Blue skies soar overhead as the view pans down to focus its attention on a lone train peacefully making its way 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 cityworld 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.
Final Fantasy XIII’s plot revolves around the floating world of Cocoon, which has been 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, those that are 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 therefore led to citizens fearing that anyone branded by the Fal’Cie threaten 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 become branded as L’Cie and therefore seek to escape from Cocoon, each forming the games roster of six characters – Lightning, Sazh, Snow, Fang, Hope and Vanille – that you’ll be able to utilise and fight alongside in your party throughout the title. In allowing the title to follow its narrative, there are instances where the characters each 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 an immediate single 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 well have seen within 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 easily becomes one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game – it truly is a visual feast for your eyes. Whilst many have been quick to judge the quality of the Xbox 360 version of the title over that of the PlayStation 3 version, the only negligible difference here is that the FMV sequences are clearly compressed – yet this isn’t enough to hamper the overall experience.
Needless to say seeing everything in action yourself looking continually fantastic really 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 huge 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, again adding to overall quality. There are instances where the lip sync doesn’t perfectly match and some environments later in the title that become a bit repetitive, yet these become minor complaints amidst a title full of technical marvel.
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 centred 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 such as 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 whilst you take time to 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 completely either, as you are able to press Y/ Triangle to use however many bars you have currently filled – useful when you need to get a quick heal in, or even an attack to finish off an enemy.
Alongside this, as you deal damage to an enemy you will boost a ‘Stagger’ gauge. Once full, the enemies defence will be greatly 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 be able to get an enemy to this point, which therefore relates itself to the much faster pace seen within the battle system. Stronger characters will evidently be harder to Stagger, yet it is a necessary and beneficial aspect of the game that introduces a more tactical element to game play.
Another new feature is that of the Paradigm System, which is essentially a method of assigning job roles to your current party characters. In battle you’ll only ever take control of your party leader, so switching between sets of Paradigms becomes necessary to ensure that the party AI behave in the way that 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 have 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 be to streamline the experience in allowing you to continually seek to move further forwards within the game, rather than having to cover lost ground.
Key to any RPG title is the levelling system, and here fans will be able to recognise 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 around a number of levelled discs, and players are able to spend Crystarium Points earned within 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.
Utilising the Crystarium isn’t the only way of developing your characters with the game, as you may also explore upgrading your weapons. This utilises its own level system, in which you must use various materials to add EXP to weapons in allowing them to then gain levels – increasing Strength and Magic stats, as well as 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 then provide huge quantities of EXP to your weapons, allowing them to level much quicker.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Final Fantasy game without incorporating summons, and this time around each character is assigned an Eidolon that unlocks at a specific moment within the games storyline. Each begin with an incredible summon sequence, all built using the in-game engine and utilise two forms. Whilst in their first form, your summon will perform simple attacks alongside you, but the game really 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. It is during these moments that you’ll once again enjoy the visuals on display.
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.
Whilst there is much to praise within Final Fantasy XIII, there are also unfortunately a few criticisms to be made. Whilst the weapon levelling system is a great addition, you are never provided with enough 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 through selling spare weapons/ accessories/ items that you have collected.
Also, in combat AI controlled players sometimes fail to act in accordance to what you expect – which becomes more annoying in the harder 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 full four that they could have. This has happened on numerous occasion now as well, and became more apparent towards the end of the game when you need more support within battles to ensure victory. It is unfortunate to have 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 and although this does feel necessary in allowing the player to navigate their way through the storyline and follow the narrative, it does feel a little dated. As a player that has enjoyed every title within the series’ history, I didn’t realise the lack of towns would bother me so much either. There’s no running around cities searching houses, chatting to NPC’s 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 weren’t going to take any chances and have easily 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 easily become a must have title for RPG fans and also provides something that will be accessible to all – be sure you don’t miss out.
Lost Gamer Verdict: 9/10
|Title||Final Fantasy XIII|
|Release Date||Out Now|
|Platform Reviewed||Xbox 360|
|Version Availability||PlayStation 3, Xbox 360|