April 27, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII - Review - Satisfying From Beginning to (Eventual) End

A long time coming, huh?  Final Fantasy XIII came out on March 9th and here it is April 27th, 7 weeks later and I'm just now starting my review.

I think it's pretty appropriate in a way actually.  The commitment to play Final Fantasy XIII (I call it a commitment because it is much more than just playing a game) itself takes a long time to see through.  First, it took me around 64 hours to get to view the end credits, which ended up being exactly one month to finish the story. Second, I'm still playing as of today to get all the achievements and I have currently accumulated over 90 hours of total gameplay.  My prediction of how many more hours it will take to get the rest of the achievements?  Another 30.  If you're keeping tabs, any post-game leveling and achievement hunting could take upwards of another 60 hours depending on how much you play it the first time through.

Make no mistake, Final Fantasy XIII is a long game. Not only is the complete package time consuming, but the course to get there is practically a straight line that doesn't break wide open until after 20 hours (and even then it's deceptively large).  Does this construction limit the game's enjoyability?  Is it a monotonous trudge-fest that lacks depth and choice, instead funneling the player into predetermined choices making you feel like you're in an aggravatingly long QTE?

In an attempt to offer a breath of brevity:  No.

Final Fantasy XIII is a giantly fantastic game in more ways than one, and in the first four months of 2010 has captured my attention like nothing I've played since the original BioShock or Half-Life 2.  Heck, I'm still playing it and wanting to whenever I can get an just an hour to play.

Continue reading for the full review.

So, I've already said the game is long.  Why the heck is it, then?  After playing the first 10 hours, I described my experience to a friend this way: "About 3 hours was spent running around straight forward, 3 hours watching cut scenes, 2 hours fighting battles, and 2 hours reading stuff."  Those numbers aren't proven for everybody, but that's a good estimate and ratio for the first 20 hours of the story.  I stress the phrase "20 hours of the story" because that's what drives this game for it's majority (of the first play through), the story.  And I think that's a good place to begin the in-depth portion of my review.


Thankfully, the team at Square-Enix devoted a whole crapload of attention to why in the world we should care about these characters we're playing (nothing makes me cry for the hours of my life back more than playing as a protagonist who I'm not really rooting for, e.g. any of the Aliens vs. Predator campaigns).  I love interconnected stories, ones that tie a group of seemingly unconnected people together into a fate in which they must depend on each other in order to survive or figure out the end result (a la the films Crash or Identity, or any past Final Fantasy).  Not only do you have these interlocking lives crashing together in XIII, but some of the characters have unknowingly crossed paths earlier on.  Eye-opening reveals and plot twists are unveiled at a well-tuned pace, the characters themselves have their own quirks and identities that are likeable (or annoying in one case for many), the world in which they run and fight and spout typical heroic idioms is intimately realized ... for me, the story makes Final Fantasy XIII.

The story begins in medias res on a planet called Cocoon during a "Purge," which is a militaristic removal of "harmful" citizens.   These "dangerous" people are taken away on trains and in one such transport we are introduced to arguably the main character (since she's on the box art), Lightning.  Lightning is being purged, but has other plans instead of quiet excommunication, plans that are deeper than your average "You won't take me alive!" mentality.  At the right moment, she springs on a patrolling guard, takes out the reinforcements, and frees everyone else aboard in a frenzy of gunfire and Matrix like flourishes.  Underneath her pretty exterior, Lightning is a tough one-woman-army.

We are quickly thrust into a war waging between the government and citizens of Cocoon; apparently things aren't as safe as the name connotes.  The war exists because Cocoon is scared to death of a nearby planet called Pulse, scared to death of the evils that dwell there and scared to death of any Cocoonian inhabitant possibly in contact with anything from Pulse.  The Purge is of a section of people who might have had a brief brush with something Pulsian and so to be extra careful the Cocoon government is shipping them out so as not to infect the rest of the planet.  Understandably, this makes the people angry.

The government is so afraid because of a certain group of people: l'Cie (pronounced "luh-see").  To put it succinctly, the worlds and people of Cocoon and Pulse were created long ago by gods called the fal'Cie.  These fal'Cie have different functions (providing agricultural energy, boring giant holes, power over sea-life, etc.), but for the most part are absent deities who allow humans to control their own lives; yet they are still present.  Fal'Cie, though non intrusive, will from time to time take a nearby human and mark them (usually) against their will with a tattoo.  This tattoo is what freaks people out and it's what makes you a l'Cie.  L'Cie are individuals tasked by fal'Cie with a certain goal, called a Focus, to finish within a certain amount of time.  If a l'Cie does not complete his Focus in time, he becomes a zombie creature called a Cie'th ("seeth").  Needless to say, most l'Cie want to fulfill their Focus so as not to turn into a shambling monstrosity.  But ay, here's the rub.  A l'Cie sometimes does not know what his Focus is or how long he has to fulfill his task!  Plus, if you do fulfill your Focus, you gain eternal life ... in immobile crystal form.  Catch 22.

The l'Cie that do know their Foci are usually supposed to attack the opposite planet, which is why the Cocoon government isn't taking any risks in shipping out potential Pulse l'Cie.

You got all that?

Much of the history, mythology and interpretation of events is explained through digestible bits of text in the menu (and I highly encourage reading all you can!), and the explanations help make sense out of what you've seen and maybe didn't catch while at the same time not offering spoilers, only what has been divulged up to that point.  I want to write more about the characters, but honestly that would eliminate the fun of watching their personalities develop before you.  Instead, I'll just list the main cast and a little blurb.  You have ...
  • Lightning - a tough, goal-focused and battle-trained woman who is silent about her past.
  • Snow - a "hero" fueled more by passion than logic, but not stupid; engaged to Lightning's sister, Serah.
  • Sazh - pronounced like "sad" but with a "z;" an afro'd man part comic-relief, part jaded fighter with a penchant to run away despite needing to move forward.
  • Hope - a young boy in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • Vanille - a young girl who is 99% Pollyanna.
  • Fang - another tough woman great in a fight, has passion, though is somewhat disillusioned and has a shadowy past ...
  • Serah - Lightning's sister, Snow's fiancee; she's pretty much innocent, but a major character.
You play as each person above (save for Serah), and for those first 20+ hours you don't get to choose who.  But when the story takes different forks and you're arbitrarily given which characters to control for a period, each segment becomes very engaging, thanks to some very good writing and voice acting.  Occasionally there are moments of over-dramatics and not every hour is perfect, but when you really start to become involved in the story of the six, you buy into it and want to watch what happens, and do I mean it when I say "watch."

Final Fantasy XIII gives us some really amazing cut scenes, particularly as you progress to the game's exciting conclusion.  Without hesitation, the ending sequence is one of my favorite in all my personal gaming history with an ending that is truly satisfying after all the time you've committed.  In true Japanese RPG fashion, part of it I don't know what the heck happened, but you suspend your disbelief by knowing what generally happens and in the end it's just really awesome and tied up in a perfect bow.

The story is the best part of Final Fantasy XIII, in my opinion.  We are taken on a roller coaster of emotions that make perfect sense in Square-Enix's world.  Themes of love, faith, hate, fear, regret and fate are strong, strong, strong to the very end, comparable to the other good Final Fantasies, VII and X (I haven't played VI  or III yet (or are they the same?), but I hope to someday!).  In fact, as I was playing, I couldn't believe so much time had passed!  20 hours really felt like only 10 because of the fantastic quality that was mustered into the final product.  Others may feel differently, but my experience with the story was nothing short of engaging.

And fortunately the gameplay enhances the soul-enrapturing tale.


If I only had two words to describe XIII's gameplay they would be the following:  Streamlined and Deep.  Initially, your functionality is limited.  You run forward; any branches from the path are at the most a ten-foot direction in the game's dimensions (and this is not an understatement). In battle, you can either attack somehow or use an item, or choose an Auto function that does the attacking for you.  Run and fight.  Run and fight.  Pretty simplistic at first.  Then the game starts giving you options in small doses.  Among many things, I will focus on the two most important mechanic pairings for the sake of this review. 

1.)  Active Time Battle and the Chain Gauge.  Active Time Battle (ATB) is the perfect amalgamation of the classic Turn-Based system (meaning that no actions happen until you choose all of your party's moves, then they perform them, then the enemy attacks, repeat) with invisible enemies combined with the more real-time fighting of Final Fantasy XII where all the enemies are noticeable on screen, individual actions are on a time basis instead of a turn, and you only directly control your party leader's actions.  Battling leans more towards the real-time system (with time gauges and seeing your enemies before fighting), but its reference to the Turn-Based is that the actual fighting "transports" away from fighting in the map, instead going to a more battle friendly representation of the area that allows you to focus on the fight, complete with dynamic moving cameras and some good fightin' music.

Your character has a time bar that fills up before he/she can act, allowing you to choose one or multiple actions to stack on top of one another dependent on how many segments you have while the bar fills.  When it's full (or when you want to start an action manually), whatever actions are selected will automatically happen and the process is repeated until your opponent's demise, or your own death.  Sometimes it's quick and easy to wail away with the "Attack" option if an enemy is weak enough.  Others aren't so easy and you'll have to take advantage of their vulnerabilities to break down their defenses.  This is the Chain Gauge.

The Chain Gauge (CG) is pretty much the act of breaking an enemy's shield, and is a separate orange-colored bar apart from the typical green health bar everyone has.  Attacking an enemy with the basic "Attack" will cause the gauge to fill up slowly, but attacking with some magic that the enemy is weak against will cause the CG to fill up quicker, as well as damage your target.  When the orange bar is filled completely the enemy becomes "Staggered" or open to the strongest physical attacks you can give it for a period of time.  You have to be quick enough because the CG is continually emptying until you stack on enough attacks to stagger your enemy or the orange is completely gone and you'll have to start all over.

Staggering is the key to some enemies, and here's how you go about it.

2.)  Roles and Paradigms.  A role in XIII is like a position in baseball or any sport really, or think of them like job titles.  For example you have the Commando role that specializes in physical attacks and prolonging the CG (i.e. slowing the time it takes for the CG to empty), or the Medic who focuses on health.  There are six different types and all characters can learn them all, but some of your party are better suited in some roles than others (these are the roles the game gives you automatically for each character).

Paradigms are your role arrangements, or what I also like to call your audibles.  Whoever is in your party, you can combine the different roles they've learned and make arrangements that you can quickly switch between during battle depending on your situation.  Example:  You can make an audible of all Commandos so if an enemy is staggered everyone will be able to hack away with their strongest physical attacks.  Or if your team is about to die and you've made an audible where everyone is a Medic, switch to it and you'll heal up quite quickly.  Of course, you don't want to have each team member the same role in each Paradigm, where's the fun in that?  Some monsters can be taken down easier if you have a Sentinel who draws attacks towards that person, a Commando to keep the CG from draining quickly, and a Ravager (who uses attack magic) to fill up the CG, stagger it, then switch to a paradigm more attack heavy.

There are 56 possible Paradigms, so you have many options at your disposal.  Going through the story allows you tons of opportunities to experiment with which Paradigms you prefer, and while it's deep structurally you don't really have to master it to complete the story.  On your second play through, however, is where Paradigm Shift finesse becomes mandatory.

In the end, the gameplay package is a frantic jubilee of action that is extremely satisfying once you get the hang of it.  Many times your eyes will be darting all across your screen, keeping up with all the stats to help you make the right choices and Paradigm Shifts.  Thankfully, tutorials are well paced to give you enough time to learn the new things thrown at you.  Once the world "opens up," the difficulty level literally sky rockets, so don't go jumping into any old fight until you've leveled up enough.  Seriously, don't do it.  Be patient with yourself.  You've gone 20 hours to get here, you can wait a little longer.


You didn't think it was perfect, did you?  While being an enjoyable ride, most trips are bound to have their potholes and rocky terrain.  With a game as ginormous as Final Fantasy XIII, there's bound to be a few.

The deaths.  Cheap deaths suck in this game.  Far too often I found myself dead from a normal enemy I just beat 2 minutes ago with no problem!.  Oh, you're a fraction of a second too late with a Paradigm Shift?  You're a goner.  I feel there is a little inconsistency sometimes.  Plus, if you die, the game is over, no healing from your other party members.  If they die you can raise them, but if you die that's it.  Square-Enix gives us a God-send, though, in the form of a Retry option after every death that restarts the game to mere seconds before the battle to give you the chance to refocus or even avoid.  The second playthrough is rife with these and while understandable because you're going after some tough achievements it still leaves a throbbing in my brain.

The map.  It is linear.  I was skeptical at first, reading other reviews that said how straight-lined the game is but not believing it entirely ... I was wrong.  You practically have no other paths to take but forward until those frequently mentioned 20+ hours.  Although you can only go in one direction, this isn't the worst part of the map because with a game this huge and long, if it allowed for tons of exploration I'd probably still be playing through the story!  What bothers me more is that the map rotates as you rotate so my orientation gets all screwed up.  It's kind of a minor annoyance in the grand scheme, but an annoyance nonetheless.  Also, it doesn't reveal treasure (yes, there are treasure chest-things) until after you've opened one.  What good does that do?

The difficulty on second playthrough.  This is a negative and a positive actually.  The story is challenging on occasion, but nothing anyone with at least one arm couldn't get through.  The real challenge is going after the Mission achievements afterward, missions that quest you with defeating certain beasts, 64 of them to be exact, and the final ones are t-o-u-g tough.  And annoying.  But once you defeat one of the upper echelons you've really accomplished something.  It's insane to go through, but satisfying.  There are plenty of helpful videos and websites that offer strategies so it's not impossible, just a gigantic challenge.

Leveling up.  Grinding to make your party strong isn't too bad, albeit long; the Crystarium system (reminiscent of VII's Materia and X's Grid) is nice.   Leveling up your weapons and accessories is the bigger pain.  Without going into great detail, to level up weapons and accessories you have to acquire "components" after battles to 1.) apply directly to the item, or 2.) sell and amass Gil (money) to buy better components to apply directly to the item.  Components don't come in large batches, so expect to engage in a lot of battles.

The summons.  They're awesome.  But I can count on my fingers how many times I've actually used them.  Perhaps I haven't discovered the value of them yet, but they're a visually awesome addition, if a little unrealized.  I guess if it's a Final Fantasy game it's gotta have a summon!


Several reviews around the' net have said in some way that Final Fantasy XIII is a great game but doesn't stand out like the other entries.  I disagree.  The story Square-Enix has given us is one of the most relateable and powerful stories they've told that I've played.  Much of the gameplay and design differs from the other Fantasies, but they are so well suited to XIII that the entire package feels 99% complete.  What lacks doesn't destroy.  What succeeds satisfies.  Sure, you don't get to explore much or have memorable towns or people to talk to like in the others, but this game shows the designers' focus in making a great experience that is both cinematic and action heavy.  And can I just say that, though I didn't mention the gorgeous graphics this game boasts, James Cameron's Avatar has nothing on the creativity of the Final Fantasy series.

Like my description about the gameplay above, if I only had two words to describe Final Fantasy XIII, they would be Streamlined and Deep.  Also Awesome.  And Big.  And Satisfying.


*A note for anyone playing now or contemplating in regards to achievements:  You don't have to get all the achievements the first time through.  You are given the opportunity to reload the very last save and continue from there with all the experience you gained from beating it.*

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