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Final Fantasy XIII

Score: 83%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: DVD/3
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:

In the video gaming world, very few franchises come close to the canonized behemoth that is the Final Fantasy universe. Following the release of Final Fantasy on the Nintendo Entertainment System in December 1987, the franchise almost immediately spawned a devout fanbase that has continued to grow through the subsequent numbered releases and spin-offs. As of November 2009, there were a total of 27 games based on the Final Fantasy IP. March 2010 saw the release of Final Fantasy XIII in North America, the 28th game in the series. More than six years in development, the anticipation and fervor of the fans was nearly palpable leading up to the release date. With so many expectations, the question became could any game possibly live up to the hype and hopes of so many fans.

At first glance, the answer to this question seems promising. Final Fantasy XIII looks, in a word, breathtaking. The graphics are nearly unparalleled by any other games on the market currently. Character detail, environmental settings, spell visuals, encountered creatures, NPCs... all are fully realized with amazing care and craftsmanship. Even more impressive is the fact that all of this graphical bliss does not cause the game to suffer in terms of clipping or bad framerate. Simply stated, Final Fantasy XIII is the showcase of what next-gen consoles can offer in conjunction with modern Hi-Def televisions.

As fans of the series are quick to point out, the music of the franchise is historically as iconic (if not more-so) as any characters or settings in the games. Final Fantasy XIII marks a departure in a sense, as it is the first of the numbered games in the series to not feature the music of famed composer Nobuo Uematsu (who is reported to be at work on the soundtrack for Final Fantasy XIV). Uematsu is replaced by Final Fantasy X co-composer Masashi Hamauzu. Replacement aside, I still found Hamauzu's music engaging and epic, although time will tell if it proves as memorable as some of Uematsu's compositions. Apart from the score, I found the other auditory offerings of Final Fantasy XIII to be well attended, if not outstanding. The voice-acting, while not great, was good enough and the various sound effects used throughout the game did ample justice to associated settings and events. As a package, Final Fantasy XIII certainly lives up to its epic expectations with regards to audio and visual richness.


Gameplay:

After the visual awe has subsided, players will quickly notice that Final Fantasy XIII differs from previous iterations in several ways. The most obvious and perhaps disappointing difference is the overall gameplay. The free-roaming aspect of the game is almost entirely replaced by a linear, point A-to-point B style of storytelling. The story follows the adventures of six characters that have been chosen by a mysterious entity known as the Pulse fal'Cie. The characters, now outcasts from society, must embark on an epic adventure in order to save mankind. While the story sounds grandiose, in actuality, it is yet another disappointing aspect of the game. Players will spend hours playing as the various protagonists in small sub-groups, slowly and tediously advancing the plot. Any sort of attachment for the characters becomes increasingly hard to foster due to the relatively small amount of time actually playing the characters through the first 20 or so hours of the game. During the initial 10 chapters (of 13), players are given little choice into party makeup or even which character is being controlled. Add to this frustration the fact that, after spending a few minutes plowing from A to B, players are "rewarded" with a lengthy cutscene. Though these scenes are admittedly beautiful, the frequency and length of these interruptions of gaming are strong deterrents to the entertainment value of Final Fantasy XIII.

For those players dedicated enough to trudge through to chapter 11 (some 40 to 60 hours into the game), the reward is significant. Free-roam exploration and side missions finally become available and Final Fantasy XIII actually begins to feel like a true part of the Final Fantasy series. While fun, this part of the game is far too short by comparison and all too soon, the game returns to its linear ways for the final two chapters. In a series with such a remarkable lineage of great storytelling and innovative gameplay, Final Fantasy XIII falls well short of greatness, leaving much to be desired in the realms of engaging plot and sympathetic characters.


Difficulty:

Players who come to the world of Pulse expecting to be challenged might want to adventure elsewhere. Final Fantasy XIII has had nearly all sharp edges removed and basically runs on auto-pilot. Gone are the days of random monster encounters. Now, monsters can easily be seen from afar. Players are given little in the way of options as to avoidance or confrontation. Some confrontations are triggered at certain points along the adventurers' path. The linearity of the dungeons almost precludes the chances of getting lost. Even without an overall view of the landscape, the map feature clearly shows the path to take in order to reach the next objective as well as all of the small "hidden" nooks and crannies to explore. Even the level and competency of the creatures encountered is generally well under that of the player party, making combat, even with the new combat engine (see below) fairly easy. Should players choose to do so, combat becomes even less engaging when auto-battle is engaged. Varying the difficulty is not an option and for the most part, playing through the game is not dissimilar from sitting through a CGI movie and occasionally taking part in some form of QT event.

Game Mechanics:

Final Fantasy XIII's failings in difficulty and gameplay aside, there are still some innovative ideas at work in this new offering. Characters no longer level up in a traditional sense. Instead, attributes and attacks are unlocked in the Crystarium, using Crystogen Points (CP) that are earned (much like experience) during combat. Each character has access to several class-types, each type having specific powers and skills associated in the Crystarium. Players can spend CP to open up skills and abilities specific to one class or stat bonuses that are permanent regardless of the active class. Active classes are decided by choosing paradigms for battle. The new battle system is, apart from the stunning visuals, the most noteworthy offering of Final Fantasy XIII.

The combat engine combines elements of turn-based and real-time engagements. Players control only the lead character of the party during battle, with the other members serving supporting roles and controlled by a fairly robust A.I. Each character can serve in various roles in a party depending on which class is currently active. The main character may be the best damage dealer, while one supporting character could act as a debuffer and the other as a medic. However, because battles are fluid situations, the needs of the party may change during the course of the encounter. To handle this change, the player can alter the classes of the characters on the fly using a feature called paradigm shift. Pre-determined paradigms can be set up by the player to handle various situations. In addition to shifting paradigms, players can also use items during combat to heal or boost the party. Last, but certainly not least, characters are granted the ability to summon Eidolons. These behemoths fight alongside the characters in battle, adding extra firepower and often swinging the tide of battle. All-in-all, this new system is very impressive and goes a long way in keeping Final Fantasy XIII from fading into obscurity.

In addition to the new combat system, Final Fantasy XIII also includes driving elements, mini-games and other intricacies, all that will cumulatively take players quite a while to familiarize themselves with. Players should not be surprised to still be receiving the occasional tutorial 10+ hours into the game. Final Fantasy XIII was one of the most anticipated and discussed games in recent history. Sadly, despite the stunningly beautiful setting and innovative combat scheme, it falls somewhat short of greatness. The franchise revered for great storytelling slips deep into mediocrity with this latest offering. The enormous fanbase almost ensures meteoric sales, but for those gamers wavering on the fence about purchasing this installment, perhaps renting first would be a wise course of action. Final Fantasy XIII is certainly enjoyable and is far from a bad game, but so many stellar games available currently may cause this offering to fall down the priority list for gamers' playtime.


-The Mung Bard, GameVortex Communications
AKA Buddy Ethridge

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