XIII Takes Series In New, Amazing Directions
I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game before, so I don’t have any preconceived notions about the series one way or the other. In a way, that makes me the perfect reviewer. The FF series is one of the most polarizing games ever created. It has legions of fans who swear it can do no wrong. And it has detractors who hate it down to its component molecules.
I didn’t really know what to expect. What I didn’t expect was that the game would start playing as soon as I popped the blu-ray disk into my PS3. It didn’t even have to load anything. The intro just started playing.
And what an intro it is! Final Fantasy XIII is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen on the PS3, possibly the best. It runs in full 1080p, and stunning is too weak of a word to describe how everything looks. And I’m not just talking about the cut scenes either. The game engine itself looks amazing. I know I try not to be overly swayed by eye candy, but come on, for FFXIII that’s like walking down the Vegas strip at night and not noticing all the lights. The main characters, and everything about them looks incredibly real. Their clothes even look real, flopping around in the wind and waving as they run. Even their hair looks spot on. So do the environments in the game. You will experience everything from a pristine beach to the corridors of a spaceship, all of which are populated with creatures and people both fantastic and normal. At one point, you will even visit a futuristic amusement park, sort of like Disney World 3000. (And yes, you do get to fight there.) Details really pop in all areas, even the more dingy ones. Places like the amusement park are incredible with fireworks and all kinds of things to see and hear.
I was happy to see that the game starts off with a tutorial of sorts. In fact, each time the game introduces a new concept, it shows you exactly how to implement it. Normally this is done via a battle that is pretty much stacked in your favor. You never really feel like you are going through a tutorial, though you do learn all the possible moves. The game introduces them slowly too, so you never feel overwhelmed. The only negative to this approach is that for the first couple hours of the game, you don’t have too many abilities at your disposal, so fights are a bit simplistic. That changes big time later on when battles become like live-action chess matches, both strategic and deadly.
You are thrown right into the plot of the game. Most of the main characters you meet and play are from Cocoon, a floating world where people live on the inside of the sphere. The one thing that the people of Cocoon are afraid of is "the world below" which is the planet that Cocoon orbits. They are so afraid in fact that when an object from the world below is discovered in a peaceful sea-side city, the government decides to purge everyone there, lest someone influenced by the world below start to cause trouble. Thousands of people are rounded up to be sent down to the lower planet and expelled from society. Their only crime is that they lived near where something from below was found. But it gets worse. You quickly learn that The Purge is a lie too. The army is simply killing everyone in secret instead of relocating them. All of your main characters are involved or caught up in the purge in one way or another, though they all don’t get along, and many have secret motives that are only slowly revealed as the novel-worthy story unfolds.
Combat in Final Fantasy XIII is a mix of turn-based and real-time. Personally, I love it. It’s much better than the action-oriented run and gun combat of, say, the Star Ocean Series. For my tastes, it has the right mix of real-time action and turn-based strategy. When you meet an enemy, you drop into a real-time battle. An action gauge, called an ATB, on your screen will quickly fill up. You have to choose what your character will do by loading up that gauge with combat moves. Once filled, they will execute your orders. A powerful blast of lightning that affects multiple opponents might take up two of your four spaces, while a standard attack takes up only one. So you can, in this example, attack twice and hit multiple opponents, or hit one enemy four times. Or hit one enemy twice and then launch the area of effect attack. If you’re in a rush, you can hit the auto-battle button, and the AI will choose the best attacks. The AI is pretty smart too, and will pick, say, lighting-based shots to fill up your ATB gauge, assuming you’ve learned that your enemy is vulnerable to it and you have the ability to dish out that element.
There is a lot going on in the combat. Creatures might be immune to certain types of damage, or vulnerable to others. Figuring out how to fight different enemies is the key to victory. You will slowly get combat information about a certain set of creatures just by fighting them, or you can expend technique points (a limited but reusable resource) to learn a bunch about them at once.
Eventually you can stagger an enemy, which gives you huge boots against them (up to 600 percent damage or more) for a limited time. Some creatures are like tanks normally, but squishy when staggered, so the trick is to use combat techniques to get them into a staggered state, and then wail away on them. If done right, you can bring down even a mighty beast in mere seconds, once you stagger them.
You can have up to three characters in your battle team. The two you don’t control directly will fight on their own, but you can change their habits (and your abilities) using paradigms. Paradigms are basically groups of roles, or a plan of how you want everyone to fight. A combat paradigm might be two physically punishing commandos and a magic-wielding ravenger. A more defensive stance might be a guardian-like sentinel, a sneaky saboteur and a healing medic. Eventually all your characters will be able to take on every combat role, but at first, your choices are limited to one or two roles. The good news is that you can change your paradigm on the fly in the middle of combat, and if you learn when to do it, can get a full ATB gauge for your trouble. So you need to shift to take advantage of battlefield conditions. Again, this makes it both very strategic and very action-oriented in each and every fight.
If you die, have no fear. Even though the game uses save points, it also apparently auto-saves right before each fight. If you die, you are given the option to retry a fight. So there is never any backtracking. You can even change out your team, reorganize your paradigms, spray some boosts or rework your strategy if you need a totally new approach. Most fights are easily winnable if you use just a modicum of strategy. Even bosses can be killed. It just takes exploiting their weaknesses and keeping your strengths high.
Oh, and unlike Star Ocean where you had one enemy on the main map turn into several in the battle screen, what you see is what you get with FFXIII. If you see three bad guys walking around, you know you will be fighting three bad guys. And if you’re clever, you can sneak up behind most monsters and get a pre-emptive strike, which puts them a hair away from staggered right off the bat. Just run up to them while their backs are turned.
A new element in the Final Fantasy series are Eidolons that can fight alongside you. These powerful creatures must first be subdued in combat, though most of them are not fought in a straight up battle. Some succumb to your power when you heal others, or use a certain element in combat against them. Once you have beaten an Eidolon, you can summon it to your side in future combats if you have enough technique points (which again is a limited but replenishing resource). Eidolons fight alongside the character who can summon them, and then at some point, you can jump on their backs and ride them in the battle. This lets you unleash a series of very potent attacks in a limited time. When the Eidolon leaves the battle, all of your characters are fully healed, so you can even use them as a clutch healer in emergencies.
The soundtrack for the game is really good to listen to while playing. Although some of the battle music is a little funky, sweeping vistas are almost always accompanied by gorgeous music. Grammy-nominated singer Leona Lewis has a song called My Hands that plays (in different ways) throughout a lot of the levels, so it’s sort of a theme for the game. And it fits nicely, too. Also, the voice acting is top shelf. Special kudos go to the characters of Vanille with her Aussie-cheers and chants, and Sazh who’s sad story involving his son will pull at your heartstrings. But all characters sound pretty much like you expect them to.
Plot-wise FFXIII hits the ball out of the park. Each of the main characters has a backstory that is fully explored as you play. And the overall plot is filled with several twists and turns that you probably won’t see coming.
I don’t know how much replay value you might have, but there is a ton of first-play value. I was 35 hours into the game before I learned what was really going on in the world plot-wise. And just when you think everything is winding down, you are given a lot more to explore. In fact, the game keeps on opening up new areas for you. Though most of these are pretty linear, you will eventually get a bit more freedom. Figure about 60 to 75 hours total gameplay, depending on if you grind a lot, which you thankfully don’t have to do, but can if you like.
My biggest complaint with the game turned out to be a minor one. There is an option on the main screen to slow down your ATB gauge. This basically slows down the fights so you can learn everything in combat and not be rushed. However, this does not slow down the battle timer. You get rated by how quickly you complete a battle. With a slower ATB gauge filling, it means you won’t be killing monsters nearly as fast. And that means less inventory drops, which are based on time. I lost a lot of star ratings because of this before I realized what was going on and put things back to normal. Also, a few bosses will cast the spell Doom on you if you take too long, which makes a timer count down that eventually kills you. If you are working with a slow ATB, you have almost no chance of killing them, as I learned the hard way. However, when you speed things back up to normal, you can finish the fight before the boss even thinks about casting it. So use that Slowed ATB option sparingly and crank it back up to normal when you feel like you can control the fights. It’s not explained very well at all, and will cost you the more you use it.
I have to say, I’m very impressed with Final Fantasy XIII. It’s gorgeous on the PS3, and Kelly Adams tells me it looks just as good on the 360. It has a plot that will keep most story and RPGers happy. And the combat is a perfect balance of real-time action and turn-based strategy. I’m not sure what happened in the series before now to make FF have so many detractors, but whether or not you’ve loved it or hated it before, you owe it to yourself to give XIII a try. It’s a solid game that is more than worth the money. In fact, I could see it as an early contender for a Game of the Year. So I guess 13 is a lucky number after all.