This is a game about epic scales of proportion. The amount of fun you have, the amount of damage you do, the depth of the battle system, your interest in the story and the conceited characters, the size of the monsters, the amount of hit points the enemies have, the amount of strategic options you have, the number of components you collect to upgrade your weapons and the amount of CP you need to level up all grow exponentially as you progress through the game. Oh and don’t forget the pace.
All of these factors start off very low and the early chapters of the game lend themselves well to the term boring. The game really starts getting great at Chapter 7 – but this is at least 12 hours in. By the end of the game (and beyond) though, you will be paradigm shifting like you were on a mix of speed and ecstasy. (Thank you Rich for the analogy :))
First let’s get the platform wars out of the way. I own a 360 so I played it on 360. If you own both or just a PS3 you are getting the better graphical experience by playing it on it’s original host. However the experience on Xbox is by-no-means poor. The game runs at 576p for both the game engine and pre-rendered scenes. The PS3 gets 720p gameplay and 1080p video quality. As with all games the output from your console is scaled to whatever resolution you are running – in my case 720p.
The game is still absolutely beautiful on 360 and only a few occasions of macro-blocking in the pre-rendered scenes really made me notice the lower quality. Having the game on 3 Disks is a bit of a pain but at least it let’s you know when the game has got really good (Please Insert Disk 3). Aurally it is great apart from the fact that all the player characters have the loudest shoes in all existence! The music was beautiful and raucous enough during battle. The sound effects were all great and the voice actors were fairly convincing in their delivery. Unfortunately, whilst the voices match the characters and the graphics match the characters – the voices and graphics don’t really match for the most part. You get used to it as the game goes along but it’s a shame that they didn’t really get this right.
FFXIII has been given a lot of stick in the Western press for being too linear – whilst it is true that the game is very linear it is actually mainly to the advantage of the story. Mass Effect 2 is a great example of where open structure can lead to a weak (or in this case short) plot. Although I managed to plug about 40 hours into that game there seemed to be only about 4 or 5 story missions that actually advanced the plot. I thoroughly enjoyed that game but it was effectively the length of a single BattleStar Galactica Episode with 100s of filler mobisodes to make up the rest of the time. Final Fantasy 13 on the other hand feels like a much more in-depth quest. This group of 6 people are on a life changing quest for themselves and the entirety of two worlds. You feel (or are assaulted with depending on your empathy levels) everything that they go through. This is entirely a Japanese saga – equivalent of the whole Neon Genesis Evangeleon box-set. This isn’t a story about getting somewhere, it’s a story about the journey. Neither is necessarily better, but the are definite differences in style which you may prefer or dislike.
The plot moves at a fairly quick pace but there is so much detail that it can feel like a slog at times. There is a lot of content to get through here – and this is a character piece so you have to listen to them all wax philosophical and question their own existence. There are definite marmite moments with the script. The characters are interesting and have a fair amount of baggage to sift through. The “why” of the plot is obviously kept under-wraps for some considerable time and is only fully revealed at the end of Chapter 9. The back-story – covering the 13 days leading up to the start of the game – is told non-linearly. It slowly trickles out as previous connections between the main cast are revealed ala Lost.
The earlier chapters are also plagued with many corridors with very little exploration. There are items to discover but they are mainly in plain sight apart from the more dungeon-like areas in Chapters 3 and 6. Luckily, just as with Final Fantasy 11 & 12, there are no random encounters. You can see, and potentially avoid, all but a few enemy encounters. This make traversing the maps far less frustrating than those of early JRPGs. Enemies respawn once you move a certain distance from where you killed them, but this doesn’t really become a factor until much later in the game where a little back-tracking is required. This is usually within a dungeon though and is understandable.
The lack of random encounters is the first of many streamlined tropes of the Final Fantasy series (and JRPGs in general) that this game employs. I haven’t played a Final Fantasy game since 9, nor a JRPG in a long while, so some of these may have been around for a little longer than I am aware of.
You don’t need to heal, revive or remove status ailments after battle which is a godsend. If you fail a battle you can retry! No more “I guess I should have saved at that save point then” Game Over screens that leave you with hours of gameplay to re-do. It also leaves you just next to the enemy so you can change your equipment etc or even run away and save! Also any items etc that you used a restored. This game loves you – OK it’s not hardcore but it hasn’t been since VII anyway, has it?
There are save-points everywhere. I’m pretty sure the longest you will go without being able to save is 15-20 minutes. And the save-points act as a shop and a location to upgrade your weapons. It has never been easier to get your grubby mitts on items.
There is always a way-point to head for and every section of the story is added to your datalog after the events have transpired. Useless, until you come back to the game after an extended break. You also get the latest entry displayed upon loading the game. Hardly revolutionary, but these journals are well laid out and succinct. It’s never been easier to keep track of your journey through a Final Fantasy title. The datalog also catalogs all of the characters, monsters, other enemies and game-play elements. It’s comprehensive.
The Battle System has been streamlined to such a degree that it even features an auto option and you only control on of your 3 team mates! Surely this means that there’s no game to play at all? Actually it seems that all of the steps taken to simplify the battles are actually there to allow it to get more complicated.
You use up to three of your party members when you battle – something of a staple. However you mostly control the battle by initiating Paradigm Shifts. You can shift any time you want and put your team into different stances. These stances act similarly to jobs or roles from older games in the series.
For example a Ravager is like a mage or more specifically a black-mage from previous Final Fantasy games. The Medic a healer or white-mage if you prefer. Each character is more suited to certain roles an should be used accordingly. You can create up to 6 “decks” or configurations of these roles that you are free to switch between in battle. For example, you could have 2 Ravagers and a Medic as one of your decks to deal damage whilst healing your team at the same time.
You can only give specific orders to your party leader. The other two will be controlled by AI and will perform the “best” options for you at all time. Always trying to support the actions you make. It does admirably well – but a little control out of battle to program them yourself would have been an awesome feature.
The game uses the basic ATB system that has been used since Final Fantasy IV (thank you Wikipedia). The battle timer never really stops and all actions are played out using a hidden timer. The main change this time is that you can chain up to 6 actions through the use of multiple ATB gauges. Each action you make costs a certain number of ATB gauges and you can string together as many moves as your current limit will allow. This is where the auto-battle command comes in handy as you don’t want to press attack, attack, attack every time you need to attack again. You can also repeat any previously manually entered string f the auto isn’t up to scratch. This is all trickle fed to you piece by piece so it never really overwhelms you. When you finally do gain all of your abilities the game really starts to test you. Many of the later enemies are enormous and if you haven’t got the hang of fighting by the time you reach Chapter 11 you might struggle to get any further. The later bosses have millions of HP and can only be taken down with careful use of the stagger system. This is a system of giving you improved damage if you can keep a chain of attacks going and is best explained by playing the game for yourself.
The last streamlined feature is one of questionable use. There are no towns to speak of nor the minor side-quests they bring. There is a definite lack of role-playing in this regard, but within the tale that is told here there is little room for such things. The development team have come out and said that the couldn’t bring the quality demanded by the rest of the game to the traditional explorable town so they were cut.
The chapters are quite varied in what you experience and you control various specific teams and learn new battle tricks as you go along. This culminates at Chapter 10 with you finally being able to choose your own team and pilot your own destiny. From then on – it’s all gravy. Up to that point the game keeps you on your toes switching up your team mates and thus the available roles. You get to play from multiple perspectives when the team is broken up for various reasons. However the game is held up somewhat by the plot which can leave you feeling like you are in a very long tutorial section. it is a shame that a few of the earlier chapters were not a little shorter but if you stick with it you are more than rewarded. Each chapter is perceivable better than the last (except maybe Chapter 4) and you really feel your party grow in strength. You can forgive any annoying personality traits when you see the characters in battle – they really redeem themselves.
The inventory system is bloated with components. These are used to upgrade your weapons and accessories via a convoluted system that is one of the weaker aspects of the game. You could delve a lot of time into using each component to it’s best but there is so much variety that it detracts from the other user-friendly improvements to the genre. I looked up a quick guide on the matter on GameFAQs that sorted me out. If this section bogs you down I suggest you check this out too. If you have the time to invest in it though I imagine discovering the best cocktails will be extremely rewarding. In general the system allows you to improve the effects of your existing equipment and eventually allows you to transform maxed-out items into something completely new.
You also end the game with a huge number of accessories although they mostly have there uses. There are some tools in place to make managing your inventory easier but I would have appreciated a few more. For example creating groups or marking stuff as “unwanted for now” to make browsing easier. As long as you make sure you have accessories equipped to your current team you will be fine. I completed the game without upgrading a significant deal. I also managed to get by without any real grinding – only stopping to repeat a few battles that seeming very profitable. Most of the messing about with the system seems best left until you have completed the main story.
So should you buy this game? If you want to love this game you eventually will. However an entrance exam is required to get to the real meat so if you don’t have time for this sort of time to invest you should maybe give it a miss. If you plan to play it in small bits over a long time then I would recommend trying to complete a Chapter a sitting until you get to Chapter 11.
When it comes to scoring I’m going to rate it based on it’s peers. I would never buy a Gran Tourismo game even if it got 10/10. If you wouldn’t buy a Final Fantasy game for the same reason it doesn’t mean it’s any worse a game.
A special mention needs to be made of Piggyback. They have published yet another fantastic guide. I’m not generally a fan of BradyGames Guides books but Piggyback have never failed to impress me.
I plan to use this book extensively as I level-up my party and defeat all of the huge monsters waiting for me in the post-game. There is a fantastic walkthrough of the whole story if you find yourself stuck or are clamouring for a perfect play-through. It can also help with the fundamentals of all of the games systems and acts as a fantastic reference book for those that have mastered the game.
I always like to get a book like this for a game I invest a lot of time into. Some of the best features or items can be well hidden and although I love spreadsheets and table of numbers I don’t always want to compile them myself. This is were these books come in for me. I can also continue to immerse myself in the game without actually playing it. Heaven.
RETROspective REviews is a new series where I will be taking a look back at the games of the recent past that might deserve another look. Next up from me is Blur.