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|“Final Fantasy XIII”: New Style, Same Fantasy, Never Final|
|Lifestyle - Gaming|
|Written by Luke Hamilton|
|Thursday, 25 March 2010 08:10|
Just because it's called Final Fantasy XIII doesn't mean you need to play the other 12 to appreciate the experience. Every numbered game in the Final Fantasy franchise (in other words, excluding spin-offs such as Tactics or Crystal Chronicles) is a unique experience that stands alone, with a detailed world containing lots of history and interesting characters with distinctive traits; the series is also not wed to any one style of gameplay. This new game makes some drastic changes from its predecessors, but it stays true to the series by telling an epic story in a majestic world deserving the name Final Fantasy.
Without getting into the initially confusing terminology the game assumes you understand, the story follows six people granted magic powers by a deity deemed evil by society. This deity has also given them a task in the form of a dream about the end of the world. Faced with turning into mindless monsters if they do not complete the task, they decide to try to prevent the coming disaster. However, being branded by the deity also makes them social outcasts, and the rest of the world seeks their destruction.
The most drastic change any Final Fantasy fan will notice is how the game progresses. What once was a series that would send you out into an open world to traverse as you please has been streamlined into a linear path for a majority of the game. I had reservations at first, but the initial lack of freedom actually enhanced the game for me. Instead of getting small chunks of story between random battles and confusing travels, you get a relatively compact narrative with battles peppering the experience. You can still go nuts in a large open area late in the game (which also brings back classic enemies), and there are dozens of hunting missions and secrets to discover. My play time is over 50 hours, and at least 25 of them have been in the "open" parts of the game.
Combat received an overhaul as well. Going further from Final Fantasy XII's Gambit system -- which could be set up to have almost no player interaction in battle -- you control the team leader while your teammates run on a kind of auto pilot using the new Paradigm system. It gives each character in your three-person team specific roles that can be swapped as situations warrant. You could start with an all-out-assault Paradigm, pounding your enemies into the ground, but if someone reaches a critical state, switch to a healing Paradigm to speed recovery.
The mixing and matching of Paradigms is simple but addictive and deep; it makes combat the action equivalent of a chess match. One wrong move can set you back, and one right move can put you in a prime position for victory.
Battle yields the reward of Crystarium points, a form of experience that can be used to improve the different roles of each character. In a system similar to Final Fantasy X's leveling grid, you spend points to develop specific roles in your characters as you choose, whether it's dumping all your points in one characteristic or a more-balanced distribution. The potential for character growth expands at key moments in the game, and the final Crystarium stage is only unlocked after completing the main story, giving dedicated players a reason to come back and tackle tougher side quests. I initially wanted to be done after beating the main story, but there's this giant prehistoric turtle that's been nigh unbeatable that I really want to cut down to size.
Beyond gameplay, it's not Final Fantasy without great presentation. The series has become known for some of the best cinema scenes a game can produce, even branching out to two full-length movies. The standard events running on the gameplay engine look really good, but it's the cinematic scenes that blow you out of the water. Whether it's high-octane action or a dramatic story event, the cinematics, details, and smooth graphics make the fantasy world come to life.
A longstanding personal complaint with the series has been the voice work. The PlayStation 2 games suffered from halfhearted and autonomic character voices that broke the experience from time to time, but thankfully this has been resolved. It was a substantial step forward in making me care about the story.
My only major complaint goes to the Xbox 360 version. The game was a PlayStation 3 exclusive in Japan, only brought to Xbox 360 on three discs for a North American release, and there are patches where detail is lacking, such as squared fingers or messy hair. The game was delayed several months because of this downgrade, which I find disappointing.
But that's still a relatively small matter, everything else considered. Since 1987, the Final Fantasy series has been a standard-bearer in the role-playing-game genre. I've played every core entry in the series, and I'm pleased to say that the 13th game is the best since Final Fantasy IX in 1999.
Final Fantasy XIII is now available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for $59.95. For this review, the author completed the main story.
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