Final Fantasy XIII (13) Review

With so many years of development and one of the longest and most admirable legacies in the industry, gamers were expecting five-star greatness from Final Fantasy 13. And Square Enix, for the most part, delivered on those expectations, providing the most engaging battle systems of the series and, of course, some gorgeous visuals accompanying a unique and well-told story. So what is it about FF13 that leaves gamers wanting more? In this review, I’ll explore some of the contradictions in design and gameplay that have led to the ultimate disappointment arising from the latest entry in this famous JRPG series.

The first element to address, and probably the most obvious, is the story. Final Fantasy 13 follows the trajectory of six characters, particularly focusing on the ex-Guardian, Lightning, as they struggle to determine what fate prescribes and how choice can affect that fate. The details are fairly complicated, as it involves many iterations of the word “cie” (such as l’cie and fal’cie and ci’eth) but the important thing to know is that each character does have an intricate back story, all of which are tied together not only through the present gameplay narrative, but also through recurring flashbacks from thirteen days in the seaside town of Bodhum in which each character has some significant impact on another character’s life. Probably the most likeable and relatable of these characters is Sazh, who is initially set up as the comic relief (the only character with a chocobo nesting in his afro), but soon establishes himself as believable and realistically tragic due to the conflict involving his son. Overall, gamers can expect plenty of standard JRPG stock character moments throughout, as well as some moments of really cheesy dialogue (maybe it’s just the transition to English), but primarily a well thought out, epic-scale storyline to tie the experience together.

Taken as a whole, the plot provides a sort of “meta-game” commentary on freedom, expectations, and “focus” within the realm of gaming. However, this story about breaking free from predetermined strictures pits itself at odds with the general design of this very linear adventure, which, aside from the complex battle and upgrade systems, is largely devoid of choice, especially compared to other current story-driven RPGs like Mass Effect 2. But it’s important to recognize that Final Fantasy 13 beautifully accomplishes the goal it seems to set for itself; to draw players through an imaginative new world with a memorable storyline, all the while engaging in distinct, strategic battles. But was that the right formula to begin with?

In comparison to every previous Final Fantasy, FF13 plays out in an extremely linear fashion (despite the occasional obvious treasure nook guarded by a monster or two), giving only a moments breath in the 11th out of 13 chapters, but quickly returning to its cookie-cutter path in the final two chapters. While some gamers may find this very clear focus on story appealing, the departure from previous games in the series will likely not be favorable to most. The linearity at times feels claustrophobic, stifling what would otherwise be an exciting adventure in a new, expansive world. Unfortunately, the player never takes the wheel of an airship, never explores a world map, and never even enters an interactive town (though three vibrant cities are travelled through as part of the story, they never become a part of the gameplay).

Some might point to other linear games that have garnered much more positive reviews, such as Uncharted 2, and say that this kind of narrowing can be an extremely effective tool for keeping players immersed and in the moment, which is true. But that isn’t what fans of the Final Fantasy series have grown to love about it. Past Final Fantasy’s (a wonderful phrase) were riddled with side quests and interactive NPC’s, all of which had their own quirky character and added variety to the gameplay (see tower defense, card game, and chocobo hunting sequences). Some were even able to incorporate those elements into the main story (see FF7 motorcycle sequence). So the omission of a larger, open world with hours more to do and interact with outside the always dramatic main stories were a breath of fresh air, and they developed the character of worlds like Spira and Ivalice to the point of seeming alive. All that is to say, FF13 is just too one-track, a point that disallows the game, Cocoon, and Pulse to breathe like previous universes in the series. So what effect does this have on the gamer, and on the other elements of the game?

An obvious staple of the RPG genre, the battles (this time not random) reach a difficult pitch as the game progresses. Say you are a strictly story-driven gamer, anxious to devour whatever excellent story a high-budget game like FF13 undoubtedly affords. If you push through the game, tenacious to reach the end and discover the ultimate fate of every character and the floating planet of Cocoon, you will find that battles become increasingly tedious and difficult, to the point where a single boss battle, despite your best efforts at preparing and strategizing, could last the better part of an hour. You look online to figure out what strategy might help you out of this bind, only to discover that others playing the game are having a much easier time of it because instead of trying to press through to the story’s end, they have taken the time in Chapter 11 to farm for experience (CP) and realize the full potential of each character. Now suppose you are more a fan of dungeon-crawlers, roguelikes, and traditional JRPG’s, and you want to spend your time upgrading each character and their weapons to the maximum potential to dominate your foes. Well, although that possibility exists, it isn’t available until 20+ hours into the linear plot of the game. So, if we are to understand this correctly, the gamer who should appreciate this game most will be the kind who wants to experience mostly straight up story, dragged along by a slow learning curve of battles, with 4-5 hours of possible grinding in the 24th hour of the game, followed by an appropriately epic by similarly linear final two chapters.

Perhaps, though, such an interpretation is too harsh, as the battle system is one of the most fluid and rewarding in the series yet. Rather than focusing on learning individual abilities and upgrading only three characters, the combat in FF13 primarily relies on paradigm shifts which allow players to rearrange the abilities of the party to suit the needs of the situation, similar but much more refined than the dresssphere system of FFX2. For example, if a boss is giving you a run for your money and his HP isn’t going down nearly fast enough, you can switch to a paradigm with a Saboteur (Vanille and Fang are initially the two Saboteurs) who can then cast spells like Imperil, Deprotect, and Deshell to even the playing field. Separating abilities out into easily transferable classes in this way causes players to think hard about how to arrange their paradigm sets before hand, and then switch between them frequently in battle for the optimum battle ranking on a 5-star scale. Eidolons (or Aeons or Summons or whatever you’re used to calling them) make a return, though this time with a Transformer-like vehicle mode and a little less power than you may remember. Often Eidolons can be used to get out of a sticky spot, but rarely to win a tough boss battle.

Probably the greatest innovation of the battle system comes from the ability to stagger enemies, which takes priority in almost every battle as the most efficient path to victory. The stagger gauge is filled up by attacking or otherwise injuring individual enemies, and when the gauge is full, then attacks will count for a brief period upwards of 400%-900% their normal value. Generally, the gauge can best be filled by combining physical and magic attacks (Commando and Ravager paradigms), although certain enemies, and definitely bosses, will require more nuanced approaches. The perpetual focus on the Stagger gauge is what drives the intensity and sometimes feverish switching between paradigms that gives the battle system its organically dynamic feel. While this system was first introduced in another form in Final Fantasy 7: Crisis Core for the PSP, it was absolutely perfected here.

The upgrading systems are likewise noteworthy, though nothing revolutionary, and fully realized just a little too late in the game. Fans of FFX will remember the new “Crystarium” as a simplified “Sphere Grid”, where points, or CP, are accumulated through battles that can be spent on jumping each player from one upgrade node to the next. The system in FF13 breaks down the upgrade nodes into paradigms, which each character is limited in at first, but is allowed to expand upon towards the last third of the game. Upgrading in this way is fluid, but never as empowering as it could be. Learning new moves for a particular character rarely, if ever, gives you the feeling of “I’m about to dominate with some Holy up in here!”, and neither does the equipment upgrade. Characters can equip one weapon and multiple accessories with a variety of effects, and all of these can be upgraded to improve their stats. This does add some depth to customization, but again doesn’t affect gameplay enough to be totally satisfying.

Although it may be belaboring an already obvious point, the presentation of FF13 is, to say the least, impressive. While the in-game graphics don’t rival some graphical heavy hitters like Killzone 2, they are astounding enough to be better than most, and to provide a few jaw-dropping moments. Of course, the CG cut-scenes are top notch, many of them ramped up with some serious action sequences and incredibly vibrant and explosive colors. If you don’t experience this game in HD, you’re probably doing it wrong. The soundtrack, written by FFX’s Masashi Hamauzu, is appropriately elegant and epic, though the main theme of the Western version, a song called “My Hands” by British pop-star Leona Lewis, comes across in-game as fairly ill-fitting and too soft to really compared to the Final Fantasy themes we’ve come to know and love.

Stir up a fast-paced, strategic battle system, some awe-inspiring sounds and visuals, a unique story told through a frustratingly linear adventure and you get Final Fantasy 13. Despite all of its major positive advances for the series, it’s hopelessly held back by the feeling that there should have been more to the ride, namely in the way of freedom and exploration. Fans of the series will find these contradictions at times to be testing, but if they’re willing to stick with it, will be rewarded by the classic yet memorable finale.

[Credit to Eddie Inzauto, Mark Nauta, and Martha Crabtree for their input regarding this review]


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Author: Dan Crabtree View all posts by
Dan is Managing Editor for GamerNode and a freelance gaming writer. His dog is pretty great. Check him out on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

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