Final Fantasy XIII knows it’s beautiful. Whether it’s flashing split second masterpieces of technical beauty in the form of carefully individualized scuffs and creases on leather holsters or flirting with eerily realistic depictions of hair swaying in the wind, Square Enix’s latest creation seduces its players with one jaw-dropping display of beauty after another. At times many of the characters you encounter throughout the weeks-long adventure look like flesh-and-blood actors, at last signaling a departure from trips through the uncanny valley that have plagued games in recent years, and, most amazingly of all, these wonders are achieved without any noticeable drops in frame rate or graphical sacrifices. Many games are content to restrict something approaching this level of detail and technical prowess to cut scenes, but in Final Fantasy XIII you’ll encounter many moments when only the appearance of health bars informs you that the cut scene is over, so seamless is the transition.
Final Fantasy XIII consistently maintains its devotion to gorgeous, meticulous detail.
The first five minutes set the tone and pace for much of the rest of the game’s story, since the two characters you first encounter–Lightning, a distant and strong-willed soldier and Sazh, a congenial pilot with a baby chocobo nesting in his afro–soon find themselves looking down a very straight and narrow path stretching far into the distance with nowhere to go but forward. For almost thirty hours Final Fantasy XIII insists on this bold linearity, and flipping on the mini map often reveals a single ruthlessly straight line. Almost without exception, it’s an extraordinarily beautiful line, but one that leaves little if nothing to the imagination.
In short, it’s not long before you realize that Square Enix has a story to tell you, and it’s clear you’re going to hear it their way whether you like it or not. Unlike its predecessors, Final Fantasy XIII has no interactive towns filled with hidden NPCs and shops, and virtually all illusion of choice has been tossed out in favor of a relentless, fast-paced story that leaves no time to stop and frolic with the chocobos. Instead, you’re thrown directly into the middle of the plot, sporadically learning what’s going on through a lengthy series of fairly well placed flashbacks and character pairings. It’s a bold move, and one that lovingly complements the HD capabilities of modern consoles, but it also distances the game from its beloved RPG format and nudges it into territory more appropriate for games such as Heavy Rain.
The journey begins on the comfortable, structured world of Cocoon, a rich and luxurious blanket of routine spread over a dark hidden belly of mechanical ruins and latent danger, complete with an oppressive religious and military structure. Literally a world away is Gran Pulse, a wild and untamed planet spoken of only in tones of fear by the residents of Cocoon, who have long lived under the assumption that Pulse is uninhabitable. Chaos erupts when the game’s six main characters come into contact with a fal’Cie–mechanical beings with god-like powers–originating from Gran Pulse. This encounter curses all six with the gift of magic, rendering them l’Cie, and their transformation immediately brands them as enemies of the entire world of Cocoon in the eyes of the people. As l’Cie, each is now required to fulfill a “focus” before an unknown deadline, and the reward for achieving it is barely more desirable than the punishment for failing. What follows is a long and difficult quest toward redemption, control of one’s own fate, and the inevitable opportunity to save the world.
Lightning, mentioned above, becomes the story’s heart and soul, although her characterization occasionally falters in the face of attempting to keep up her tough, determined soldier aura. Her five companions, while endearing, exude an unmistakable aura of stereotyping. This is particularly apparent in the character of Sazh, whose very existence could foster a dissertation on the perception of African-American culture as seen from Japan. Then there’s Snow, a Viking-blonde self-proclaimed “hero” who looks and sounds as though he was meant to be an “X-treme” surfer dude in another life, and a vengeful white-haired boy named Hope, whose name predictably provides numerous opportunities for eye-rolling wordplays by his fellow adventurers. Later in the game you’ll join up with the sultry Fang, a no-nonsense fighter who often finds herself at odds with the motivations of the rest of the party, and finally, there’s the frisky Vanille, whose frequent breathy pants and squeaks in combat ensure that anyone hearing the audio only might think you were watching a raucous smut film.
For almost thirty hours, narrow paths like this will be the most you can explore.
In the hands of another company, characters such as these may have been a recipe for disaster, but Square Enix has successfully used them to create a story that manages to hold your attention for the days you’ll be playing. Voice acting is excellent, fluid, and realistic, although you’ll occasionally wince at some sugary lines that may have come out better as text on the blue screens familiar to the series. Masashi Hamauzu’s memorable score excellently complements many of the missions and occasionally rises to true greatness. Throughout the first thirty hours of playtime, you’ll follow Lighting and the gang as they group up, split up, and reunite in a plot that slowly–and occasionally clumsily–builds to a satisfying crescendo. And halfway through the game and at the end of that long, relentless corridor you’ll suddenly find yourself staring wide-eyed across an open, windswept grassland with no visible path in sight.
The effect, quite simply, is staggering, and there’s a very real emotional impact. After thirty hours, the metaphorical reasoning behind the linearity of the previous levels is suddenly evident. Cocoon, true to its name, was comforting but restricting, whereas Pulse is ripe with possibilities. There’s every indication that this is the desired perception, since the characters immediately start calling Cocoon as restrictive as a “chocobo den” by comparison, and one character, while staring across the open landscape, states that “I think it’s safe to say it won’t be boring here.” Indeed, the most palpable emotion one feels upon arriving at the scene is one of freedom; and after so long of being told what to do, the feeling is, quite frankly, unsettling. Square Enix should be congratulated for creating this sensation so perfectly, though it’s worthwhile to wonder if they couldn’t have achieved it sooner.
At the heart of Final Fantasy XIII is a fast-paced update to the series’ Active Time Battle system that relies on “paradigms,” which amount to various combinations of roles for each character in your party. Learning this system will unfortunately take several hours, owing not to any intrinsic difficulty but to Square Enix’s insistence that you are only introduced to a new aspects after beating down fifty enemies using the simple technique you learned an hour ago. Battles take place in real time, so success depends on switching out the roles of each character frequently to adjust to the situation in “paradigm shifts.” Roles include Ravager (magic), Medic (heals), Commando (physical damage), Sentinel (the tank), Saboteur (debuffs), and Synergist (buffs). The goal of every battle is to finish it as quickly as possible, and a chain gauge fills according to how effectively you use your physical and magical attacks. By filling the bar, you “stagger” the enemy, allowing you to burn it down with endless criticals while the bar drains back to zero. Much of the fun and challenge of Final Fantasy XIII comes from attempting to fill the gauge while also switching paradigms as needed. Full health is regenerated after each successful battle, so you’re free to focus wholly on the battle at hand without worrying about keeping your entire party at full strength in order to survive future battles.
“Staggering” your enemies is the key to winning every battle.
This system is complemented by a Gestalt Mode in which you summon Eidolons, which are Transformers-****beings that can temporarily act as another fighter or morph into a vehicle that allows for visually spectacular attacks. Unfortunately, Eidolons often come off as eye candy to break up the monotony of long battles as their damage output is usually not enough to justify breaking a well-timed series of paradigm shifts.
While the battle system may sound complicated, the effect is greatly lessened since you’re only ever in control of one character at a time. Your one or two companions (depending on the circumstances) will automatically act out whatever roles you have assigned them through your paradigms. In fact, by casting a spell known as “Libra” that reveals all of your opponent’s weaknesses, it’s possible to put most of the battle on autopilot since your companions’ startlingly intelligent AI will automatically adjust as necessary after the spell is cast. For training purposes, combat is an easy process in the first few hours of the game, and may alienate players who will find themselves believing that all strategy has been removed. Indeed, the early linearity, the ease of combat and the breathtaking visuals all seem calculated to make the game as accessible to new players as possible. By the end of the game, however, you’ll find that often the auto commands are not enough, and that it’s best to stay in practice when it comes to your character’s abilities. Combine this with the need for frequent paradigm shifts, and you’ll find that the last several hours of the game are frightfully challenging. Indeed, somewhere around the game’s halfway point, the combat overtakes the story as the most satisfying feature of the game.
Character advancement mirrors the advancement of the first part of the story: it’s beautiful, it’s linear, and it’s free of choice. Each character trudges through a large part of the story with skills in three of the six available roles, although later you’re given the opportunity to assign other roles to them. There’s little point in doing this, however; instead, it’s a much wiser to keep them in the roles the game originally assigned them and level these to the max.
Advancement is accomplished by a beautiful but simplistic menu known as the Crystarium, which accords the character the chance to upgrade to new stats and abilities after each battle following the accumulation of crystogen points. While the Crystarium initially looks complex, filled as it is with orbs and energy lines reminiscent of models of atomic structure, maxing out your character is essentially just a case of using the crystogen points to fill up to the next orb. It’s a textbook case of form over function. By the time you encounter a level’s boss, you’ll almost always have your Crystarium maxed out until well over the game’s halfway point, so there’s no need to worry if your stats are right for the fight. If you don’t, compensation is usually just a case of turning around and whacking on some respawned baddies before attacking the boss. In keeping with the game’s relentless dedication to accessibility, any strategic or thoughtful allocation of points has largely been tossed to the side in favor of this bare-bones “fill ‘er up” approach.
Upgrading weapons is slightly more complex. While there are no brick-and-mortar stores for the characters to use in Cocoon and Pulse (which makes sense, in a way, since every character in our merry band has been branded as an outlaw), weapons and items are instead upgraded at stores at the many save points throughout the game in the form of menus with shop-like names such as Moogleworks and Unicorn Mart. Components for upgrading items drop from virtually every enemy encounter, and when you run out, you can always acquire more from the menu shops.
Ultimately, while beautiful and engaging to the very end, Final Fantasy XIII leaves you with the impression that the developers spent as much time finding their focus as the characters. This is hardly surprising from a franchise known for persistently reinventing itself, but in their attempt to make the game accessible for everyone Square Enix has made a merely enjoyable game out of what may have been a masterpiece. On some levels, removing the clutter accumulated from years of expanding the conventions of the JRPG in favor of a more streamlined, accessible ****is a welcome step in the right direction, but the gaping void left by the absence of a comparatively open world, character choices, and interactive towns removes much of the joy of previous games.
More elementary school than MIT physics, the Crystarium is much simpler than it looks.
With Final Fantasy XIII, the series finds itself at a crucial crossroads. In future games, it could attempt additional reinventions, possibly resulting in pale and poor versions of what the series used to be, or it could stick to the accepted conventions of the series and genre, thereby creating popular games but stagnating in the way of development. Fittingly. it’s a situation that’s mirrored in the game’s story of the hulking and demented Cie’th—l’Cie who failed to achieve their focus—and the crystallized prisons of l’Cie who succeeded.
For now, however, Square Enix’s reimagining of its popular series has resulted in a gorgeous, compelling, and enjoyable creation that strikes just shy of the immortal greatness of the series’ masterworks. While Final Fantasy purists may balk at the bold steps taken here, Final Fantasy XIII proves that the JRPG is alive, well, and capable of adapting. It’s certainly a trip worth taking all the way to the end.