Final Fantasy XIII delivers a poignant story with likeable characters and an engaging combat system. It’s a shame that it takes so long to see it.
Whenever a new Final Fantasy hits store shelves, the release feels like an event. That’s the case with other franchises, but for the longest time, Final Fantasy has been the flagship series to come out of Japan. It’s hard to believe that even after so many games, the 13th iteration is no exception. People who have been eagerly waiting for the game to come out, I’m glad to say that Final Fantasy XIII was worth the wait: the JRPG delivers a poignant story with likeable characters and an engaging combat, but it’s a shame that it takes dozens of hours to see that. The game suffers from several problems, including an excessively linear world with little to no exploration, frustrating late game encounters and poorly explained mechanics, but Final Fantasy XIII has everything that has captivated fans from all over the world for decades.
The story is one of the most appealing parts about the game and without making reference to specific, here’s the premise that ties everything together: Final Fantasy XIII takes place in the utopic paradise of Cocoon, a floating metropolis ruled by the totalitarian regime of the Sanctum. But this government is forcing Cocoon’s citizens who came into contact with anything that came from the world below it to leave. Former soldier Lightning and her band of allies are part of a group of misfits that have the difficult task of fighting against the government without turning into monsters or crystals. Of course, this is but a quick summary of some of the events that take place in the game, but the only thing you should know before playing is that there are science fiction elements instead of the usual medieval ones.
As you’d expect from a Final Fantasy game, several mechanics come into play in combat. In terms of gameplay, this role-playing game shares elements with previous titles in the series as well as MMORPGs, making the combat familiar yet refreshingly unique. Basically, you control a character and when you come into contact with an enemy, you trigger a battle. Once in battle, each member of your party fulfills a specific role (healer, tank, ranged and so on.) and the best part is figuring out how to take down the enemies in front of you in the most effective manner. The only problem with the combat is that some mechanics aren’t well explained at first and it’ll take you some time to figure them out on your own. Even with this problem, I played the game for dozens of hours and never got bored with the combat and this is a testament to its terrific design.
Selecting the roles of the three characters in your party is part of the paradigm system and you can switch these on the fly which makes fights a dynamic and entertaining affair. As you defeat enemies you get experience points (or CP, which I assume stands for crystal points,) that you can spend on the crystarium, a board that looks remarkably similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Although it looks intimidating at first, the crystarium is a simple board that allows you to improve your stats and acquire new skills and abilities to use in battle.
And then there are attack chains. Attacking your opponent, healing your allies and different actions fill up your enemies’ bar (there’s a surprising number of bars at any given point when you battle, but you’ll quickly learn how to read all that information to make the most of it) and when it’s full, enemies are staggered which means that you make more damage. Mastering this and all the aforementioned mechanics takes a lot of time, but you soon learn how to use all the mechanics in your favor.
There are also summons (called Eidolons this time around) and these are powerful beings that you can call to fight for you and try to take down some formidable adversaries. Each character you control has his or her own Eidolon, but it’ll take you a long time before you’ve unlocked all of these gargantuan creatures. Some of them include Shiva, Bahamut, Odin, Ifrit and other monsters that anyone who’s been playing Final Fantasy games for a while will definitely recognize. Something new is that Eidolons can transform so that the character that controls them can ride them which explains why one of them is a motorcycle that Snow can hop into.
Up until this point I’ve been describing some of the most universally liked aspects of the game, but it’s time to talk about some of its problems. First, the Xbox 360 is far from the best version: it comes in three discs, so you constantly find yourself swapping discs. That, in and of itself isn’t much of a problem, but there are noticeable framerate drops and they tend to happen randomly and not necessarily when the action heats up. Although I haven’t had a chance to check out the PlayStation 3 version, it’s worth pointing out that it comes on a single Blu-ray disc and I read that the technical performance is better. In other words, should you own both consoles, the PlayStation 3 version should be your first choice.
And then there’s the game linearity. A lot has been said about this and even if people have been complaining about it for years, I have to bring it up again. It’s great to know that where you’re supposed to go next, but in the case of Final Fantasy XIII, most maps are long and narrow corridors where exploration is simply not an option. So should you feel the need to level up your characters, you’re forced to retrace your steps and replay fights. At some point, the game opens up, but its takes more than 20 hours to do so and although you can fulfill a series of missions in the order you want, most fights quickly become rote and repetitive, making the open space feel artificial and just boring.
To conclude, Final Fantasy XIII has its fair share of problems and some of them are more serious than others. But warts and all, this is game that’s worth playing just so that you can experience its larger-than-life story, memorable cast of characters and entertaining combat. Square Enix crafted a memorable and epic role-playing game that will remain in my head for years to come.