Final Fantasy XIII review
Let's just hope this improvement streak continues for the series
Developer and Publisher: Square Enix
Final Fantasy and myself haven't been getting along for years now. Since Final Fantasy X2, I just can't seem to see Final Fantasy in the same light I saw it in when I first played Final Fantasy VI on the Super Nintendo at the tender age of six, and continued on with the series as I grew up and started supporting Sony instead of Nintendo. Don't get me wrong, Final Fantasy X2 and XII had good intentions, but the storylines just weren't engrossing enough, and neither were the characters. But at the very least, they weren't terrible games; just lackluster in comparison to the rest of the series, as is this game right here, Final Fantasy XIII. It, too, has good intentions, but it doesn't quite meet those expectations. Now, this is a bit more like it, at the very least, but... I don't know, it just doesn't feel as good as it should've.
For instance, the storyline was a bit convoluted. It wasn't the easiest to follow if you weren't paying a lot of attention to the cutscenes. There is a lot of talk about L'Ci, Fal'Ci, the Sanctum (which is Final Fantasy XIII's equivalent of the government), and a bunch of other stuff that only makes sense if you pay attention to the cutscenes. There is quite a lot to take in within the first 25 hours before it decides to downplay the story almost completely, which makes the pacing seem extremely off. If I were the writers, I would've had it spread evenly throughout the game, leading to the epic final boss at the end. But I'm not a writer for a video game corporation; I'm just an amateur reviewer with an opinion.
The actual story... let's flash forward a couple of hours - the gang (Lightning, Sazh, Snow, Hope and Vanille) finally come together inside a Fal'Cie's lair over a barely conscious Serah (Lightning's sister). As she turns to crystal and the Fal'Cie, Anima, comes to life and is nearly defeated by the gang, it embeds the gang with the mark of the L'Cie, which gives them a mission or "focus". Their mission is shown in a vision of a Fal'Cie they eventually identify as Ragnarok. From there on, they travel to find out just what is going on with their vision, mission, and having to figure out why the Sanctum are so corrupt as to make anybody with the mark of the L'Cie enemies of the world - all while trying to make sure the Sanctum soldiers, PSICOM, don't kill them, or before they turn into monsters for taking too long to complete their mission.
Even this isn't quite perfect. The concept is fine - accomplish a mission, even when the world is against them. The characters don't exactly ruin it either, well, except for Hope and Snow. I mean, Hope is basically Cloud if he was whinier and younger, and Snow's dialogue is so cringeworthingly corny, that I feel embarrassed whenever I watch a scene with him spouting "I AM THE HERO THAT'S GOING TO SAVE THE WORLD" and the like. However, I like Lightning's 'no nonsense' attitude towards everything, and how her emotional turmoil is explored. Sazh may seem like the token black guy, but he easily has the most depth in his character as you progress than anybody else. As for Vanille... she's a nice contrast to the broody and corny as hell cast with her bright and cheery personality, and that's about it. Just to let you guys know, the first 15 hours focuses on a heavy amount of character development to make you feel for the characters. Lots of flashbacks occur (and I don't mean Family Guy flashbacks, I'm referring to REAL flashbacks) in order to establish the characters and their motives prior to the first scene in the game. It manages to work for the most part, though it feels a little overdone, like they couldn't spread it out a bit thinner. Oh well.
The gameplay is where people are divided more than a complex mathematical equation. Honestly, I don't see it from one perspective, but rather, from both perspectives. I did find the battle system a bit too noob friendly, however, I also found it fun. I did find it a bit strange that it would be so linear, that you might as well not have running segments, but then again, JRPGs always had this, so it's no big problem. Really, the only part I agree 100% with, is that the lack of towns and sometimes irrelevant NPCs is a bit of a downer. I understand that our heroes are enemies of the world and that it would seem strange, but in a sense, I wished for some non-conformists who disagree with the government and believe that L'Cie are normal people, too. At least there's a shop in the save spheres, so it's not a complete loss.
So yeah, the battle system. I dived into it, expecting to hate it, but surprisingly, I actually enjoyed it. Basically what it is, is that you're only controlling one character, and there is a command that selects the abilities that you use as soon as your command gauge fills. Aside from the fact that the Auto-Battle command seems a bit like lazy work, since it can select the best commands to use against the target, it at least feels like other JRPGs like the earlier Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger. The only difference is that you don't really have to move the d-pad much, unless you're selecting a different paradigm (which I'll get to, later), or you're about to use an item, and even then, as I said, you had to do that in other JRPGs, too. Logically speaking, I'm just not sure why the basics of the system is getting so much hate...
The way to make bigger enemies easier is to stagger them - by that, I mean you have to consistently hit them with physical and magical attacks. Magical attacks raise the stagger bar quickly, but unless you don't land a physical attack afterwards, the stagger bar will lower quickly. Physical attacks don't raise too much of it, but it also doesn't lower it too quickly, either. When the stagger bar is full, you can deal a lot more damage, and as you keep up the relentless assault, the damage can't help but to increase. You can even launch big enemies up into the air and deal some slick air combos. Just keep an eye on the gauge, because once it empties - and it will, regardless of assault - then the enemy is back to the way it was before being staggered. This is actually a fairly ingenius idea, as it encourages you to be speedy with your assault, and maybe it's because of this that the Auto-Battle command is there... for convenience, rather than scrolling through many spells for you to use... maybe...
Each character has their own classes, although all six characters can use all six classes - those being Commando (physical attacker), Sentinel (defender), Medic (healer), Ravager (magic attacker), Synergist (ally buffer) and Saboteur (enemy debuffer). Each of them can be levelled up on the extremely useless Crystarium, which doesn't really allow for much customization as you're plotted along a linear path - and for the love of God, if you're going to do that, don't use a system that looks like the mostly fully customizable Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X! The only customization is which classes you want to level up, but they decide to cap the levels at a certain point... I have an idea - why not combine the three classes they originally start with, and just level up like in other RPGs where if you get enough EXP, you level up! Increased stats, and occasionally, a new ability will be learned! How much more awesome would that be than this useless thing!?
Paradigms are what determine what combination of classes are used by the characters, so to get the best effect, you'll need to combine what classes are available to characters at the time (at the beginning, they only have 2 or 3, but 25 hours in, they get all of the classes, though they'll need to do a hell of a lot of levelling up to get those classes powered up), and make sure they make strategical sense. For instances, three attackers (Commandos and/or Ravegers, depending on who's best at what in your currently placed party) are great for taking down foes quickly, while an attacker and two healers do well with some attacking and healing at once, but the best for the beginning of a boss battle is a combination of a Synergist, Saboteur, and maybe either an attacker, or Medic. Either way, you have six combinations to mix and match, and you'll need to think logically and keep them differentiated, unless you don't mind dying.
However, I guess I'll sympathize with the haters. The game takes a LONG time to get going. For the first couple of hours, you only have a basic attack with no way of levelling up. Afterwards, you're given a couple of classes and the opportunity to level up, but the battles are extremely easy. It's only really at the 20 hour mark where the game shows some semblance of challenge, and it's really towards the end that the game actually gets challenging. But it's those first 15-20 hours that will aggravate players, because players nowadays want the whole package, the whole shabang, and because of this, I must take a lot of points off of the final score. Those 15-20 hours are really, really dull gameplay wise, because you'd have to be dumber than an ape to lose a lot of the battles, and it's because of this - and the fact that the story felt so convoluted - that I almost turned off the game and wanted nothing to do with it. That's poor pacing, ladies and gentlemen, and that's... pretty much why this game has such a bad rep.
I might also add this - there is only one sidequest, and this comes much later on in the game. While I usually don't mind having the sidequests towards the end as I wouldn't want it to distract me as I work through the conflict stages of the story, I usually like to have a few sidequests to tackle. The sidequest here is, well, killing a lot of giant monsters that wouldn't look out of place in a Jurassic Park movie - I wonder if this will influence a fourth movie? But anyway, it says a lot about how the game actually functions - it's basically run, fight, run, fight, run, cutscene, boss fight, cutscene, run, cutscene... you get it. There isn't much variation in the gameplay, which wrecks it a bit for me, though I enjoyed the battle system enough to not let it ruin the game for me, but maybe it might ruin it for you. Who knows...
One thing is agreeable - the graphics are absolutely gorgeous! On a big screen TV, the larger than life settings will simply take your breath away, and store it inside the landscapes. They are so well textured, that they're almost lifelike... in fact, I remember thinking it was a live action video game while playing through it, due to how good the landscapes looked! The characters are also nice to look at, and they, too, almost looked lifelike. But lest we forget, this is a Final Fantasy game, and we all know that they always have the best graphics on their respective systems, especially on the PS2 when Final Fantasy X came out - oh, god, those graphics were absolutely GORGEOUS when compared to the rest of the games on the PS2 released in 2001... just wow...
The soundtrack is good when you're able to pay attention to the sweet melodies and pumping battle theme, but unfortunately, there are times where it feels like mere background music, as opposed to enhancements to a situation. It's not too often that it happens, but considering that other Final Fantasy games - minus XII, which was much worse in this department - always had music that enhanced the mood 99% of the time, it still feels weird having music that's just in the background. I don't care that Nobuo Uematsu left; I just care that his replacement can make good music, and although he does, it's just not as good. I'm just a little torn on whether it's good, or just above average. I don't want to spend too much time on the voice acting, mostly because there's not much to say - the actors and actresses get into their roles quite finely, and, overall, it's good. Never a dull beat in their voices, and never an annoying one either, not even Vanille's, who everyone seems to have something against. I suppose her voice is an acquired taste. But either way, on the audio side of things, it may not be as good as the graphics, but they're still reasonably good.
Final Fantasy XIII had a rocky start with low difficulty and a convoluted storyline, but if you stay with it, you'll actually have a bit of fun with it, and feel a lot more challenged. Even as I finish this review, I still can't decide if I like it or dislike it. Part of me enjoyed the battle system, but another part of me didn't like pacing at all. I suppose it comes down to how much patience you have for a video game. That, or if you're a graphics > gameplay gamer - in which case, this is a must buy!
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