The wait for Final Fantasy XIII has not been an easy one. The game was announced in 2006, shortly before the release of Final Fantasy XII, which would be the last PS2 game in the series. Developing a next-gen installment in the prolific RPG franchise took longer than expected, and the gaming world watched and waited as release windows were shattered and pushed back again and again. Finally, just when it seemed like Final Fantasy XIII might never make it to store shelves, an official release date was revealed, and the game launched on March 9, 2010. Final Fantasy XIII has made some major changes to the typical RPG formula, but the final result is a beautiful and enjoyable title that can stand on its own despite an overwhelming amount of hype.
As is tradition, Final Fantasy XIII introduces a new world and new characters, with some familiar elements to tie the game to the rest of the series. The story begins on Cocoon, a floating city meant to serve as a haven from the evils of Pulse, the world below. For generations, those who grew up on Cocoon were taught that Pulse was the equivalent of Hell, a wild place with no salvation. Both Cocoon and Pulse are ruled by fal’Cie, Godlike beings that are beyond human understanding. Inhabitants of Cocoon live in constant fear not only of Pulse fal’Cie, but of l’Cie, those marked by Pulse’s mechanical leader and tasked with destroying Cocoon. Because of this, the government regularly “purges” anyone who may have come in contact with Pulse fal’Cie or l’Cie, sending them to Pulse and essentially sentencing them to death.
It is during one of these purges that the game’s major characters are revealed, though their reasons for being on the train to Pulse are dramatically different. Despite their differences, Lightning, Snow, Sazh, Hope, and Vanille manage to escape their gruesome fate, becoming Pulse l’Cie in the process. As a l’Cie, there are only two options: fulfilling your Focus, a task assigned upon becoming l'Cie, and turning to crystal, being granted immortal life; or failing to complete this assignment and turning into a Cie’th, a soulless monster. Not willing to destroy Cocoon, but unsure about their focus, Lightning and the others begin their journey.
Because so much of Final Fantasy XIII relies on setting and backstory, not all of this information is revealed through dialogue or plot points. Instead, the game uses a Datalog to relay important facts to the player, such as background information, major story events, and gameplay reminders. The Datalog is a useful tool, but without using it, the early hours of the game can seem a little convoluted. The characters talk about Pulse, Cocoon, fal’Cie, and l’Cie without ever fully explaining what they are, which makes total sense given the context of the setting, but can be jarring from the player’s perspective. Using the Datalog definitely makes the narrative easier to comprehend, and it becomes pretty helpful throughout the lengthy game.
Unlike most Final Fantasy games, which take place in open worlds with sweeping cities and no shortage of environments to explore, Final Fantasy XIII is a fairly straightforward experience for the first half of the game. In the early hours, while the characters are still making their escape from a Pulse train, this makes sense, but after a few hours, the linearity can be a little overbearing. Also jarring during the first half of FFXIII is the fact that the game will switch between parties of characters quickly, which doesn’t give the player a lot of time to get used to any given battle team. Eventually, everyone comes together again, and the player is given complete command of the party, switching characters in and out at will, but it takes just a little too long to get there. When the game finally opens up, giving access to immense environments and side quests, as well as total party control, it’s like a breath of fresh air. However, it shouldn’t have taken more than twenty hours just to reach this point in the game.
Square Enix also made some major changes to the battles of Final Fantasy XIII, and the result is a fighting system unlike any other seen. The player only has control of the leader of the party, while the other characters’ actions will be dependent of the current battle Paradigms. Paradigms are sort of like an evolution of Final Fantasy XII’s Active Dimension battle system, though it is a very different approach to combat. Each character has certain battle roles available to develop at the start of the game, and these determine his or her actions during a skirmish. A Commando uses mostly physical attacks, while Ravagers support the team with magic. Synergists use defensive, stat-boosting spells like Haste, and Saboteurs attempt to debunk enemies with negative inflictions. Sentinels are used to provoke enemies, drawing attacks away from other members of the party, and Medics, not surprisingly, are the game’s healers.
Arranging these battle roles is known as a Paradigm. For example, one might use a Commando/Ravager/Medic Paradigm during a lengthy boss fight when HP starts to get low, or maybe just three Ravagers to quickly eliminate weaker foes. Pre-arranged Paradigms can be shifted at any point during battle, which becomes more necessary as the battles get longer and harder. As the game goes on, the strategy behind Paradigms and battle roles becomes increasingly important, making a balanced team crucial to survival. After each fight, a score will be given based on the player’s performance, as well as completing the skirmish within the given target time. This should help give the player an idea of whether or not he is using the Paradigms correctly, as well as giving an incentive to improve battle performance.
In addition to how they deal damage to enemies and protect the party, different battle roles are also important because of how they affect the enemy’s Stagger Point. Chaining attacks together will raise the enemy’s Stagger Bar, and when it reaches a certain point, the foe is “staggered”, meaning it takes more damage and can usually be stopped from attacking. Ravagers fill up the stagger bar quickly, but Commandos keep it from depleting, meaning that a combination of physical and magic attacks is usually best for staggering an enemy as quickly as possible. This becomes especially important for some of the harder foes in the game, who will only take significant damage when staggered, and the Stagger Bar adds another layer of strategy to the combat system.
Instead of leveling up, Final Fantasy XIII uses a Crystarium as a means for each character to develop new skills. Similar to the Sphere Grid of Final Fantasy X, the Crystarium allows the player to use Crystogen Points earned in battle to unlock skills specific to each battle role, as well as overlapping perks like greater HP, magic, and strength. Each role has a different Crystarium, and while developing skills is a simple task early in the game, more and more choices open up in the second half, giving the player control over the abilities each character obtains. Using CP to acquire new abilities and attempting to increase battle roles soon becomes an addictive part of Final Fantasy XIII, making the Crystarium one of the best additions to the game.
While Final Fantasy XII didn’t make very good use of the series’ notable summons, they make a grand return in FFXIII. Once again taking the name Eidolons, like in Final Fantasy IX, they aren’t simply granted, but must be earned. During certain plot points at various times throughout the game, characters will be presented with an Eidolon battle, and must defeat it in order to take control of it. These fights are some of the hardest of the game, especially because the Eidolon casts Doom on the lead player at the start, meaning that it must be completed in a certain amount of time.
Since the characters go through such great lengths to make the Eidolons yield to their control, it is very fitting that these creatures can be summoned as epic battle counterparts capable of massive damage. In addition to fighting alongside the party leader, Eidolons can join together with their summoners in “Gestalt mode”, which causes them to transform. Odin becomes a steed for Lightning to ride, while Shiva turns into a motorcycle that can then be controlled by Snow. Calling Eidolons into battle uses Technical Points, which is sort of a replacement for MP in Final Fantasy XIII. Technical Points are slowly recovered based on battle scores, making it impossible to overuse Eidolons.
From the government-controlled cities of Cocoon to the open fields and mountains of Pulse, Final Fantasy XIII is one of the most beautiful console games ever made. The characters are wonderfully lifelike, the environments are detailed, and the cut scenes are breathtaking—exactly what gamers have come to expect from this series. Every generation, the Final Fantasy franchise manages to push consoles to their graphical limits, and FFXIII is no exception. Even the menus, Crystarium, and Datalog are aesthetically pleasing, making this one of the most polished games in recent memory, if not ever. Visually, the developers did not disappoint. The score, while not as memorable as some of the other games in the series, is still appropriately epic for the most part; however, the use of Leona Lewis’ “My Hands” as the main theme was an odd fit that never quite made sense. The American voice acting is very solid, though there are a couple of characters that are bound to annoy gamers, particularly the whiny, constantly gasping Hope.
Final Fantasy XIII starts off slow, taking hours to finally build into the epic adventure it was meant to be. It’s a pretty big shift for the series, throwing out most of the RPG conventions that have long been trademarks and starting from scratch. The result is a unique, refreshing, and strategic battle system unlike any other; it just takes too long to gain total control. The first half of the game is far too linear, almost giving the feeling of being on rails. While this doesn’t mean that the game is not enjoyable, it may turn off longtime fans expecting the same overwhelmingly large environments that FFXII offered. It’s a different experience in both good and bad ways, but ultimately the positives outweigh the negatives by a wide margin, and the result is a game worthy of the Final Fantasy name.