Review: Final Fantasy XIII

N.B. This is a fanboy perspective, and in part it’s a rebuttal to some of the negative Final Fantasy XIII reviews out there. I’ve tried to keep it free of major spoilers, but as a review it’s hard to avoid minor spoilers. Also, I took the screenshots with a camera, so I they aren’t the best representation of how the game looks.

Adamantoise

Introduction

Finished! After around 80 hours I finished the latest Final Fantasy game. (I did some side quests in the middle; you probably could finish it faster if you tried.) I planned to write a review instantly while it was all fresh in my mind, but due to time commitments I was unable. Thus I’m writing and posting this few weeks after the fact.

So what was it like? Well I’ll tackle that question in multiple parts and I’ll start with the obvious;

Graphics

Obviously the answer here is “stunning”. This is (quite unfairly) the best looking RPG I’ve played. In particular the cut scenes have spoiled me; I’ll be expecting nothing less from games from now on! (Interestingly I was playing Halo 3 at around the same time for a bit of variety, and it was a rude shock how average theirs was. The game itself is less disappointing.) For the most part it was hard to fault the cut-scenes; lip sync, character detail, character expression, character movement, lighting… all perfect. I’d be happy if they don’t try to better this aspect in the next game. Sure after a while you pick out things like some aspects being squarer than they should be, but think it’ll be a while before hardware can achieve perfect textured circles in a home system.

I’ve already mentioned it, but the character movements were quite good also. With a lot of older games (especially FFX, but also more recent games like Lost Odyssey) there seems to be a limited number of movement patterns, which become obvious after a while. Not so with FFXIII! I might notice some next time I play, but not yet.

Hecatoncheir

Pre-rendered scenes are especially stunning. I only have a 720 screen, yet I was wowed by the detail many times. Some scenes I suspect need a 1080 screen to be appreciated fully; I found the race track sequence a bit hard to tell what was going on at times, even on a second/third watch. (Advent Children is much like that too; the fight sequences make more sense on Blu-Ray.) Oddly the pre-rendered scenes in FFXII just didn’t seem “Square-ish” to me. I’m not sure why, but I suspect they (and the movies from Revenant Wings) were outsourced. Thus I was very pleased that the FFXIII scenes were to the same standard and style that I’m used to.

The fight scenes are spectacularly rendered as well. It was said that the goal was to have in a game a similar experience to Advent Children, and I think in regard to the fight scenes they succeeded. In particular there is lots of jumping, throwing and fast movement. Spells aren’t as flashy as they have often been in the past, but that I think is due to the faster nature of it all. However summons are very overdone, as usual and as expected. (More on the combat system later!)

Outside of fighting and just wondering around the worlds look beautiful as well. More than once I just stopped and rotated the view a bit to admire the sights. I found the The Sunleth Waterscape especially worth a half minute pause. The characters and backgrounds for the most part look the same in all four forms of the game, which adds a lot to the experience.

Sunleth Waterscape

Sound

First up, the voice talent is especially good by western standards. This has been happening more and more thankfully. The “Australian” accents are a bit annoying at first, but they made sense in the context of the story. While the music wasn’t by Nobuo Uematsu, it was still quite good. More subtle than I would like, but that’s better than being obvious and obnoxious! Masashi Hamauzu did most of the work on this one, he previously did Dirge of Cerberus for Square. (Now that’s an under-appreciated game… but that’s off topic!) Some parts I especially liked so I’m going to have to find the soundtrack. Other sounds I don’t have much to say about, but some aspects of the fighting sounds needed work. For example I found Hopes pain complaints especially annoying (they seemed the same every time and he made them a lot) and some of the character quotes linked to commands were played too commonly… especially potentially annoying ones line “We’ve gotta win this!” and “I have to see this through!”.

Whos' next?

The theme song was a pleasant surprise. I was smashing tables when I heard the double-blow news that Final Fantasy XIII would not only have a different theme song, but it wouldn’t be commissioned either. (Slight exaggeration.) However when I heard the song in the trailer I thought it was OK, and I must confess that after hearing it some more the song by Leona Lewis has grown on me somewhat. I still don’t understand why it needed to be changed in the first place though.

Polish

Lost Odyssey was a surprisingly good game. It persuaded me to buy a XBOX360 and when I first played it I found some parts of the combat system so beautiful that they made me cry. (True story; make fun of me if you want.) This may seem to be an irrelevant point but it’s not… because Lost Odyssey was let down by lack of polish. Much of the game felt unfinished to me, and certain aspects, such as the menu system, felt like they were designed for the Amiga 500.

Crystarium

Final Fantasy XIII for the most part is not a let down in this department. In particular the menus are beautiful (not tear worthy though) and there’s a nice flow to it all. The only aspect of the menu that I didn’t like was the Crystarium menu. (That’s the level-up system; it’s very similar to FFX.) By choice or design, I don’t know, it takes too long to open up and the process of switching another Role for the selected character seems clunky. That’s my only major complaint however; FFXIII even did good by showing in the inventory what is owned rather than just what is un-equipped and avoided my other not RPG-specific complaint of default-new-game-is-annoying.

I like the idea that you can complete the extras after the game. Sure this makes little sense from a story point of view, but casting Knights of the Round and winning each boss fight in FFVII with one summon is little better. This way at least you’re encouraged to finish the main game first at a less powerful level, and you can keep playing afterwards if you want. (As I am now!) I did however find annoying that yet again Square chose to not have easy access to movies and cut scenes. This is a feature that I really like as it means I don’t have to keep save games in certain spots to re-watch certain scenes… but Square hasn’t included this feature for a while. Why they do this I can only guess, with my best one being to encourage people to play the game again (or for the first time) rather than just watch videos.

Ready

On the subject of the extras, for the most part they are just “marks” otherwise known as really hard fights. Final Fantasy XIII does seem to have less diversity in mini-games, but since the main story can take 40+ hours I don’t really see a problem. (I’m almost up to 100 hours!)

Story

No actual details will be given here, but it’s obviously a variant of the usual “group of people (often young) get thrown together and save the world” type. Considering the limitations of this kind of story (it has been done before after all) I think it’s a good version. Each character has their own motivations and they all are involved roughly equally. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games there is no non-audio dialog which does increase accessibility. (Some people just don’t like reading story text.) Probably due to this there is a small amount of additional text in a database that expands/clarifies certain story elements and characters which while not required reading it’s smart to do so. Some reviews make out that this is a massive undertaking but I don’t agree; I just spent a few minutes each session “catching up”. It’s funny; JRPGs often are insulted for having too many cut-scenes, but at the same time reviewers are saying that the database should have been made into one. Go figure. (As a side note/comparison, FFXII had more database text but it was less required from a story point of view. For example FFXIII doesn’t have any text for the monsters, and while it was mostly pointless, it was also one of the parts I liked about the FFXII.)

Sheep

Final Fantasy XIII has been criticized by many as being linear, and for the most part this is true. It’s very similar in FFX in that; the story is constantly driving you forwards. Sure you can go back to a limited degree, but the story will generally progress in a way that prevents you going too far. Contry to most reviewers though, I preferred this to what they did in FFX. In FFXIII there is no way to go back most of the time so there’s no time wasted checking. As I found out after I played FFX, there are often good reasons to go back to previously visited locations, and some things can only be experienced/found prior to certain story points. Since up till near the end of the game you have no easy transport, doing so involves retracing your path, and suffering low-level random encounters the whole way back. So yeah, until Square return to a world map system (supposedly in Final Fantasy XIII Versus) I’d prefer things this way. (I strongly suspect that most of the game reviewers haven’t played FFX.) Besides, aren’t stories linear things? I realise that multiple endings are cool in their own way, but what’s wrong with a set story? To me Final Fantasy games have (in recent times) been about being part of a story and in that FFXIII succeeds.

Not everything is explained at the end however, but I think all Final Fantasy games are guilty of that. For example in FF7 who is Jenova? Is Jenova alive or is Sephiroth controlling her… or is the reverse true? Are there more Jenovas? In FF8 the obvious question is; Who landed and converted the Gardens? Why? How did people forget that these giant structures could fly? Do they run on EverReady or Duracell? I could go on, but in short unanswered questions is part of the Final Fantasy tradition.

Combat system

This has been a very mis-understood aspect of the game. Some reviewers I suspect have not played the game long at all as I’ve read things like…

You can finish the game by just pressing Auto
Characters don’t level up
Paradigm Shift is optional
Eidolon fights are un-winnable the first time
Fights are too long
The fight system is too different to other Final Fantasy games
The fight system doesn’t get good until the end

…and I agree with none of them. Some are sort of true, some are false and other are proof that the game isn’t for you. What follows is my take.

Preemptive Strike from the rear

In Final Fantasy XIII Square decided to increase the pace of the fighting without going for a “look mum, no hands” approach like in FFXII. (Every major fight in FFXII I left the room and came back a few hours later. My presence was not needed.) To achieve this they gave all character three main classes and instead of choosing what they do you choose what the can do. Once they are told that they just do it. What’s more, they do it locally. If you’ve met a monster before and he was immune to a spell it won’t be cast. I see this as a good thing; it ups the pace and reduces the tedium. To increase the pace further (and add to the strategy aspect) you pick the roles in groups (known as Paradigms) and you can only set six. It becomes clear soon that this is not enough, and you need to be careful when selecting. (You can change Paradigms only outside battles.) Aside from selecting Paradigms, you can select the actions of your party leader. Most of the time it’s impractical; you’re simply too slow. Thus unless you have an allergic reaction to pressing a button labeled “Auto” you should just press it. You’ll be too busy monitoring the enemies and the rest of the party and Shifting Paradigms to suit to feel guilty. The only time you should manually select what to do is if you want to use a special attack, an item, or summon an eidelon.

Eidelon? Oh yes, as usual, there is some form of summoning. It’s been a long time since summoning was as absolutely kick-arse as FF7… and to be honest it’s a good thing. They were so powerful and so unrestricted there that I often banned their usage in boss fights to make things seem more fair! Ever since summoning has been more restricted and/or less powerful. In FFXIII it is both. It takes time to build up a gauge to use them, an when called they are more useful as a tool than a weapon. For example they can be used to instantly weaken some enemies, and when they leave the fully heal the whole party. Their actual damage is rarely impressive… except in a visual sense! Like many Final Fantasy games they need to be won or defeated, and they vary. But that aspect is not as hard as some think. All you need to do is scan them (it’s an ability) and then that will tell you what you must do to impress them. Easy!

Rating

Characters do level up in FFXIII, but there’s no shown level, much like FFX. You are given points after each fight that you can spend on upping stats in a role, which also give you abilities, also much like FFX. (Any further explanations would be too convoluted.) Weapons can be upgraded as well, but this is better left to later in the game as money is really rare. But at the start you don’t even level up and many hours need to be spent (5-20, depending on speed and perspective) before the fight system gets good; prior to that you’re mostly pressing “auto” feeling sheepish. Even so, that’s always been the nature of Final Fantasy. It wasn’t until the last quarter of FFXII that you could get some of the best Gambits. Square give you one ability at a time to ease you into the game, and they do that as they change the system every time, no matter how popular the last system was.

Summary

Rating

I’ve said a lot and I have more I could say but I probably should leave it here! In short though, I think this is the best Final Fantasy yet. Sure, I’ll probably have Buster Swords thrown at me for saying so, but please note that this is a holistic point of view. I love Final Fantasy VII, and for years I’ve seen it as the best, but the combat system of FFXIII has won me over. FFVII is a great game, but after playing it 5+ times it’s really clear how unfinished and unpolished the game is. If Square ever get around to re-doing it and making the game characters look the same throughout the game (even Minfigs don’t have block hands!) and clean up some of the translations and other oddities I might feel different, but for the time being I have a new favorite! (In order; 13, 7, 10, 8, 12, 9, 10-2. Others are too old to compare and I haven’t played 6.) It’s not a perfect game, but it is a great experience and a lot of fun.

Paradigm Shift

One final word; if you have a choice, don’t buy the 360 version. While Square did a great job porting it over in a short time, it runs at a lower resolution and the videos are compressed. Why pay the same for a lesser experience?