Final Fantasy XIII Review (PS3)

Change isn't easy, and the older you get the harder it becomes. With a series as persevering as Final Fantasy, change is essential for continued survival, but with the 13th instalment of this iconic franchise, it seems that change isn't as easy as it was back in the 90's. With a new engine, new ideas, and a new out-look on an ageing genre, Final Fantasy XIII marks the beginning of a new generation of titles, one that hopes to take them into the future.

A few months ago, we left the London-based Final Fantasy preview event feeling optimistic, yet secretly troubled. JRPG's aren't easily judged on only a few hours of play, but from what we'd researched, and our experiences with the hands on, we felt there were going to be many good and bad points to this game - We weren't far wrong. With streamlined game mechanics and re-invented core facets, it's possible that Final Fantasy XIII tried to do too much too quickly in an attempt to keep up with gaming's continual evolution : it's certainly not without its growing pains.

Snow, the leading male. He's a bit idealistic, even at the best of times.
Gran Pulse, after the game's potential finally opens up to you.

The main problem, from our point of view, is that it takes a tad too long for things to get truly 'interesting'. Whilst linear progression has been a staple of Final Fantasy titles to varying degrees over the years, Final Fantasy XIII at first seems to lean towards the in-escapable straight and narrow path. All of the levels are pretty much progression from A - B, with a very grindhouse environment punctuated with either major story segments, or bosses. There are plenty of moments where you can't help but feel that everything is all a tad repetitive or tedious, and the game struggles to throw in something different before you reach breaking point.

In an interview conducted on the preview day, Director Motomu Toriyama explained how, with all of the new and changed content in this game, they wanted to ease players into everything, and not bombard them with too much information at once. In essence, the first 'section' of the game acts as one big tutorial. This is an understandable sentiment, but we can't help but feel that the length of time FF 13 takes to 'introduce' us to everything (Eleven chapters, 25+ hours, to be precise) takes the biscuit slightly. There are points early on in the game where even little things like party composition could have been introduced, if only for the sake of diversity.

Still, it's not all doom and gloom. There is still plenty here to get excited about, especially the combat. Using a re-envisioned version of the Active Time Battle system first seen in Final Fantasy IV, combat has seen an injection of flexibility and depth that really makes you think, and can help you deal with almost any situation.

Instead of characters having their own stereotypical classes, whether that be summoner, melee specialist, black mage etc... each character instead has a handful of different 'roles', which alter their skill sets. These roles still follow along more stereo typical lines, but because they're not completely limited by character, countless strategies open up. Even two characters who have the same role will develop differently, as the rate and order that skills unlock differs for each, thus maintaining diversity whilst also making up for the fact that you can't have everyone in a party.

Roles can be changed in battle using 'Paradigms' - a 'strategy' if you will that dictates roles for the entire party. Paradigms are set and modified in-between battles, and then with a simple click of the shoulder pad, you can switch between them at will. For example, using the 'Relentless Assault' Paradigm sees you inflicting your opponent with a barrage of attacks in order to build up bonuses. If, suddenly, you realise one of your characters is low on health, you can quickly switch to a Paradigm where someone is a healer, and then switch back to the assault paradigm when their health is at maximum.

Your Eidolon can enter a gestalt mode. A bit like Transformers.
The game's 'Cid' quota. This is actually the second time where a 'Cid' has been an antagonist.

The only oddity with combat (and the game in general) stems from the fact that you can only give commands to one person in a party. Only the party leader is able to receive commands from the player, with the other party members being controlled by the AI. The abilities they use are based on what role they are, and what the AI feels is the best course of action at the time (even the playable character has an 'auto-battle' feature, if you're feeling lazy). This is probably part of the streamlining process, and whilst it takes some getting used to, it's not that bad - battles certainly feel more natural, at any rate, with the opposing forces not stuck on either side of some invisible line. Still, there are some unfortunate side effects to this with regards to things like summons and help that comes too late. It also makes the beginning parts slightly boring, as not only do you not have much to do, you only have one person to control.

If you're wondering about the differences between the 360 and PS3 version - don't. Whilst it's a proven fact that the PS3 is the more enhanced version, the 360 iteration actually gives a decent account for itself. At face value, it's hard to see the differences, and the graphics on both consoles are absolutely stunning. Provided some of the newer concepts are ironed out a bit more, FF 13 could be used as a spring board for even better future releases. It will certainly be interesting to see how the rest of the Fabula Nova Crystallis series pans out.

The ATB gauge fills whilst you queue up attacks.
FF 13 is one title that truly 'looks' next gen.

Still, even dynamic combat and luscious cutscenes can get repetitive in as linear an environment as this. You have to wonder, with a plethora of minor flaws, a slow unfurling of features that seems to take forever, and regular sources of frustration, what holds it all together? What keeps you going from one slightly tedious moment to the next? Part of the answer to that is the story, which is one of the better pieces of work to come out of Japan. It even makes sense. The other part of the answer is something not easily described. As the game moves on, you can see it getting better and better, with your characters slowly evolving along with the story, and you as a player as you're almost forced to learn everything in detail. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you want nothing more than to feel it on your skin.

It's funny, because if you think about it, Final Fantasy 13 is just one big metaphor for itself. One of the big themes of the game is change, and how each of the characters react and deal with it. FF 13 itself has also gone under changes, and like the protagonists whose lives it describes, it too has trouble dealing with this change. Still, there's a lot of potential here, and when it's good, it's really good. There's nothing 'game-breaking' or extremely off-putting about this title - it's just got a collection of subtle annoyances or niggles that prevent it from being as good as it could be. This is one of those games that definitely gets better as you go along. Very compelling, ruthlessly streamlined and yet subtly complex, this is a game that sees you through to the end - you may get frustrated with it, or simply get a bit bored... but you'll be dammed if you stop playing it.

Top Game Moment:
A certain scene in the latter half of Disc 2 between Sazh and Vanille. You'll know the one I mean when you come to it.

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