Money is well spent

By Sean Murrihy

Final Fantasy XIII
Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Square Enix

There are only a few games out there that have a legacy dating back to the beginning of the videogame revolution.  There are not many franchises that have people begging for the next installment.  There aren’t many names that can send chills down a gamer’s spine: Mario, Zelda and, of course, Final Fantasy.  Since 1987, the Final Fantasy series has been reinventing the RPG genre with each new reiteration of itself.  And let me tell you, Final Fantasy XIII is no different.  The newest installment of the series came to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 back in March 2010, and I was first in line to get my copy for Playstation 3.  This is definitely a game worth buying.

Square knows better than to mess with what works, so while the specifics change from title to title, the story is basically the same.  You command a ragtag group of unlikely heroes as they take on the evils of the world:  Lightning, the ex-soldier whose anger is only overshadowed by revenge; Snow, the cool street brawler who is driven by love; Hope, the naïve youth who is forced to grow up when his world is turned upside down.  The basics of the game are the same as they have always been, but don’t take that as a negative.  Square used an age old formula, mixed it with bleeding edge technology, and finished it with well written character development.  Square’s been doing this a long time, and it shows that they know exactly what they are doing.

As far as the genre is concerned, Final Fantasy XIII is still head and shoulders above its competition.  Companies all over the world have been trying to copy the success of Square’s flagship franchise.  The only problem is that Square practically invented the genre.  So, by definition, most RPG’s are simply copies of the Final Fantasy franchise.  And just like with Final Fantasy XIII, Square has again managed to raise the bar for the entire genre.  In this installment, it is the graphics that do it.  As soon as you hit the start button, it is easy to forget that you are playing a videogame and not watching a movie, especially when you turn off the lights and turn up the surround sound.  Final Fantasy XIII is miles ahead of the competition.

In the world of Final Fantasy XIII, there exist the almost all powerful creatures known as the fal’Cie.  There are two factions of fal’Cie.  Those that exist in Cocoon, the paradise created for humanity in the sky, and those that exist in Pulse, the world under Cocoon.  Where Cocoon is a heaven, Pulse is most certainly a hell.  The story begins when a Pulse fal’Cie awakens on Cocoon.  Fearful of the Pulse fal’Cie creating an army of l’Cie, servants of the fal’Cie that are granted special powers like magic and strength, to attack Cocoon, the government starts the Purge.  Anyone within a certain radius of the Pulse fal’Cie is rounded up and prepared for transportation to Pulse.  There are strong notes of genocide, and one can easily see the connection and inspiration of real life events.  The Purge brings our party together, turns them all into Pulse l’Cie, and we spend the rest of the game trying to figure out the Focus given to them by the Pulse fal’Cie and trying to complete it.

The gameplay of Final Fantasy XIII can be divided into two main sections: battle system and the Crystarium.  The battle system builds off the open world model that worked so well in Final Fantasy XII.  Instead of being pulled into random battles, you engage with monsters that wander the screen.  Then, once in battle, you fight the monsters in an Active Time Battle system.  The thing that is new to Final Fantasy XIII is the ‘Paradigm Shift’ system.  The Paradigm Shift controls what jobs each character in your party has.  Each character has a certain set of jobs that can be switched mid battle depending on your immediate needs.  Need to kill one enemy, have all attacking jobs.  Running low on health, have one medic.  While tricky to figure out at first, the system eventually provides a lot of flexibility, and really enhances the gameplay of the battle system.  And then there is the Crystarium, which replaces the tradition leveling system.  Gone are the days when you get XP after every battle to level up.  The Crystarium is a much more organic way of developing your characters, while fitting into the story of them being transformed into l’Cie.  After each battle, characters gain CP, which can then be spent to gain new strengths and abilities in the Crystarium.  It is similar to the sphere system of Final Fantasy X.  The only downfall of the Crystarium is the overall lack of customization of your characters.  The CP is spent on a pretty direct path that is laid out in front of the user. 

Another of the weaker points of Final Fantasy is the characters.  In any other game, I wouldn’t have even noticed, but the Final Fantasy series has set such a high bar, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.  Each character is derivative.  The soldier, the fighter, the innocent youth, the commanding military figure, etc…  For a series that is known for shaking things up, they definitely failed in this one area.  The only saving grace to this is the characters development and interaction with each other.  The story grows organically, and doesn’t seem forced, but, excepting Hope, no character really seems to go through a large personal growth.

The explanation of the plot above, while accurate, doesn’t do justice to its presentation throughout the game.  The game definitely has notes of a Tarantino film, or the movie Memento.  The story comes together and begins after thirteen days.  In these thirteen days, you learn how each specific character got to the place that they are, and what their motivations are.  The cool part is that the thirteen days aren’t presented linearly.  Throughout the game, you might get a little bit of day 11, and then a little bit of day 13, then after that you find out some things that happened on day 5.  This element definitely lends itself to the story telling process in a way that enhances the overall experience.   

The graphics are the stand out star in Final Fantasy XIII.  All of the areas that I found problems with in playing the game, I could forgive because of how stunning the graphics were.  The worlds were the beautifully sculpted mix of technology and nature in the way that Final Fantasy has almost copyrighted after all these years.  The imagination is overwhelmed by the smallest details that were included to enhance the storytelling.  The voice acting is realistic, and matches with what is going on in the world around you.  This also ties in with the exception score that is going on in the background.  The main theme is even done by Leona Lewis, a very popular and well known singer.  This just goes to show that videogames are getting away from something exclusive to teenage boys, and are evolving into a much more open experience for all.  I would recommend this game to those that usually stay away from the genre because they are missing an experience in the visually stunning.

The usability is only an issue a few times in the game and right when you start playing.  The six axis controller controls both the camera angles and the character movement, and it takes an hour or two to get used to moving both at the same time without getting a headache.  And the environments are so detailed later in the game that it is sometimes hard again to find the balance between camera and playability.  One of the nicer things about the usability is the load times.  Whenever the game needs to load a new area, it provides a recap of the story thus far, which is especially nice if you’ve spent a little time away from the title and are jumping back into the game.

Personally, I consider this a no brainer.  The money you invest in this game is well spent.  The story is well thought out, keeps you guessing the entire time, and then comes together believably in the end.  Halfway through the game, you find yourself rooting for these characters that are facing almost insurmountable odds as they literally take on the entire world.  And like all Final Fantasy’s before it, you don’t need to have played a single Final Fantasy to understand this one.  While there are little jokes and Easter eggs for those that have played through the series, the story is completely self contained.

So what are you waiting for?  The game is worth buying.  The graphics will have you drooling for the next cut scene. 


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