Before reading this, please note my brief primer on reviews.
Overall: Final Fantasy has defined the RPG genre (or at the very least the JRPG genre) for the last 20 years. Its easy to forget why this is true when you talk about a game abstractly, or try to discuss the individual pieces. But imagine a beautiful clock. One cannot adequately explain or do honor to the complexity of engineering, craftsmanship and love simply by describing each individual cog. It is a thing of beauty to behold, and yet as easy to dismiss as a mundane and regular clock.To see it in action is to observe near perfection, albeit perfection of a very specific thing.
This game will remind any fan why FF is simply the best, and will easily engross any new player with the sheer depth of its creation.
Short Version: Final Fantasy 13 is very strictly linear right out of the gate until very far into the game. It has 6 main characters, one who is arguably the MAIN main character, but every single character has a primary storyline that drives the narrative as a whole. The game is turn-based but with a very novel twist that keeps the action organic and very fast-paced. And finally, the game is gorgeous – I cannot stress enough how beautiful the scenery and monsters and characters and towns and …. well, everything is. Every review of this game I have seen has been so far off-base, making hay out of the linearity and the lack of towns. Final Fantasy 13 instead streamlines some of the more pointless conventions of older RPGs and dismisses the “illusion” of having certain freedoms. More on this below.
Plot: There’s a definite feeling like you’ve returned to Final Fantasy 7 – the opening sequence of the game jumps right into the first shot of a rebellion. From a train full of exiles, a cobbled group of revolutionaries fight against an authoritarian, technology-based culture with nefarious intentions. The people of the Cocoon are being “purged,” which in PR terms means “moved out of Cocoon” and in real world terms means “blowded up real good. KABOOM!” You meet the MAIN main charcter immediately, Lightning, who wields a gunblade (a la Squall or my 2nd Edition AD&D Warrior – Rowena) and has a real anti-social chip on her shoulder (a la Cloud). Lightning starts the fight with the intent of saving her younger sister from said nefarious people in charge – and we quickly learn that until just now she was one of said nefarious dickholes! TWIST!
Beyond this, I will just say the characters are wonderful thus far. Sazh, the most enigmatic of the group, is a wise-cracking Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon, and has more than once made me ell oh ell. Also, he has a chocobo chick that he keeps in his hair. Seriously. Then there’s Snow, who fancies himself a hero and oozes enthusiasm and determination (by far the most annoying character IMHO). Hope looks like Sora and acts like a whiny little bitch (but his mom just died so back the fuck off). Vanille is a real team-supporter with a strange accent and a secret. Finally, Fang looks like Rinoa and Yang were doing it and had a baby, and also has a strange accent and a secret.
Despite my brushing over it all, the characters have rather well fleshed-out stories and some real emotional moments. I don’t want to set any expectations nor spoil some of the better character moments, so suffice it to say the developers spent as much time on the character’s personalities and plotlines as they did on the designs, and both will impress.
The story is one of loss, of fighting insurmountable odds, of impending and inexorable tragedy. It takes elements from all of the best Final Fantasy stories but makes something entirely new. As the action progresses in real time (no flash forwards or time skips), the events leading up to that first shot fired start falling into place. The overarching narration, from Vanille, continuously implies that the strings of fate bringing these 6 together were inevitable, making their very clear potential fate unavoidable too. All in all, I find it very compelling.
However, as Tycho noted over at Penny Arcade, there exists a very distinct possibility that you won’t care about any of these characters. [To quote: “I don’t give a shit what happens to Sulky, Twat, Twit, Pip, and Marm. Sometimes, I kill them on purpose.” ]There’s a length of innocence that all Final Fantasy traverse, and you will not find heart-rending dichotomous choices to make here. This is a linear story the creators wish to tell, and the pallet of colors does not delve much into the dark areas of the heart.
As one friend has said to me, some people love the Mass Effect illusion of choice and morality. Other people just want to be told what to do. I find myself able to enjoy both, but FF13 is not a game about making choices, so be forewarned.
Gameplay: Let’s talk turn-based. In the old days, it happened like this: ATB gauge fills. Once it does, that character chooses an action. ATTACK. MAGIC. ITEM. RUN. If you know an enemy weakness, exploit it. FIRE. ICE. LIGHTNING. METEO. Maybe summon a gigantic, screen-filling monster. Wipe out the foes. Lather, rinse, repeat.
XIII takes this old system and pumps it full of gnard-reducing steroids. For starters, the game offers something called “Auto-Attack,” which, for the first couple of hours, means literally run up and swing a weapon at a bad guy. However, once the plot starts unlocking battle options, things get complicated, fast and difficult.
There are no magic points or spell costs. Your ATB fills up to a limited number, which increases as the game goes on. Let’s say it fills to 2 units. By choosing auto-attack, your character will pick two appropriate actions. FIGHT and FIGHT, or FIRE and ICE. At first this seems lazy, but its rather ingenious; let me explain.
You learn “SCAN” early on. Once an enemy has been fully scanned, you don’t ever need to scan that type again. Scanning not only tells YOU the weaknesses, strengths and abilities of any monster, but it more importantly tells your party members. Now when you auto-attack, your other members will always choose the most effective attacks against that particular enemy type. Sounds simple, but in practice it is literally rewarding your experience against any enemy type by making you more effective against that type. Further, because of the break-neck speed of the battles, auto-attack is usually the best option.
However, battles are by no means passive. Characters learn classes, such as a Commando who attacks with a weapon, a Ravager who flings spells, or a Synergist who boosts party attack and defense. Instead of choosing from a massive list of abilities, characters are assigned roles before hand. So your party of three gets 4 paradigms to assign. All three Ravagers, lets say, or Ravager, Synergist, Ravager. For situations when your health is low, you may want Ravager/Medic/Ravager. Not every character knows every role, so it makes you really have to understand the roles available and how they fit together.
Shifting between paradigms is a free action in battle. So instead of having to choose each action, like ATTACK or HEAL or FIRE, now all you need to do is shift paradigms for whatever the situation. This makes watching your own health and your enemies’ bars imperative to achieving a win, and auto-attack seems a whole lot less lazy. In essence, switching paradigms has replaced choosing which ability to use (though as an aside, there is the option to make battles slow down and choose every action a character will use – however, you are always limited by what paradigm you are in).
The other major aspect of battles, poorly addressed in reviews, is the Stagger System. Most reviews talk about how you can stagger enemies to do even more damage. Honestly, if you don’t master this concept, you won’t win and you will hate the game. Enemies have two bars – a health bar and a stagger bar. An enemy will be taking little or no damage, but their stagger bar is increasing. Once that bar fills, the enemy is considered staggered, and will take significantly more damage until its stagger bar empties and it normalizes. This is helpful on general enemies, but it becomes absolutely essential to defeat bosses. Certain classes are better at staggering against certain enemies, so again you will be switching paradigms often until you figure out the best approach.
The Stagger System and the auto-attack feature make battles fast-paced and really challenging. Learning new abilities (via a leveling system very similar to FFX) brings some depth to the classes, and each character’s variation of a class differs pretty significantly. On the whole, battles feel very organic and very rewarding, unlike predecessors where battles often degraded into one-button-pressing fests. I can’t stress enough that the sheer speed of the battles keep things feeling a lot more like an action game than a turn-based RPG.
Summons are back, and are as ridiculous as ere they were. Side-quests are limited but rewarding as always, and the game opens up just towards the end, same as it ever was. Finally, the addition of an item-leveling systems replaces the need for outrageous amounts of equipment – every weapon is uniquely designed to fit a character play style, and can be leveled up and even transformed up to two times. Similarly, all trinkets can be leveled up as well, with stat improvements and increased resistances or passive abilities. All these pieces working together make for substantial but well-spread gains in character development as the game progresses.
Myths, Stupid Criticisms, and Bad Reviewing: There are a lot of things that can be said about this game, some of which are “true BUT …” and some of which are “completely, fucktastically wrong.” Also, there are some stupid things too. Also, balls. Balls is a funny word.
But I digress. here are soe quick issues I have heard that I will debunk.
1) Waaaaah! It’s a Linear path. – Dude, go back and play any previous Final Fantasy game. They have all been linear, since the first. Sure, there is the illusion of an open world map you can explore. But every one of them was always “start at a town, explore an open world map, get to the only other accessible location on the map.” That is an illusion of exploration which FFXIII has done away with. People making this argument have not played a Final Fantasy (or any JRPG) before, or are too numb in the brain to understand what linearity really is. Don’t be so stupid, stupid.
2) Waaaaaah! There are no towns! – This is true; it will be a long time before you make it to a town. However, FFXIII supplements for this lack of towns by making every save spot a shop hub and upgrade station, by replenishing your HPs after every battle, and by filling in the inane “Rosa likes tea” needless side story with sometimes charming banter from your party members as they walk with you down the linear path. Towns are a bit superfluous, wouldn’t make sense in the context of the story, and in general are not missed. If you want to spend your time walking around a town listening to inane banter, just go talk to yourself in the mirror. You’re quite the conversationalist!
3) It’s a bit …. Japanese. – This one I cannot debunk. I highly recommended this game to a friend, and she bought it last night. This morning I get a gchat message with the following? “Mom’s are tough? WTF?!” yes, there will be some dialogue that comes across as trite at best, or tripe. Mmmmmm, tripe…. Now I want pho in mah belly ……
But I digress!
This is an aspect of import games that has not improved as facial rendering and complex animations have become standards of the industry. In the old days, with text and only text, jokes and mannerisms could be “Americanized” to make more sense to a NA audience. Mostly make them about hot dogs and assault rifles AMITRITE?! But now, with animations made specific to character and dialogue, its nearly impossible to supplement the lines of speech. As such, the occasional awkward moment arises, like Hope’s mother’s existence, or Vanille’s insistence to make sex noises whenever she’s jumping around the terrain. But on the whole, this is not a major distraction, only a minor annoyance or chagrin moment.
Conclusion: Play this game. Play it for the innovations to turn-based rpgs. Play it for the FF standards, like Cids and airships and chocobos. Play it to try something new, or to remind yourself of why you love this franchise. But I highly recommend everyone play this game. It is not just a big-budget video game; it is a well-oiled machine and a reminder of the high standards and infinite possibilities of an entire industry.