Saturday, March 17, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII Review: A Light Up Ahead


I’m going to come right out and say it: I really, truly enjoyed playing Final Fantasy XIII.  It is a beautiful game, in more ways than one.  It is also a flawed game in many ways, but for me the positives overwhelm the negatives in this installment of the Final Fantasy series.  There has obviously been a lot written about this game – reviews, opinions, fanboy meltdowns – and I am going to attempt to debuff some of the layers of rumor and hearsay that surround this game.  It has always been my opinion to hold off judging something until you have given it a fair try, and I am truly happy that I gave Final Fantasy XIII the chance it deserves.

Final Fantasy XIII occurs in a place of two worlds: Pulse and Cocoon.  Basically, both worlds are overseen by god-like beings called fal’Cie.  The two worlds don’t seem to get along: Cocoon is a utopian, civilized culture that sits above the harsh, wild country that is Pulse.  You find out that long ago there was a war between the worlds, and ever since both societies have been living in fear of the other.  When the game begins, a series of events have occurred that has caused the government of Cocoon to prepare for an invasion from Pulse.  They take drastic action against their own people for the so-called “universal” safety of the populace.  The story focuses on the lives of seven people in particular who are affected by these events.

The cast of Final Fantasy XIII.

The game’s main protagonist is an ex-soldier named Lightning, and it is with her the game begins.  The game’s beginning is a bit of a mess, admittedly.  You are thrown into the middle of the action, and almost nothing makes sense.  I was very unclear as to who I was fighting and why.  And I had no idea who the characters I was playing as were.  Lightning seemed very self-centered and cold, and all of the other characters struck me as very selfish and even childish.  The rather infamous level designs seemed extremely “linear”, and the combat system was a bit too easy.  The only element that really stood out to me in the beginning was the graphics – the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse are beautiful, and I was in awe at the artistic direction and graphics of the game from the get-go.  All-in-all though, not off to a great start. 

I think a great many of the negative critiques of this game were born out of the first few hours of gameplay.  And it does make sense: essentially, you have no idea what is going on, the characters are whiney and self-centered, the combat system is simplistic, and you’re walking down very narrow paths fighting a lot of enemies.  Sounds a bit rough, right?  There is no hiding the fact that the early hours of Final Fantasy XIII are a grind.  But for those players who are willing to have patience with it, FFXIII truly opens up and becomes a fantastic experience - eventually.

The battle system in action.
Let’s first discuss the battle system – a crucial element in any RPG.  FFXIII continues the Active Time Battle System of the series.  As a gauge fills in real time, you are able to execute attacks, spells, and other actions, which deplete the gauge as they are used.  What is really interesting about XIII is that different moves use up different amounts of the gauge.  For example, a simple Fire spell may take one unit, while a larger cure spell could take three.  As your characters gain experience, they learn more abilities and their gauge increases, allowing you to experiment with some very interesting combos.  The flip side of this is the introduction of the auto-battle option, which does seem very limiting at first.  Essentially, as your characters use certain moves against an enemy, they will learn what types of moves are most effective.  Once this knowledge is obtained, you can select the auto-battle option to use the most effective combination of moves against a given enemy.  While at first this seems to take all of the fun out of battles, it actually leads to an even more complex layer: the paradigm system.  Basically, all 6 playable characters can develop in 6 different roles: commando, ravager, synergist, sentinel, saboteur, and medic.  At a certain point in the game, you are able to choose any 3 characters and create different combinations of their roles for battle.  Then once in battle, you can switch between paradigms to battle your enemies.  It sounds rather complicated if you have not experienced it, but there are several tutorials in the game which explain everything.  The tutorials actually continue to appear for a fair bit into the game, and so it takes time to “unlock” the full combat system.  In a certain way this approach makes sense – the battle system is complicated and very difficult to master.  But the teaching process certainly could have been paced a bit better.  That being said, midway through the game when the entire battle system is available to you, it becomes incredibly engaging.  It offers a lot of challenges and a lot of fun, and keeps battles fresh and well-paced.  You can tell Square Enix put a lot of time into the battles of this game, and that work really shines through.

Another equally important element is the gameplay itself.  The controls of FFXIII run very smoothly, from battling your enemies to exploring the Cocoon and Pulse.  There are several different camera controls to choose from, and I felt like the ones I chose allowed me to truly appreciate the beauty of the game.  The menu systems are executed with clean and crisp precision, and are very in-depth themselves.  There are huge amounts of items from weapon accessories to character accessories, and any RPG fan could spend many hours in customization.  The “level-up system” is handled in a unique, fun way as well.  As you battle enemies, you will gain crystogen points, which you can then spend to purchase crystals for each character.  Most crystals boost stats such as Strength, Magic, or HP.  But some unlock different moves, more ATB segments for battle, and other various bonus attributes.  It’s very easy to use and actually quite fun, and allows the player to control how the characters develop.  My only real criticism with the gameplay is the somewhat limited approach the game offers of exploring the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse.  Especially for the first half of the game, the chapters are very linear.  In fact, many of the early parts of the game felt like having the kiddie railings on in bowling.  While that was fine for the very early stages, the rails were on for way too long.  In a similar fashion, I felt like the focus on battles was a bit extreme.  As you explore the worlds, there really isn’t much to do except hunt for items and battle.  Even the “side-quests” are battle-themed and usually involve hunting a monster down.  While the battles are a lot of fun and offer many different ways to play them, by the end of the game I was wishing I could do more with my characters.  Some kind of mini-games or something would have definitely spiced things up.  Overall, the game handles incredibly well, but is just somewhat self-restristricted for half of the game.  This does change significantly, but a lot of patience is required to get to that point of freedom.

The view of Cocoon from Pulse.

As previously mentioned, the game looks beautiful.  The worlds of Cocoon and Pulse are vibrant and incredibly detailed, and offer a lot of variety.  Cocoon areas definitely had an urban vibe to them, which contrasted greatly with the vast wildernesses of Pulse.  A lot of the time I would find myself stopping just to admire the view.  The menu systems are also very pleasing to the eye – everything is laid out in a very helpful way.  One of the game’s strongest elements, however, is its cut scenes and character animations.  The cut scenes happen fairly often, and almost always either move the story forward or fill in valuable back story of the characters.  They almost look like a movie, and the voice acting is wonderful, especially from the six actors portraying the main six characters.  In fact, the sound of the entire game from voice acting to the score is incredible.  The music brings each location to life, and adds a sense of drama and depth to the cut scenes.  The battle animations are handled in a fast, edgy way, and the music reflects that as well.  Overall, both the graphics and the sound really helped tell the story of the game, which I think all games should hope to achieve.  And FFXIII delivers.

Perhaps the most important part of any game, however, and what truly makes a game worth playing or not, is its story.  A game can look and handle beautifully, but if you don’t care about the story, what is the point in playing it?  Why invest hours into a game that you don’t feel anything about?  I have to admit that I was worried about the game’s story after hearing so much negativity about it from the gaming community.  And admittedly the beginning hours of the story are very confusing and muddled.  I did not really understand what was going on or why I was doing what I was doing.  I had a hard time connecting to the characters because their motivations were hidden to me.  And the script seemed very vague and confusing.  I think many people were put off by this and gave up on the game because it was so hard to understand at first.  How can we connect to a bunch of self-centered people in a world of gods and monsters?  How does that relate to us?

Despite this somewhat frosty reception, I kept my head down and burrowed through the first few hours of gameplay.  Bit by bit, I learned more and more about what was going on.  I found out more about the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon, and their rather violent histories.  I began to understand the functions of the fal’Cie and their forced servants, the l’Cie.  Essentially, the fal’Cie gods choose people to act out their will by making them l’Cie.  Each l’Cie is given a focus – a task that must be accomplished.  Because if it is not accomplished, the l’Cie turns into a mindless zombie called a Cieth, doomed to walking the earth in pain for eternity.  All 6 of the main characters are branded (literally) as l’Cie, and as a result are driven from their homes because the l’Cie are feared.  They are scared and don’t understand what their task truly is, and each one reacts very differently to the weight of this situation.  While many paths are initially taken, they eventually come together to fight their focus – they won’t give up on the hope that they can change their destiny and save the world.  Because their focus does have something to do with either saving or destroying their home of Cocoon – and it is up to them to decide which path to follow.

In this way, FFXIII blends the deeply personal with the universal in a touching, moving way.  Each of the characters seems very distant and cold in the beginning – choosing to hide their feelings and seemingly lash out about their fates.  But as time went on I came to understand the enormity of the situation they were in, as they did themselves.  They began to open up more and more, and as their back stories were revealed I became very attached to all of them.  Their actions and choices began to make sense – these were normal people who were placed in an extraordinary situation.  They have trouble handling it at first, but eventually they push through and begin to do something about it.  I found myself driven to reach the next cut scene so that I could find out more about them, because as their histories became more clear to me, their interactions with each other became incredibly compelling.  This is perhaps most true with the main character of Lightning.  At the beginning of the game, she seems incredibly cold and selfish.  I judged her to be inaccessible and cut off from everyone, and it was easy to give up on her.  But as the story progressed, she began to express herself, and inside that hard exterior was a person who was very vulnerable.  She had been hurt in the past and was deeply afraid to let anyone hurt her again, which is why she pushed everyone away.  But the events of the story keep pushing others into her world, and eventually she lets them in.  The relationships that develop between the characters become extremely complex and meaningful, and as a result I cared deeply about their welfare.  As the story ties all of its elements together and journeys to its conclusion, so too do the characters face their challenges together.  It is a simple tale at heart, but one that can reach and connect to anyone.  I was truly moved by Final Fantasy XIII – it is a beautiful story that sneaks up on you and eventually hits your heart in the most wonderful of ways.

Is Final Fantasy XIII a perfect game?  Certainly not.  It is flawed in several ways – but what game isn’t?  If you are expecting perfection, look somewhere else.  But perfection is not what I ultimately seek when I choose a game to play.  I want a game that makes me feel something – that reminds me that I am not alone in facing the challenges life has to offer.  I want a game that is fun to play, and challenges me in several different ways.  I want a game that makes me care about what happens in it.  Is Final Fantasy XIII a game that makes you care?  Yes.  If you give it time and have the patience to let the story unfold, it will begin to move you.  In my opinion, the story becomes incredibly compelling and meaningful.  Do I care what happens to Lightning and her friends?  Damn right I do.  And ultimately, I think that is what matters most.  Lightning and her friends helped create a story that made Final Fantasy XIII one of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences I have ever had gaming.  I took a chance on Final Fantasy XIII and it paid off in a wonderful way, and I hope it will for you too.

Violent Score: 9.4 (Out of 10)


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