Final Fantasy XIII released in Japan on December 17 of last year, and it finally made its way overseas on March 9. I bought my copy on the release day as part of the Xbox 360 250GB hard drive bundle at Amazon and even got a snazzy faceplate with it. Since we weren’t sent a review copy of this one, I didn’t feel compelled to blast my way through in a big rush to write a review. Instead, I’ve taken my time with the game and savored every bit of it. I’m currently 40-something hours in, and the end is in sight. I think pacing myself for this one has given me a different perspective than a lot of reviewers had when they initially reviewed Final Fantasy XIII close to the game’s release, so for once I’m glad to have dropped my own cash instead of relying on a press connection.
Veterans of the Final Fantasy series will know that the numbered installments are connected to each other thematically and in certain universal aspects, but the plots and characters do not continue from one game to the next. In fact, each new Final Fantasy introduces a brand new universe and cast of characters. Sure, you’re likely to run into a Chocobo, a guy named Cid, and a bunch of god-like summonable beings in every game, but each time you start a new one you’ll be in for a brand new story without having to worry about continuity from the past.
This one is set in a sci-fi world where a Dyson shell called Cocoon hovers above a mysterious planet called Pulse. There’s a complex social and geographical ecology between immensely powerful spirit-creatures called fal’Cie, the humans that inhabit Cocoon, humans called l’Cie who have been “branded” by the fal’Cie, and the monstrous zombie-like Cie’th that failed l’Cie eventually may become. Final Fantasy XIII‘s story is much too complicated to go into at length without spoiling anything essential, so I’ll leave it at saying that the game opens with a young woman named Lightning boarding a train to save her sister, Serah.
Lightning really is an intriguing video game hero, particularly in the Eastern roleplaying game genre. A soldier on a quest to save her sister, she is one of the toughest game girls I’ve run across. Tough women in games is nothing unusual, but it’s worth noting that Lightning compromises nothing in her toughness. She’s not a heroine who flaunts her body or feels the need to be sexy, even though she is a very attractive woman. She also has no need for help or rescuing. Lightning is a woman on a mission, and she actively shuns the assistance of others in the early game, male and female alike. I’ve already seen a few other sites commenting on Lightning’s uniqueness as an empowered woman in this video gaming world, and I’m convinced she is as important a new character as we’re likely to see in games this year.
The rest of the main characters are likeable and useful, with the possible exception of Hope. If you were wondering when the inevitably overly emotional and girlishly pretty boy would show up, this is your guy. Hope is a white-haired kid who shows up early in the adventure, immediately wants to off one of your other characters, and generally makes a whiny nuisance of himself for the bulk of the game. He is actually pretty powerful in certain situations, but I found myself having to force myself to include him in my combat party due to his inane chatter during battle. Even when he’s at his most useful, however, he’ll be the character that consumes the most of your precious Phoenix Downs as he consistently takes dirt naps every time the wind blows in his direction.
Final Fantasy XIII employs a system of combat roles for your characters, and you’ll be leveling several roles up simultaneously for each character. The roles include the Commando (excels in physical combat), the Ravager (specializes in magic and creating combos), the Sentinel (a defensive “blocker” role), the Medic (healer), the Saboteur (debuffer), and the Synergist (buffer). Once you’re a good ways into the game you’ll get the ability to customize your combat party and select three characters who will be your active fighters. You then will further customize the party by setting up paradigms for them to use in battle. A paradigm is an arrangement of three roles into one unit. For instance, you might have two Ravagers and one Commando, making up the Relentless Assault paradigm. You’ll set up a series of these paradigms that you’ll carry into battle with you, and you can switch between them on the fly during combat, depending on what you need for the current battle conditions. Have injured characters? Switch to Combat Clinic to heal them. Need more offensive magic while providing some defense? Switch to Mystic Tower.
The leveling system relies on a sort of experience points called CP. You will go into an interface called the Crystarium to spend your CP. Once there, you’ll select a specific role for a specific character and bump up their abilities by paying CP to travel from node to node in a ring-like leveling structure. The Crystarium leveling system reminded me a bit of the Final Fantasy X leveling nodes. It’s pretty straightforward, and it allows you to prioritize whether it’s more important to get new abilities, raise your strength, equip more items at once, or a number of other essential options.
Another big component of character progression is the ability to upgrade your equipment. At the end of many battles you’ll be rewarded with “spoils.” Sometimes these consist of Phoenix Downs, health potions, and other direct consumables, but more often than not they’ll consist of component parts. You’ll use those components in a fairly complex interface to bump up the stats on your weapons and accessories as you move through the game. The upgrading system is pretty complicated and has a steep learning curve. Most of the curve requires a lot of trial and error and patience as you see which components will work the best in upgrading what sorts of equipment. The upgrades are essential and rewarding, but be forewarned that they can be a pain in the neck until you get the hang of it.
A lot of the people I’ve talked to and a lot of the reviews I’ve read talk about the linearity of Final Fantasy XIII. While the beginning hours of the game do include some of the most linear gameplay I’ve ever seen, the game really opens up around Chapter 11. Admittedly, it’s a strangely long time, but once the game stops holding your hand and lets you start making choices, the difficulty quickly ramps up. Early (meaning the first 15-20 hours) encounters in the game are largely simple matters of working with the three characters you’re given at any specific time, but a lot of strategy comes into play once you can choose your own party and paradigms. Picking the right characters for the right battles is a very strategic and important part of the gameplay, as is the ability to choose and switch between the right paradigms. Changing your Ravager to a Medic at just the right instant can mean the difference between success and failure. With some of the battles lasting more than ten minutes each, you really don’t want to fail.
I am playing Final Fantasy XIII on the Xbox 360, and the game looks gorgeous and plays beautifully. The Playstation 3 seems to be the go-to platform for Final Fantasy purists, but I really haven’t noticed any issues in my 360 version. I’m also a sucker for gamerscore and achievements, so I tend to go with the 360 version on multiplatform games.
As a fan of the Final Fantasy X school of JRPGs, I have nothing but love for Final Fantasy XIII. It takes a lot of familiar elements from previous games, adds some neat gameplay twists of its own, and places the whole thing in an intriguing and emotional story about fate, free will, and family. If you’re looking for a console RPG to eat full days of your life, this just might be the one you want.
Rating: 4.5 / 5 Stars