (a mindless zombie, basically), doomed to walk the earth forever in insanity until you disintegrate. Complete the task, and you turn to crystal, maybe waking up again several hundred years later.
It's the extremely unfair circumstances that one finds oneself in after being made a l'cie that forms the basis of Final Fantasy XIII's plot. All of the six characters are made l'cie, either due to misfortune or for trying to protect their loved ones.
The six man band consists of the following:
- 21-year old Lightning, a taciturn but determined young woman who used to serve the Guardian Core (the branch of the military that guards Cocoon and its populace as palace guards, police, etc.). Lightning's own sister, Serah, was made a l'cie, and upon learning this, she sneaked onto the first Purge train she saw hoping to find some way to free Serah from her fate. Serah is Lightning's only remaining family, and thus she harbors a deep need to protect her from harm. Perhaps because of this, Lightning maintains a lone wolf personality, and is often frosty towards other characters, who may distract her from her goal.
- Snow, a large and tall young man, and Serah's husband-to-be. They were engaged to be married when Serah was made a l'cie. Lightning is especially hostile towards Snow early on, seeing him as incompetent and incapable of protecting Serah. Leader of the well-meaning but mischievous gang NORA, Snow is determined to become a hero, starting with him rescuing Serah. His extremely positive, carefree and forward-thinking attitude often irritates Lightning, but even she can't always avoid being warmed by his irrepressible flow of passion.
- Sazh, who is on the same Purge train as Lightning by coincidence, and seeing her skill, decides to follow her, hoping to find some way out of the mess. As the oldest member of the group, Sazh sometimes has trouble keeping up with the often-crazy plans and exploits of the rest of the members. He's a very down to earth person and prefers not to stray too far from reality. Sazh has a baby chocobo living in his afro, which he had been hoping to give to his son Dajh.
- Hope, a young boy who was simply visiting with his mother at the time, and was rounded up to be Purged by sheer misfortune, after being caught in the crossfire of a firefight between rebels and PSICOM (Cocoon's other military branch, which deals with foreign threats). Hope's mother joins Snow and his band to help fight PSICOM, but dies in the process. Hope sees this, and as a result harbors a grudge against Snow. Ironic given his name, Hope is thrust into the story entirely through lack of luck, which is a source of depression for him early on, and also makes him unwilling to cooperate sometimes. Lightning understands this, and takes him under her wing eventually. He is the first to break through her icy demeanor as a result.
- The other two members are Vanille and Fang. Can't say too much about these two without spilling a lot of plot content, but Vanille is a cheerful young girl who helps Hope before he bonds with Lightning. Fang is a straight-talking and somewhat cynical woman from Gran Pulse, who views Cocoon and its residents with distaste.
Final Fantasy XIII's plot, while filled with its fair share of secrets and twists, is based more in appeals to the player's emotions. Serah's fate is a constant source of concern and stress for Lightning and Snow, and the entire group is repressed by a feeling of hopelessness that could only come with being a victim of circumstance (some may be reminded of FFX). Constantly hounded by the military, and feared by the same people they used to live with, they have no choice but to seek strength from each other, leading to an incredible sense of camaraderie. As they continue to flounder and fight against their fate, you see these people progress from total strangers to brothers in arms over the course of the story. It's a good feeling.
This element of trust carries over into the battle system. SE cut off a lot of fat for Final Fantasy's appearance on a new generation of a consoles, and while some would argue they cut away too much, the result is a streamlined system that still holds true to the essence of combat in the franchise. That is, the job system.
Every character has six roles to choose from. Eventually (and I do mean eventually), you'll be able to assign any role to any character, but for most of the story each character has a preset assortment of three roles that they specialize in. The roles are Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Medic, Saboteur, and Synergist. What role your character is playing determines what they are able to do. Commandos are your bread and butter. They have increased attack, and slow down the recession of enemy chain gauges (more on that in a bit). Ravagers are your attack mages. They are essential for raising enemy chain gauges, but also wield elemental attacks. Sentinels are defensive players. They aren't able to attack (they can learn a Counter ability though), and instead task themselves with drawing enemy fire, and guarding against it. In addition to heightened defense that comes with the role, Sentinels have an arsenal of moves that let them absorb insane amounts of damage with relative ease. Medics heal, and heal only. They have access to Cure (and numerous variations of it), as well as Esuna and Raise for keeping allies in fighting shape. Saboteurs and Synergists are your de-buffers and buffers, respectively. Saboteurs make enemies vulnerable by casting status ailments like Slow and Poison, while Synergists strengthen your party members with spells like Shell and Haste.
The ATB system returns, also trimmed down. All your abilities and actions besides items revolve around the ATB bar, a segmented long blue bar that is constantly filling up. Nearly everything you do costs one or some numbers of segments from the ATB bar. Simple commands like Attack only take one segment, whereas more powerful moves like "-ga" level magic attacks can take 3-5 segments. The tradeoff is that there is no MP. As long as you have energy in your ATB bar, you can cast or attack. Multiple attack commands can be queued up on the bar to unleash combos. It may sound complicated, but it works exactly like any semi-realtime RPG battle system with a wait bar (i.e. FF12), except even simpler.
The strategy in FFXIII, and indeed the meat of the combat system, is found in the Paradigm System, which is how your organize you party members' roles. You can only have three members in combat, but there are six roles. The Paradigm system is SE's solution to this. At any time during combat, you can press L1 (or Left bumper on the 360) to bring up your Paradigm deck, which holds up to several different Paradigms, or role configurations. You can switch configurations on the fly, which is called a Paradigm shift. Tougher battles will have you switching Paradigms probably every 30 seconds at least, to accommodate changing circumstances. For example: Relentless Assault is a paradigm consisting of two Ravagers and one Commando. This is an excellent offensive Paradigm, as it allows you to quickly build up enemy chain gauges. However, with no medic, you'd have to resort to items (which become outdated quickly). Instead, if you find yourself in a pinch, you can easily switch to a more defensive Paradigm like Combat Clinic (two Medics and a Sentinel) to nurse your wounds for a bit, then switch back to an offensive paradigm to go back on the offensive. You can only have a handful of paradigms (6-7, i believe) in your deck at a time though, so you won't be scrolling through a big list of paradigms in the middle of combat. Not only does this keep the action fast, it also forces you to carefully consider how you will structure your Paradigm deck. To fight efficiently, you have to have a wide variety of paradigms at your disposal to cover a wide variety of situations. You can always jump into the main menu to re-arrange your Paradigm deck, but you shouldn't have to do this every couple battles.
I really dig the Paradigm system, because it encourages players to always and constantly explore new tactics to fight more efficiently. Nearly every time I was defeated, to me it didn't mean I needed to do some grinding to get stronger stats. It meant I needed to take a hard look at my Paradigm deck, and see just how tight an operation I could run in battle. Combat really comes together when you're switching Paradigms almost instinctively, meeting each enemy and situation head on.
For an only semi-real time based system, battles can become exceedingly fast paced. In battles against Eidolons (character summons), for example, each second counts because not only are you often working with only two members, but they are boss level enemies, and you are cursed with a dreaded Doom timer (which, when it runs out, will cause an automatic game over).
You only ever control one character in battle. Until you are given free reign to choose your battle team, this will most commonly be Lightning, with the other two being AI controlled, acting according to the role they've been given. However, never once did this occur as a problem to me, as the AI is effective and competent at whatever role it is given. Use Libra on an enemy mid-battle to reveal they are weak to water attacks, and your Ravagers will promptly switch to water spells, and your Synergists will enchant your attacks with the water element. The AI will generally focus on the same target you are attacking (to get chain gauges up), but more "all out" paradigms like Cerberus (triple Commando) will often have them pick their own targets. It doesn't waste time, either. Switch to a Paradigm containing a Sentinel and he/she will immediately grab enemy attention and switch to guarding, taking all the heat off you in a matter of 1-2 seconds. They often get to work before the "Paradigm Shift" sign even fades away. Simply put, the AI is responsive, and with their help, and the use of the Paradigm system, the party moves and attacks as a cohesive unit.
To fight effectively, most of the time you'll be looking to raise an opponent's chain gauge. Every enemy has a certain damage threshold, which when surpassed, forces them into a staggered, vulnerable state. This threshold is represented by the chain gauge. Filling the chain gauge is as simple as attacking the given enemy, but only Ravagers and Saboteurs can really fill it up. Commandos stop it from emptying, but don't make much progress filling it. Once staggered, not only is the damage done to enemies multiplied by several times, you gain access to an arsenal of new moves; namely, the ability to "float" the target. Commandos have the ability to launch most enemies high into the air, leaving them unable to attack, and open to more punishment.
It's also worth mentioning that your characters are fully healed at the end of each battle, no matter how bad or good you did. I like this decision, and it's a sensible one given the absence of MP. Not having to constantly worry about the condition of my party members, and flee from enemies due to lack of restorative items is a huge freedom, and lifts a lot of stress from the game. Furthermore, you can always pause during battle and simply restart, which puts you down right in front of the enemy you engaged. Game Overs do the same thing, unless you choose to quit.
This means I often only found myself using save stations if I was actually done playing. Besides saving, save stations grant access to various shops, where you can buy a multitude of items, upgrade components and accessories using Gil. The whole economy in FFXIII is a bit odd, because Gil is only sparingly found on the field, your primary source of it being from special components that sell for a premium. But after your medics gain access to Cure and Raise, you won't have much use for restorative items. You could use Gil to buy accessories and weapons, I suppose, but you find plenty of those as battle spoils and chest contents during your travels.
Which leaves equipment upgrades, the final service save stations provide. Using various components and materials bought and/or found, you can upgrade your weapons and accessories to buff their stats. It's a simple system, with weapons leveling up just like characters do in most other RPGs when they gain enough experience from items being applied to them. Each piece of equipment has a max level that, when reached, often provides an opportunity to transform it into a potentially better weapon using a special catalyst stone (another type of component). You can also dismantle weapons and accessories you don't need for additional materials. Some even contain components that can't be found anywhere else. I'm still not sure how important this is to the game (maybe for some of the much tougher optional bosses), but I got by just fine not really touching the upgrade system throughout the story.
Level progression in Final Fantasy XIII is handled by the Crystarium, which those familiar with FFX's Sphere Grid (or even the License Board from FFXII) should have no trouble getting used to. The Crystarium is a gigantic web of small orbs, each of which represents either an ability or stat boost. You gain these benefits simply by landing on an orb. You use Crystogenesis points gained from combat to travel along the web and gain stat boosts and learn new abilities. While it isn't impossible to grind enemies for CG points, the Crystarium caps out fairly quickly, only being expanded at certain points in the story. Besides that, I think the difficulty pacing and learning curve is done well enough that for about 80% of the game, grinding never feels even slightly necessary.
However, this is due in part to the fact that the game holds your hand for several hours, and takes its sweet time really opening up. The ATB bar and Crystarium are expanded only at certain points in the plot, and you don't even gain access to the Paradigm system (or Crystarium) until a few hours in, meaning battles are not only almost pointless for the first few hours, but they are incredibly simple and boring.
Which brings me to the Final Fantasy XIII's biggest problem: its incredible linearity. For the first 25-30 hours, levels consist mostly of you running down a straight or winding path, with little to no side paths or detours. The game does open up a significant amount eventually, but until then you go where the game wants you to go, and use who the game wants you to use (meaning you also can't switch up your battle team). Since this is more or less one gigantic, extended tutorial, the game is also pretty easy during this time.
If you're only coming along for the story (which works great, actually), this isn't really that big of a deal. If you were more interested in a "traditional" RPG experience, complete with lots of exploration and/or grinding, you're in for a really long haul. The plot itself also takes its time moving along, concerning itself more with familiarizing the player with the characters and setting. The result is a whole lot of exposition, but when things do really get moving (right around chapter 10), at least you'll know the whole situation, and be able to keep up with all the terms. While one could question the quality of a plot that requires 25 hours of exposition and build up, that's another debate.
Back to the positives. Final Fantasy XIII's production values are off the charts. The CG scenes are breathtaking, but the engine-rendered graphics aren't slouching either. SE claims that the difference between their CG scenes and engine-rendered scenes is almost nonexistent, and that's only a small exaggeration. The level of detail and animation work that went into each character model is impressive, and the environments, besides being beautiful, are imaginative, fully realized, and very unique. Really, this is a game that could sit along side Uncharted 2, Gears of War 2, and Metal Gear Solid 4 as one of the best-looking console games ever.
For a Japanese game dubbed in English, the voice acting is pretty excellent (though Vanille walks a fine line with me). All of the characters are voiced with skill and enthusiasm, so the game has no trouble conveying its more emotional scenes. I honestly didn't miss the Japanese voice track one bit.
But when you're talking about audio, the real star here is the soundtrack. And hoo boy, it is phenomenal. As soon as you start the game up, you're greeted to a touching piano piece playing during the title screen. The primary combat theme doesn't get old. Each environment is supported by an appropriate BGM. Each scene is delivered with sweeping music. The soundtrack is a masterpiece.
Despite all it does right, Final Fantasy XIII is not for everyone. Its restrictive linearity peeved me at some points, and I can't imagine myself going through those first few hours again, after getting used to all the freedom I have at the point I'm now at. Furthermore, I can definitely see the touchy-feely tone turning away some people. But only a blind person would be unable to see the amount of work and effort that went into crafting this product. The story weaves together nicely, the audio and visuals are simply exemplary, and it's not exactly a difficult game to get into. This is Final Fantasy, evolved to face a new generation of gaming, and personally I like it. A 9.0/10.