Final Fantasy XIII Xbox 360 Review
Lightning Strikes, Snow Falls, and Hope is Lost
Final Fantasy: for RPGamers and RPG developers alike, this is the Holy Grail of franchises. No other RPG series has seen the commercial and critical success that Square Enix’s flagship has, and this is not accidental. Each game is a meticulously crafted masterpiece that pushes the current technology to its limits, and the stories, characters, and worlds always manage to live on in the hearts of minds of every gamer who experiences them. Everyone has a favorite, and everyone has one that they despise, and while the fans will happily get at each other’s throats when discussing the games, they always line up for the next installment. Final Fantasy XIII finally brings the series to the current generation of consoles, and as has come to be expected from the series, Square Enix has once again created a fantastic game, but it’s not without its flaws.
Final Fantasy‘s thirteenth installment takes place in a protectionist society called Cocoon, which exists encapsulated in a large sphere that hangs in the sky over the world of Pulse. The citizens live in constant fear of invasion from the surface after an attack centuries earlier cracked open the shell of their world, and rely entirely on the fal’Cie, godlike creatures that provide Cocoon with virtually everything it needs to exist — food, weather, and even light. While Cocoon’s fal’Cie are revered as benevolent protectors, the fal’Cie of Pulse are feared and demonized, to the point that anyone who comes in contact with anything from Pulse is considered tainted. When a Pulse fal’Cie is discovered in their own society, a cataclysmic chain of events leads the government to purge an entire city of civilians, and leads six strangers to become l’Cie, indentured servants of the Pulse fal’Cie who must complete their appointed task or suffer a fate worse than death.
The story is fast-moving and filled with mysteries that unravel as the game progresses, and it’s paced perfectly, with cutscenes popping up intermittently as you move through each area. The characters are also fantastic, each presenting themselves as a typical JRPG archetype in the beginning, but quickly showing much more depth. Furthermore, each character is intrinsically tied to the events of the game; there are no incidental characters filling out your party, and likewise there is no main character. Final Fantasy XIII is about the group, not about any particular individual, and this is further applied by dividing them into separate groups on separate paths before they join together again for the second half.
Final Fantasy XIII‘s weakest link is unfortunately the beginning. The first few hours of the game see keywords like Pulse, l’Cie, and fal’Cie thrown at you without any context or explanation to their meaning. The characters also lack any kind of development for the first few hours, and the result is a confusing plotline with uninteresting characters that leaves a terrible first impression. This is made worse by the fact that the gameplay for the first few hours is pathetic. The combat system is completely stripped of the depth is shows later on, and battles aren’t even won by spamming “Attack” as in other series entries — they’re won by spamming “Auto-Battle!” The player barely needs to pay attention for these early battles, and coupled with some extremely linear level design, the first three hours are unquestionably a low-point for both the game and the series.
And then Final Fantasy XIII really begins. The Crystarium, the game’s answer to leveling up, becomes available, and likewise so does the Paradigm system, the meat and potatoes of Final Fantasy XIII‘s combat system. When this all becomes available, it becomes readily apparent why you’ve been spamming “Auto-Battle”, and why you’ll continue to spam it for the next fifty hours. The combat isn’t about the nitty-gritty details of individual spells, it’s about the overall strategy. Just as Final Fantasy XII gave you control through gambits, Final Fantasy XIII lets you play the general in the same way by rapidly changing between sets of classes in the heat of battle, altering tactics to suit the ever-changing situations that come up. The AI is extremely intelligent, and can select appropriate skills faster and with as much efficiency as most players, anyways.
There are six classes in the game, each with a different specialty. The Commando is a frontline attacker that can deal significant physical and non-elemental magic damage, and its attacks have the added benefit of reducing the speed at which the chain gauge drains, but more on that later. The Ravager is the game’s elemental attacker, capable of striking enemy weaknesses using both spells and physical attacks. Its main role is building up the aforementioned chain gauge. The other four classes are support types: the Sentinel can provoke and defend against enemy attacks, the Medic heals the party, the Synergist provides buffs, and the Saboteur inflicts status ailments.
Each character has access to three primary classes, and the Paradigm system allows you to create customized class set-ups that you can switch between at any time during combat. If you’re on the offensive, a Commando and two Ravagers can effectively decimate an enemy. If you’re looking at a longer fight, a Saboteur/Synergist team can drastically increase your fighting power. Facing a powerful foe? Bring out a Sentinel and let them tank while the other two lay the hurt on. Each class has a unique and important purpose, and while most fights can be completed with different strategies, many of the boss fights require rather specific ones in order to be successful.
If the Paradigm system is the meat and potatoes of battle, then the chain gauge is dessert, and easily the other most significant aspect of the combat system. As you attack an enemy, its chain gauge builds up, increasing the amount of damage you deal to it by a percentage. However, the chain gauge does not stay filled for very long, and if you go too long without striking the enemy, it will reset back down to 100%. The balance between the Commando and Ravager classes is important here, as the Commando helps slow the chain gauge’s drain, while the Ravager builds it up quickly.
Once the chain gauge reaches a certain threshold, the enemy becomes staggered for a considerable amount of time, and damage dealt to it is massively increased. Commandos also gain the ability to launch staggered enemies into the air, preventing them from acting. The threshold at which enemies are staggered varies by case, and similarly, some enemies have properties that only activate while staggered. One enemy might be nearly impossible to damage unless it’s been staggered, while another might gain additional weaknesses that can be exploited. Finding ways to stagger the enemy quickly and efficiently becomes the key to success.
Rather than gaining experience and levels, characters are awarded Crystarium Points, or CP, after each battle. CP can be spent on the Crystarium, which is essentially a 3-D reimagining of Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid, except that each class has its own. Likewise, the Crystariums for each character are different, even for the same classes, meaning that each character learns a unique set of skills for any given class. As an example, Ravager Snow learns mostly physical attacking skills like Waterstrike, while Ravager Hope learns powerful magical spells like Firaga. Ravager Lightning, on the other hand, learns a nice balance of both. Unlike the Sphere Grid, however, the Crystarium regulates character development until certain sections of the game are done, preventing the player from ever becoming overpowered for any major encounter. The game’s final boss practically requires you to have maxed out each of the character’s respective primary classes, and it’s only upon completing the game that the final stage of the Crystarium is unlocked for post-game development.
Naturally, this limitation on development means that the game can be quite challenging, even downright hard at times. The game is divided into thirteen chapters, and the tenth in particular brings with it a rather substantial jump in difficulty, forcing you to rethink your strategies. Luckily, death in Final Fantasy XIII never results in lost progress. A “retry” option is available upon defeat (or by pausing the game), and selecting it places you back in the world right in front of the enemies that defeated you. You can then choose to re-engage them or walk away, and this functionality replaces the “escape” option seen in other series entries.
While the combat is exciting, fast, and fun, the same cannot be said of the level design, which is not as good as one might hope. For starters, it’s rather linear, with the early stages of the game consisting of little more than straight paths with a few alcoves off to the side that contain a bit of treasure. Most areas also tend to be rather lengthy, and you can expect to spend several hours in each. That said, the environments are stunningly beautiful, and there are far worse things you could have to look at for hours on end.
Strangely, the linearity of the early parts of the game dissolve entirely in the eleventh chapter, at which point you will encounter an enormous, open plain teeming with life. This plain is quite simply the highlight of the game, as it’s absolutely stunning on every possible level. There are wolf-like creatures dashing here and there, frightening wyverns circling the sky, lumbering adamantoises that tower over everything else, and all this can be seen from nearly any vantage point. The area itself is enormous, and the draw distance is terrific. Major objects like treasure spheres, hunt markers, and Chocobos can be seen from far off, and even enemies can be seen from quite a distance. In particular, the adamantoises and wyverns can be seen from quite far away. Dungeons from this point forward are also much more complex, and while they are mostly made up of corridors a la Final Fantasy X, there are many branching paths to explore.
The environments aren’t the only amazing visuals Final Fantasy XIII boasts, as the character and enemy models should not be sold short. The characters, in particular, easily have some of the most realistic and believable facial expressions ever produced in a video game. Every emotion the characters experience is mirrored flawlessly on their face, and while the designs retain a hint of anime influence, they are still shockingly realistic.
Of course, this realism would be marred without solid vocal support, and for the most part Final Fantasy XIII delivers it. While not quite approaching the level of quality seen in Final Fantasy XII, the vocal cast of XIII nonetheless perform admirably, and this in spite of the lengthy monologues each character performs on a regular basis, true to form for a JRPG. The only weak point in the vocals is Georgia Van Cuylenburg’s portrayal of Vanille, which in the early parts of the game is rather grating. To her credit, the performance improves dramatically as the game progresses.
The musical score is also excellent, if a bit unusual. During cutscenes when it really needs to deliver, the soundtrack is fantastic, providing exactly the right atmosphere for the situation. The main battle theme is similarly exciting and gets stuck in your head easily. While wandering dungeons, the music gets a bit more eclectic. Sections of the game featuring Sazh often involve cool, speedy jazz tunes that sometimes feel out of place. Other tracks deviate from the usual, melodic Final Fantasy style and delve instead into techno and other styles. For one track in particular, I could have sworn that composer Masashi Hamauzu was channeling Shin Megami Tensei staple Shoji Meguro.
Like Final Fantasy XII before it, Final Fantasy XIII is unquestionably going to cause a rift between those who love it and those who don’t. The linearity, the lack of towns, and the abysmal opening hours are all potential points of contention among players, but the quality of its craftsmanship cannot be denied. As long as you don’t judge the game on its beginning, Final Fantasy XIII is a game worthy of the series, and a terrific game in its own right.
Fantastic, fast-paced combat system
Great cast of characters
Terrible first impression
Early level design is exceedingly linear