It's hard to talk about Final Fantasy XIII without getting into a debate about what an RPG should or shouldn't be. With a series as beloved and long-running as Final Fantasy, combined with its history of reinventing itself (or at the very least, changing things up) with every major entry, it's understandable that a lot of nervous hopes ride on the first FF of the current gen. We all have our favorite game in the series (which we'd practically go to the death defending), so it makes sense that fan expectations for FFXIII vary widely too.
So it follows then, that since the Japanese release, fan reaction to certain aspects of FFXIII has been mixed. If you're reading this, you've probably already skimmed through many a kneejerk reaction forum post of rage that made you anxious to see the reality of the final product for yourself. So let's get right to it.
At the very beginning (the first few hours), we're talking 2D side-scroller levels of linearity. Walk forward, fight some dudes. Walk forward a few more steps and fight some more dudes. The path might curve a bit from time to time and have little offshoots that contain treasure chests, but that's the extent of it.
But listen, it's awesome – really! There's no need to fall into a pit of despair and fanboy rage just yet (unless you're an utterly unreasonable person, then by all means go ahead).
The Final Fantasy series has never truly given the player freedom in a role-playing sense, and every major plot point in each Final Fantasy story (FFXI excepted, obviously) has been 100% fixed. FFXIII simply takes it a step further, streamlining the formula into a more controlled, more focused experience (and in the end it's not wildly different than the structure of Final Fantasy X).
The upside to this structure is that the pacing is fantastic – from the first moments of the opening sequence, you really feel swept up in the story and action in a way that's completely unprecedented in a JRPG. There's no lengthy, tedious, expository opening cutscene where you watch the characters from afar and wait for the actual game to start. Instead, you're right there with Lightning and Sazh in the thick of the action as they throw themselves desperately into an us-against-world fight to survive.
The downside is that any pretense of freedom (i.e. the ability to diddle around exchanging pleasantries with NPCs and walking into strangers' houses) is completely gone. But considering that our protagonists are outlaws fighting for their lives against an all-powerful corrupt government, it makes perfect sense that they'd make a beeline for safety rather than leisurely exploring.
And other thing – FFXIII's controlled structure makes it such that no suspension of disbelief is needed for the sake of the gameplay. As in, absolutely everything you do makes sense in the context of the story. It makes sense that the first half of the game would be fairly linear – after all, you're inside a relatively tiny, hollowed-out moon-like satellite called Cocoon, which like its name suggests, fairly cozily houses its inhabitants. Wide-open spaces simply wouldn't fit.
Above: Cocoon hangs low in the sky, almost always visible on Pulse (also check out that huge Adamantoise)
Furthermore, Cocoon's cramped interior makes it all the more impactful when you do venture down to Gran Pulse, the lush green planet below. Where Cocoon was claustrophobic and linear, Pulse's Archylte Steppe is wide open, with more than enough area to explore.
Above: Don't worry, Chocobos are plentiful
It's not so much that FFXIII doesn't have towns, but rather it doesn't have the usual JRPG structure of town-dungeon-town-dungeon-boss repeat. Oh, there are towns in FFXIII, the beautiful beach town of Bodhum and the abandoned, overgrown Oerba for example, but they're not RPG towns as such.
Not entirely dissimilar to real life, RPG towns have a threefold purpose: to provide respite from the dangerous outer world, to hide the NPC that will help progress your quest, and to provide various retail establishments for your shopping needs. The first two functions are made obsolete by the structure of the game.
Above: There are no random encounters, so you can avoid enemies whenever you'd like to avoid battle fatigue
FFXIII takes care of the last necessity by providing a wide selection of virtual shops available at every save point (which are mercifully plentiful, by the way). Virtual shops were a welcome change in Crisis Core, and again in FFXIII provide a streamlined, functional, time-saving solution.
And it's not like the shops are bland despite being reduced to menus – far from it. The shop menus (like all of FFXIII's menus) are lovely. Each shop has its own sounds, logos, and even punchy, consumerism-celebratory flavor text to describe each retailer ("At Unicorn Mart, your health is our business. Our expert pharmacists are standing by, day and night, to send you whatever you need, wherever you need it…")
Still miss those towns?
The Paradigm system is a great middle ground solution, because it allows you to command every member of your party (albeit not directly) while still keeping the battles fast-paced. Each party member can specialize in several of six roles: Commandos and Ravagers attack, Medics heal, Synergists buff the party with status boosts, Saboteurs buff the enemy with status afflictions, and Sentinels defend.
A Paradigm is a set of roles for the three active party members that determines how each character functions in battle. Each role is extremely specific in what it can do – Medics can only provide healing and Commandos can only attack, nothing else.
During battle you always have an active Paradigm in place, which you can change whenever you'd like by hitting L1/LB to bring up your Paradigm deck. Building a Paradigm deck with a variety of offensive and defensive Paradigms allows you to respond strategically to dynamic battle conditions.
Above: Characters automatically perform actions once their ATB gauge fills, and each action has a specific ATB cost (Fira, for example, costs two ATB segments)
For weaker enemies, it's often smartest just to go in guns blazing with Commandos and Ravagers. Tougher enemies and bosses require careful strategy though, like beginning with a Synergist and Saboteur to buff buff buff and then quickly switching back and forth among offense, defense, and balanced party formations. Bosses get incredibly tough toward the end of the game (and on the higher ranking side missions), so it's often necessary to try out a few different approaches (and inevitably die a few times) before you find a successful approach.
Each role has a secondary attribute to consider as well that affects the whole team. For example, having a Commando in your active Paradigm boosts everyone's attack stat, while a Medic lowers the team's attack but boosts healing. In this way, the system nudges you to take calculated risks as much as possible rather than always playing it safe. Fighting aggressively can earn decisive victories, but if you're not careful could also lead to needless KOs. And if you're too conservative, you'll end up drawing out a battle for long minutes that could have been won in mere seconds.
Above: When an enemy's stagger gauge fills, it will take massive damage for a brief period. Ravagers fill the stagger gauge faster, but Commandos deal more damage
You only directly control the team leader, who also has access to items (which can be used anytime for no ATB cost), as well as techniques and summons, which both use Technical Points (acquired by earning high rankings at the end of each battle).
Above: Fang is the lucky wielder of the fearsome Bahamut
Above: Shiva appears as two sisters, Styria and Nix. They join together to form a motorcycle in Gestalt mode
On the plus side, each Eidolon is kind of like a two-for-one deal, since they all have two forms: a standalone form, where they attack autonomously alongside the summoner, and a Gestalt form, where the summoner literally rides the Eidolon and they attack together.
Above: Sazh's Eidolon, Brynhildr, is new to the series. She uses fire attacks and has lovely heels
Above: Byrnhildr in racecar Gestalt form
In typical Final Fantasy fashion, the story oscillates between complete clarity and total convolution at various points, but aside from some potentially confusing terminology to sort out – l'Cie, fal'Cie, Cie'th, Sanctum, PSICOM – FFXIII's story is surprisingly straightforward.
Without spoiling too much, the basic gist is this: The small, floating society of Cocoon lives in fear of Pulse, the mysterious planet below. This fear is perpetuated by the all-powerful government, which is actually controlled by ultra-powerful higher beings called the fal'Cie. Fal'Cie exist on both Cocoon and Pulse, and they exert their power by branding humans as l'Cie, servants to carry out their bidding. L'Cie are bound to carry out the mission given to them by the fal'Cie (called a focus), and if they don't complete it within a certain amount of time they'll turn into undead monsters called Cie'th. If they do complete it, their fate isn't much better – they're turned into lifeless crystals indefinitely. Lightning and company have all been turned to l'Cie, and unclear on which side they should be fighting for, they struggle with the dilemma of whether to complete their focuses or attempt to fight against their fate.
Above: Sazh is easily the most likable character, and his story is the most heart-tugging. Vanille grew on us too
Since FFXIII has eschewed a more traditional format in favor of a more controlled experience for the sake of the narrative and pacing, we have to point out that the opportunity to tell a truly compelling story feels like it's been squandered in some respects. To be sure, Lightning's story isn't uninteresting by any stretch, but it certainly isn't above and beyond what we'd typically expect.
In a way, a JRPG plot with no melodramatic scenes, no navel gazing exposition, and no overly sappy romances is a refreshing concept. Lightning's team is on a mission, and they don't stop much to share and learn and grow with each other. Because of that though, some of the characters come off as one-dimensional and boring, especially Lightning herself.
Ever since FFVII, the series has been known for gorgeous CG cutscenes, and finally playing a Final Fantasy game where the in-game graphics aren't distractingly uglier compared to the CG cutscenes is pure joy. The in-game graphics are so good that it's not always obvious whether a cutscene is CG or in-game. You can still tell of course, but we often found ourselves checking for indicators like hair movement to figure it out.
The graphics are the most instantly apparent aspect of FFXIII's polish, but there are so many other indicators that point to an absolutely meticulous attention to detail. For one, the menus are the most gorgeous menus of all time for any game ever. We dawdled around switching back and forth between character status screens admiring their beauty, and it never got old. Beyond that, it's amazing that in a game of this scope, we found absolutely nothing even remotely buggy or glitchy, something that's fairly rare to be able to say about a current-gen game.
White Knight Chronicles? Oh hell yes. WKC had an ambitious vision, but the final product feels completely unfinished, bland, boring, and even buggy at times. It might be going too far to say that the short, cliched story campaign was a piece of crap, and that the online multiplayer took that piece of crap and barfed on it, but it was certainly a disappointment. The custom avatar you create at the start of the game feels awkwardly wedged in during the story mode (the other characters don't even acknowledge him/her), and the multiplayer mode (the whole reason the avatar creation was necessary) doesn't even allow you to use knight powers, taking away the only remotely distinguishing feature of the game.
Final Fantasy X? No, but it isn't worse. Ack, don't make us choose! Both have excellent battle systems that each improve on the ATB base. FFX has some better characterization in the relationship between Tidus and Yuna, but then again there's no one as annoying as Wakka in FFXIII. People who loved the romance aspect of FFX will be disappointed that FFXIII lacks a strong romantic element.
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