Everyone knows that you need to invest copious amounts of time into a Japanese RPG. They are not the quickest games to get into, but they usually give you enough choice to explore and experiment early on. Previous Final Fantasy games have never really forced too much story-based jargon in your face, instead choosing to trickle out scenes over time as you experience the new world and connect with the cast. As a long-time fan of the series, it feels so foreign to play Final Fantasy XIII., watching as it constantly goes against tradition, urgently pushing you through the story. No game should ever take over ten hours to teach the player how to fight, and nor should a game like Final Fantasy (or any other RPG for that matter) hold back so much content until the end. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad; it just means that it’s different to what you were expecting.
The game opens with stunning CG visuals, a staple of the series. After the impressive show, you are seamlessly thrust into a battle. The transition effect from cut-scene to battle mode integrated smoothly and it’s a real shame that it was used so sparingly throughout the game. After a short text tutorial you are ready to take on your first battle. Just don’t get excited, as you’ll be pressing the same button over and over for the next ten hours. No, I am not kidding. Early on, the battle system works on picking out certain targets, learning their weaknesses and figuring out the quickest way to cause them to stagger. The stagger bar is a meter that fills when you chain attacks together, and once a certain amount of chain damage has accumulated, the enemy glows yellow and your following attacks double in damage. You will find yourself repeating this strategy constantly for the first ten to twenty hours of the game which is such a shame.
Once the Crystarium system opens up, the game’s pace and battles change for the better. Everything seems to just speed up giving you a lot more control. You use the Crystarium system to essentially “level up” your party, ditching the traditional character level and experience system. Taking notes from Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, you use the Crystarium points obtained from battles to pay for new stat bonuses and abilities. Instead of having one giant grid for each character, it is split into the various roles they possess. This means you can truly custom what kind of asset each character is to the team. Lightning, for example, has the default roles of Commando (Attacker), Ravager (Black Magic) and Medic. When you open her Crystarium grid, you have the choice to level up any of these roles with the points you have obtained. The grid is sadly locked down to a certain level and progressing through the game opens up higher levels for each role.
As you progress further into the game, the Crystarium grid eventually unlocks enough to let each character learn all six roles on offer and max out their stats. Well, almost max out. The max level for each role is five and the limit for level five isn’t lifted until you have beaten the final boss. You guessed it! A cleared save data option will pop up after the credits have rolled. Yet another tradition Final Fantasy XIII has broken. Though, the cool thing about this is that you can load up that cleared save data and it will pop you back right before the last boss, giving you the option to teleport out and finish any extra side content you missed as well as maximise your team.
As with building your characters up, the battle system expands and becomes more than just hammering auto-attack over and over. You will have to master paradigm shifts. Paradigms are custom role selections for your team. As you only have control of the party leader during battles, you have to choose a role that each party member will focus on such as healing or attacking. You create a paradigm in the main menu and select a role each party member will have. You can have up to six custom paradigms and during battles you constantly switch between them. So you can change from a party full of chaining attackers to sentinels (Defenders) and medics mid-battle. The trick is to learn correct timing of when to change and what paradigm will suit the situation at the time, meaning you’ll have to make sure you have built role combinations that work well. This is also the reason why the auto-attack function exists, as switching through classes and then selecting moves individually is near impossible. Once the paradigms are unlocked, battles become quick paced and intense. It changes from repetitive button bashing to an enjoyable challenge, especially for those who are not constantly levelling their team.
During the initial twenty-five to thirty hours of gameplay, you are constantly running through linear maps, going from one story sequence to the next, all while picking the occasional fight on the way. The maps rarely encourage you to leave the main path, popping in the occasional treasure chest but never giving you much option to explore. There are absolutely no side quests until chapter ten rolls out. There are also no towns to hang out in and explore. Final Fantasy XIII is a truly linear experience right up to the end and it is almost ironic that finishing the game opens the extra content most gamers would expect to be spread out throughout the experience.
The extra content is in vein of a variety of missions for killing certain monsters. No fetching quests this time around, forcing your combat progression. There is also a chance in how weapons have been handled, this time offering the player a variety of weapons with default stats and the player to then upgrade and evolve each one with components found from treasure chest, gained from missions or dropped by enemies. Final Fantasy has always been about discovering and unravelling a story and XIII has done sure to deliver. While maybe not as tightly knit and memorable as previous games have been, there is still plenty of dramatic happenings and twists to get excited and shocked about. Each cut-scene has been crafted with the utmost care and the character design, lip sync and art style is mouthwatering.
Voice acting could have been a little tighter near the start, there are various times where you feel the voice actors are still warming up to their roles. While some characters, such as Fang and Sahz, have quite strong voices to go with their character. Other performances feel a little rough, especially Vanille, who seems to struggle to keep a high pitched Australian accent. The music is beautifully composed and catchy, trying to incorporate a more pop-like beat to lift out the rather tedious sections of the game. Leona Lewis’ contribution all feels a little too related with PR rather than matching music to the feel of the game.
While a little confusing at the start with terms such as L’Cie and Fal’Cie being thrown around constantly, the story to tie together with various flashbacks and beautifully rendered CG action sequences. Once things really start to click together, it is such a joy to watch, even if a little cliché. It is such a shame that the beginning half of Final Fantasy XIII is so weak, as once the battle system unlocks and there are more options to play with, the game is a sheer joy to play. Maybe not the best Final Fantasy in comparison to older titles but certainly a good attempt at appealing to a new market.
If you are looking for a great story, completionist gameplay and don’t mind pushing through thirty hours of mindless auto-attacking, Final Fantasy XIII is right up your alley. You’ll have never played a game so extensively polished as this. Just have a little patience before reaping the rewards Final Fantasy XIII is hiding.