Final Fantasy XIII is one of the most eagerly awaited releases of recent times, not only due to the massive fanbase the series has cultured during its long history, but also because this is the first time the series has graced Microsoft’s box, and the first time the main series has been seen on anything other than a Sony console for years. With the fans’ ever-preset cries for a FFVII remake still ringing out loud, can episode thirteen make the grade? There’s only one way to find out…
This Final Fantasy outing is a totally different beast from the previous games in the series, and this is something that won’t take long to hit as you progress through the game’s opening couple of hours. If you were expecting an extension of the bold changes made by the developers with FFXII, along with a more interactive battle system, you can forget it. This adventure is all about streamlining the FF experience, and it makes no excuses about trimming off much of the content we usually associate with the series. Yep, if ever there was a Final Fantasy Lite, then this is it.
Featuring the kind of production values only Square Enix can muster, the game opens with the main protagonist, a female soldier called Lightning, riding a train with a group of fellow refugees who are being ‘purged’ from the game’s world of Cocoon to the hellish land of Pulse. Lightning takes offence at this (for reasons which are covered in depth as the story unfolds), and promptly causes a bit of a ruckus and battle ensues…
Once off the train you take control, and end up in a series of battles, your first experience of the new FF combat system. This system, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t an extension of the one used in FFXII, and the direct control you had in the previous game is no longer present. Instead, Square has gone back to basics, of sorts.
It uses an ATB (active time battle) system, very similar in style to the system seen in Grandia, Controlling only the party leader, with the others being handled by AI, you have an ATB gauge that fills up over time. This gauge has segments, and once a segment is full, you can perform a move. Multiple moves can be strung together, using more segments, and more powerful moves can use more than a single segment to pull off.
Picking moves and abilities causes your character to attack the selected target, whilst your allies attack on their own, depending on the roles they have assigned. This brings up the game’s most prominent new battle dynamic, the paradigm system.
Similar to the job system seen previously in FF, the paradigm system uses a selection of different roles, which can be assigned, mid-battle, to each character via the selected paradigm, which is a pre-set configuration of roles for the whole team.
Roles include Commando (physical attacks), Ravager (magical attacks), Medic (healing, of course) and Synergist/Saboteur (defensive and offensive support). Each of these roles alters the abilities a character has at any given time. A Medic, for example, can only heal and support, but not attack, while a Commando can pummel away at foes, but is unable to heal using magic.
To succeed in battle, you have to constantly switch between paradigms to capitalise on these roles, and choosing the right configuration can make all the difference. For example, selecting the ‘Relentless Assault’ paradigm causes all combatants to attack the enemy, which is great, until you take masses of damage. At this point, you can then switch to a defensive paradigm, which switches out a combatant with a Medic. This reduces your attack, but leaves a character free to heal as needed.
To add to this tactical play the games also features the ‘stagger’ system. Each enemy has a chain gauge, and by attacking with the right skills and moves, you can build this bar up. Once it fills up completely, you stagger the foe. This puts it into a very vulnerable state where attacks and magic deal far more damage, but only for a limited time.
This is essential in many fights, especially bosses, and gaining high attack chains to raise this meter is one of the main focuses of combat, and one that you’ll need to master as you progress. It’s a clever setup, and combined with the paradigm feature, makes for a very tactical and rewarding battle system.
Yes, the freedom that FFXII alluded to was nice, and I’d still like to see a Final Fantasy game with a truly free-form combat system, but this backward and sideways step isn’t at all bad, and makes for one of the best, and most fluid battle systems in the FF series.
Sadly though, there are a couple of issues that hardcore fans, and RPG aficionados will scoff at instantly. First is the lack of character control for the other party members. Whilst you take it in turns controlling the various main characters as leaders, in battle you only control one character, with the other two responding as per their role definition and paradigm being used. If your leader dies, it’s game over, even if the other two are at full health. Yes, you can use a phoenix down to revive an AI party member, but if you bite the bullet, they’ll just stand there and watch you rot – nice.
The other notable cutbacks in battle can be seen in the lack of magic points, and the auto replenishment of health after every battle. No longer do you need stock up on elixirs to keep your magic users in spells, and as long as you win a battle, you’ll be in full form for your next encounter, with not a single potion quaffed. Now, many will find this lacking in challenge, but it does help to keep the game flowing, and even as a long-time FF fan, this doesn’t bother me all that much, especially when there are far more fundamental issues to be faced…
Out of battle you’ll notice one major, glaring change in the world of FF – the lack of any distractions, or open world. Unlike most previous games in the series, FFXIII is about as linear as it gets. The game literally leads you from point A to B, and you’ll spend the majority of the 50+ hours running along corridors and pre-determined routes. There’s no overworld, no towns, and very few side quests. This is all about the main story, and Square Enix has decided to water down almost all freeform aspects of the game. The flow of the game is basically, run down corridor – fight – run down another corridor – fight – watch a cut-scene – run – fight – run – fight, and so on.
Gone are the touches like real towns with shops (these are only seen at save points), extra characters to find and converse with, secret side missions and other such staples, and whilst the game does open up later on for a while, with an open area for you to explore, for the most part, you’re on rails.
This aspect has already polarised the FF community, with some loving the new approach, and others hating it. Personally, I’m leaning towards the latter, and whilst it’d be excessive to say I hate the new system, I certainly hanker for the old school explorations and free-roaming world.
Still, it’s not all bad, and while wandering around there are small side paths usually leading to treasure, and often forks in the road can be used to get the drop on enemies. Battles are not random, either, and foes can be seen moving around in the world, as in FFXII.
If you manage to run into an unaware enemy, you’ll score a pre-emptive strike, giving you a real upper hand. It’s simple, sure, but helps to give some weight to the admittedly dull wandering along set routes.
I should, of course, mention the new summon system too. This doesn’t come into play until a few hours in, but once it does, it adds a whole new dimension to the battle system. FFXIII‘s summons are called Eidolons, and once you meet one you’ll first need to best it in combat, using specific skills to impress it. Once this is done, and you acquire it as an ally, you can call upon it in battle, as long as you have enough tactical points, which are earned by getting high ratings in combat.
When summoned, an Eidolon enters the fray alongside your party and is a very destructive force, indeed. As you fight, your Eidolon’s ‘gesalt’ meter fills up. At any time, and as long as you have gestalt power, you can command your Eidolon to transform (sadly, without the cool 80s cartoon SFX), at which time your character hops on board and you can decimate your foes with powerful attacks. Each character has a different Eidolon of their very own, and all are impressive to behold. The cost in TP to summon these beasts is very high, though, so don’t expect to be using them in every fight.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that FFXIII isn’t really an RPG, with the lack of an open world, towns, streamlined combat and such, but that’s not entirely true. There are RPG elements to be found. There’s a character advancement system that’s very similar to the sphere system used previously in the series. This is called the Crystarium, and by spending experience points, you move through a tree of skills, which improve character stats and add more abilities, as well as roles, which come into play in the paradigm battle element.
There’s also a rudimentary material-based upgrade mechanic, but this is only used to increased stats on weapons, along with the occasional upgrade to a new weapon. It’s certainly not a patch on the crafting system seen in Star Ocean, and a further indication of the dumbing down that’s been applied to the thirteenth release.
With Square seemingly caving in to the pressure of mass market appeal, it’s clear that the Final Fantasy we know and love is gone, at least for now.
Final Fantasy XIII is an obvious attempt to capitalise on a new generation of players who want more instantly gratifying titles, and more action. This has come at the expense of much of the content we love to find in the series, and personally, I feel this is a real shame.
The shockingly linear approach and limited RPG elements have, for me, greatly damaged the title, and it features one of the most confusing and borderline dull stories of the series, crammed with so many alien terms and elements that it boggles the mind. Luckily, the auto-updating encyclopaedia is on hand to help, but still, a story should be able to stand on its own without the need to rely upon further reading material to fill the gaps.
Final Fantasy XIII is by no means a bad game, though, and with one of the best battle systems in the series, great visuals, a lengthy campaign and some great characters (excluding Vanille, whose weird semi-Australian and hideously high-pitched voice will be hated by anyone with ears), it’s going to appeal to many console RPGs fans.
If you want a more traditional, complex, non-linear and freeform adventure, however, steer well clear, and go for something like Dragon Age instead.
Now, Square, about that remake of FFVII…
Final Fantasy XIII is out now for Xbox 360 and available from the Den Of Geek Store.