It’s been a long time in the making, but the first outing of Final Fantasy has finally made it to the PlayStation3, this time in the guise of story XIII. SquareEnix have seen fit to wet our taste-buds by releasing both Final Fantasy VII & VIII on PSN recently. These old PSOne classics are now showing their age graphically; by comparison (and with over ten years of technology advancement) XIII looks absolutely sumptuous, but that is only the beginning.
It will come as no surprise that Final Fantasy XIII has a sprawling story attached to it. Set in a world known as Cocoon, the plot revolves around godlike mechanical beasts known as the fal’Cie who take the humans and transform them into the l'Cie. The reason for doing so is unclear, but anyone transformed must complete a quest known as “the focus”, one which if not done will turn the inflicted into a ghoul, but if completed twill turn them into crystal; not exactly an ideal choice to contend with.
Unsurprisingly, the government isn't too keen on their population being turned into nasty vile creatures, but rather than fight the oppressors, they've seen fit to purge those infected and evict them to an alternative planet, and so we have a battle on two fronts.
The player gets to control a number of different characters through the game, but only allows the ability to take charge of one in battle. The characters are very likeable and certainly have an interesting story to them. It's very cool to listen to them chatter whilst wondering around the environments. Lightning and Snow are the main protagonists, but the others take the centre stage at certain points throughout the game. Perhaps the most likeable of all is Vanille – a sweet young female with a great excitable voice that's a delight to listen to. The casting for that part is bang-on the money.
The first interaction controlling Lightning, introduces you to the game's battle system. Starting things big, the brawl kicks off against a huge mechanical yet organic looking creature on the Aerorail Trussway. In Final Fantasy big does not always mean bad, and in this case it's a fairly leisurely intro, even if it doesn't exactly feel that way. The most important thing gotten across in the battle system is that of stagger. When an enemy is staggered, it’ll take more damage, and to get the critter in to this state requires repeated strikes. Different foes will stagger and recover at different rates – but it’s absolutely essential when fighting bosses.
The first two hours of the game are very tedious, the battle options are limited and there's a lot of shifting between character stories. These separate paths eventually merge and after the first harder battle thing take a mild up-swing. The majority of these early enemy encounters involves a lot of pressing the A button to select auto-battle; where the console chooses the best attack.
The encounter with the fal'Cie leaves the party with upgraded abilities after having become l'Cie. An improved team play introduces the Paradigm shift for the team during battle. This allows the player to decide the type of roles best for the party at that time, but put simply, it's about controlling offensive and defensive play. The characters are also from this point able to develop their powers, learning new abilities and improving their statistic via the Crystarium. The Crystarium allows characters to tread down the different career paths, and learn the skill associated with that role, by spending crystogen points on them, earned by decimating enemies in battle. It's a little bit similar to that of the Spirit Board in Final Fantasy X, but perhaps clearer and more understandable.
Quite why it had to take so long to reach this point is questionable, the introduction to the game really is a bit too long and boring – it may be enough to put off newbies and more experienced RPG gamers from continuing in equal measure. It's soon after this that a further tutorial explains why picking the auto-battle option isn't always the best choice. Selecting abilities manually allows the player to choose the sequence of attacks used in battle. This is important because chain bonuses vary by command – the most damage is done by queuing the most effective command sequences – this at least gives the player something more to do.
All of this battling would be a worthless if there wasn't some exploring to go along with it. The environments encountered can be in stark contrast to each other, but all look absolutely gorgeous. There are massive swings in the surroundings from vast technologically advanced cityscapes, to rural and more natural places. With each comes the aural delights of the Final Fantasy musical score; it will come as no surprise to the series veterans, but the orchestral pieces really help set the scene and pull the player into the game. It is hard, however, not to notice just how linear the levels are. There is the odd small fork leading to a hidden treasure here and there, but very few branching choices to make – it's a case of follow the well-trodden path.
Even at this point in the game there are still major limitations in control. The game seems to hold the player's hand for far too long, and it's easy to get frustrated with the generic fight, walk, story. Fight, walk, story. Fight, walk, story – boss fight - story. The apparent reason for structuring the game this way was to avoid the grinding aspect that many RPGs have – western releases have proved you can do this with making things quite so boring; even then, there still is the odd bit of grinding to get the crystogen points. One of the more interesting aspects of previous Final Fantasy games has been the ability to level characters, choose their path, hone their skills – that's still true here, but things feel a bit lacklustre. As there are no direct level gains from experience to speak of, there's little encouragement for the player to go check stats, making it all too easy to neglect the Crystarium. Yet it is essential to keep going back and spending those points gained on new skills if you’ve any hope of beating the end of chapter bosses.
Sadly Final Fantasy XIII isn't the epic enthralling experience ardent fans were hoping for, in fact it’s slightly disappointing. It's far too linear, lacks pace, and requires players to endure tedium for many hours before the title opens up and lets the gamer decide how they want to play the game. No-one should have to wait 15-20 hours before the entertainment becomes enjoyable, and in that respect FFXIII fails miserably. There's no doubting that the visuals are lavish, the voice talent fantastic and the story interesting, but when it requires hours of dreariness in between, it just doesn't add up.
Final Fantasy is not a must buy by any stretch of the imagination, there are far better RPGs out there that reward exploration and adventure, such as the recent releases from BioWare and Bethesda. Final Fantasy seems to have fallen in a rut, but if you can put up with the linearity for long enough, there is an interesting story and game at its heart. That said, even hard-core Final Fantasy fans are going to struggle to find an A++ RPG here.
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