Blue skies soar overhead as the view pans down to focus on a lone train peacefully passing through a breathtaking mountain landscape. Aboard the train, a PSICOM soldier patrols, keeping an overbearing eye on a group of cloaked prisoners currently being escorted to the floating city world of Cocoon. However, such peace is interrupted when the train slams through a barrier knocking the soldier off-guard.
Two characters immediately rush to their feet as they begin to seize control of the train, in an attempt to free the prisoners from their captors. It is after a quick uncloak that we are greeted with the first full appearance of the games central protagonist, Lightning, as she leaps to neutralise the enemy soldiers in an absolutely stunning action sequence whilst Sazh, a further party character, ensures that the prisoners are okay.
Continuing its journey into Cocoon, the train is immediately assaulted by enemies attempting to derail it from its track. Having fended one off with a rocket launcher, a larger creature grips onto the vehicle – completely stopping its movement entirely and forcing both Lightning and Sazh to exit. It is at this point you are thrust straight into your first battle, and begin your journey through the events of Final Fantasy XIII.
I’m merely past the opening minutes of Square Enix’s latest Final Fantasy title, yet the acclaimed developer has already taken my breath away with their true craftmanship once again…
The history of the Final Fantasy franchises now spans over two decades and it has been Square Enix’s ability to continually innovate and introduce new aspects within each title that has allowed it to remain so fresh. Final Fantasy XIII marks the first time that a core game from the series has been released on the current generation of consoles, and also acts as the flagship title for the new Fabula Nova Crystallis collection of games – currently set to also include Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII.
Within the Final Fantasy series, it is more often than not the compelling storyline and characters that occupy the core titles that prove to be the most popular element of the games amongst fans, and in this regard, Final Fantasy XIII will certainly not disappoint.
The Story and Plot
Final Fantasy XIII’s plot revolves around the floating world of Cocoon, made possible by the abilities of mechanical beings known as the Fal’Cie, and the world that lies below it, Pulse. The Fal’Cie that inhabit Cocoon have begun to select L’Cie, chosen to do their bidding in performing a ‘Focus’.
Legends state that the L’Cie are “The enemies of Cocoon, the enemies of humanity,” which has led to citizens fearing that anyone branded by the Fal’Cie threatens the very existence of Cocoon itself. This, therefore, brings about a purge, speared by the Holy Government, as citizens that have come into contact with such beings are sent on trains to a place known as the “Hanged Edge,” where they are dropped into the unknown world of Pulse below and no longer become a danger.
Those that become L’Cie are assigned a ‘Focus’ task by the Fal’Cie that brands them and upon completion their bodies become crystallised. However if they refuse to follow their mission, or fail to do so within a certain period of time, then they will turn into hideous creatures known as “Shigai.”
Final Fantasy XIII, therefore, follows the story of a group that becomes branded as L’Cie and therefore seeks to escape from Cocoon, each forming the game’s roster of six characters – Lightning, Sazh, Snow, Fang, Hope and Vanille – that you’ll be able to utilize and fight alongside in your party throughout the title.
In allowing the title to follow its narrative, there are instances where the characters split off from each other, and it won’t be until the later portion of the game that you’ll find all six drawn together once more. This allows for more diversity within the plot, rather than having the entire party uniting under a single immediate goal, and lends itself incredibly well in allowing the characters of FFXIII to be the most well-developed within the series’ history.
Each provides a unique personality with Lightning, Sazh and Fang being particularly strong characters. Players may find that Hope’s whiney dialogue within the first half of the game to be of annoyance, and Vanille’s overtly girly nature may begin to particularly grate amidst an otherwise commendable voice cast.
As you may have seen in recent trailers and screenshots, it will come as no surprise that the characters and environmental detail within the game is jaw-droppingly good. As you progress through the game unlocking new skills and spells, the fluidity of movement during battles is stunning and quickly becomes one of the game’s most enjoyable aspects – it truly is a visual feast for your eyes.
While many have been quick to judge the quality of the Final Fantasy 13 Xbox 360 version of the title over that of the PlayStation 3 version, the only negligible difference is that the FMV sequences are compressed – yet this isn’t enough to hamper the overall experience.
Graphical Technology Representations
Seeing everything in action yourself looking continually fantastic allows FFXIII to set a new visual benchmark for the series’ debut on the current generation of consoles. Whether it be the luscious environments, intricate detail on monsters, or the incredibly life-like characters, there won’t be a single moment where you won’t be able to stop to take a moment to admire your surroundings.
It is a substantial technical accomplishment for Square Enix’s development teams, and they should feel particularly proud regarding the outcome of their efforts.
The lip-syncing for the characters has also been refined over the Japanese version to match that spoken by the English voice-over cast, adding to overall quality. There are instances where the lip sync doesn’t perfectly match, and some environments later in the title become repetitive. Yet, these become minor complaints amidst a title full of technical marvels.
As with previous Final Fantasy titles, and the entire RPG genre for that matter, you’ll spend a lot of your time battling monsters and bosses, and it is here that the Battle System has received an overhaul. Its basis is now centered entirely on a real-time Action Time Bar (ATB) system alongside a Technical Point Gauge that builds in levels and allows you to perform actions like Libra and Summons. In seeking to quicken the pace of combat situations it also no longer revolves around turns – i.e., enemies won’t hesitate to attack you while you plan out your next move.
The ATB itself is divided into multiple sections and progressively fills over a period of time. You queue up actions that will then be able to be performed – such as attacking, using magic or performing special attacks – once a portion is full. Each action will cost you a certain quantity of sections, so as an example we could utilise our three sections by assigning an ‘Attack’ move (1 section) and then a special ‘Blitz’ attack (2 sections).
It essentially streamlines the experience in allowing you to queue up and perform actions, to then view your character perform them fluidly on screen as your ATB begins to refill. As you progress through the game, you will gain additional ATB bars, allowing you to perform more actions at once. You don’t necessarily have to wait for the bar to fill entirely either, as you are able to press Y/ Triangle to use however many bars you have currently filled – functional when you need to get a quick heal in, or even an attack to finish off an enemy.
Alongside this, as you damage an enemy, you will boost a ‘Stagger’ gauge. Once complete, the enemy’s defense will be significantly weakened, and through successive attacks, you’ll be able to increase a multiplier that will allow you to heighten the amount of damage you cause per hit.
However, you’ll have to detail continual damage to get an enemy to this point, which relates to the faster pace in the battle system. Stronger characters will be more brutal to Stagger, yet it is a necessary and beneficial aspect of the game that introduces a more tactical element to gameplay.
The Game’s Systems
Another new feature is that of the Paradigm System, which essentially assigns job roles to your current party characters. In battle, you’ll only ever take control of your party leader, so switching between Paradigms becomes necessary to ensure that the party AI behaves in the way you wish. There are six roles that your characters can assume, with examples ranging from Ravagers that excel at magic and boosting the Stagger gauge, Saboteurs that inflict status effects on enemies to weaken them for attacks, or Medics that use spells such as Cure and Raise to help keep your party alive and kicking.
There are some changes here, however, that long-term fans may dislike. You can no longer flee from battles, and Square Enix has replaced this with a new ‘Retry’ option, meaning that if a battle isn’t going well, you can press Start to pause, then Select to revert back to a point just before you engaged an enemy.
The option to flee, though, would save time spent on loading screens and also having to skip cutscenes that you may have encountered – as, more often than not, the instances where you’ll need to retry will be at some of the challenging boss battles spread throughout the storyline. Such a move by Square Enix seems to streamline the experience by allowing you to continually seek to move further forwards within the game rather than having to cover lost ground.
The Legacy of Final Fantasy RPG Progression
Key to any RPG title is the leveling system, and here fans will be able to recognize a format more reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid than the experience grinding of earlier titles. The new ‘Crystarium’ system provides you with the ability to level each Paradigm role within the game individually, with separate systems for each character as you would expect.
Each role consists of paths that circle several leveled discs, and players can spend Crystarium Points earned within the battle to unlock certain aspects, such as to raise Strength/ Magic/ HP stats or to gain new Skills/ Spells/ Abilities.
For the most part this works incredibly well, yet you’ll find it more beneficial to focus on levelling two or three roles. Later in the game you will gain the option to access each role for each character, although most will inevitably stick to those roles that have been progressively levelled throughout the game – it will allow you to continue to further strengthen . Every RPG fan will easily be seeking to grind until your team feels near enough invincible.
Utilizing the Crystarium isn’t the only way of developing your characters with the game, as you may also explore upgrading your weapons. This utilizes its level system, in which you must use various materials to add EXP to weapons, allowing them to gain levels and then – increase Strength and Magic stats and any bonuses attributed to that weapon. You’ll have to use lower-level materials to boost a multiplier that will allow your higher-level materials to provide vast quantities of EXP to your weapons, allowing them to level much quicker.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an actual Final Fantasy game without incorporating summons, and this time around, each character is assigned an Eidolon that unlocks at a specific moment within the storyline of the game. Each begins with an incredible summon sequence, all built using the in-game engine and utilize two forms.
While in their first form, your summon will perform simple attacks alongside you, but the game notches up a gear when you activate Gestalt mode. Here, your summoned character transforms into a form of vehicle – Odin’s Horse or a motorbike for Shiva –and you’ll gain direct control in performing devastatingly powerful moves within a set time limit. During these moments, you’ll once again enjoy the visuals on display.
Facial and Character Technology
Finally, Square Enix have chosen to implement a ‘Datalog’ within the game – a choice that is surely set to be of interest to fans of the series. This holds information regarding enemies collected through the use of the Libra skill, yet more important alongside this you’ll be able to access background information regarding places, characters and the plot within the game.
While there is much to praise within Final Fantasy XIII, there are also, unfortunately, a few criticisms to be made. While the weapon leveling system is a great addition, you need more Gil to be able to afford enough materials to level the weapons of all your characters sufficiently.
Bizarrely enough, you don’t even earn Gil in battles and must rely on finding it within treasure chests or selling spare weapons/ accessories/ items you have collected.
Also, in combat AI controlled players sometimes fail to act in accordance with what you expect – which becomes more annoying in the more complex battles. If the character you control falls, it’ll be an immediate Game Over screen that’ll greet you – so why does the Medic AI not heal you sufficiently? There were times when I had very little health, and the AI cast one Cure on me rather than the four they could have.
This has happened numerous times and became more apparent towards the end of the game when you need more support in battles to ensure victory. It is unfortunate to say that, at times, the AI doesn’t aid you sufficiently, in my opinion, towards the latter portion of the game.
There has been much comment surrounding the linearity of the title. Although this does feel necessary in allowing the player to navigate through the storyline and follow the narrative, it feels a little dated. As a player who has enjoyed every title in the series’ history, I didn’t realize the lack of towns would bother me so much. There’s no running around cities searching for houses, chatting with NPC, or playing mini-games such as Tetra Master here, unfortunately.
In creating the first core Final Fantasy title to hit both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Square Enix wasn’t going to take any chances and quickly produced one of their finest displays of technical prowess, especially in terms of the titles’ visuals and fast-paced battle system.
Despite some minor flaws, it provides plenty of fresh ideas and some stunning moments to become a must-have title for RPG fans quickly and also provides something that will be accessible to all – be sure to keep coming back to TheLostGamer not to miss out.
Lost Gamer Verdict: 9/10