Long awaited and ever-delayed, Final Fantasy XIII is an odd beast at first glance. It seems much more linear than you'd expect from a game in the series, and it makes some gameplay choices that may outright shock longtime fans. Has it emerged a failed experiment, or does it represent a bold new direction for Japanese RPGs?
Stunning production values aside, this is classic Final Fantasy. The land of Cocoon is a strange place. Its inhabitants live in constant fear of an invasion from Pulse, an enormous world that Cocoon floats over. Ruled over by the Sanctum and protected by seemingly magical beings called fal'Cie, its people have little control over their own fates. That is, until an improbable crew becomes embroiled in a fight for Cocoon's very survival.
Final Fantasy XIII lays the jargon on thick--good luck figuring out what the difference between a l'Cie and fal'Cie is without consulting the in-game encyclopedia, which is thankfully auto-updated after seemingly every cutscene. This won't interfere with the sense of wonder you'll feel as you play through the story--the world feels every bit as bizarre and magical as the game assures you it is.
What you'll probably cause you to take pause is the dialogue. Convincing as they may look, it's hard to take the characters seriously as people after hearing what they have to say. It's basically Japanese RPG melodrama that some may find it endearing, though for us, it's most frequently at odds with the heavy story the game is trying to tell.
RPGs often traffic in the illusion of freedom, but Final Fantasy XIII is less concerned with this than most. For better or worse, you always know where you have to go, and apart from a select few instances, you're given scant opportunity to deviate from the critical path.
Grand as they may look, the game's environments are typically long corridors peppered with the occasional branching path, at the end of which inevitably lies a treasure chest guarded by monsters. The arrow on the minimap tells you which direction to run, and your goal is always in view. Reach the specified marker on the map, and it's cutscene time. The sets change, and the locales are as imaginative and well-wrought as you'd expect, but all the fat has been trimmed. You'll visit some areas you might classify as "towns," but only in terms of window dressing; you'll do all your shopping from save points. In short, Final Fantasy XIII's layout is in complete and utter service to its story. It makes no bones about it.
Once you get deep into the story, you'll eventually reach an area where you can stretch out a bit and explore. This is where you'll do the farming and questing we've long associated with Final Fantasy. If you want to max out your characters and grind for crazy weapon upgrades, here's where you'll do it. Once you get a look at the place, you'll immediately realize that it can sustain hours upon hours of this kind of play, and yes, you can come back to it after you stomped your way through, though not until late in the game.
Arguably, Final Fantasy XIII gives you freedom where it's most meaningful-in character development. Characters are designed around a streamlined iteration of the classic job system, and you earn points in battle to spend upgrading stats and buying new abilities. Every character has prescribed roles, but as you approach the endgame, it all opens up, allowing you to give anyone any job you want. It's a cool system, and it lends itself to many tough decisions, especially once upgrades start to get expensive. Granted, if you grind long enough, you can play crystal Parcheesi and max everyone out, but if you keep your experience within bounds, you'll have lots of difficult choices to make.
Equipment upgrades add another layer, albeit one that's a bit understated. In a nutshell, the enemies you fight will drop components which you can use to level up your weapons. You can also buy this stuff from shops you access via save points. Despite the dozens of varieties of monster junk you acquire, they all just award plain experience. As a result, you end up indiscriminately pouring them into whatever weapon you want to upgrade.
There's a bit more to the system--maxed out items can be transmuted into fresh ones, which you can continue to level up--but as a whole, it pales in comparison to the coolest crafting mechanics out there. The game deserved a great crafting system to complement the character development.
Final Fantasy XIII is pretty brazen in the way it keeps you focused on the critical path. If nothing else, this casts in stark detail the smoke and mirrors tricks Japanese RPGs use to fool us into thinking we have freedom. If you value this illusion, then you'll be put off by how linear the game comes off. Until you get into the swing of things, at least.
Final Fantasy XIII's combat starts off slow and doesn't pick up in earnest until you're well into story. It introduces each element bit-by-bit until you're finally given access to all its tricks around a dozen-or-so hours in. In defense of this approach, the system is pretty complex and quick to punish hubris or inattentiveness.
The most striking thing about it is that the default command essentially picks a string of actions for you. Far from giving you license to fight on auto-pilot, the fact that the game will reliably pick the right attacks allows you to focus on the higher level strategy--specifically, what roles your party members will assume during any given round.
You can swap your party member's jobs at any time to accommodate the demands of the battle. If a fight is even the least bit demanding (and the best ones are, very much so), an all-offensive strategy will only get you so far. If your magic-using ravagers are taking a beating, you can swap to a paradigm, as the loadouts are called, which includes a sentinel to tank the damage, and a medic to send the cures flying. Fights that seem impossible after your first failed attempt become manageable when you approach them more thoughtfully. Is the boss monster truly impenetrable, or are you hitting him with enough saboteur debuffs? The system rewards experimentation, and tough fights are often amenable to varying approaches.
It wouldn't be Final Fantasy without summons, of course, and these are certainly accounted for. Each character has a pet Eidolon she summon into battle, though by means of how restrictive their costs are, you aren't encouraged to bust them out so often. But they sure do look cool.
It might be weird at first that you can only control your party leader in battle, but once you get a feel for the system in all its variability, you'll have a blast It might be weird at first that you can only control your party leader in battle, but once you get a feel for the system in all its variability, you'll have a blast clearing the corridors of baddies in Final Fantasy XIII.
If there's one certainty in the games industry, it's that Square Enix will never skimp on a Final Fantasy game's production values. Nitpickers will find faults, sure--the dithering effect on the hair looks a bit cheap, and if you're looking for them, you'll spot plenty of flat textures. But for the most part, the game leaves a strong impression. The way the characters' faces move sells you wholly on their humanity, and the effect is almost good enough to help drown out the cheesy dialogue.
The environments are imaginative and full of detail, and their variety is such that you'll seldom feel location-fatigue throughout the 40-plus hour experience. Monster designs are similar accomplished, apart from a notable weak spots. Expect to see clever riffs on some Final Fantasy archetypes.
The soundtrack is combination of orchestral and electronic tracks, with haunting vocals in places you might not expect. The oddly festive battle theme, though, will simply refuse to loose its grasp on your brain hours after you've stopped playing.
What seems like an odd experiment at first ends up feeling very familiar as you settle into the experience. Final Fantasy XIII embraces a feeling of immediacy that ultimately serves it well. Yeah, there aren't any towns, at least not in the classic sense. But once you're fully invested in the deep, demanding combat, you probably won't miss them. If you've been waiting years for Final Fantasy XIII, don't let its streamlined approach scare you away.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3.
Source: Square Enix