Final Fantasy. The RPG series known to millions of gamers worldwide for its long-standing legacy of intricate characters, exceptional storytelling, engaging battle systems and spectacular visuals. Veterans, casual players and many others that do not pursue gaming as a hobby still recognize the name with little to no hesitation. Since the series’ last instalment, Final Fantasy XIII has kept fans eagerly awaiting its release on both the next-gen consoles for the last couple years. Although it is no longer a PlayStation 3 exclusive as originally announced, the game has finally reached North American shores and it certainly was worth the wait.
The game revolves around Cocoon, a world widely regarded as a utopia with a long history of peace and prosperity. Placed high above Pulse, a dangerous and inferior world, Cocoon was protected by the fal’Cie, magical beings blessed with extraordinary crystal powers. This golden age came to an abrupt end when hostile fal’Cie begun enslaving humans to become their servants known as l’Cie. Those that bore the mark of the l’Cie as well as others suspected to be associated with Pulse were exiled by the Sanctum, the ruling government, in attempts made to calm civil unrest and chaos. At the start, the heroine Lightning, and her clumsy, chocobo loving ally, Sazh, retaliate against the government military, PSICOM, to free citizens being forcefully driven out of the cities and to locate a Pulse fal’Cie known as Anima. The story is quite engaging with an intricate cast of characters, each with their own goals and personal agendas.
Enemies are visible on screen before a short transition into battle. When a “!” symbol appears above them, they are alerted to your presence for which they act cautiously or aggressively. Each party member is assigned one of six roles that include Ravenger, Sentinel, Commando, Medic, Synergist and Saboteur. The roles determine the abilities your teammates can use in combat with group roles referred to as Paradigms. These Paradigms can be shifted in battle for strategic battles against tough enemies and boss encounters while roles can be customized in the menu screen. It certainly keeps battles engaging by providing a strategic element to each and every battle.
The Crystarium system is used to allocate Crystal Points for party members to increase attributes and learn new abilities. As expected, there are many branches among different paths you can take that influence the roles and benefits for your teammates. This system is governed by Crystal Points received after victorious battles on the open field. Only later in the game are the roles within the system available that gives you time to consider what type of specialized role is most suitable for you and your party members.
Upgrading equipment is done by selecting the necessary components to beef up your accessories and weapons. Through much trial and error, you can determine which items are suitable for significant upgrades and the equipment is easily dismantled. One thing to keep in mind is that weapons may seem inferior to their original forms after upgrading, but the difference is that they can be enhanced or upgraded later. If you find yourself strapped for components, salvaging materials from other equipment is an alternative option.
Summons make their return in this game in the form of Eidolons. Each character possesses a unique Eidolon and they include, but are not limited to, Shiva, Alexander, Odin and Bahamut. Like previous instalments of the series, Eidolons are susceptible to standard attacks and hold allegiance to select party members. A new mode known as Gestalt Mode allows your Eidolon to transform into a specialized motor vehicle or creature to deal lethal damage to your enemies. Party members fade into the background when Eidolons are summoned by your teammates.
Final Fantasy XIII departs from many RPG traditions and staples. The game is quite linear with open exploration being non-existent in the early chapters. There are no towns for your party members to roam around and town residents that seldom speak more than boring, predictable dialogue are nowhere to be found. Party members can also be strategically managed by the A.I. to reduce the need to issue commands in battle. Though it felt awkward at first, I gradually grew accustomed to these revisions as a welcome change for the Final Fantasy series.
Much of the early chapters are relatively straight forward as the options to control or swap party members and to utilize specialized skills are limited until the latter half of the game. This may irritate hardcore fans eager to use prominent skills or selective characters right from the get-go. Battle Ratings gives players the incentive to skilfully dispatch their foes for better items and spoils. Regrettably, the difficulty curve spikes significantly in the last few chapters. You should be prepared as you can easily be lulled into a false sense of security and confidence prior to facing foes that may catch you off guard entirely.
Visually, the game is absolutely stunning. Character designs, environments, special effects and the cutscenes are nothing short of breathtaking. As the flagship title for the series on the PlayStation 3, it truly goes to great lengths to show the visual capabilities of Sony’s game console. The Xbox 360 version is slightly lower resolution but you'll be hard pressed to notice the difference. The soundtrack, composed by Masashi Hamauzu, is an excellent complement to the game even though I was disappointed that long-time maestro, Nobuo Uematsu, was not involved in the musical score. Reports have surfaced briefly of isolated freezing issues in the game but I personally have not encountered them.
Final Fantasy XIII is an epic game that plays to its strengths by taking risks. It abandons the all-too-predictable towns, forgettable NPCs and typical combat systems seen in far too many RPG titles today. Still taking its flaws into consideration, Final Fantasy XIII is one of the most refreshing RPGs I’ve played from the series in a long time. Those sitting on the fence about this game should approach it with an open mind and a willingness to embrace change. Final Fantasy has never been “final” about its characters and worlds as the series is always on the move. In this case, Final Fantasy XIII is not perfect but it stands firmly as one of Square Enix’s finest masterpieces.