It has been a long time coming and finally Square Enix’s new role playing game has arrived on Xbox 360. Once a Playstation only series, it’s taken this many years for the series to arrive on Xbox, although we’re ignoring the not so good Final Fantasy XII which seemed a little lacklustre when compared to the rest of the launch games for the system some five years ago. As with all games in the series, Final Fantasy XIII (FFXIII) tells a new story and introduces fresh characters into the mix. featuring old school turn based combat, an engaging gripping story, and characters that will make you melt or equally frustrate; the game has all the ingredients to warm the hearts of anyone who is a fan or is looking to see what all the fuss is all about. However, with a number of Japanese developed RPGs moving forwards and offering a lot more hands-on gaming, with real time combat and such like, is the old school charm of this game enough to compete in such a fickle and competitive genre?
FFXIII’s story is set on the fictitious planet of Cocoon, where a group of individuals are thrown together to fight a common enemy. The world is a crazed one, that lives in fear of powerful beings, and as the main character and ex solider, Lightning, it’s up to you and the rest of the misfits to fight for the planet’s survival whilst uncovering sinister plots and coming to terms with being feared and hunted. let’s not get too deep into the story aspects of the game because, that’s really the main meat of the game, and at first it’s going to feel a bit like a stop and start exercise. In fact, throughout the entire journey, you’re going to be presented with the same theme of running around, entering a battle and then watching a cutscene, before doing the same all over again. For the first hours of the game, and we’re talking about 6-10 hours here, you’ll be watching cutscenes and generally pressing the A button during battles. The game teaches you the mechanics very slowly and it’s not really until you’ve gotten very far into the game that you’re left alone to fend for yourself, free from any tutorials.
Let’s talk about those cutscenes though seeing as they are a prominent feature. You might as well get some snacks, a drink, and a comfy chair because it will be like sitting at the movies. Each character is introduced in spectacular fashion, and the plight of the team showcased in the highest order via beautifully rendered sequences. There are CGI scenes, which whilst very compressed on the Xbox 360 version, do set the scene nicely for the brief moments they appear. However, the in game engine assets do an equal job of conveying the story and emotive qualities of the cast. The scenes are directed very well, and range in length, although as mentioned, are interspersed with running around and getting into the odd battle. They are welcome at times, although on other occasions do break up the gameplay somewhat (however there is an option to skip if you’re just wanting to get on with playing). So the only advice to give here to the would be adventurer is to be prepared for stop/start gameplay. For some, this might be too frustrating, but if you’re to really understand the game and its story then paying attention is crucial. That said, with a helpful encyclopaedia available in the menu, means if things become a little hazy, or you need a recap, then taking a look here will fill in some blanks. What’s also neat is a brief overview of what’s happening when you load up a save – useful if you’ve taken a long break and have foggy memories of what you were doing previously.
The gameplay is really a mixed bag, and consists mostly of going from A to B in the most linear of fashions, although there are some minor deviations along the wayside, leading to dead ends and some loot. There are no towns to explore per se, and everything is condensed so as to remove any distractions and allow the player to just focus on the task at hand. Now this might annoy some purists, but in many regards once you play, you can see the reason why the distractions were removed. It makes for a more elegantly flowing experience, where you’re never lost or overwhelmed with what needs to be done next. Your path is always directly ahead, and the objective clear as day, probably to incorporate a more casual gamer into the fold. Once you reach disk 3 there is a more open area to explore and this feels like quite a departure from anything before it. Here you’ll encounter monster side missions which act as the only real distraction from the main storyline.
As you travel the diverse and lush environments, you’ll be joined by your party members (a maximum of three) and it’s good to see them run ahead and make comments based on your actions on the fly. You’ll be taking control of more than one character as the story jumps from one moment to the next, so at least there’s some variety here. Later on in the game you’re also able to choose who the party leader is which is great if you’ve battle preferences. Generally, there’s very little interaction with the world, and you’ll be mostly activating switches and opening orbs to gain items and that’s it. The most interaction comes from the encounters with the numerous enemies which are displayed as you travel rather than randomly stopping you in your tracks as seen in earlier games of the series.
The battles are really the main draw of the game aside from the story, and it’s here that you’ll be spending most of the time. As already mentioned, the first 10 hours of the game really does feel like an exercise in pressing a single button, but as you learn more about character development and skills, things begin to get a little more tactical. You’ll easily smash early foes with little trouble, but once you reach the latter portion of the game, you’re going to need to keep a cool head and understand the uses of each skill set. You can upgrade each character as one of the following, Medic, Commando, Synergist, Sentinel, Ravenger and Saboteur (relating to offence, defence, magic, physical and status changing), and as you battle are able to switch roles according to a set number of predetermined combinations of roles between your three party members. It’s therefore very useful to have a mess around with the combinations in the menu prior to battles, and see which work best against particular enemy types. Each character has a specialisation in two skills, but as you progress the game you can then learn any of the skills, although to do this is going to take a lot of battles.
Gaining levels and experience is handled via earning CP points for killing enemies. These can then be spent on upgrades between battles using a skill tree system. However, you cannot go beyond a certain point until the game dictates, which perhaps is a feature to prevent players grinding (continually battling for the purpose of levelling up) for hours and making the game too easy. Grinding is possible during the latter portion of the game, but early on the reigns are clasped firmly, with little room for manoeuvre.
Weapons and accessories can also be upgraded with junk items that can be purchased from stores (at save points) or found from defeating enemies. The process is a little experimental, but adds another layer of menu based gameplay to the mix. It is possible to ignore this feature, but at the peril of giving your characters a disadvantage – those extra 150 Hit Points, or fire resistances might prove useful against certain foes!
Looking at the combat as a whole, and it’s clear that fans of turn based games are going to feel perfectly at ease with entering commands and planning attack strategies. However, for the uninitiated, might prove a little daunting despite the addition of an auto command feature which takes away some of the headache of fiddling through commands whilst getting beaten up. FFXIII might do a great job of taking 10 hours to tutor the player, but the end result is still going to be a little tough for some, especially those used to real time combat. In this regard, the game isn’t going to be for everyone, and if you’re not captivated by the story, characters and gameplay early on, are probably not going to be 10-20 hours down the line.
Despite featuring CGI cut scenes that have been stripped of their clarity to fit onto the three disks for the Xbox 360 version, they still look good and convey the story well enough, although those of you with eagle eyes will notice a distinct fuzzy edge on occasion as a result. The game engine graphics though are vibrant colourful and well varied, and will have you wandering dark and moody industrial or natural interiors, to lush and organic sunshine filled outdoors. There’s lots of variety that will have you captivated at every turn. The Grand Pulse area of disk 3 is a joy to behold and almost feels like a different game, but is well worth spending the time to reach. Despite the linearity of the experience, the aesthetics cannot be faulted.
The character models are well designed, and convey plenty of emotion and sparkle during the cut scenes (of which there are many). Again, Square have done a remarkable job of animating the characters, despite some lip syncing to be a little off (probably due to localization). There’s a movie like quality to the game that is not available in most games, and for telling a story, you won’t find a game that does it as well as this one. All you can do is sit back, marvel and be entertained.
The overall design is of a very high standard, and with plenty of enemy types to tackle, there’s always something new to discover as you fight your way through the game. Kudos has to be given to the artists for coming up with the vile and wonderful beasts and beings you’ll be facing, which do range from the wild to the sublime.
A gloriously beautiful soundtrack compliments the fine looking graphics on offer which stirs the emotions during the right moments of the story. The high quality orchestral pieces will almost bring a tear to the eye with the grandiose presentation on offer and compliments the highs and lows of the characters and their situations. The battle music is suitably lifting, surprisingly doesn’t grate even after some 40 hours of gaming, and the incidental themes are well suited to the on screen action. It’s obvious a lot of love has been poured into making the audio as top quality as possible.
The voice acting is also of a very high standard from all of the characters, and although some might come across as somewhat cliché, the performances are well suited, so a thumbs up to the person who developed the casting. There’s really nothing to complain about as far as audio is concerned, other than perhaps more sound-bites could have been deployed during the actual battles.
An epic game if there ever was one, and one that offers hours upon hours of entertainment. You’re looking at between 40-100 hours of gameplay here depending on how thorough you want to be in developing characters or whether you just want to beat the story. There’s no multiplayer, and perhaps little incentive to replay once beaten. But with those huge numbers of hours on offer on a first play-through you’re certainly going to get your monies worth, and who knows maybe an expansion via downloadable content might appear at some point.
Final Fantasy XIII is an massive game and one that harks back to the old school turn based antics which seem to be a dying breed these days. It’s certainly a streamlined affair, which for some might feel a little too constricting. However, if you can remove the preconceived shackles and just enjoy the game for what it presents, then you’re only going to come away with an ear to ear grin. Cool characters, easy to follow story, repetitive yet engaging battles, varied environments, and a stellar presentation culminate to make a game that any role playing gamer has to try at some point. For newcomers, they might come away with mixed responses, as the first part of the game would suggest fairly easy playing, but once you get into the complexities of character development and skill shifting in battles, things start getting a little complex and menu reliant, which might put some players off. You really have to know what you’re getting into with this game prior to playing, otherwise you might come unstuck some 10 hours in. That said, with such a compelling story and a learning curve that’s not so steep means if you’ve got the patience, it’s certainly worth sticking with. It’s obvious Final Fantasy XIII isn’t going to appeal to everyone, despite the heavy blitz in advertising. For fans, it’s another game to add to the collection and talk about for months and years to come, for anyone else, it’s an embodiment of intrigue, which beckons you in and asks the question, do you want to come inside and see what’s on offer. In this regard, a recommendation as a rental is solid and worthwhile, which would hopefully inspire you to rush out and buy the game after being taken in, a bit like a cougar, not quite past its sell by date but still charming enough so that you can’t refuse. A classic game and well worthy of the Final Fantasy moniker.