Friday, August 20, 2010

Xbox 360/PS3 review: Final Fantasy XIII

As I watched the opening credits to Final Fantasy XIII, I found myself curious as to what all lay in store for me with this game. I had played Crystal Chronicles and Tactics titles in the past, but never before had I actually sat down to play one of the core titles in Square Enix's long-running RPG franchise. First some winged beasts wove their way through a valley, then an airship flew over a city hanging in the sky (at this point I had no proper name to give any of these). And then a gun barrel slowly peeled off to one side of the screen revealing the most detailed and life-like face I had ever seen in any video game. That single moment grabbed my attention like no other and my eyes remained glued to the television screen as I witnessed more highlighted images from Final Fantasy XIII unfold. As the final shots flew over the scenery of Gran Pulse, every single individual pebble visible and the river water clear and shimmering, I realized Square Enix had gone above and beyond any of their previous cutscene works and had hit the jackpot. But video games are not just about pretty graphics and, fingers crossed, I started up a new file on the disc.

Due to the length of the game, it's rather difficult to explain the story in detail without giving much away in terms of spoilers, but I'll try my best. The Fal'Cie are akin to demigods in the world of Final Fantasy XIII and every so often will select humans to carry out deeds on their behalf, often if their status as Fal'Cie prohibits them from directly intervening in matters. The people of the floating continent of Cocoon are constantly fed messages that L'Cie, humans branded by the Fal'Cie are dangerous and will threaten the stability of Cocoon. The Fal'Cie, however, are both praised and feared due to their immense power and hold on the world around them. When Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, Vanille, and Fang are branded by a Fal'Cie, they must determine the focus the Fal'Cie has bestowed upon them. Should the L'Cie fail to complete their focus they are doomed to wander the world as a mindless beast known as a C'ieth, but should they complete their focus successfully the L'Cie will enter a crystal stasis for hundreds of years. Attempting to put their differences aside may not be easy, but it will be necessary if Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, Vanille, and Fang are to fight their focus and seek out another fate.

The initial level players find themselves in at the start of Final Fantasy XIII is teeming with activity. Following Lightning's incursion onboard a train, the purge that was meant to be taking place as a way to hush up the relocation of a Fal'Cie explodes into sheer chaos. Players take control of one or two characters at a time, alternating between the then relative strangers that will soon become the main cast of Final Fantasy XIII. This introductory sequence, so to speak, is meant to familiarize players with the basics of the combat system and moving around the world. With so much occurring right off the start of the game, players might not take notice of the slight graphical decrease in detail from the cutscenes to the actual gameplay. This is a good thing, though, as the difference is very minor and the game still looks beautiful either way.

Final Fantasy XIII is one of the single most time-consuming games I have ever played, and as there are so many inter-weaving stories to be told over its duration, I will not be including any spoilers in this review. That said, just because the game is incredibly lengthy doesn't mean it is boring or tedious in any way. The story delivers a number of incredibly effective plot twists as the six main characters attempt to fight their destiny as L'Cie.

While some of the characters may take time for players to get used to, overall they are very entertaining. Lightning is the hardened soldier who is easily the most combat-capable of the group but has trust issues and isn't overly patient. The fiancee of Lightning's sister Serah, Snow is the no-worries macho hero who sees things as 'the good guys must always prevail', but still has some insecurities that are revealed later in the story. To me, Snow came across as more shallow than the other five lead characters and a tad annoying, but I wouldn't go so far to say that he is a downright terrible character. Sazh is the eldest of the six L'Cie and a constant source of cleverly-scripted ironic humor, and his struggle between keeping things lighthearted and his desire to take certain matters very seriously creates an interesting internal conflict. As the youngest member of the main cast, Hope does plenty of self-discovery and though he is quite timid from the start, he finds strength within himself as the story progresses. Filling a similar role as that of Sazh (though notably younger), Vanille constantly tries to avoid conflict among the L'Cie and keep everyone's spirits up. While she initially came across as incessantly annoying, Vanille was easily my favorite character by the game's conclusion, in large part due to how much deeper a role she plays in the game's events than is initially let on. Fang, a member of the same Pulse tribe as Vanille (though quite a few years older than the bright-spirited teen), plays the Pulse counterpart of Cocoon-born Lightning, in that she is a tried-and-true hunter and incredibly combat-capable, albeit in unorthodox styles.

While the handful of side characters are constantly recurring, they are quite well-rounded and each play a significant role in the game's plot. Yaag Rosch and Cid Raines provide important trials that the L'Cie must overcome, but challenge the L'Cie's way of thinking, presenting arguments neither those of the L'Cie, the citizens, or the Fal'Cie, finding their own beliefs for fighting. Jihl Nabat is one of the few minor characters with whom I was not particularly impressed, mostly due to her minimal involvement in the plot. Serah, Dajh, and the (occasionally obnoxious and JRPG-stereotypical) Nora group provide motivation for the L'Cie to press onward.

The combat system allows players to have three party members in play for the majority of the game's battles. There are six classes that can be assigned to the characters, though each character will only be able to access three preset classes until about twenty hours into the game, at which point each character has access to all six classes and players can level up attributes as they choose via the Crystarium. The commando class is the equivalent of a basic soldier, while the ravager is the equivalent of a mage. The medic and sentinel classes are defense-based, with the former focusing on physical health and the latter focusing on shielding/protecting part members. The syngerist role provides assistance to offense-based classes, causing chain gauges to refill more quickly and increasing the amount of damage weapons can inflict. The saboteur role (which I personally used the least of the six) focuses on taking down the defensive capabilites of an enemy and rendering said enemy more vulnerable to the attacks of the commando and ravager classes. The actual combat itself is very fluid, though a certain level of involvement is lost with the auto-battle system. Players can choose a series of attacks of their own accord, but auto-battle will almost always choose the strongest and most appropriate moves for the battle. Still, Final Fantasy XIII's combat system is leaps and bounds above that of many other RPGs and while it might be unorthodox, it certainly maintains the game's fast-paced action style. Switching back and forth between the various combinations is intuitive and simple, as players need only access the paradigm shift menu in the midst of battle to select the combination that best suits the situation at hand. The camera angle, surprisingly, presents little problem as it auto-corrects itself in the incredibly rare event that it should choose a less-than-desireable angle while rotating around the battlefield.

The enemies players find themselves facing down progress in a traditional style, giving players easy kills and subsequent crystogen point rewards early on, and increasing both the difficulty and variety of foes as players explore new areas. Some enemies reward players with bonus items that can be used to upgrade weapons and accessories. The boss fights become increasingly challenging, and while some are much harder to beat than others, not a single one is reliant on luck. Rather, the game requires players to use a trial-and-error process to figure out what paradigms/party members are best situated for each boss battle.

Every so often players will be required to face an Eidolon in battle, generally when the characters hit an emotional brick wall. Eidolons are mechanized beings brought forth from the L'Cie's focus and players must face them down in order to advance the plot. Unlike most battles, players are given a short time period to defeat the Eidolons and are not rewarded with crystogen points or items following a victory. Rather, players can summon the Eidolons to aid them in battle when necessary. However, on the rare ocassions that I actually called upon an Eidolon, I found them to be overall rather weak offensively and better fit for taking on grunt Psicom troops than dealing damage to bosses - strange, considering the epic intro the Eidolons receive any time they are summoned to battle. Thankfully half of the Eidolon battles are dealt with relatively early on in the game, while the other three make their appearances after the twenty-hour mark.

While the majority of the game's events take place on Cocoon, a large section of the game has players venture to the lowerworld of Gran Pulse. I won't spoil any specifics in regard to the story, but I will say that the environments of Gran Pulse are much more open and free. Players can choose to advance the main story or take a break and tackle the many side-missions scattered about Gran Pulse. While this does allow players to earn rewards and crystogen points through battling Pulse beasts and completing trials, this option is only granted to the player in one of the game's thirteen chapters. Granted, said chapter is the longest of the thirteen (regardless of whether players attempt to tackle the side-missions or not), but it would have been nice for Square Enix to have spread the side-missions across the entirety of the game as to make them seem like less of a chore in piling them all on at once.

The soundtrack fits the game's events like no other. The strings and woodwinds carry moving and flowing parts while accompanying the more soft moments in the story, while powerful sounds from the brass and percussion convey accompany various boss fights. There are a few select pieces that try to incorporate a more techno-inspired sound, and I found these to be a mixed bag with some, such as "Test of the L'Cie" working cohesively with the rest of the soundtrack, and others, such as "Snow's Theme" seeming a bit out of place. Each piece is brilliantly orchestrated, however, and my feeling that some pieces feel out of place is a personal nitpicking more than critique of quality of the soundtrack. Regardless, the soundtrack that accompanies Final Fantasy XIII is one of the best of any video game ever as far as I'm concerned.

With Final Fantasy XIII being my first impression of the core Final Fantasy games, I can honestly say that it was an utterly phenomenal experience. The game isn't perfect and suffers a bit from its attempts to experiment with the RPG formula, but the story is very intriguing, the characters varied and incredibly entertaining, the wide variety of environments presented through incredible attention to detail, and the gameplay of some of the highest caliber. Final Fantasy XIII is an RPG and a very long one at that, so those who have little patience will likely struggle to enjoy this title to its fullest extent. For those willing to put forth the time and effort in playing this wonderfully imaginative game from start to finish, I can guarantee it will be an RPG experience like no other.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

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