Final Fantasy XIII is very much a game of two halves. Had I written this review with only 10 hours of play put into the game I would advise anyone who liked the traditional JRPG that it was not worth those 10 hours. The main reason being that Final Fantasy XIII is no longer an RPG at all. As it turns out in the end, this does not make it a bad game, just a very different one to its twelve predecessors.
Final Fantasy XIII feels like an oversimplified and streamlined version of previous instalments. The battle system and levelling system are taught through needlessly long tutorials that drive the point home through repeatedly meaningless battle encounters. For 25 hours of the game you are prevented from having a full party or changing your playable characters that feels like an attempt by Square to make Final Fantasy XIII approachable to those who have avoided the series before. There are no towns to get lost in, or sub characters with whom to take on additional quests or learn more about the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon.
The game play is extremely linear and results in the 6 playable characters running from one end of the level to the other, only stopping for cut scenes or for battles. This and the battle system make it very fast paced but also makes it exceptionally repetitive and dare I say boring. Final Fantasy has always had an amount of linearity demanded by the story, but this is usually hidden through a sense of openness in the world maps. Final Fantasy XIII has no open world and suffers for it, the player has no choice in where the characters visit and this removes the sense of involvement, leaving the player feeling rather apathetic to the entire experience.
This is a shame because the characters feel like they are well developed, each with their own history and personality traits. The characters are of a diverse age, and balance off each other well, which helps to add familiarity to an otherwise unfamiliar territory for RPG fans. The story is not original but thanks to the characters remains captivating.
The game looks absolutely stunning. The colours are intense and bright, the two different worlds of Pulse and Cocoon seem huge and well designed, Pulse is wild and overgrown whilst Cocoon seems controlled and modern. The attention to detail is fantastic, so there's always something to catch your eye, and it feels like every single aspect of the world has been considered and individually designed.
The battle system is the gem in the game. You only have control of one character, the party leader, who is non-negotiable for half the game. You can select role-specific abilities for the leader to use each turn based upon a number of time bars which refill over time. Some abilities such as magic spells will require two sections of the active time bar where as a basic attack requires one.
I have neglected to mention one feature called the auto battle displayed on the battle menu system that appears to be another method of control over how the game is played. Its design is to increase the speed of battle and to aid new players and its usefulness decreases as the player gains familiarity with the game. However I believe the game would function better with its removal, at the sacrifice of the fast paced action. To me players should be able to make mistakes and spend time considering their actions rather than hammering on the X or A button repeatedly for hours on end. However by having this feature included you are able to concentrate much more on the other aspect of the battle system.
The majority of skill required is all in setting up Paradigms where you assign class role to each of the characters that you can freely change during battle to suit the situation. It is reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII's innovative Gambit system because it allows you to automate the behaviour of your party without having to control each individual character’s turn, and this once again allows battles to be fast paced and fluid affairs.
There are 6 roles in total. They are Commando- specialist in physical damage, Sentinel- defender or tank, Medic- akin to a white mage, Ravager- closest to a black mage although can deal in physical as well as magic damage, and finally the less commonly used Synergist- providing party with positive status effects (buffs) and Saboteur- weakens enemies through status changes (debuffs). To do the most damage and in some cases succeed in battles you must knock the enemy into a staggered state.
A staggered state leaves the enemy with weakened defense, attack speed and power, and is achieved through any combination of attacks, defense and debuffs. To achieve this state different paradigms and roles are needed throughout the course of most battles (all battles later in the game) which adds a real quality of strategy and challenge to the game. A star rating at the end encourages players to repeat the battles to achieve higher ratings and rarer item drops (used to upgrade equipment).
As you work your way through your enemies, you earn crystogen points that can be used on the Crystarium. The Crystarium allows you to progress your characters in both stats and new abilities and is set up in a manner akin to Final Fantasy X Sphere Grid system. It is well designed but still exhibits a certain amount of control as you follow a path through the various enhancements. However further into the game the game trusts you with more freedom in choosing your development’s direction and resembles more of a net like structure than a dictated course.
Halfway through the game the experience completely changed for me. On my arrival in Pulse it seemed that the developers had had a change of heart and turned back to the tried and tested formula of an open map, freedom of movement and side quests. At this point the paradigm system became complete with the party size consistently set at 3 people and the ability to teach all characters anyone of the six classes the player would like. For the first time the whole party could be changed which also increased the amount of control I felt I had over the game.
For me, if the whole of the game had been like the last half, I would have awarded this game 10/10. As the game stands I felt like it was a mediocre experience that I will remember as an astoundingly detailed and great looking game, but with a lack of depth and involvement I have come to expect from a Final Fantasy game. Despite this I respect what the developers have tried to achieve with Final Fantasy XIII as an attempt at revitalising the somewhat dying Japanese RPG genre and appreciate the development of a great battle system I hope to see refreshed and reused in future Final Fantasy games.
Mary Antieul, Contributor