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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