“Execution masquerading as exile …”
Now toss in the ad
mantra of ‘how far would you go to save a world that doesn’t want you’ and you
have the story essence of Final Fantasy XIII.
It begins with a phony disease that is the basis for genocide; add to that some
familiar and somewhat – but no less compelling – predictable tugs on the
heartstrings, and there are the core elements the tale is built upon.
Oh, there is much more to the latest Square Enix release than that, and the
foundations of this story are strong. In many ways, this is a culmination of
great talent weaving together a masterpiece of visually compelling storytelling.
It is eye-popping and jaw dropping. The character models are the best the genre
has ever seen, and while the cut scenes are magnificent, the in-game graphics
are equal to the task in terms of raw visual appeal.
Where the game suffers is in its linear nature. This is strictly a point A to
point B trek, with little variation to speak of. And the game masks turn-based
combat well, but it’s still turn-based and less than fluid. FFIII has walls
along the path to prevent straying and everything is orchestrated for the first
20-plus hours of gameplay, from the way the story unfolds to the members players
can have in a party; the routine is (for the most part) angst-driven cut scene,
fight, fight, save point, boss fight, and another cut scene.
The storyline seems a little complex initially, but starts to make much more
sense many hours in. There are several societies at play here, and a phony
plague sparks one to exile the other to the world below. However, while the
general public is told it is an exile, it is actually a round-up and kill
mission for the heavily armed troops. The societies have a fal’Cie (an abstract
but overwhelmingly powerful being) that ordains the social paths. When a fal’Cie
touches (also called a curse) and brands a being, that being is given a focus or
goal to complete. Failure to complete the focus results in a mutation of the
being to monstrous form; if the focus is complete, the being becomes immortal.
Sarah is the sister of one of the main protagonists – Lightning (female,
sword-wielder) and the fiancé of Snow (another of the main protagonists who
prefers to hammer stuff with his fists). She was branded and became a l’Cie (the
term for those branded). Her focus was to save the world of Cocoon. Lightning
and Snow are both trying to find her during the ‘exile’ of those tainted by the
Pulse (the other world) plague. When they finally do, Sarah is not in very good
shape. She makes them promise to save Cocoon and when they do, it appears that
her focus is completed and she becomes encased in crystal – a wry twist on the
immortality promise made to those who complete their focus.
Incensed, and vowing to set her free, Snow and Lightning – along with a pair of
youngsters and a pilot – move forward to attack the fal’Cie that cursed Sarah.
They destroy a boss monster and then are pulled into a vortex, held in place,
given a vision and branded with the mark of the l’Cie. The vision is of Ragnarok
and a beast that destroys the world. They all presume the goal, based off the
promise to Sarah, is to destroy the beast and save the world(s).
As mentioned, the gameplay formula is wash, rinse, repeat. The cut scenes are
long, and the story moves from predictable to a bit of a twist. While the
graphics are stunning and the overall vision is of a level not seen before, the
music is repetitious and monotonous and the voice acting goes from nicely done
to silly, stopping at a few points in between.
Combat is the obvious star of this title, but those expecting the game to break
outside the boundaries of what has been established in other FF franchise titles
will be disappointed. As players fight through the levels, each of the levels
awards CP or Crystogen Points. The CP is the currency used for leveling up
skills and unlocking new abilities. The abilities themselves fall into several
trees, like commando, ravager, sentinel, synergist and medic. The commando is
the leader and provides inspiration to the group, while the sentinel is a tank
with provoke and shields. Synergist is a support class with defensive buffs,
while ravager is an attack class.
The paths in the Crystarium are well mapped and these trees have to be traveled
methodically (another very linear element). When different classes are combined
in a party, a paradigm is created. Each character performs abilities directed by
the AI with only the party leader controllable. If one of the three members of
the party (and for the first chunk of the game players are given party members –
there is no ability to choose who is in the grouping) has medic and ravager
capabilities, depending on the paradigm selected, that character will have AI
direction for the skill sets used. At the start of the game, only two sets are
presented – one that is a combined offensive effort with focused fire on the
target selected by the group leader (usually Lightning or Snow) and a Solidarity
Paradigm, which puts one of the kids (Vanille, who can train as a medic) into
healing mode throughout the fight. The Paradigms expand and players can actually
customize the paradigm of the party and can switch paradigms on the fly.
Attacking is not always the most viable option either. In Chapter 3 Snow is on
his own and must prove his worth as a fight against Shiva Sisters. Only one
attacks while the other heals Snow, who is fighting against a timer to fill a
meter above the attacking sister (these are extremely tough esoteric beings)
while on a countdown clock. If the clock expires before Snow can fill the meter,
it’s fight over and Snow loses – welcome to ‘retry.’ The obvious idea to try is
to throw all of Snow’s ravager offensive attacks at Nix, the attacker. But that
won’t win the fight. Actually (and this is a bit of a spoiler, so skip it if you
are wishing to figure it out yourself), Snow needs to go into Sentinel Paradigm
mode, call up the Abilities and go into a shield mode for each attack launched
at him. That returns the damage to Nix and fills the meter before the Doom clock
runs out and Snow loses.
Final Fantasy XIII has drops along the way, markets that are accessible (though
these open up as skills are acquired) and combat challenges aplenty. Using a
shroud allows the party to sneak up and launch pre-emptive strikes, and each
combat ‘turn’ is preceded by picking the attacks to be used (each has a value
per round and if three attacks are used – say for Lightning – and Blitz uses up
2 of the attacking slots, then the third slot can be allocated to one of the
remaining attacks with the point value of one.
It sounds convoluted, but it’s really not that bad.
Of course, the game is rife with cut scenes. Fail to win a combat (the leader
falls – that’s the only criteria for failing a battle) and it’s back to the
previous save point, which usually means going through the cut scene again.
However, hitting the Start button on the PS3 controller and then the Select
button will allow players to bypass the cut scenes and get straight to the
Because the game is so story driven, and the cut scenes really are the only
impetus to continue to be involved outside of the mad dash-and-destroy just to
complete the game, letting them play out initially is a wise move.
FFXIII is a game that is breathtakingly gorgeous. It is, though, a J-RPG and a
decent one, but nothing that is extraordinary or totally redefining for the
genre. The story is strong, the graphics need to be seen, but the other elements
need to be addressed in the next iteration (FFXV?) to elevate the franchise and
genre-specific RPGs to the next level. The vision is obviously there.
Repetitious with invisible walls and a very directed course through the game,
the whole of the overall gameplay is good, but could have been so much more with
a bit of a sandbox approach. It’s wash, rinse and repeat gaming.
The bar for console gaming is not merely elevated, it is blown into the
stratosphere. There are some prototypical effects, but the environments, the
characters and the cut scenes are amazing.
Some of the sound bites are well done, some are silly and predictable and the
game seems to ebb and flow from solid to silly. The musical score is nice, but
Graphically stunning with a multi-layered story, FFXIII relies on some
tried-and-true combat models. The overall experience is way too linear.
Final Fantasy XIII is a game that impresses easily – merely looking at this game
will have eyes popping and jaws dropping. However, get beyond that and there is
a very linear game with many prototypical J-RPG elements in place. While there
is some latitude for how battles are fought, for the most part, the game holds
the player’s hand and escorts them through this fantastical land that is part
fantasy and part sci-fi.