STAFF REVIEW of Final Fantasy XIII (Xbox 360)

Sunday, March 28, 2010.
by Adam Dileva

Final Fantasy XIII Box art Final Fantasy may be one of the most recognizable and beloved series in all of gaming and now Xbox owners get to see what all of the fuss is about. Final Fantasy has always been known to deliver an epic story, fantastic memorable characters and interesting battle systems.

This may be the thirteenth induction into the series (technically there are many more than that) but luckily you need not to even know the previous versions existed; as like almost every other Final Fantasy, it is its own self contained narrative that requires no previous knowledge of past games.

As you begin the story of Final Fantasy XIII it will have some similarities with a previous starting to a Final Fantasy game; you start on a train sequence and thrown into a story almost instantly like you are supposed to know what?s going on. I?ll do my best to try and explain the basics of the story, but even many hours in, it?s a little confusing.

Humanity lives on Cocoon which is basically a shell of a city on top of a place under the surface called Pulse. While very few people have never seen or been to Pulse, anyone that does and returns is immediately quarantined and exiled by Cocoon?s government called the Sanctum. PSICOM is Sanctum?s army and the ones that enforce all of these exiles away from the populace.

The reason for this exiling is because people that return or even have contact with people that have been near Pulse is because they return with a branding and have strange effects later on. Fal?Cie was the original inhabitants of Pulse and is a mechanical-like being that seem to possess powers beyond anything humans can comprehend. People who are marked by the Fal?Cie are then called L?Cie and receive their branding on their skin. Once you are a L?Cie you are outcast by the Sanctum government in fear that you will infect more people or eventually turn into a monster.

Each L?Cie has a focus (a goal) that the Fal?Cie want them to complete but the problem is that the Fal?Cie don?t tell the L?Cie what that focus is and they must figure it out on their own. L?Cie are given visions and must determine what their focus is from these odd and confusing slideshow means. If a L?Cie doesn?t complete their focus in a certain amount of time they will eventually be transformed into a monster known as a Cie?th which is why the government is taking these harsh precautions towards L?Cie. If a L?Cie can determine their focus and complete it though, the outcome isn?t much better either; they will transform into a crystal to be frozen in that state possibly forever. No matter what you do, this is why being a L?Cie is considered a curse.

If all of this sounds confusing, it?s because it is, but this is the basic premise of the back story to what is happening. While the main character is mostly focused on Lightning as the hero, you will be jumping back and forth between different parties at different times to tell different sides of the story. You?ll also see flashbacks from different characters to show how they all relate to one another and why their paths have crossed. I quite enjoyed this layered approach to the story telling and once you are about 10 to 15 hours in, things will start to make a lot more sense as you progress on your epic jaunt.

Final Fantasy wouldn?t be complete without memorable characters that are brilliantly voice acted and XIII doesn?t disappoint in this department either. There are six main protagonists that each have their own reasons, back story and hardship that they must overcome. Lightning is the main heroine is a former sergeant of the Corps. She wields a gunblade much like Squall did in Final Fantasy VIII and is extremely agile and eventually becomes a strong leader for everyone.

Snow is a leader of a rebel gang called Team Nora that is fighting against Cocoon?s government. Where Lightning is agile, Snow is the powerhouse and incredibly strong.

Hope is a young teenage boy that due to unforeseen circumstances eventually tags along with Lightning and the others in hopes of redemption for a great loss.

Sazh is the comic relief and has a baby Chocobo that lives and hangs out inside of his oddly shaped afro. You almost end up loving Sazh more because of this adorable companion but he does eventually open up about why he?s doing what he?s doing and you feel for him as he always tries to do what?s right.

Vanille is the cute and upbeat girl who?s very ?everything?s going to be ok? kind of attitude. She seems to care a lot about people and seems to almost always been in a good mood, which can also kind of get on your nerves though.

Fang is the last person you?ll come across and at first very little will be known about her other than she has a mysterious connection to Vanille somehow. She?s very tough much like Snow and incredibly stubborn and headstrong.

There is definitely a lot of character growth as the story fleshes out but I really disliked Hope and Lightning at the start when all they would do was complain, but eventually they grew and changed and so did my feelings towards them as you find out their reasoning behind their actions. Something of note that has to be pointed out though is that Square actually re-synched the lips for English voices even in the cutscenes. Something of that scale is not easy or quick to do so I must commend them for taking the effort for doing a small but vital part to make the characters even more believable.

Combat is a big staple for the Final Fantasy series as it?s always been fresh and addictive for players to delve into. The way that things have changed though in XIII are quite drastic and while some people may find it daunting at first, I really quite enjoyed it once I got the hang of it and more options unlocked.
The first major change is that you only control your main character despite having a part of two or three at once. The other party members are AI controlled and surprisingly will do quite a good job depending on their chosen role at that time.

Active Time Battles (ATB) return which means there?s no more turn based system in place and you need to stay on your toes during battle. While vets may already know how ATB systems works, XIII?s use of it is different than past iterations. You are able to chain together multiple commands in stacked slots in one turn to form a lengthy combo. As your characters develop and strengthen, so does your ATB gauges and you can queue up more commands in one go as you progress. You can wait till the ATB gauge fills completely for a long strong of powerful attacks or simply use 1 attack to essentially ?cancel? out of a command string and switch to something else on the fly if needed.

The class system is now designated to ?Roles? set to each character. Roles control what abilities are available and active to each character instead of having all spells and skill available at all times. This may seem like a downer, but it?s actually done quite well and is very reminiscent of the Job system in previous titles.

There are six different roles that are unlocked as you progress in the game, and while anyone can eventually learn any role, each character is definitely suited and designed to specifically be a specific one or two roles to play off their strengths.

Commandos are your physical attackers that get up close and personal and slow down the stagger rate (more on this later) while doing high damage. Ravagers are the casters and will use spells to offensively damage enemies while greatly boosting the stagger bar. Synergists are the ones who buff the group with Shell, Haste and more which is the opposite of Saboteur roles that debuff the enemies and hinder them to make it easier on your attackers. The last two roles are Medics which is pretty self explanatory and the last being Sentinels. Sentinel is the role that will provoke enemies and simply absorb damage while doing the occasional counter, but for the most part they have zero offensive abilities; they are simply there to take all the damage and keep the rest of the group safe. At first you are going to think Sentinel?s are useless but you?ll reach a point of the game where they will have to basically be in 99% of your Paradigms (more on this later too) or else you won?t survive any attacks.

As mentioned above, a large mechanic to the battle system now is the Stagger bar that enemies have. Essentially enemies have a specific ?Stagger State? that means when you deal enough consistent damage to them, they become staggered then can take massive damage for a limited amount of time. Some enemies are almost completely immune to normal damage and can really only be dealt with when they are staggered. This is where the specific roles come into play since some will make the Stagger Bar raise quickly and others will make it deplete slower. Combining this with the need to heal and buff, adds a lot of strategy in this whole new dynamic to battles.

Arranging roles in specific orders are called Paradigms and you are given basic combinations of roles but are encouraged to experiment with different role combinations (Paradigms) to see how it affects your battles. What makes Paradigms and Roles so unique is that you can swap on the fly as much as you want (called a Paradigm Shift). What this means is that you can have an all attacker Paradigm, then shift to healing instantly for when it?s needed. At the beginning of the game it?s quite easy to only have to deal with 2 or 3 Roles but by the end of the game you?ll be Paradigm Shifting at least a dozen times per battle to successfully win.

The other major change involved with this new mechanic is that there is no Magic Points (MP) that is needed for using skills or magic. Instead, skills and magic have a set ?cost? per command; basically this means you can do one really powerful skill per turn, or numerous smaller ones. A simple Cure heal is only one ATB slot ?cost? where a Curaja spell that heals the whole group costs 3 and takes longer for the ATB bar to ?charge? before being able to be used. The side offset to this way of doing things is that since you can?t use magic in the traditional sense, this means that after every battle your health is completely restored. This may seem a little too easy but later on battles become so challenging and frequent that you?d constantly either be using MP potions or HP potions just to recover from battles. Combat becomes quite fun once you learn the intricacies but beware that there is quite a sudden spike in difficulty near the last few chapters that will require a completely different shift in play style.

Another constant in the Final Fantasy series is the ability to use summons to bring forth giant beasts to do massive damage but at a great cost (usually MP). While XIII does have summons in a sense, they are also completely different than other iterations in the series as well.

Summons are once again called Eidolons (Final Fantasy IX named them these) and each character possesses their own personal Eidolon that can be summoned with the appropriate amount of TP points (TP bar is refilled quicker the more skillfully and quickly you finish battles).

There are the classic Eidolons that are known to anyone that?s played a Final Fantasy before such as Odin, Shiva and Bahamut, but there are also some new ones as well that will hopefully be as memorable. The ways that the Eidolons are used though have also drastically changed from what you may be used to from previous games. The Eidolon will fight along side its summoner in battle as the other group members disappear. They will be controlled by an AI and their health is slowly but constantly depleting; once out of HP, it will disappear. Before its HP is completely depleted though you can use a new feature called ?Gestalt Mode? which will basically have you riding or ?driving? your Eidolon for a set amount of time doing different button commands based on what attacks you would like to do. If this sounds confusing it?s because it is at first.

The only problem with this system is that you?ll basically have a set 3 person group and never usually ever deviate from it (once you can choose your own parties) so you may never even see the Eidolons other than your main character (which is probably going to be Lightning). Most people will probably never even see the other Eidolon battle due to this mechanic unfortunately as a lot of work has gone into their detail.

If you recall and enjoyed the Sphere Grid system from Final Fantasy X, then the Crystarium system will feel very familiar. Instead of the standard experience points for winning battles, you gain Crystogen Points (CP) which can be used to spend in the Crystarium to unlock skills and increase attributes. Every Role has its own section that can be individually increased however you wish. It?s completely up to you if you want to become a ?super specialist? and focus on one Role?s advancement or spread out your CP across different Roles to learn a broader capacity of skills and be better rounded. Eventually all characters will have access to all six Roles each, but the CP required to max out a single Role is staggering and will require many hours of CP farming to simply fill one.

Equipment is another drastic change that may take some getting used to. All you equip is a main weapon and accessories; no armor or anything else to maintain or focus on. It seems very basic at first but weapons and items can be upgraded with spoils you obtain from battles to increase their levels, statistics, and hidden s have 3 tiers of upgrades that can all turn into each person?s ?ultimate weapon? (with basic stat differences) and combining weapons and accessories with the same baseline bonuses will unlock special abilities as well.

Final Fantasy XII knows what it does best; amazing visuals and cutscenes with an equally impressive musical score (though I don?t think it?ll be as memorable as previous Final Fantasy?s) to go along with an engaging story and complex battle system.

While some previous Final Fantasy fans may be put off by the linearity and general easiness, I quite enjoyed the easy ?point A to point B? approach as everything felt much more streamlined and I didn?t feel like I was wasting much time in towns like in previous games. There are even some dungeons that would most likely be quite confusing and take some time to figure out the puzzle aspect of it, but the game will literally point you to each checkpoint to show you how to progress. Again, I liked this guided hand to help me along, but for those ?purists?, you can just turn off the minimap and try and figure it out all on your own.

Towns will be another sore spot for some fans as well since there are none; everything you buy and sell and upgrade is done all in the Save Station menus. Because of this you?ll very rarely find yourself wandering off the main path, as the small branches will just lead you to a standard treasure sphere and then you?ll be back on your way to the next checkpoint.

XIII comes on 3 discs but because of the linear nature, once you get to disc 3 it won?t be coming out of the tray. A single playthrough will take around 45 to 60 hours to complete just the main story line but this will also be based on how much grinding you to do level up (some parts you will have ultimately need to do this to progress at the spikes in difficulty later on) and how side tracked you get with the side missions later on. To complete all the side missions that open up in the latter half of the game, you are probably looking at another 20 to 40 hours on top of everything else; so you definitely will get your monies worth.

While XIII does bring back many Final Fantasy favorites such as Chocobo?s and Cid, sadly there are no Moogles and everything might be a little too much of a drastic change for some fans, but I completely enjoyed my lengthy undertaking and now have some new favorite characters in the Final Fantasy epic saga. XIII will definitely be remembered for it?s spectacular visuals and suiting score I?ll remember it for it?s interesting story and wonderful characters that Square even make the lip syncing match the English voices; something that I wish all JRPG?s would do for the added immersion.

Overall: 8.9 / 10
Gameplay: 8.9 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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