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XIII May 15, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Reviews, Video Games.
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Final Fantasy XIIIAfter several years in the making, Final Fantasy XIII is the franchise’s first outing on the current generation of consoles — and one that is quite impressive.

Not that it’s without flaws. In fact, a fair share spring to mind, many of which have already done the rounds on the internet. But these blemishes notwithstanding, FFXIII remains an excellent JRPG for either the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360.

It’s easy to be stunned by how gorgeous this latest Final Fantasy installment looks and feels. Visually it’s superb: with smooth transitions between in-game graphics and the more carefully rendered CGI cutscenes, it’s easy for one to forget that one is actually playing a game and not just watching. Further, the game boasts of another well composed musical score, though western audiences have the misfortune that the original Japanese theme song was substituted with a Leona Lewis single. Boo.

Most people invest in a JRPG for the story, and FFXIII’s is rather strong up to a point. Its setup gives the game an unmistakably epic feel, both in terms of its token fantasy elements — magical beings, two worlds at war, a cool if quirky cast of characters, fates intertwined and destinies to be revealed — and how the plot unfolds. Players are thrust smack into the middle of events with flashbacks (quite effectively), allowing the broader picture to unravel piece by piece. Admittedly, the game is perhaps the most linear compared to most of its predecessors, and there does come a point where an already complicated but otherwise enjoyable story starts to lose its coherence. Yet the first is a tradeoff in favor of storytelling that works well enough, while the second may very well be a failure of localization more than anything else.

Cool also that this thirteenth installment in the series unfolds in thirteen chapters revolving around events that occur across thirteen days. Natch.

In terms of gameplay, FFXIII strikes a nice balance between traditional turn-based JRPG fare and a more action-oriented RPG format with its active time battle (ATB) gauge and paradigm system mechanic. As a throwback to past Final Fantasy installments, players have to wait for a gauge to fill before performing actions; yet the dynamic here is that commands are meant to be queued while waiting. However, one only really has control over the party leader; remaining party members are computer-controlled and execute commands based on the roles — Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, Synergist or Medic — they are assigned. Hence, combinations of roles, or paradigms, and the ability to shift between paradigms give the game some measure of variety and customizability, albeit at the expense of added control.

Much has been written about how the game “opens up” late into the story (after between 25 to 35 hours of gameplay), allowing players to finally go exploring, perform sidequests and level up the characters. This is a welcome break for the game, and perhaps should have been incorporated sooner, but also one where the tradeoffs in game design begin to grate on players. It’s unfortunate, for instance, that there are so many throwaway animations between actions — enemy encounters, riding chocobos, etc. — that are either unnecessary or otherwise throw of the fluidity of the game. Overpowered monsters and enemies, the difficulty of leveling up with ease to match them, as well as how much time is consumesd just moving around to get things done clearly make the game much longer than it need be. Even token elements of Final Fantasy — such as Tonberries, Cactuars, not to mention Eidolons themselves — often come across as excesses that need not have been thrown into the mix, even if the intention were to please the loyal faithful.

That, too, may very well be an appropriate way of describing Final Fantasy XIII on the whole: loyal to its roots, pleasing to a fault, but occasionally a bit much. Yet with its stunning visuals, interesting gameplay and mostly compelling story, it’s as great ride and grand and adventure as any installment of the series has been, if not more.

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