Jul 24, 2010 – Final Fantasy is one of the longest running franchises in video-game history. Unlike most other franchises that span similar time frames like Mario or Zelda, Final Fantasy is different each time, with new characters, new worlds and even new mechanics and game design philosophies. For many years this has allowed the games to stay fresh, and for each entry to stand on its own merits and flaws. But as time has marched on, Japanese game development hasn’t evolved with the times as much as their Western counterparts. What was advanced and ahead of its time in the NES, SNES and Playstation 1 and 2 eras have become icons of the old guard.
Final Fantasy XIII uses the franchises key ability to reinvent itself each installment to experiment with new modes of gameplay and new design philosophies in an attempt to stay relevant. What comes from this chancy bet by Square Enix is a game that feels both very different from all the final fantasy games that came before it, developing inventive and great new mechanics, and yet still feels like home.
The very Japanese method of storytelling will either draw the player in or turn them away. If you can’t stand the stories of anime, manga or any other JRPG you should probably turn around now and not look back. The story is difficult to summarize, not only because it involves a large ensemble cast weaving in and out of dense layers of the plot, but also because there are specific terms that you must learn to make sense of anything. Fal’Cie, l’Cie, Cie’th, a Focus, Cocoon, Pulse, etc. If you aren’t willing to pay close attention and read every event summary in the datalogue at the beginning of the game, you will soon be lost.
If, however, you enjoy Japanese storytelling and archetypes, and if you are fine with reading all of the supporting details (like me,) then you will find a story that is involving, epic in scope and ever evolving. It is a story that wraps small character details into the bigger picture and makes them all mater by amplifying each other. For balancing all of the different plot lines and characters, the game does an excellent job of it.
Cocoon is a world on the inside of a massive rocky shell, inhabited by humans who are provided for and looked after by Fal’Cie, who are sort of like gods. Cocoon hovers above the world of Gran Pulse, a wild and expansive place. Long ago, Cocoon and the former inhabitants of Gran Pulse fought a war against one another. Cocoon won, but only after taking heavy damage. Ever since then, the citizens of both Pulse and Cocoon have loathed and feared one another. This makes the surprise appearance of a Pulse Fal’Cie on Cocoon all the more frightening.
The main characters find themselves wrapped up in the events that follow, either for personal reasons or due to bad luck and being at the wrong place at the wrong time. They all find themselves branded as Pulse l’Cie, servants of Pulse, who bear an unknown Focus. If they fail their Focus, they will turn into mindless monsters, the Cie’th. If they succeed they will turn into crystal, which is the promise of eternal life from the Fal’Cie. They do not know if their Focus is to destroy Cocoon or to save it, and they are terrified to find out; but they all set out to find their way nonetheless. What follows is a tale of fighting fate and gods, struggling through personal loss, never giving up hope and faith and standing up for one another.
The characters are typical Japanese Archetypes. There’s the girl that’s way too peppy (Vanille,) the whiny kid who’s admittedly down on his luck but needs to shut-up already (Hope,) the hero who knows he’s a hero and is always determined (Snow,) but despite these Archetypes the characters largely manage to surpass them to become deeper, more three-dimensional people. Vanille’s personality is realistic (No, seriously, I know a girl who’s just like her) but annoyingly happy until you realize that underneath the veneer she’s “not all smiles and sunshine.” Hope grows up and puts his childish ways behind him (something that never happens to some whiny brats I could name *cough*cough* Shinji from Evangelion *cough*cough*) And Snow backs up his ridiculous hero persona with genuine feelings for his fiance, and self doubt that occasionally shows when things seem absolutely bleak.
That’s forgetting to talk about some of the other fantastic characters, like Sahz (my favorite) an older down to earth guy with a baby chocobo in his Afro. He’s a believable father figure and regular guy sucked up into a mess that is way over his head. He has a scene with Vanille that is wonderfully done and very raw emotionally, and any scene between him and his son is fantastic. Lightning is, as many people have pointed out, Cloud with boobs. Nevertheless, she’s very cool, powerful, independent, and her relationships with her sister and her sister’s fiance (Snow) are believable and full of dramatic tension. Fang is the character I liked least, and yet she too has various motivations and desires warring inside her. Even the bit players like Cid Raines are more than they appear and have dramatic arcs.
All of the characters are made that much better by their excellent voice actors. Vincent Martella’s Hope begins as a whiny brat, but thankfully he never sounded like a deep-voiced female (*cough*cough* Shinji *cough*) and the voice actor was able to convey that change in attitudes well. Troy Baker’s Snow manages to bring some authenticity to the moments when his character shows he’s something more than a loudmouth with bravado. All of the characters share similar results with perhaps only Vanille’s voice acting needing some improvement.
The way the story is told effects the gameplay and overall experience directly. The story is mostly told through numerous cut-scenes, all of which are gorgeous. If watching the story unfold during long cinematic breaks sounds dull to you then this is not your game. The story is rigid with no room for customization or choice. Like all Final Fantasy games there is one way to do something, and only that way. You progress from A to B. In older games, however, there was an illusion of freedom. You could wander around an overworld, take some missions out of order and so forth, but in the end if you didn’t follow the correct path you were dead. Final Fantasy XIII largely does away with this illusion. The game is exceedingly linear, and one could draw the game’s path nearly enough to be one giant hallway which only becomes a full room at the very end (it opens up at Gran Pulse.) This feeling of guidance will kill the experience for players who want to effect the storyline or choose which direction to go at any given time. Fallout 3 this isn’t.
However, this gives the game developer a lot of freedom with how to tell their story. They are able to structure the world in such a way as to give a sense of purpose and place that can be elusive in other RPGs. Like first or 3rd person shooters, they are also able to pump up the graphics engine, making the surroundings really sparkle. Fallout 3 has lots of Freedom and Choice, but it’s game engine isn’t going to be receiving any beauty awards.
Final Fantasy XIII is certainly beautiful. I would find myself stopping to look around at the environments more times in this game than most others. Gran Pulse alone is an amazing place full of wildlife, plains, cliffs and vistas that make me feel like I walked into Jurassic Park. The scale of your character to some of the creatures in the environment, and the awe which it elicits, is only topped by God of War 3 and Shadow of the Colossus. The game moves smoothly between cut-scenes and gameplay with little noticeable differences, and the battles are beautiful and flashy.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments when you’re kicked out of the experience. As good a job as the animators did at capturing accurate lip movements for the wording, it isn’t perfect and could really use some motion capture techniques. During some scenes which use the in-game engine instead of pre-rendered cut scenes, the animations can feel stiff. Oh, and if these characters aren’t using gallons of hair gel I’d be shocked. But then, that’s the way it is with every anime flavored character design and I love it anyway.
While I loved the story and characters it would have been hard to get into the game if there wasn’t also a great battle system. Thankfully, this battle system is easily the best of the series and one of the best in the entire JRPG genre (f not THE best.) In many ways I dread ever having to play a turn based system again.
Each character has access to three primary “roles,” such as Sentinel, Medic, Ravager(mage), Commando(fighter), Saboteur and Synergist. Each role can be upgraded with Crystarium Points(exp.) to gain new abilities and greater hit points, magic and strength, and each role specializes in certain effects. A Sentinel has extra hit points and takes less damage for instance, while a Commando deals out heavy physical damage and Ravagers build up chain gauges quickly that can Stagger an opponent. The real hook of the battle system is the Paradigm Shift. A paradigm is the combination of roles in your party, which are customizable in the menu. A paradigm example might be Relentless Assault, which would be Two Ravagers and a Commando, or Combat Clinic, which would be a Sentinel and two Medics. In battle you can shift at almost any time between paradigms.
Knowing how to create useful paradigms and when and how to use them in the heat of battle is the crux of Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system, but just as important is the Stagger Meter. As an opponent takes damage their Stagger Meter goes up. When the opponent becomes staggered they take many times the usual damage. Some opponents are nigh impossible to beat without Staggering them first.
As an example of the system, a player may start with Espionage (Saboteur, Saboteur, Synergist) to gain buffs and cast de-buffs, then switch to Relentless Assault to build the Stagger Meter and do damage, and switch to Combat Clinic to heal up when in danger. There is a lot of forethought, strategy and quick thinking involved. In the beginning of the game it amounts to little more than pressing the X button (A on Xbox,) but button mashing will get you nowhere later on in the game.
Whether you like Final Fantasy XIII or not is highly subjective. If you love open worlds and choice, western styles of storytelling and few cut-scenes, this isn’t for you. However, if you’re like me, you will fall in love with the characters, the story, and the world they live in. Nothing, in my mind, can honesty question the excellent battle system, and the music is up to the high standards of the series. Square Enix’s gamble paid off, and they’ve given us a triumphant departure from the franchises’ roots while remaining true to the heart and themes of its legacy.
STAR RATING: (4 and 1/2)