Final Fantasy XIII
Just like a kid who can’t sleep the night before Christmas, for two days I was biting my nails to get my copy of Final Fantasy XIII! Each sound that even resembled an approaching mailman made me paranoid. But then I suddenly heard someone talk with the neighbours, rushed outside and and grabbed the envelope and left the worker of our national postal service in shock. As a tough Final Fantasy character, I afterwards walked back to my room, tore off the packagine and got ready for fifty hours of magic.
The story of number XIII in the series is set in two worlds, Pulse and Cocoon, where the latter is a man-made “world”, built from all kinds of hi-tech materials. The government that rules with iron hand is scared to death of Pulse, the organic world beneath them and uses this fear as an excuse for ethnic cleansing. Anyone who comes into contact with something that is covered with Pulse “microbes” immediately has to leave Cocoon.
Make sure to pay attention as terms like L’cie, Fal’cie, Purge, Bodhum, Paradigm and Gestalt come at you at an alarming rate. To give away as little as possible about the storyline, here it is in a nutshell: something is happening with the six main characters and you need to save both worlds. What did you expect?
Final Fantasy XIII is getting quite a rough time by plenty of game critics due to being too linear and I do have to join them in that respect. Japanese RPGs have always used the trick with the mirror to give you the feeling of being in an open world and in that this title doesn’t differ so much. There are hardly any branches from the main route and typical RPG elements like sidequests, villages where you can buy items and characters to talk to are rare. After having played about 20 hours the world does open up a bit more which makes that we don’t have to follow the tight path laid out so much anymore but can hop around like a little girl in a colorful forest. Afterwards you also get full freedom to develop your characters as you want, everyone has their own Eidolon and you can start doing side missions.
The combat mechanism has always been an important thing in the Final Fantasy series and also this time the necessary tweaks have been done. The fights are very comparable to those of FFX-2 and FFXII but where the speed is taken from the first and the free roaming and specific roles come from the latter. The name of this all also got a makeover and changed from oldfashioned turn-based to the more trendy Time-Based System.
As you only have direct control over the party leader and the other two characters are handled by the AI I feared the combat system would have become too simple. Luckily this wasn’t the case and thanks to the Paradigm Shift, some sort of job system, there’s some real depth in the many hostile encounters.
There are about seven “jobs” including Commando, Ravager, Saboteur, Medic, Sentinel and Synergist. It’s up to you to make some nice combinations of these and use them on the battlefield. Personally I found a Commando-Ravager-Saboteur setup to be a very offensive Paradigm. The Saboteur throws some weakening spells towards the monster while the Ravager and Commando keep the Chain as long as possible. If you’re a big pussy and too weak on offense you can at any time choose another Paradigm that’s better for you, or the situation.
Final Fantasy is and remains of course a true RPG and that means the idea is to build your characters into true war machines. This is done through the Crystarium system which is comparable to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Combat delivers Crystarium Points (CP) which you spend on attributes like strength, stamina, HP, MP, but also tactical abilities like improving Fire, Thunder and Blizzard. Each character has its own “grid” with specific roles and seeing CPs don’t grow on your back it’s always a matter of thinking carefully on how you want to build your characters further.
Of course you can call out summons again. These Eidolons first have to be defeated in combat and once you’ve won you can summon them by using TP. When doing this the rest of your crew disappears and next to the timer, which gives the remaining time for your Eidolon, you also get a commando “Gestalt Mode”. Here your Eidolon changes like a real Transformer into a vehicle or beast which you can use to quickly move. Lightning for instance gets the stallion Odin between her legs while Snow has Shiva to ride on.
Did Square-Enix think of the millions of hardcore fans of Final Fantasy? Luckily the answer to that is “yes” and there’s plenty to do for those that grew up with the series and even had to wink away some tears with Final Fantasy VII. Your weapons and accessories are upgradeable through materials dropped by defeated monsters. Putting together the perfect weapon will only work after some solid grinding of certain monsters and taking and stealing its necessary items. Next to that about 50 side missions can be completed and there’s nothing more fun than reaches your limits with the characters. Hours of character building guaranteed!
With each new episode, Final Fantasy put the graphical quality up to a new level and this time is no exception to that. The CGI movies are unequalled and thanks to the Crystal Tools engine the differences between CGI and in-game get smaller and smaller. Both worlds breathe pure magic and dark industrial environments are varied with large open fields. Lightning and her crew look amazing, with very detailed clothing that only enhances their different personalities. The voice-overs are credible and the soundtrack is again created with plenty of love and craftsmanship. From jazzy tunes and Japanese pop to beautifully orchestrated symphonies… it’s a feast for your ears.
Square-Enix knows how to treat their top series and again succeeds in delivering a great sequel. The combat is more fun and deep than I expected in the beginning and despite the auto-battle button you constantly have to remain focused. Final Fantasy XIII is linear, but that also goes for Uncharted and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Those looking for a Fallout 3 are clearly at the wrong address here. An immersive story needs some structure and linearity. With its colorful and magical worlds FFXIII also manages to impress graphically and although the wait was long – very long even – FFXIII is what I wanted: an excellent RPG that keeps the unique style of the franchise while being accessible enough for newcomers.