Final Fantasy XIII

The announcement of release of any new installment of Square-Enix's Final Fantasy series always brings about divisive discussion of major elements such as the battle system and plotline to even minor elements such as the character designs. Thus, it was unsurprising that these debates arose after the announcement and eventual release of Final Fantasy XIII for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with the thirteenth installment, as has been the case with its predecessors, trying something different, and whether it succeeds or not largely being a matter of opinion.

As with the twelfth installment, enemies are visible wandering the game's dungeon and fields, although unlike FF12, the game transitions to a separate battle screen when the player contacts an enemy. Before contacting enemies, the player can use various shrouds that provide effects such as stat boosts and temporary invisibility to guarantee a preemptive strike, in which the party leader strikes all enemies at the beginning of battle and puts them near Stagger state, which this reviewer will explain later. Shrouds are at first unavailable for purchase, and even when they do, the scarcity of money makes them somewhat cost-prohibitive for regular use.

It's also incredibly difficult to catch enemies off guard and get preemptive strikes without the use of shrouds, and regardless of the player's strength, enemies will always charge the player's party and be at times virtually unavoidable, a step down from the superior encounter systems of other RPGs such as EarthBound and Persona 3. That aside, combat is at least tolerable, if harder than average for a Final Fantasy, with the thirteenth installment using a modified version of the franchise's tried-and-true active-time battle system, albeit with plenty of changes.

This time, players control only whomever they designate as the leader of the active party of up to three characters, with the AI controlling the other two characters, though luckily, the A.I. in Final Fantasy XIII for the most part works decently. While the leader's active time gauge is charging, the player can select from various commands for him or her to execute when the gauge becomes full, including attacking or using magic, using items, and so forth. The player's party also has a TP gauge that charges up to five points, allowing the player to select supplemental commands such as scanning an enemy's attributes or bringing the leader's Eidolon into battle temporarily.

After the player has filled out the character's active time gauge with commands (the amount of commands a character can use sometimes increases throughout the game), the character executes them when the gauge fills completely, with the game then going back to the leader's command menu to repeat the process. Conveniently, the player can hold right on the directional pad when choosing the Abilities menu to repeat previous commands unless the tide of battle dictates that a change in commands is necessary. Most of the time, for greater convenience, however, the player may wish to choose the Auto-Battle option constantly, with the game's AI in this respect being decent, as well.

Key to battle is the use of Paradigms, with the player able to set up several of these outside battle in the game's menus, and change them in the heat of battle by bringing up the Paradigm menu. Paradigms are sets of roles characters will perform in battle, somewhat similar to, but not exactly like, the class system in Final Fantasy X-2. Roles include Commando, which specializes in physical skills; Ravager, which specializes in magic; Sentinel, which specializes in defense; Synergist, which specializes in support magic; Saboteur, which specializes in offensive stat-decreasing magic; and Medic, which specializes in healing magic. The player develops these roles through use of the Crystarium, which also grants occasional stat increases, with Crystarium Points gained alongside items after battle.

Money is a different issue, only acquirable through selling items or through treasure spheres found scattered throughout the game's worlds. Players naturally use money to purchase items from shops, available at save points, alongside the ability to upgrade weapons and accessories with components, which provide a certain amount of experience. Given the scarcity of money, however, upgrading equipment is definitely cost-prohibitive, although there are some tricks late and post-game to acquire money more easily.

All in all, the battle system works decently, although there are definitely some turn-offs such as the general difficulty of the game, not to mention cost-prohibition of equipment upgrades, and this reviewer felt it necessary at times to refer to a guide for advice on how to win various boss battles, with Eidolon fights, for instance, having time limits. If ever the player dies in battle, though, the game gives them the opportunity to Retry, which dumps them back on the field before the encounter that killed them. Ultimately, combat is a decent evolution of the franchise's active time battle system, but certainly won't appeal to everyone.

Another point of debate has been the game's linearity compared to other Final Fantasies, although this reviewer didn't think too much of it, and found that it kept the player moving in the right direction, with little, if any, chance of ever getting lost in the game. The menus and shopping are generally easy, although it is odd that the game retains the dated convention at save points, when simply allowing the player to save anywhere, what with the Retry system and lack of points of no return, would not have affected the balance of the game in any fashion. There is also the annoyance of needing to re-configure Paradigms after changing party setup, although interaction is still solid overall.

Debate has arisen, as well, whether the story is any good or not, although this reviewer personally found the story to be one of the high points of the game, what with decent pacing and a sense of adventure and tension, not to mention a well-developed cast of characters. There aren't any cheesy scenes like in Final Fantasy X, and the translation, aside from some minor punctuation errors, is solid, as well.

Masashi Hamauzu provides the game's soundtrack, which is superb as well, with a few central themes, including Leona Lewis's "My Hands" and the main battle theme, not to mention plenty of other tracks that create a nice ambience regardless of the situation, although said ambient tracks aren't terribly memorable. The voice acting is solid as well, and ultimately, the game sounds superb.

As with more modern installments of the Final Fantasy series, the thirteenth utilizes a realistic visual style, with just about everything, from the character models to the environments, looking excellent, and the quality of the main graphics being on par with those of the FMVs. There are some minor bland textures when viewed up-close, but the game is incredibly easy on the eyes.

Finally, the thirteenth installment is about a forty-hour game in spite of its linearity, with post-game content including the collection of all Trophies able to pad playing time well beyond a hundred hours. Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII is about on par with the better games of the epic franchise, with just about all its aspects being solid, although there are some aspects that leave a little room for improvement, such as the sometimes-difficult battles. However, the recent announcement of a direct sequel definitely gives an opportunity for improving upon the original's flaws.

The Good:
+Decent battle system and control.
+Great story and translation.
+Solid music and graphics.

The Bad:
-Harder than average for a Final Fantasy.
-Linearity and lack of towns might turn some off.
-Not much replayability.

The Bottom Line:
All around solid, though the difficulty might alienate some.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 10/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 6/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 40+ Hours

Overall: 8/10

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