Final Fantasy XIII
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1
Words By:

In my teenage years I went through a phase when I loathed being told what to do. It was like my own personal kryptonite and would see me sulking for days on end like a spoiled brat. I like to think Iíve been able to keep this under control as Iíve grown older, taking advice and direction in good faith. I mention this because playing Final Fantasy XIII has made me fall spectacularly off the wagon. During the weeks Iíve been playing it, Iíve degenerated into the kind of petulant moaner I thought had long since disappeared.

Itís not my fault, itís Square Enixís. They keep treating me like some idiot gamer who doesnít know his Dual Shock from his Sixaxis - holding me by the hand and explaining the rules of RPGs in a child-like manner, giving me the minimal amount of control over proceedings as though Iím not mature enough to handle the responsibility. This treatment made my blood boil so many times I didnít think I would make it through to the end to write this review.

Let me explain...

For anyone whoís been hiding under a rock for the past four gaming generations, Final Fantasy XIII is the latest RPG to be released from Square Enix. Itís the first time the brand has come to the current console generation and also the first time it will grace both Microsoftís and Sonyís consoles. To say this series has a large following would be a gross understatement; itís one of the most popular gaming franchises in history, successfully blending exploration, strategy and narrative to an always impressive graphical showcase of the current platformís capabilities.

Today the graphical pizzazz remains (more on this later) but the core gameplay has been completely stripped back to basics, as if trying to appeal to an audience that hasnít ever encountered a Japanese RPG. Taking cues from a slew of this generation's biggest sellers like God of War III and even Uncharted 2, FFXIII is an almost entirely linear affair, leading the gamer from one location to the next with barely any exploration required. In fact, the game is so pre-determined thereís no need for a map! It has become less important to know where you are going, and more important grinding through the levels just to ensure you get there.

At the start of the game, an odd group of characters from the planet Cocoon are thrown together to fight the oppressive forces of Pulse. Cocoon is a world based in the skies, but with a strong sci-fi aesthetic full of hulking machinery and hi-tech jet bikes. Your group are constantly in fear of the world of Pulse, mainly because anyone who is captured by them is Ďpurgedí.

Much of the first 10-20 hours are spent on the world of Cocoon, learning the character's back stories and fighting against the forces of Pulse. Early in the narrative, the characters come into contact with a falíCie who is a demigod from Pulse. Their contact with the falíCie turns them into líCie - servants of the gods which in turn gives magic powers (are you still with me?) Each líCie has their own focus. Itís a life goal that comes to them as a vision with no clues as to when or how it should be achieved. Our heroes are linked by their focus and the narrative gradually plays out their path towards it.

Each character in the party belongs to a specific class and their magic/abilities develop accordingly. The classes are Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Synergist, Saboteur and Medic. Character advancement is managed by the Crystarium, a tree-like system that upgrades abilities as you receive HP.

Oddly for a game that is so reluctant to give you control, the character advancement is not automatic. Players are required to pause the game and manually upgrade an ability by moving along a branch of the Crystarium. Again, itís symptomatic of a developer trying desperately to simplify the RPG levelling-up system. Itís a visual representation that confuses the player rather than giving a sense of personal achievement.

The dumbing-down of RPG mechanics is most noticeable however in constructing your party for the adventure ahead. Whilst playing in the world of Cocoon, youíre not given any choice in how to put together your team for the task ahead. Instead a lead character is chosen for you and then usually paired with another to explore a part of the world. Clearly the pairings are designed to help advance the narrative, but on too many occasions I found that they were poorly matched from a combat perspective. There are rare moments in the first half of the game when a team of three is required to tackle a foe, and it quickly becomes clear that the combat system was designed for a trio of heroes. Being able to utilize the varying skills of three characters is a joy due to the Paradigm system, which allows you to assign attacks to an enemy of your choice. Once youíve uncovered the enemyís weakness, you can then manually (or automatically) target them with the member of your party with the corresponding attack. Unfortunately, the opportunities to do this on Cocoon are severely limited as you have no control over the pairings.

The general sense of hand-holding can be found throughout. Health is automatically replenished after every battle. I guess us poor gamers canít be trusted to use health potionsÖ Save points are littered throughout the world and seem to magically appear just before and after the main confrontations. Iím not suggesting the game should be made intentionally more difficult, but the consistent sign-posting and second-chances given just destroys any illusion that this is an RPG.

Thereís no trading to be done, so anytime you encounter characters in new places, itís usually just to drive forward the narrative through dialogue. I really wanted the opportunity to explore the world myself and solve problems through interaction but was always left disappointed. The lack of control and resolute linearity would quite frankly have been a deal-breaker for me if it wasnít for the pure majesty of the visuals on display. In previous generations there was a clear differentiation between the core gameplay graphics and those of the numerous cut-scenes used to progress the story. Final Fantasy XIII excels because the core gameplay visuals are almost on a par with the cut-scenes. Each world and zone is beautifully rendered and displayed in glorious 1080p providing an absolute feast for the eyes. The transition between cut-scenes and gameplay is almost completely seamless, so rather than being acutely aware that youíre watching another video, itís all part of the same experience.

A wonderful soundtrack is the hallmark of the Final Fantasy series and thankfully this iteration is no different. With a score composed by Masashi Hamauzu and performed by the Warsaw Philarmonic Orchestra, itís the ideal accompaniment to the gameplay. Combined with the strength of the narrative and some fine voice acting it literally drags you through the pedestrian pace of the first 20-odd hours of gameplay up until you reach the world of Pulse.

Itís at this point that Square Enix finally removes the gameplay shackles and gives you complete control of the action. You get the responsibility of managing the group that youíve been craving for hours and can start working out the best paradigm combinations for yourself. No longer restricted to teams of two, you can start to experiment with three combatants, utilizing combinations of brute force, magic and healing.

The change of visual style also adds an extra dimension to the gameplay. Pulse is an otherworld bristling with wildlife and danger, and although the linearity remains, the strategy required to defeat some of the tougher enemies finally starts to represent the finer points of the Final Fantasy series.

The sheer majesty of the Paradigm combat system starts to shine through here. You can only assign one role per character, but paradigms can be swapped in and out during battle (called a Paradigm Shift) allowing you to react to your enemies in real-time. The pace is fast and furious and the level of strategy required is in stark relief to the automated process of Cocoon.

Overcoming the crushing disappointment of the first world, I eventually had a lot of fun with Final Fantasy XIII, but I have to be honest and say that it tested my patience to the limit. If I wasnít obliged to see it through to the end for the purposes of the review, I canít honestly say I would have persisted.

Square Enix clearly felt a change of approach was needed for the current generation, and a move to extremely simple gameplay mechanics will no doubt appeal to those gamers put off by many traditional RPGsíunfathomable menus and combat systems. More seasoned gamers, or indeed fans of the series may well be left bewildered and concerned by the direction this franchise is heading in. At the moment, itís heading there on rails.

Best Bits

- Stunning graphics
- Cut scenes and gameplay are seamlessly integrated
- The Paradigm system works a treat
- Wonderful score
- There's half a great game here
Worst Bits

- Linear
- Horribly basic gameplay for the first 15-20 hours
- Little to no control over your team for long periods
- Character advancement is confusing
- No trading

by: Blakey

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