Five years. I’d like you to think how long five years is. Regardless of how long you think that is, it’s actually much, much longer. Five years is how long Final Fantasy XIII was in production for. When you consider how hard video game developers work day in and day out, you’ll see why Final Fantasy XIII is such an important game for not only Square-Enix, but for the entire gaming industry.
The story of Final Fantasy XIII revolves around Cocoon, which was created as a human utopia above Pulse. You play as a team of renegades who are deemed enemies of Cocoon, although that might not be entirely true. As you progress through the story, you’ll take the reins of each party member as they shuffle about with other party members to tell their unique story, goals, and perspectives. Eventually you’ll end up with a full party which you’ll be able to choose which party members will go into battle, and which will tag along for the ride. This is the first time I can remember a Final Fantasy game not having a story revolving around a single character, instead it intertwines multiple stories in a well-balanced ballet that is sure to keep players’ interest, even though it is slow to start.
If you’ve played previous Final Fantasy games, you’ll know exploration plays a huge role as your adventure takes you to towns, caves, and an occasional castle. Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t give you a free-roaming experience, instead each chapter follows a set path. Players can find the occasional hidden item orb down a beaten path, but for the most part, the game follows a linear path. This aspect could be hit or miss as it never feels that you’re truly exploring the beautiful set pieces the game puts you in. Instead, it feels like an on-rails RPG. Speaking of beautiful set pieces, it should go without saying that Final Fantasy XIII is visually stunning. Both the in-game graphics & CGI cut-scenes look amazing. Anything and everything in Final Fantasy XIII has a very high amount of detail. If you’ve got an HDTV that supports 1080p, then you’re definitely going to be happy with the game’s visuals.
Battles in Final Fantasy XIII can be initiated by running into your enemies, which then takes the game into a battle. The way you initiate battles feel like a cross between Final Fantasy XII’s, where you can randomly run up to enemies, with a mix of traditional Final Fantasy combat systems where after you begin a battle, you are then placed into a battle sequence. The combat system might seem simple at first glance as players are allowed to input very basic commands, such as attack and blitz. As you progress, the complexity of the combat system slowly takes shape as the game introduces you to different fighting mechanics such as the paradigm shift, or the ability to summon Eidolons to aid in battle, and its complexity is so finely tuned that it’s one of the shining moments in Final Fantasy XIII. Since there’s so much combat in this game, it’s a plus that the combat system is actually fun.
Now that you’ve beaten up your fair share of creatures, it’s on to upgrading your characters. As with most modern Final Fantasy titles, Square-Enix introduces us to a completely new upgrading system. Each member of your party has specific roles they can assume, such as Commandos who are mainly melee combatants, or Medics who dish out healing magic to keep your party in tip-top shape. The character upgrading system is called the Crystarium. After each battle, instead of Experience points, your entire party is rewarded with Crystogen Points (CP). CP is gathered and then spent in the Crystarium in order to progress your character’s role. For example: Lightning can assume the role of a Commando, Ravager, or Medic. You can use CP to upgrade either one of these roles to gain new abilities as well as upgrade her attributes (Hit Points, Strength, Magic, etc.). The Crystarium system offers a lot of room for upgrading your party members by offering a number of levels to improve your characters’ role, but the system feels constrictive as you’re following a set path under each character’s role.
Save points are plentiful as you can’t help but run into them during your adventure. They serve as more than just save points. You can shop at various outlets through them to purchase new weapons, accessories, or resources. You can also upgrade your weapons & accessories at save points which require resources which can be purchased or obtained randomly after battles. The various resources will offer random amounts of points to update your goods, some of which will offer multiplier bonuses depending on the resource and the weapon or accessory that is being upgraded. Weapons & accessories offer different improvements to your party’s stats, as well as a number of enhancements. The upgrade system can be a bit confusing as new weapons & accessories seem obsolete as soon as you obtain them if you’ve spent resources upgrading your current gear. Even though the new weapons & accessories offer some unique effects, I often feel I’ve dedicated too many resources to beef up what I’m currently equipped with to attempt to build up on new gear.
FINAL THOUGHT: Final Fantasy XIII encompasses the core experience of a Final Fantasy title. A deep, compelling story, a very satisfying combat system, and visuals that would make a blind man weep. Square-Enix took us away from some of the more traditional concepts of what a Final Fantasy game should be, but regardless of some of my gripes, it does have something in common with its predecessors: It’s fun.