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Video Game Review: Final Fantasy XIII

March 22, 2010 | By Mike Chen | comment on this post
FFXIII
Maximizing paradigm shifts is an essential technique for defeating Final Fantasy XIII bosses.

When you really break it down, every Final Fantasy follows roughly the same model: Go from point A to point B, fight monsters, and repeat until you’re strong enough to fight the final monster. Along the way, you get cool weapons, dramatic story twists, and –hopefully — memorable characters. In these respects, Final Fantasy XIII fits into the standard formula.

For all the pre-release hype regarding Final Fantasy XIII’s linearity, I recommend you re-visit the much-lauded Final Fantasy X, which was so linear until the last quarter that it even had an Indiana Jones-style line-on-a-map overlay showing your party in transit from A to B. This isn’t anything new, folks; Final Fantasy has never been open world, so comparisons to, say, Fallout 3 are a moot point. It is what it is, though Final Fantasy games typically present the illusion of freedom; in Final Fantasy XIII, this has been hacked away. In some ways, it’s more focused and spectacular and in some ways it’s not — and in other ways, it’s just different…and for some people, different is disappointing.

CONTROLS (3.5/5)

Like most Final Fantasy games, control is essentially split between wandering around the world and combat, along with a menu screen to level up and manage inventory. For the wander-around-the-world and menu segments, a lot of it isn’t re-inventing the wheel, though the free camera control (first implemented in Final Fantasy XII) feels a bit loose at times, and sometimes your character can get caught on edges or simply be a little clunky. This only really matters when you’re trying to be stealthy for a Preemptive Strike on enemies, but it can be frustrating at times, especially when you’re sneaking up on someone and your character catches an invisible corner or wall.

The primary difference in the non-combat screens when compared to previous Final Fantasy games is that you interact with most characters simply by walking up to them; their dialog pops up in the corner, along with the cursory voice over. That’s right, there’s no need to hit a button to speak to characters anymore — which is convenient, because the whole concept of towns has pretty much disappeared. More on that later.

For combat and leveling, it’s best to cover it under the Gameplay section, but the core control elements are still run through menus. This isn’t a twitch-based shooter, so you bring up menus and select options in combat, then watch what unfolds. The implementation of this system is clean and efficient, and you shouldn’t have a problem maintaining complete control over your party. In fact, it’s the way that this is all tied together that makes Final Fantasy XIII unique.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (5/5)

While we may look back at Final Fantasy VII’s blocky characters and laugh at how primitive Cloud Strife appears, it still set the standard for that generation of consoles upon release. And when we re-visit the world of Spira in Final Fantasy X, we may cringe at the somewhat awkward voice acting, but it pushed the limits for the Playstation 2 when it came out. (Fun fact: the guy who played Tidus now does Obi-Wan Kenobi on Star Wars: The Clone Wars.)

In other words, the production values for Final Fantasy have always set the bar, and this installment isn’t any different. On a bright, big HD screen, Final Fantasy XIII is simply gorgeous. The attention to detail around the world, especially when going through incredible unnatural situations such as a lake transformed into crystal, will make you pause and rotate the camera around just to take in the size and scope. The character models are extremely sharp, and for the first time, cut-scenes appear to use the same character models as the game — a testament to the fidelity made capable by this generation’s machines.

Final Fantasy’s voice acting has always ranged between the good (Auron, Balthier) and the questionable (Tidus and Yuna’s painful laughing scene). For the most part, this edition is strong, with voice actors delivering appropriate performances. Snow and Vanille can be over-the-top at times, while some may find Hope to be a bit whiny. Lightning establishes herself as a badass on a mission and Sazh, whom I originally feared to be bad ethnic comic relief in the vein of Final Fantasy X’s Wakka, turns out to be the most grounded of the bunch. It’s not that he feels more alive than the others, it’s just that his reactions are the centre that holds the other extreme characters together.

GAMEPLAY (4/5)

When you first load up Final Fantasy XIII, you’ll find yourself going through a very straight path while encountering enemies and fighting them by selecting the same menu item. This gets old pretty quick, even as it tries to establish the world these characters live in; fortunately, it only lasts for about 90 minutes. After that, the battle system evolves, building part upon part until the 8-to-10 hour mark. By then, you’ll have a full knowledge of how to set and shift paradigms, how to maximize status effects for offense and defense, and how to best utilize your troops to get an opponent into Stagger.

Stagger? Paradigms? Sounds confusing, right? And if you’ve seen the gameplay trailers, it can look absolutely hectic. However, once you get the hang of it, the game’s fast pace and inherent strategy — especially against bosses or large groups — provide a greater sense of satisfaction than simply grinding away at hit points.

Paradigms work very similar to the dress-spheres in Final Fantasy X-2: characters are set to one of six paradigms, each with its own unique properties. For example, the Medic paradigm heals while the Saboteur paradigm hurts enemies by affecting them with negative status effects. While you can’t actually dictate your party for the first two-thirds or so of the game, in-battle paradigm shifts give you access to all the different powers and attacks you’ll need. Just like you did to optimize your party before a big battle, now you’ll want to customize your available paradigm combinations before a boss fight.

Besides opening up character abilities to make them useful in any situation — a necessity, as much of the game sees the party broken into smaller groups on parallel stories — it prevents any characters from falling into Cait Sith-levels of pointlessness. Anyone who tried fighting with Cait Sith in Final Fantasy VII will appreciate this.

Why do you need to shift paradigms in combat? Not only does it allow you to differentiate between healing and attacking, the paradigms work together to get an opponent into the aforementioned Stagger mode. Stagger is a separate meter outside of the typical HP bar; you charge it up through your attacks, though you need to work with different paradigms to get it filled before it drains and resets. An enemy in Stagger essentially has its shields down — attacks are far more effective and you can eliminate them quickly. Boss battles often consist of finding the best strategy to induce Stagger; this necessary strategizing creates a new, extremely successful dimension to Final Fantasy combat.

The price of this new system, though, is that you’re limited to controlling your party leader and paradigm shifts rather than individual character actions. While it may seem like this takes away control of party members, you actually still maintain quite a bit of control — your party isn’t just a bunch of aimless bots. By specifically dictating paradigm shifts, you direct the flow of combat instead of micromanaging each movement. It keeps the action fast-paced while maintaining a commander’s sensibility over fights. Every Final Fantasy tries something different with its combat system, and once you get a good feel for the paradigm shift system, there’s a good chance you’ll find it among the top combat system in the series.

Once a fight ends, you’ll receive a starred rating on how you did. This seems pointless at first, but eventually you’ll understand the purpose behind this. The faster and better you dispose of your foes, the higher rating you’ll get — and higher ratings translate into better experience points for leveling up in the Crystarium (an evolved form of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X), along with re-charging your Technique points to use specialized tactics, such as performing a summon. It provides proper motivation to learn the best strategy for each situation, and this creates a certain efficient mindset that winds up becoming instinct on bigger battles. It’s a sly design quirk that subtly prepares you for boss battles.

When you’re not in combat, you’re essentially moving from A to B until you get a cutscene, some as short as 30 seconds and some that go on several minutes. This isn’t terribly different from many aspects of previous Final Fantasy games, and you’ll spend your time in between battles leveling up or customizing equipment. What you won’t be doing, though, is talking to people, as towns are virtually non-existent in Final Fantasy XIII. Shopping takes place at one of the many generously located save points. While I didn’t particularly miss trying to remember which building had the magic shop or the weapon shop, the lack of towns eliminates some of the character of the game. The conversations and stories from town to town always helped each game’s world come to life, and they’d often include some little side quests to get bonus items. You won’t get much of that here, and I don’t know a single person who thinks this is a good idea.

Ah yes, side quests. Those things have been stripped away, and much like Lightning’s single-minded quest, you’re essentially trying to hit the finish line as soon as possible, at least until you get about three-quarters of the way through the main quest. There are 50 or so Marks, which are similar to the Hunts in Final Fantasy 12, and a few other optional side quest areas, but you won’t be helping townspeople find their missing whatever for a bonus item, and you certainly won’t take time out of your Save The World task to play in a Blitzball tournament.

Was this design consideration done to streamline (read: dumb down) the RPG experience as Square Enix tried to expand the Final Fantasy audience? That’s the going theory, though I’m not sure why doing away with optional quests would help anyone other than the programmers under deadlines. Similarly, the lack of towns affects the pacing of the game, as there aren’t many opportunities to stop pushing forward towards the ultimate goal to just enjoy the fictional world you’re in. It’s disappointing as the production values are so high and the characters are well-crafted enough that those types of environments would have certainly added a deeper dimension to the game.

This would most certainly affect the story, as its overarching theme is fighting against destiny. There are plenty of ways to explore the nuances of this theme and the separate worlds of Cocoon and Pulse by having NPC interactions; it would give a face and a voice to the prejudices, desires, and fears of both worlds. Instead, it seems like much of that disc space is spent on cutscenes that push the story forward. I have to believe that there was a better way to implement this without ditching the element of towns and NPCs. I don’t mind linearity as long as it doesn’t feel linear. In some cases, Final Fantasy XIII propels you forward because the momentum of the story urges you to ride the wave, and this is very enjoyable. Other times, it’s just trudging onward, and unlike other Final Fantasy games, the lack of interaction and side quests means that there isn’t anything to mask what is essentially glorified level grinding between cutscenes.

With such a spotlight on the main quest, the story falls into the Big Epic Tale we’ve come to expect, with confusing names and melodrama pushed into character archetypes. You’ve seen these characters before, or at least some iteration of them, from the silent mysterious warrior to the low-self-esteem boy. What keeps Final Fantasy games fresh is how we get a new take on them; just like Cloud is different-but-similar to Squall, Final Fantasy XIII’s main cast puts their own spin on character types we’ve seen before. They’re all likable to different degrees, with Lightning and Sazh being at the top of the list. Snow can be especially grating at times. His character seems like the result of a Japanese brainstorming session about what a hero should be, which really just turns him into a lovesick douche bag. Of course, layers are unraveled as the game’s journey continues, but his attempts at heroism often induce eye-rolling. Lightning, on the other hand, should quickly ascend to the top tier of badass Final Fantasy characters.

Some have complained about the fragmented sections of the game where the party is broken up into smaller groups; I didn’t find this to be a problem, as the paradigm shifts gave you the necessary combat skills to win regardless of party. In some ways, this actually worked well, as it mixed the pacing up and allowed you to focus on certain characters rather than trying to keep the whole group story in check.

From a big picture perspective, though, you have give Square Enix some credit for trying to shake up their formula. In some ways (combat), it’s successful; in other ways, it seems like an unexplainable design decision (towns and NPC interaction). This ultimately detracts from the experience and hurts the game from reaching classic status in the realm of Final Fantasy.

OVERALL (4/5)

Top-notch production values, an involving story, and an excellent combat system — these things represent the peaks of Final Fantasy XIII, and when it’s good, it’s very good. The game never fails in the traditional sense, but there are disappointing aspects of the game that prevent it from becoming the mega-event gamers have wanted for so many years. Longtime fans of the series often have their own ranking when they view the different games, but I have to believe that this one will be in the second-tier for most of them.

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