The Final Fantasy For Everyone?
The last Final Fantasy game to hit a home console, 2006's FFXII on PS2, was loved by critics for its huge open world, dizzyingly deep customisation options, and MMO-style real-time A.I.-driven combat. Problem was, those were the very reasons that many gamers couldn't get their heads around Final Fantasy XII; it was so complex in places that it verged on frustrating, and so different to what had come before that it simply didn't feel that much like a Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy XIII feels very much like a case of its publisher kneejerking from one extreme to the other. This first HD instalment in Square Enix's powerhouse RPG series is incredibly linear, features cut-down customisation, and goes back to the turn-based battles that the series built its success upon, but streamlines them by giving you direct control of just a single character.
As a result, FFXIII seems at first to be a watered-down Final Fantasy made for the masses, rather than your hardcore JRPG player - but persist with it and you'll still find the familiar FF magic is in there; you'll just have to endure the first ten-or-so hours to get to it.
The Adventure Begins
From a story slant, Final Fantasy XIII starts out in fast, frenetic and slightly confusing fashion, introducing players to five of the six key party characters amidst the backdrop of a civil war on the walkways of mini-planet Cocoon's Hanged Edge, which reminded us not a little of Final Fantasy X's first scenes in Zanarkand.
The premise is that Cocoon's government have discovered a fal'Cie from Pulse - a magic-wielding mechanised agent of the feared lowerworld - in a nearby relic, and have instigated a purge of every civilian in the vicinity; something the immediate populace aren't too pleased about.
Into the fray step the Cloud Strife inspired Lightning, Barret-with-an-afro Sazh, hero-wannabe Snow, the irrepressibly peppy Vanille and token Japanese emo Hope, each following their own motivations towards an ill-fated encounter that sees them branded as l'Cie - supposed agents of Pulse - and haunted by a vision which suggests the end of the world. But are they to stop it, or bring it about?
While the plot starts off at a rollicking pace, the gameplay mechanics are more drip-fed through a series of tutorials spread across the entirety of the 360 version's first disc (the first seven chapters for PS3 players); explaining the basics of battle, levelling and equipment in slightly hand-holdy fashion.
Informs And Inspires
Fights in Final Fantasy XIII blend the best of the series old-fashioned Active Time Battle turn-based fare with the fast-paced AI-driven combat of its immediate predecessor. You may only control one character directly, but by enacting a 'Paradigm Shift' you can change the roles of each member of your battle team, and with it the attacks, spells and techniques they are able to employ. It makes things like healing, reviving and casting buffs as simple as pressing a button and seeing the AI do the rest, enabling you to focus instead on landing enough consecutive attacks to 'Stagger' your foes and deal massive damage.
With battles now ranked based on speed, more Paradigm options, abilities and spectacular Eidolon summons opening up as party members develop, and the camera free to pan and swoop around the battlefield as its combatants dart, dodge and slash away, FFXIII's fights become a speedy, strategic interplay between offensive barrages and defensive consolidation which deserve to inform and inspire Japanese RPG development for years to come.
Elsewhere however it's a case of distilling the RPG form down to its basic essence in an effort at bringing the RPG genre to a wider audience. Advancing characters' abilities is done using experience earned in battle through an elaborately designed, but actually rather straightforward screen called the 'Crystarium'. As nice and shiny as it is, though, it's a good 20+ hours before you can start to make meaningful choices between their specialities, and a good few hours more before you get to select who you want in your main battle party.
These constraints are a knock-on effect from final Fantasy XIII's biggest culture shock - almost complete and total linearity. FFXIII is divided into book-style chapters, with no world map, no overworld, no shops, no non-player characters of interest to talk to; and only one single chapter offering roaming exploration and sidequests.
Instead, you're funnelled down a very obvious path in the same way that you would expect to be in a Call of Duty game; 'discovering' some barely-concealed items in contrived floating spheres, buying and upgrading others from generously spaced-out save points. It's the complete polar opposite of Final Fantasy XII, making the gameworld feel too tightly designed, like it isn't a real place, and robbing players of the ability to personalise their party and imprint their own playing style on the 50+ hour quest.
Will Not Let You Go
It's a shame, because not only is the battle system superb and the story (buoyed by a much-needed story Codex which FFXII sorely missed) fantastic, but the visuals are at times astonishing. Final Fantasy XIII is a drop-dead GORGEOUS looking game, with easily the best lighting we've ever seen in a game, and an intricate, colourful and suitably eccentric art style that's easily the pinnacle of the series. Special mention must go to the FMV cutscenes, though, which are up there with any feature-length animation in any medium.
And as for the version comparison? The PS3 version's visuals are moderately more accomplished, but the 360 one is still one of the system's better lookers, and more importantly, there's nothing like slowdown in there that proves gameplay-damaging. Still, it gives the fanboys something to debate.
Some hardcore fans - especially those that adored FFXII - may be slightly miffed by Final Fantasy XIII's turn away from deep intricate RPG gameplay systems and a huge gameworld, but it's still a well-told, lavishly produced adventure which once started, like its themesong says, will not let you go.
- The battle system is the series' best yet.
- Cracking 50+ hour story.
- Absolutely GORGEOUS visuals.
- Overly linear structure makes the gameworld feel too tightly designed.
- Stripped-down character customisation.
- Seemingly endless tutorials hold your hand too much.