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Game Impressions: Final Fantasy XIII

April 19, 2010

Introduction

Of the recent main series of Final Fantasy games, I really enjoyed Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XII.  I didn’t play FF XI very long, mainly because after a certain point you were pretty much required to group with people to advance, which really didn’t suit my playstyle or available time.  Final Fantasy XII took me two years to complete, though I mainly played it in two large blocks, with years in-between.  I loved the style and most of the gameplay mechanics.

I tried to avoid a lot of news or info on Final Fantasy XIII before playing it, but it looked to be similar to both of those titles, making it a must-get game on release day.  But games like FF XIII require quite a large time investment.  You could probably play Halo 1-3 and ODST in the same time it’d take you to finish FF XIII.  So was it worth the time and effort, or will it be my Final Fantasy?  (I had to go there.  It’s over now.)

Story

Final Fantasy XIII is one of those games where not only do you learn the story little by little, but you start on Day 13, and slowly learn what happened on Days 1-12, and the history of the world before that, as the story unfolds.  So I’ll try my best to give a glimpse and flavor of the story without spoiling the fun of finding out yourself.

The story is about a world called Pulse, and a floating world above it called Cocoon.  Mechanical god-like beings called fal’Cie (pronounced “fal see”) rule both worlds separately, and provide for, but typically don’t interact directly with humans.  When they do, it is to give a human a Focus, a task that the human needs to perform.  The human isn’t told directly what the task is, but rather has interpret it through visions.  They must figure it out, however, because once they are given the Focus they are branded with a tattoo-like mark, and are called l’Cie.  l’Cie’s can perform magic and sometimes learn to tame and summon an Eidolon monster to fight at their side.  The downside is that as time passes, their tattoo-like mark expands.  Before it’s complete, a l’Cie’s must complete their Focus, and be turned into a crystal statue.  If they fail, they’ll be turned into a monster called a Cie’th.  Either choice is not very appealing, and other humans fear l’Cie and consider them cursed.

Final Fantasy XIII starts with a fal’Cie from Pulse that was found hidden on Cocoon.  Humans in the area, believed to be tainted just for being in the same region as the Pulse fal’Cie, are being forcibly deported from Cocoon to Pulse.  The story revolves around six individuals brought together because of the fal’Cie’s and this l’Cie curse.  How their stories intertwine, and how their fates could determine the salvation or destruction of the worlds, is the heart of the story.

Gameplay

Final Fantasy games seem to be defined in part by their unique battle systems, and Final Fantasy XIII is no exception.  There are six different roles (jobs) that characters can do: Sentinel (warrior tank), Commando (underwearless, err… I mean, melee damage), Ravager (magic damage), Medic (healing), Saboteur (debuffing enemies) and Synergist (buffing companions).   Each character starts off with the ability to do three of these roles, and can switch between them during battle.  They can gain the ability to do other more than three further into the game.

During the main story, characters level up their roles through 10 stages on what’s called the Crystarium.  Each level of the Crystarium looks like a ring with nodes around it, spokes shooting off of it with nodes and crystals, and a node or crystal at the center.  Characters spend Crystogen Points (CP), which they earn from winning battles, to advance around the levels unlocking nodes, which add to your Magic, Strength or Heath, or Crystals, which add abilities.  Center nodes that are crystals increase your role level, giving you an added bonus.

Whether you are assigned specific characters or have all six to choose from, you can use up to three at a time for any individual battle.  This is your Battle Group.  For your Battle Group, you create Paradigms, or role combinations, out of the available roles for the characters you are using.  For instance, the paradigm called Solidarity assigns one character be a Commando, one be a Sentinel, and one be a Medic.  There are many Paradigm combinations that can be made, for offensive attacks, defensive moves, healing and so forth.  At any one time, you can have six active combinations, called your Paradigm Deck.  This “deck” is available during battle, and you actively switch back and forth between Paradigms during battle depending on what’s needed.

You control the switching of Paradigms, and you control one character, the Battle Group leader, and what they are doing.  The AI controls the rest, and does a remarkably good job.  You can pick the abilities you are going to use each battle turn, or, once you determine the strengths and weaknesses of what your fighting, the computer will pick the best things for you.  You can also use Techniques (special abilities and Eidolon summons) or items (like potions and phoenix downs).  It may sound complicated in words, but in-game it’s a great system!  It’s very fluid and makes you an active participant in the outcome of each battle.  You do end up spamming the auto-ability quite a bit, but you’re also switching Paradigms quite a bit over the course of longer battles, so it’s nice not to have to focus on too many things at once.  The whole system has just about the perfect depth, is very involved, and a has a fast-pace to go along with it.

The system is a lot more fun than FF XII, though there were two things I did like more in that system.  I preferred battle transitioning of Final Fantasy XII, where enemies seen in the world environment are also fought there without a transition to a “battle area” (aside from bosses, if I recall).  In FF XIII, you are always transported to a battle area and back, which sort of breaks the illusion for me.  I also liked the fact that you could control your character’s movements in FF XII during battle.  In FF XIII, the computer controls movement and position, and you control abilities used.  So there’s no fun to be had moving around behind something during battle to gain tactical advantage (though you can get a preemptive strike before battle that way).  There were also odd cases where, for example, a monster was focusing on my Sentinel, and doing local area of effect damage, and my Ravager would slowly inch into range as she cast abilities.  She’d get damaged and knocked back, only to start inching forward again.  It would have been nice have been able to control things like that.

So how is everything else?  The graphics are astoundingly gorgeous.  The CGI rendered cut-scenes and the actual gameplay graphics get closer and closer to being equal with each game.  The voice acting is good and fit the characters well.  The soundtrack is great, though as usual I wish they’d mix it up sometimes.

If there is one word that is used in absolutely every discussion about Final Fantasy XIII, it’s the word “linear.”  A huge complaint of many is that the game, through much of the main story plot, is very linear, meaning you can’t branch off and go to any area at any time.  You are instead forced along a pretty direct path through the chapters of the story.  Through at least half the chapters you are even forced to use whatever combination of characters the game sets.  This is a pretty big departure from some Final Fantasy games, and in gaming circles the word “linear” often has negative connotations.  Square Enix has said that the main storyline section of the game is very linear so that they could better control and convey the story.  I have two thoughts on the subject.

The first is that I’m not sure it’s true that the game has to be linear to control the story better.  Mass Effect 2 seems to do a fine job at conveying story while still giving gamers the freedom to do set things in whatever order they prefer.  Perhaps the backward nature of how the story unravels throws an added wrinkle in the mix, but I’m not sure I see why this could not be accomplished.  There were several times when I stopped in an area just to run back and forth power leveling, and there’s no reason why that process could not have made more interesting by opening up some possible non-essential areas for me to go to and explore to gain the added experience.  (This does happen once or twice but late in the story.)

Secondly, linearity in games generally doesn’t bother me anyway.  The Halo games were  very linear, but you hear very little talk of it and people love those games.  I’ve come to the realization over the last year or two that I prefer fairly linear games anyway.  If I look back at my gaming history, games I seem to complete are linear ones like Gears of War, or Halo, or Resistance, or Resident Evil 4 /5.  Games I very much like and buy all the time, but never seem to complete, are the more open-ended sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, or inFamous, or Saint’s Row.  I can see where people who expected Final Fantasy XIII to be like Final Fantasy XII would be surprised by the linearity of FF XIII, but Final Fantasy games are usually different from one to the next anyway.  As mentioned above, there are other things in FF XII that I wish they had kept for FF XIII more than the non-linearity aspect.

Lumped into the complaints about linearity are complaints about the lack of towns to visit and non-player characters to interact with, saying that this gives the game a flat, superficial, lifeless feel.  While I’d agree to a small extent with that, I do think that the world and the plot are both built around this fact, so it makes sense within those contexts.  It’s hard to say more without going into too much about the story, but I’d say because it makes sense that things are that way, then it doesn’t really bother me.  Again, it’s a complaint revolving around an expectation that wasn’t met.  While developers in general should strive to meet the expectations of their audience, they shouldn’t be limited to it.  If you saw the movie Alien, and then saw a poster for the followup movie Aliens, and went to that movie expecting a cerebral, slow-paced horror suspense movie, you may complain that Aliens was instead a fast-paced action-adventure.  But that doesn’t mean that the way Aliens was made was a mistake or that it was poorer movie because of it.

Final Fantasy XIII Awakening?

A real issue I have with Final Fantasy XIII is the amount of unique gameplay that exists AFTER the main story is complete.  The first thing I’m going to touch on it the weapon and accessory upgrade system.  During my gameplay, I never touched that until the second to last chapter in the main story, even though I was given the Omni-kit Key Item and a brief tutorial on the system in Chapter 4.  This is partly because the resources required to upgrade items are far greater than what you have throughout most of the main story, and partly because I never really felt like I needed to.  I only really did it at all because I bought a strategy guide and was reading up on that system out of curiosity.  Even as near to the end of the story as I was, I could only afford to upgrade a couple of weapons, and then only to a low intermediate level, not anywhere near an advanced level.  I probably should have waited even then, because I bought some expensive materials that I then received as loot near the very end of the main story.  As for dismantling items, I didn’t even look at the system until I was about 15 hours past  the main storyline.

It’s a shame, because the upgrade system introduces some interesting game dynamics.  Couple that with the synthesized abilities you get with different weapon and accessory combinations and you can create some really uniquely differentiated characters that you can combine into different Battle Groups depending on the situation.   But as I said, you never have to do that during the main story.  In the later half of the main storyline, when you have access to all six characters, I pretty much stuck with 3 of them all the time and ignored the rest unless forced to use them.

Another gameplay aspect that exists mainly post-story is the hunt mission side-quests.  There are 64 of these, and you can start doing them in Chapter 11, but by and large you are better off doing the vast majority of them after you finish the main story because of their difficulty.  Their difficulty rises as you progress through them, to the point where towards the end of the list you are fighting the most powerful monsters in the game, and getting some of the most interesting rewards.

There are quite a few trophies/achievements (I played the PS3 version so I’ll say trophies) dedicated to these activities, like the Treasure Hunter trophy for having (at one time or another) every weapon and accessory in the game, including all the upgrades.  There’s also the Master’s Seal trophy for fully developing all characters, which would require a lot of CP grinding, and trophies for doing all the hunt missions, including one for 5-staring them all.

Again, I’m not complaining that these things exist.  I’m complaining that Square Enix didn’t make them part of the main story.  An interesting stat you’d never see is how many players got the trophy for completing the main storyline versus how many got some of the others listed above.  I bet not many go much further (if at all) past the main story.  How much money did Square Enix spend developing these gameplay systems that most gamers don’t touch?  (There are two screenshots in this post that are only possible post-story.  Can you guess which ones?)

I’m sure they deemed some of those systems too complex or cumbersome for the non-hardcore Final Fantasy player, and so they didn’t force players to do them.  It seems to me like Square Enix is living behind the curve here and missing a golden opportunity.  Why put all of this in the main game?  Instead, why not do an expansion pack ala what Bioware did with Dragon Age: Origins Awakening?  Players invested enough in the main game to spend another $30-$40 on an expansion pack are the types of players that would be interested in that more complex stuff.  Add in a plot to tie it together and give you a reason for doing it, and you’ve got a new viable product for a variety of gamers!

It seems like such a waste.  Final Fantasy XII, which I only just finished last year (see my Game Impressions), did much the same thing.  In that game I finished the story when my characters were between level 50-55, but you could actually take your characters to level 99.  There were whole zones I never saw and monsters that were level 80+.  So maybe it’s “a Final Fantasy thing” but it seems like money down the drain for Square Enix to me.  I’m sure some people would complain that they got it all before and didn’t have to pay extra for an expansion, but when a main story lasts you 50-60 hours of game time, I think you got your money’s worth already.

Extras

North America just got a standard edition, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, while PAL territories got limited Collector’s Editions.  Asian territories get a PlayStation 3 version only.  Both consoles also got special limited editions based on the game.

There are very few software extras associated with Final Fantasy XIII, not that you’d need much with all the built-in play.  Each character has a specific trophy/achievement tied to it (not character related), that when awarded unlock a theme and wallpaper associated with that character.  That’s not a big motivator, but it’s a nice little bonus.

Conclusion

I played through the main story in around 62 hours, and my total play time after doing all of the post-story content was a whopping 109 hrs 27 min.  I got 5 stars on all 64 hunt missions and went back and 5 starred the last battles in the main story.  I got every trophy except for Treasure Hunter (holding every weapon and accessory) and Ultimate Hero (having every trophy, because of Treasure Hunter).  I actually had a few hours past my reported time above, to figure out what it would take to get the Treasure Hunter trophy, and I figured it would take me another 5-6 hours more just farming for the gil I’d need (in part because I sold all my spare weapons along the way and have to buy them back to upgrade them).  I probably won’t do that, tempting though it would be to be able to say “100% complete.”

I really liked Final Fantasy XIII.  It’s not a game without flaws, but it met and exceeded my expectations.  After hearing some of the early negativity about it, I was a bit worried, and the game does start off rather slow, introducing new things to you over first 4-5 chapters.  But as you get further and further in, things really kick into gear and just keep going.  I played it parallel to a co-worker, and we talked about it daily for weeks.  All in all, it felt like a Final Fantasy game, and kept me motivated to play it day after day until I finished the main story and beyond.  If this Final Fantasy is any indication of things to come, it won’t be my last.

Wanna see my thoughts on other games?
Check out my other Game Impressions.

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