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Final Fantasy XIII: One Step Forward, One Step Back

>> Friday, March 26, 2010

Finale Fantasy XIII was released last week Tuesday and this week we will have a guest blogger giving you his review.

Final Fantasy XIII

One Step Forward, One Step Back

by Michael "Haru" Mares

The Final Fantasy series has long been known for its compelling storylines, amazing soundtracks, and breathtaking cutscenes and animation. Let's face it though, the Active Time Battle (ATB) system isn't exactly the most entertaining method of combat, and the challenge of a Final Fantasy game usually leaves about half-way through the storyline, when some of the major side quests begin to emerge.

Final Fantasy XII's attempt to create a real time battle-system came out as a sluggish system where you could preset your character's AI ahead of time, making for an incredibly dull experience where you could literally walk away from the controller to grind. Final Fantasy XIII features Crystal Tools, Square-Enix's latest stab at a real time, challenging battle-system, and they utilize it to great effect.

Crystal Tools is an easy to pick up, fast-paced, real time battle system, and let me start off by saying that the result is pretty. Watching the characters weave in and out of enemies employing incredible acrobatics is like watching art in motion. Lightning in particular moves with such grace, speed, and power that it's easy to see where she got her name and the battle-system is actually unobtrusive and simple enough to actually pay attention to her flying through enemies.

The notion of Magic Points has been completely done away with. Instead, spells and various attacks cost segments of your ATB gauge, which gets larger as you progress through the storyline. What you do is stock various commands into a que and once the ATB gauge is full, all the commands are carried out in quick succession. You can also press a button to carry out stocked actions before the ATB gauge completely fills. Chances are, you will rarely ever interrupt your ATB gauge from completely filling simply because of how fast the game is. Final Fantasy XIII only allows direct control of one character, and for good reason: There usually isn't enough time during an actual battle to be bothered individually selecting commands for one character, let alone three, and you will end up selecting the "auto-battle" command, which selects the best commands for the situation (99% of the time, anyway...).

Most of your time in battle will be spent shifting roles. At any given moment throughout the battle, you can have your battle party change their roles via a "paradigm shift" with the tap of a button and have them play an entirely different set of roles. Roles fall along the lines of standard roles in most MMORPGs, allowing characters to take the role of a tank, a physical damage dealer, a buffer, a debuffer, a healer, and a magic damage dealer. You only have six slots to create sets of roles for your three combatants, and certain characters are better at certain roles than others, so there is quite a bit of pre-battle strategy that needs to be employed else you find yourself torn to shreds during an oncoming boss fight, which brings me to my next point.

Above all else, the number one thing that I enjoy about Final Fantasy XIII is that it is challenging. There are a lot of people who complain about the linearity of the game as opposed to other Final Fantasy titles, but the linearity of the progression ensures that at no point can you break the game. Every encounter is challenging enough to pay attention to. This particular gamer has died in Final Fantasy XIII more times than in any other Final Fantasy title collectively. The eidolon battles are particularly brutal, often warranting two or three tries from even skilled gamers. Sheer speed of battle and linear game progression aside, a lot of the challenge simply comes from a limited crystarium throughout a majority of the game.

Players of Final Fantasy X will be right at home with Final Fantasy XIII's crystogenesis system, which for all intensive purposes is Final Fantasy X's sphere grid system. Character levels no longer exist, and instead of experience you collect crystogen points (CP). You use CP in order to move across through the sphere grid... er, I mean crystarium... in order to boost your stats and unlock new abilities in each of the six given roles. Unlike Final Fantasy X, however, each character possesses their own unique crystarium, and are better suited for certain roles than others as I mentioned earlier in the review, and you can only progress so far through the crystarium until you reach the next major plot-point in the story. Though there are some issues that some have with this system (namely being unable to unlock the full crystarium until after defeating the final boss), it is actually a great way to ensure that the game remains challenging to the very end, which I ended up appreciating greatly.

Of course, it's hard to mention a Final Fantasy game without bringing up graphics. Square, and particularly the Final Fantasy series, has set the bar for gaming graphics and Final Fantasy XIII is absolutely no exception. The 360 release is three discs takes up a whopping 18.3GB of hard drive space should you choose to install it (and you'd be crazy not to), and every second is on vibrant, glorious, HD display. There wasn't a second of this game that I wasn't completely captivated by the graphics. However, being fortunate enough to have been able to see both the PS3 release and 360 release, I'd say to go after the PS3 release if you have a choice, there is a noticable difference in graphical quality just glancing between both being played side-to-side, and once you reach disc 3 on the 360 version, there are even a few loading issues (I got stuck at a loading screen twice).

The soundtrack is also very much worth mentioning. There was a lot of concern about Nobuo Uematsu not being involved in Final Fantasy XIII's soundtrack, but I'm very pleased to announce that Masashi Hamazau has done an outstanding job in his stead. Final Fantasy XIII's 85 song soundtrack is as grand and epic as Uematsu's works, and even as I write this review I'm listening to some of the more peaceful songs in the amazing 5-disc soundtrack. In particular, the battle theme of Final Fantasy XIII is, in my opinion, the best in the series.

So we've got a challenging and fun gameplay system, stunning graphics, and grand orchestral soundtrack. You would assume that because it's a Final Fantasy game, by default the story would be outstanding and you would be left with the perfect RPG. For all the hard work that went into the gameplay though, Final Fantasy XIII falls short on the story.

There's really nothing wrong with the story in and of itself, being the standard affair of taking on the role of people fighting against an oppressive government, but the way it's told is extremely disjointed and confusing.

Most of the characters are actually pretty fleshed out and have some fairly intriguing back stories, which ended up pissing me off towards the end of the game, when you learn that more than half of them actually have absolutely nothing to do with the overall plot of the game and just kind of got dragged into the whole ordeal against their will, including Lightning, the character so proudly tattooed across the box art.

The game also has the feature of a datalog which automatically updates as you go through the game, and unless you read it, the early game will have you absolutely confused at every turn as characters casually whip out a constant slew of unfamiliar lingo. Nothing really makes sense until around mid-game if you're not constantly checking your datalog every time something new pops up in it. I realized this most thoroughly when I was 20 or so hours in the game and a friend came by my room to watch, asking if I knew who the bad guy was. I honestly couldn't begin to answer who or what exactly I was fighting against, I had just been running through a long series of battles, which brings me to one of my bigger points.

The linearity of the game, though good for gameplay, actually detracts from the epic, fantasy feel that all other Final Fantasy games have, that indeed all Final Fantasy players search for. There are no towns, no real interaction, no secret areas, and no backtracking to older areas (with one exception at the very end of the game). Final Fantasy titles usually involve meandering around an overworld map, building yourself up for a big dungeon. Final Fantasy XIII, by contrast, is a series of interconnected big dungeons which has you feeling like you're running a gauntlet of enemy encounters to get to the next cutscene. The result of this is a rushed feeling, never allowing you to get as deeply involved as earlier Final Fantasy titles do, as you're constantly rushing ever-forward to the next objective point.

That isn't to say that Final Fantasy XIII's story is bad, it's just not as fleshed out and colorful as previous titles. Where previous Final Fantasy titles have made historic moments in gaming through their storylines, Final Fantasy XIII is incredibly bland in comparison.

Overall I'd say that Final Fantasy XIII was an experiment, and a successful one at that. Square-Enix set out to test their new gameplay system and passed with flying colors and now just need to incorporate their shiny new battle system with the depth and flavor of older titles. The existence of Final Fantasy XIII is a good sign, showing divergence and a fresh outlook on the series. So it may not have the grandeur of other Final Fantasy games as far as storyline goes, but Final Fantasy XIII is fun, and in the end, isn't that all really matters when it comes to a game?

Final Fantasy XIII gets a 4 out of 5 stars.


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