Final Fantasy XIII

We've cried at the passing of main characters in Final Fantasy games, we've marvelled at the power of the enemies and of the godlike creatures that can be summoned, we've walked for hours in blizzards, crossed massive deserts, rocketed through space, traversed underwater realms, explored enormous castles, discovered palatial caves and often their dangerous inhabitants, we've fought dragons and other fantastic creatures and we've emerged victorious, saving the world as part of a team of people that we've thoroughly grown to love. We've even gone on dates, gone skiing, placed bets, bred chocobos, gone back to school, dressed up as a woman and gone monster hunting. Final Fantasy games offer almost everything a single game can, and the series history is one of the richest around. After three years of Playstation 3 gaming, the Final Fantasy series makes its appearance, with Final Fantasy XIII, telling the story of heroes caught in a power struggle between the leaders of a detached, false-utopia, Cocoon, and the feared Fal'Cie of the planet Gran Pulse below.

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Like many classic Final Fantasy games, you begin with a couple of key characters, who find themselves in small-scale skirmishes, fighting their own rebellion. As you begin to understand what each character's motivations are, new characters with largely common interests begin to join the party. After an encounter with a Pulse Fal'Cie, every member of the party is transformed into a L'Cie, servants of the Fal'Cie and, as a happy side-effect, magic-wielding, upgradeable badasses ready to embark on an adventure to free Cocoon from oppression. Initial confusion over what their purpose as L'Cie is allows gamers to gradually get to know each of the characters, to see how they think and what their motivations are. Games such as this can live or die by the strength of their characters, and although one or two of the main cast may annoy some gamers, the majority have strong, interesting personalities. Fang, for example, a native of Gran Pulse, is simply a warrior at first glance, willing to use her spear to solve problems, but her deep caring for another member of the party reveals her softer, endearing side, and her evolution during the course of the game will lead many to become truly invested in her plight. The main story largely follows renegade soldier Lightning and her potential brother in law, Snow, as they search for Serah, Lightning's sister and Snow's fiancee. Their quest fits into a much larger story, led predominantly by Fang, and the intertwining tales result in an engaging story to follow. And this is where the game's first stumbling block is, for many at least: you are held quite strictly to this plotline for the duration of the main game.

Patience is a concept that Playstation 3 owners have had to get used to over the last few years. We've patiently waited for the XMB to reach a desirable standard. We've patiently awaited the release of Grand Theft Auto expansions, of Killzone 2, of Metal Gear Solid. We still sit quietly, counting the days until Gran Turismo 5 is available. We've also waited very patiently for this next installment in the incredible Final Fantasy series. Given how long we've managed to wait, it's worth exercising equal patience while playing the game, because Final Fantasy XIII is an adventure that gradually gives more and more, a little at a time, and only those that persevere will truly get to appreciate what the game has to offer. The main story of the game could take as much as forty or fifty hours to complete, and only then are you unleashed with full potential. Throughout the game, limits are gradually peeled back, new elements of the battle system are added, and new methods of upgrade are explained. After forty hours of gaming, you're finally ready to begin crafting your characters as you see fit. For many, this wait will be too long, but for those willing to be patient, the end of the game is just the beginning.

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Essentially, the first thirty hours of the game are an immense tutorial, fleshed out with superb cutscenes that tell the story the way the developers wanted it to be seen. With the motley crew of heroes on the run from almost every known army, it's not the sort of game where you should expect to be just let aside to play mini games or go on dates. Fearing for their own lives, and those of their loved ones, the main characters can only run towards their own destinies, with us in tow, enjoying the entertaining spectacle. Along the way, you learn about the Paradigm system, which is a sort of rapid-paced character class system. Characters can be developed in a variety of roles, ranging from defence-oriented Sentinels, through to all-out-attack Commandos, with intermediate supporting roles including medics and saboteurs. The latter class is devoted entirely to inflicting harmful status effects on enemies, counter-balanced by Synergists who cast only useful status changes, but on the main party. Paradigms are simply combinations of these character classes, which can be applied at any point in the battle. While initially players may find themselves simply changing between basic attacking strategies and defensive recuperation, bosses towards the end of the game, and beyond, necessitate far more strategical play, with flexible Paradigm shifts the absolute key to victory. For example, one enemy that is likely only to appear after the end of the game, a Shaolong Gui, is capable of such immensely powerful magic attacks that players may be forced to enter battle in the Tortoise paradigm, comprised entirely of Sentinels, before shifting to more aggressive strategies to cause damage at appropriate times. It's a fascinating system with tremendous potential when exploited fully, and thankfully the game forces you to do exactly that, provided you're willing to wait for the opportunity.

Character development for each class takes place in the Crystarium. Much like the rest of the game, this is initially a linear affair, with characters only able to develop in two or three of their strongest roles. However, things open up rapidly when you're given access to all roles, allowing you to pick and choose abilities to upgrade. The path through each role's development line (similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X) is still fairly linear, but you do have the choice to miss out unwanted abilities or attributes while upgrade points are at a premium. In addition, weapons and equipment can be upgraded at save stations, using items collected in the field, or bough from online shops. It's quite a neat system, although it does highlight the absence of quaint little shops in tiny villages selling items and weaponry for your adventure, which once again would be out of place in this futuristic tale. The currency for trade remains gil, although it's no longer handed out after battle, nor found in large quantities. Instead, most of the gil acquired during the course of the game will come from selling rare items as they're found. For example, players will likely spend considerable time fighting mighty Adamantoise, colossal beasts roaming the plains of Gran Pulse, in the hope of receiving platinum ingots or rare catalyst items. The latter can be used to take a fully upgraded weapon up to a completely new tier, resulting in even more upgrade potential. It's quite a neat system with a vaguely pyramid shape, since all character weapons can eventually be upgraded into the ultimate weapon for that character, albeit with slightly different attributes depending on the upgrade path.

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Clearly the upgrade methods and battle system have had considerable though put into them, and it's nice to see an effective take on random battles: enemies appear as they did in Final Fantasy XII, allowing you some choice for a lot of fights, and only on engagement do you enter the traditional battle area, themed on the local surroundings. There's no concept of taking it in turns either, so once battle commences, you've got to be ready to go, because enemies won't wait. To help things along, in this rapid-paced setup, you control only the lead character, and there is also an automatic setting that attempts to optimize your strategy. Though this is often sufficient early on, players will undoubtedly find them tweaking their moves for tougher enemies, and once again the main tactical element of the battle lies with the Paradigm shifts, as opposed to individual moves. The only thing really lacking when out in the field is the freedom to truly explore. After twenty hours or so, players will finally be allowed to explore a larger area, checking out hidden springs, canyons, mines and more, as well as taking on any of 64 Cie'th missions. The missions are final requests from L'Cie who failed (sometimes by their own choice) and by completing the missions on their behalf, they can finally rest. It's an excellent diversion while preparing for some of the biggest fights the game has to offer, but preventing players from accessing this freedom for so long will undoubtedly displease some.

Allies and enemies in the game are varied, and used with unusual effectiveness. The impressive rebel leader Cid Reines, enemy chancellor Barthandelus and evil minion Yaag Rosch are all used with great results, providing interesting plot twists and enemies to hate at all the appropriate moments (though Barthandeuls does little to rival classic enemies such as Sephiroth). Other enemies, like Jihl Nabaat, are cruelly disposed of before reaching their full potential, but this is tremendously effective in throwing doubt over which force will pose the greatest threat. The game doesn't reveal the full extent of evil and corruption early on, only to then drag it out for intermediate battles that mean nothing. Though it's true that you do fight one key enemey multiple times, each encounter is suitably justified, avoiding any sense of "Mwahhaha, you have defeated me this time, but I will return ten times stronger with new attacks I didn't use before, mwahhaha!" which would just be annoying, and has been many times in the past. Allies, on the other hand, include magnificent Eidolons, similar to Guardian Forces and Summons in earlier games. The twist here is that each one must be persuaded, in a unique way, to join forces, with one Eidolon allying itself to each of the main characters. Firm favourite Bahamut is amongst the great beasts to return, happily allied with Fang, forming a truly deadly combination.

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As is traditional with Final Fantasy games, the artists at Square Enix have gone to town on CG cutscenes, with some of the most beautiful characters and environments ever seen in a game. Fang, Vanille and Lightning are all astoundingly beautiful, while Sazh, Snow and Hope are, erm, probably very handsome or something (and they're certainly immaculated rendered). Players are treated to fantastic light displays and high-tech cityscapes in Cocoon, followed by jaw-dropping valleys, rivers and other natural vistas that make real life look a tad dull and boring. To give some credit elsewhere, it has to be said that Final Fantasy doesn't have the depth of close-up detail that a game like Uncharted 2 does, and you certainly won't see the same shadow and texture detail here, but for epic scale, beauty and spectacle, there's nothing like it. It's mirrored by tremendous music too, with yet another incredible score to add to the Final Fantasy history books. Though not a Nobuo Uematsu creation, the talent at Square is undeniable, resulting in a varied and highly enjoyable set of pieces. Perhaps the only disappointment is the inclusion of the Leona Lewis song, which while effective in its own way, could surely have been beaten by something composed specifically for the given situation. Voicework is also top notch, with some unusual Australian appearances in the form of Fang and Vanille (perhaps because Gran Pulse is, in some ways "Down Under"). The only small let down is Hope, who proves once again that video game casting authorities still believe that anybody under the age of twenty must sound like a whiny little space blanket. Other than that, there's nothing to criticise.

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The game itself may last more than forty hours, but satisfying every objective the game sets, to walk away with the platinum trophy for the game, could take almost a hundred hours, but investment in the characters and the world they inhabit is so strong by this point that it's unlikely players will become bored with watching their heroes gradually triumph over all. With side missions to beat, Titan's (a Gran Pulse Fal'Cie) trials to take on, and other mysterious creatures to do battle with, there's literally tonnes of stuff to do, if not quite as varied as the Chocobo breeding and skiing antics of Final Fantasy VII. It's the sort of game that will alienate many players with its initial linearity (and for those I recommend taking a full three points off the score below), but for any gamer willing to let this Final Fantasy adventure tell its own story, the way it wants it to be told, before letting you craft your own adventure, this is one of the most incredible experiences around. If you go with the characters, join them in their journey and really feel the world they inhabit, then Final Fantasy XIII is possibly the greatest game on the system to date. Just give it a chance to show you its greatness.

Game details

Game logo

Publisher:

Square Enix

Developer:

Square Enix

Players:

1

Online:

None

Release:

2010-03-09

Trophies:

36

Review summary

Gameplay:

Classic battling, summoning, exploration and more

Graphics:

Polished to perfection - a dazzling display of beauty

Sound:

Perfect voicework, terrific music and great effects

Lastability:

A massive adventure with a decent number of sidequests

9.9

Meteoric

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