28th March 2010 - Few games changed the perception of Japanese RPGs in western society like Final Fantasy VII. The first iteration to grace Sony’s console in 1997 had great storytelling with mature themes, mind-blowing cut scenes for consoles at the time, a diverse bunch of likeable characters and spectacular battles with magic and summons that sometimes took minutes to cast (here’s looking at you Knights of the round). It triggered off a cult following worldwide and is still hugely popular today, with pressure on Square to do a remake. Now we finally have a version for current gen consoles. The expectation has been huge for Final Fantasy XIII and the wait painfully long. Well that wait is finally over. So has all this time produced a game worthy of the hype and importantly worth your time and money?
The series has built a reputation on games that have similar elements but constantly reinvents itself so that they are very unique experiences. There are usually grand themes involving saving the world/planet/country etc, love and comradeship, chocobos, a guy called Cid, exploration of the world, and magic to summon beasts. With each new iteration the gameplay has changed and lost some fans, gained some others but generally stayed steady. Final Fantasy XIII is likely to polarise gamers much further than previously. I won’t ruin any story elements other than to say it revolves around a world called Pulse seen as a savage place, and a world that hovers above it called Cacoon. This is controlled by the government who want to maintain order and control at any cost against beings called Fal’Cie.
What follows is an interesting but confusing and often drawn out story, where characters babble on attempting to build background and emotionally involve you. Ultimately it doesn’t achieve this and for the first time I found myself bloody thankful you could skip these scenes. I’m not sure how such an established franchise gets it so wrong. So many cut scenes could have been completely skipped and it would have made no difference to the game. Partly because the story is relatively confusing to start with and secondly it’s mostly over acted, self indulgent waffle. Luckily it isn’t all bad news. As I said the premise for the story is interesting you just have to look beyond these elements. There are moments where the famous square wizards have worked their magic and produce a scene that blows you away, pushing the graphical boundaries and creating some jaw dropping, edge of your seat sequences. These alone are worth playing the game for.
A critical deviation from games gone by is the linear nature of the maps you traverse and a lack of towns. One of the best elements of RPG’s is the ability to explore your environment. Finding those elusive items and difficult enemies to fights is what beefs up the playable hours and allows players to have control over their experience. That is missing for a large chunk of FF XIII and it really affects the game for those who have followed the series. I appreciate that the designers wanted the story to progress at a certain rate to build to a crescendo, but it comes across like your hand is being held for the first 30 hours or so. You literally can’t deviate off a single narrow path for large chunks and I think it was a big error in design. Secondly the lack of towns is missed as the different architecture, culture and characters that can be built through this medium adds to a sense of exploration and progress. Instead objects are bought and upgraded from save points.
The all important battle system has been restructured since FF XII. Characters take on one of several roles such as commando, ravager and medic. Each role has a specific set of unique abilities and characteristics that only they can use/perform. The combination of roles that each on screen character takes makes up a paradigm which can be customized and changed on the fly. For example you might have a commando to perform melee attacks, and two ravagers for magic attacks. If your team is taking a battering you can then change the paradigm in the middle of battle to a sentinel who defends a medic to heal and a synergist to set up defensive magic.
The battles are fast paced and the paradigm system works well in keeping the action rolling in real time. Although you can choose specific inputs for the controlled character (the others are controlled by AI) most of the time you will be hitting auto battle and letting the game choose the attacks for you. Within this lies a polarising element of the game. The system flows and makes the battles easily accessible to all audiences even if you’re not familiar to the series (perhaps this is a result of going multiplatform). But the simplicity and streamlined nature of battles will, I suspect, bore fans and long time followers after a while. The old menu systems of Final fantasy’s past may have been more tedious but gave you a better sense of control that seems to be lacking in XIII. It feels like a lot of battles could play out without you doing anything other than repeatedly hitting X.
No Final Fantasy game would be complete without Eidolons to summon. The visually stunning summons are specific to each character. Once summoned they replace the other members of your team and have a variety of attacks. With enough damage you can trigger Gestalt mode where they transform into a vehicle to ride (the two Shiva sisters forming a bike that a male character rides puts a slightly suss smile on your face) doing larger damage. It provides a nice break from the normal fighting mechanics and if you get sick of the summoning sequence thankfully it can be skipped.
Square has always pushed the boundaries in the graphics department since FFVII launched onto the Playstation. When FFX was released on the Playstation 2 it once again redefined the genre. The tradition has been continued in FFXIII with some high resolution, great textured and rendered graphics seen to date on current gen. The facial expressions, hair and eyes have unbelievable realism and are reminiscent of the final fantasy movie. Real time rendering is close to pre rendered and makes for a smoother transition between scenes and gameplay. The rich colours and dynamic contrast create a lot of depth and really showcase what current gen hardware can do. This really is the pinnacle of console graphical prowess.
The background soundtrack is traditional Japanese RPG with dramatic, emotive music and singing. Some western audiences unaccustomed to this will find it a bit cheesy, but fans will appreciate the origins. The voice acting once again is quite traditional Japanese, over the top, overdramatized aiming for emotion but ultimately coming across as cheesy. As with the music, gamers familiar with Japanese RPG will have no problem but new followers will find it hard to take seriously. The Sound effects during battle are filled with satisfying explosions, grunts and clashes of metal that echo throughout the surround sound system.
Final Fantasy has redefined RPGs for the last 12 years. They have constantly created new worlds, characters and battle systems around familiar themes with great success. Some iterations have been more successful than others but overall the series has a cult following on Playstation. Final Fantasy XIII brings the same elements of a grandiose story with elements of love, sacrifice and comradeship into a beautifully realised world. The story is solid but has some over acting and poorly scripted scenes that confuse things. The linear manner of the maps will frustrate long terms fans and the battle system will polarise people. It allows a fast paced, easily accessible game that the masses can pick up but die hard players will find too simplistic. Graphically it is a masterpiece, with beautiful characters and effects that dazzle the eyes.
Final Fantasy is a good game and worth playing for RPG fans. It ultimately falls short of the dizzying heights that gamers and the industry have set for it, particularly in some areas that we have come to expect Square to shine in, but definitely worth picking up for another visit into the Final Fantasy world.
AAG SCORE: 8.0/10
-Graphically jaw dropping with some of the best cut scenes ever to grace consoles
-Easy to pick up, fast paced battle system
-Creative and interesting story
-Very linear maps
-Battle system can be too simple
-Despite a great backdrop and interesting premise, the story is confusing due to over acting and some pointless plot points
Written and reviewed by Khye Davey