Discussion Review: Final Fantasy XIII

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Be it positive or negative, everyone, it seems, has a strong opinion about Final Fantasy XIII, mainly due to the fact that Square Enix really tinkered around with many of the staple design elements many fans have come to expect — demand, even — from a Final Fantasy game. The result is a game that looks like a Final Fantasy, sounds like a Final Fantasy, and plays like a Final Fantasy, yet somehow doesn’t feel like a true Final Fantasy.

Is Final Fantasy XIII too different for its own good? Will it alienate some gamers among the franchise’s strong fanbase? Perhaps. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a game to underestimate or cast aside as some catastrophic disappointment.

With so many questions to answer, Final Fantasy XIII was an ideal discussion review candidate, and after roughly 120 combined play hours between us, Zach and I recently pooled our thoughts and debated the game’s highs and lows. Read along for our final impressions of what is sure to go down as one of the most polarizing games in Final Fantasy history.

Zach: When you initially asked me if I’d like to participate in a review of Final Fantasy XIII, I knew that it would be a tough assignment, not really from what I would say (as I’ve basically been giving mini-reviews to friends since its release), but that what I had to say would actually be consumed by a larger audience.

Just to give you some background, I’ve been a fan of the Final Fantasy series since I played VII back on the PlayStation One when I was in high school. I’ve played each one in the series as it was released, with VIII being my favorite and X coming in a close second. Out of this love I went to Best Buy and picked up a copy of Final Fantasy XIII on launch day, something I haven’t done for a game for over a year. In my mind at least, up until this point a true (non-spinoff) Final Fantasy is something that even a light RPG fan picks up without question. Even when I read other reviews stating that this Final Fantasy is below average, I ardently stood by my RPG champion, clinging onto a hope that I would find a gem where others merely found a pretty stone. Now, having completed the game in about 60 hours, I must sadly add my voice to the list of disappointed masses. While the graphics are among the best I’ve seen in any video game, the updates to the battle system and overall play style of this Final Fantasy led me down a long road of disappointment.

One of the largest changes I came across from the other Final Fantasies was the “improvements” made to the battle system. First, the battles in Final Fantasy XIII occur much faster than the battles in any previous iteration of the series. As such, Square Enix has removed much of the control out of the player’s hands in an attempt to speed things up. What you’re left with however is the feeling that you’re simply managing the battle, letting the game do the heavy lifting for you while you tell people which roles they should fill.

Matt: Final Fantasy XIII has been one of the most debated video game releases in quite some time since its release in Japan late last year, mostly because it encompasses so many drastic changes that most Final Fantasy diehards probably aren’t ready to accept. Much like the two previous installments alienated some fans – Final Fantasy XI for being a full-blown MMORPG, and Final Fantasy XII for its MMORPG-inspired design — I can certainly see how Final Fantasy XIII does the same for so many players. But I can also see it attracting a new audience of players who enjoy an epic RPG storyline but don’t like all the grinding typically associated with the genre.

My opinion lies somewhere in between. Like you, certain parts of the game disappointed me outright, and as someone who has grown up on the series since the NES original I was pretty shocked by just how much Square Enix broke away from the tried and true Final Fantasy formula. But at the same time, once I got used to the changes and accepted the game for what it was, I thought it was an absolute joy to play. It’s not necessarily a great JRPG – actually, I’m not sure I’d call it an RPG at all — but I do think it is a great video game as sort of a story-drive action/adventure type of experience.

I’ll be interested to get your take on this, but to me Final Fantasy XIII is basically a hybrid of Final Fantasy X and XII. Every element of the game, whether it’s the battle system, the Crystarium, Paradigm shifting, the level design, or whatever, seems to combine ideas from those two games. I’ll start with the combat system first…

With the combat, the character swapping of Final Fantasy X and the AI-based Gambit system of Final Fantasy XII merge to create a hybrid battle system that attempts to balance speed and strategy. All of your party members have three different roles they can serve (you can branch beyond three later in the game), and during battle you can instantly switch the roles of your entire party using the Paradigm Shift mechanic. So, for example, you can start a battle with your party in attack roles (Commando is the melee class and Ravager is the spellcasting class), but if you need buffing or healing as the battle progresses you can perform a Paradigm Shift to change your characters into other jobs like the Synergist (buff party), Saboteur (debuff enemies), Medic (heals party), or the Sentinel (tank who taunts all enemies into attacking him/her). Then, once you’re buffed and healed, you can instantly shift off to any of the other Paradigms you have set up.

I really liked the dynamic speed and strategy this brought to the game, but there are some problems. First and foremost, parts of the game are too automated. During battle you only have control over one character, with the other two acting based on the roles you have picked for them with the current Paradigm. For the most part the AI does what you want. However, with the Medic class specifically I found that too often they’d worry about removing status ailments and casting small, slower, full-party heals rather than healing characters to full health individually. This is problematic because if your main character – the leader of the party – dies, the game is over, even if the rest of your party is standing. I wish there was at least some way to micro-manage party actions, maybe some sort of panic button you could push to force a party member to stop what they are doing and heal you up.

Choice is stripped away from you as the game dictates what attacks and spells are available based on the enemy. On the one hand, this is nice because it allows you to Libra (scan) an enemy and immediately have the game tailor your attack selection to their specific weaknesses so you don’t have to scour through command menus. But on the other hand, this automation makes many battles a simple process of casting Libra, mashing on the X button to auto-battle, and occasionally shifting Paradigms. The first 15-20 hours of the game are basically a cakewalk, and only once you reach Pulse after the 25-hour mark does the random encounter fodder begin to make you sweat.

Any more thoughts on the battle system before moving on?

Zach: I think you hit the nail on the head with just how automated the battle system has become. Like you, one of my biggest pet peeves was with the Medic class. While all medics eventually learn the Raise spell (which revives a party member), it seems that the AI will only select this spell once the other AI controlled character has died only if the other two party members are near full health. I found myself sitting there as a Sentinel, absorbing the damage and waiting for the Medic to raise my third teammate when all it wanted to do was cast the smallest heals available over and over. I typically had to suck it up and use a phoenix down just to move on because it was obvious that the AI had other plans.

This whole “game over if the character you control” business was frustrating as well. Unless you really want to risk seeing the game over screen on multiple occasions, it almost forces you to control the characters with the largest health pools (of which there are only two or three, depending on how you choose to level all of the characters). Additionally, you can’t even pick which character you play as or who comprises your party until around the 25-hour mark (Chapter 11 out of 13). I felt this was overly constraining, as I understand that it was confining me for story purposes, but at times it made selecting upgrades and choosing which roles to level difficult as I never knew when I’d switch to a different group of characters or who those characters would be.

Another part of the battle system I want to cover is the summons. In previous Final Fantasies, summoning a creature was a huge deal, resulting in an impressive looking cutscene and a massive amount of damage. In Final Fantasy XIII, each character gets one summon, some at an earlier point in the game than others. Summons work differently though in this game, as they’re split into two phases: the first being that the rest of your team is replaced by the summoned creature and your character fights along side them, building up a gauge that depletes over time during the second phase, when the summoned critter transforms into a ridable mount with an entirely new set of moves.

While pretty, the new summons aren’t particularly damaging, plus once you settle on a character you feel most comfortable playing, you’re going to see the same summon over and over again. Other than restoring your party back to full health and removing any status ailments, summoning in Final Fantasy XIII seemed fairly useless to me, with your party being able to make more progress in fights by simply fighting on their own.

Much like the battle system, exploring the world which constitutes Final Fantasy XIII has also been reduced in complexity. For the first ten chapters of the game, you’ll feel like you’re being shuffled from point A to point B with little to no option to diverge onto a separate area or quest. Honestly, the entire game is fairly linear except for chapter 11, where you’re finally given access to a large expanse of area, complete with free roaming creatures and side quests. As you stated though, it takes about 25 hours to get to this point in the game, and while you could easily spend another 10 – 30 hours just exploring this area and completing the side quests, once you leave Pulse you’re thrown back into the linear maps that you were exposed to back in the first ten chapters.

Matt: See, the thing that gets me with the combat system is that the options really are there to take advantage of, but the game was designed to automate so much of it that you become trained to rely on the game to make the choices for you when you don’t always have to. Using Libra and auto-battling gets the job done, but as you come across tougher opposition, relying on the automated mechanics makes for slow, grinding battles.

But there are certain strategies you can use by manually selecting actions and cutting short your action queue to keep an enemy’s chain meter from depleting. This all-important meter fills as you attack an enemy, and once it’s full they become staggered and susceptible to higher damage for a short time. Combat success is entirely predicated on your ability to quickly stagger a creature. Casting spells raises the meter quickly, but the chain is also quicker to deplete, so you have to keep a balance of melee and spell casting to be most effective. It’s also nice that you are graded on your performance after every battle, but I wish there was an actual reward for getting high marks beyond the instant gratification of taking down a tough boss in style.

As for the summons, I agree that they are largely useless, but if you use them correctly they can actually be quite devastating. I played through pretty much the entire game with Lightning as my party leader, and her Odin summon helped me through a number of bosses. The key, I found, was to first wear the boss down to maybe half health, get them staggered, and, if timed properly, I could either finish them off or come damn close using Odin.

The battle system definitely has some flaws, but by the end I thought the strengths and weaknesses balanced out pretty well, and after the first 25 hours of handholding the final half of the game does become more challenging and subtle strategies give the combat some legs.

The linearity issue is something I knew we’d get to, as it has probably been the most debated part of the game since its release. Going back to my earlier point, FFXIII felt like two different Final Fantasies in one to me. For the first half of the game I felt like I was playing Final Fantasy X (X’s levels were also pretty damn linear from what I remember). Then, after crossing the 25-hour mark the game almost instantaneously morphs into this massive open world and begins to feel an awful lot like Final Fantasy XII (before going back to the more linear style for the final act).

I can see how the linear progression is a turn off to some players, but personally, I thought it made a lot of sense. Most of the town and overworld exploration in previous games has consisted of a lot of filler random encounters and pointless NPC conversations, but FFXIII cuts all that stuff out and keeps you focused on progressing through the story. I thought this was one area that Square Enix succeeded in their streamlining effort.

The levels themselves aren’t entirely linear either. While you are just going from point A to point B, there are optional areas and side paths to take, usually leading to treasure. Like previous games, once you complete the main storyline there is still plenty of side content to see. You can revisit Pulse to complete the abundant Cei’th missions, which are similar to the Hunt quests in Final Fantasy XII, and you don’t actually unlock the final Crystarium level until the final boss goes down.

Speaking of the Crystarium, what did you make of it? As I’d mentioned to you previously, to me it’s basically an evolved version of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid in which each Paradigm role consists of what essentially looks like a strand of DNA. Nodes are placed along the chain and you use points won from combat to unlock new abilities and stat boosters along the way. There isn’t much choice involved in advancing in the individual roles, but each character starts with three roles, and eventually you unlock the option to develop their abilities in additional roles, so there is some multi-class-style mixing and matching you can do to build up your party members.

As you may have noticed, I used the word “unlock” quite a bit in the past couple paragraphs, and that’s really my main beef with the Crystarium system. Instead of being able to fight around and build up your party on your terms like in every other RPG, your characters’ role levels are capped until the game says you are allowed to get stronger. This annoyed me more than anything else in the entire game!

Zach: I agree with the whole locking thing. Between five to ten hours in I felt that I knew enough about the game to progress on my own, but I just wasn’t being given the opportunity. I was being forced into parties, and capped on how far I could advance their abilities at that particular point in the story. I completely understand why they did things the way they did them (so that the story remained consistent with how you fought and who was in your party), but still, 25 hours is a long time to progress through a game before you’re given the opportunity to play it how you want to play it.

To me, the game’s only saving grace was of course the graphics. Everything looks superb, and it’s safe to say that Final Fantasy XIII is the best looking game I’ve seen on any system. I recall two cutscenes that were so action packed that it was a little hard to tell exactly what was going on (the opening scene of chapter 1 and 12 to be exact), but everything else looked wonderful. This did lead me to feel at times that the actual gameplay was acting as just a time sink placed between the actual cutscenes which advanced the story.

Final Thoughts: Giving a final verdict on this game is a tough one. Normally I’d say that this is a good game to rent, however that only holds true if you belong to GameFly and can keep a game out for an extended period of time since, as I stated previously, it took me about 60 hours to finish it. So for most people that makes the decision either buy it or skip it, neither of which I feel very strongly about to give that as an option. So in the end, I’ll say rent it if you have the option, and if not wait until you can find it on sale as to not pay full price for it.

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Pros:
+ A visual masterpiece
+ Great introductory RPG for players new to the genre
+ Interesting story which kept me coming back

Cons:
– If you’re an experienced RPG player, you may feel that Square Enix has you on a short leash, from the lack of exploration opportunities to limiting your options during battles

Matt: It’s interesting that we’ve made it all the way through this discussion without mentioning the storyline in any specific detail, but that’s actually fitting because, for me at least, the story was my least favorite part of the experience. The plot is engrossing in that epic Final Fantasy way with its extravagant cutscenes and unmatched production values, but the writing is fairly weak and something about the naming conventions to everything in the game kept me in a constant state of confusion. Cie’th, l’Cie, fal’Cie, and on and on – these are important terms in understanding the plot, but they just sound so silly that it’s hard to take seriously.

None of the characters really stand out as memorable franchise heroes/villains either. Each character is cast in an archetypal JRPG role: Sazh is the token black dude and main source of comic relief, Snow is the cocky badass, Hope is the angsty teen, and Vanille is the obnoxious anime girl who grates on the nerves with her constant moans and whines. Lighting is the only identifiable character to me, and even she is just a generic leader type with a pretty shallow personality.

So, to wraps things up, this is how I see it: Final Fantasy XIII is somewhat of an experimental installment in the series and thus won’t go down in history as one of the franchise’s brightest moments, and for many long-time fans it will probably be shunned for all eternity. But personally, I appreciate Square Enix’s efforts to try some different ideas (Square Enix has often been criticized for NOT trying out new ideas), and even though they didn’t all pay off, I still thoroughly enjoyed my 50-60 hours with the game and plan to go back to complete all of the Pulse side quests when my work load lightens up enough.

Final Fantasy XIII is so different from previous iterations, though, that I too suggest trying before buying, because more likely than not you are either going to love it or hate it with a passion.

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Pros:
+ Exciting and dynamic combat system
+ Jaw-dropping graphics
+ Effective streamlining of exploration
+ Excellent pacing
+ Open-world area loaded with side quests

Cons:
– Too much hand holding
– Annoying Crystarium level caps
– Party AI doesn’t always do what you want
– Story and characters are largely forgettable
– First 25 hours are very limiting

Game Info:
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 3/9/2010
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: PS3 and Xbox 360 review copies provided by publisher. Additional PS3 copy self-purchased for discussion purposes.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!