Final Fantasy XIII was finally released recently throughout North America and Europe and the big question those who haven’t played it ask is: Was it worth the wait? After going through it, I can say yes, it was definitely worth the wait. Final Fantasy XIII is an amazing title. Square Enix was definitely doing a balancing act during development trying to find the right mix of what Final Fantasy has always been about to complement some more modern game design and ideologies. One thing that some people are going to have a problem with is the linearity that you will experience through the majority of this title. This is a game driven by narrative, more so then previous Final Fantasy titles, and as such the game play revolves around the story. The members in your party are directly tied to what is currently happening in the story. The game is broken down into thirteen chapters and if a certain character is not part of the story in any given chapter then you won’t be seeing much of them. An example would be if Chapter three was all about what was happening to Snow and Hope then that means you wouldn’t be seeing anyone else until you finish that particular story arc or the narrative necessitates the involvement of another character. In their attempt to make it a more mainstream title, Square Enix also holds your hand a bit here when they are introducing new battle mechanics or new abilities. You won’t get everything at first as things slowly unlock as you progress through the game. Final Fantasy XIII looks amazing, graphically speaking. Both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox360 version look fantastic with the Playstation 3 version looking a tiny bit better in a couple of areas due to the compression technique that Square Enix used on the Xbox360 version. The two versions are pretty much identical and most people won’t notice the difference or they quite simply won’t care.
As you progress through the game you will unlock various abilities and different ways to level up your character. One of those new ways is the Crystarium. For those of you that have played Final Fantasy X the Crystarium will remind you of the Sphere Grid. It is not identical, however, it is clear that the Sphere Grid was the inspiration for this new system. As you fight and progress throughout the story you will earn CP (Crystarium Points). You will then use these points to level up your characters in whatever role you see fit. I would always level up Lightning’s Commando role as her character is very well suited for that. You will obviously learn abilities that are specific to the Commando role, however, if you unlock more health, magic or anything along those lines it goes across the board, regardless of what role your character is currently in. Initially each character is locked into a set number of roles. There are a total of six available in the game and each character has access to three of them in the beginning. Later on as the game starts to open itself up a bit more you will gain access for every role with every character. At which point you will have to decide what you want to concentrate on leveling up. If you want you can master every role for every character, it will just take you a while to do that.
One of the bright spots for this game is definitely the battle system. When you first start out you don’t have access to much, however, once you start unlocking everything you realize that it is a really deep system. Square Enix did a great job here mixing in the old turn based style of battles with some more reactionary, strategic elements. During battle you have different ATB gauges that need to be filled up before your character will perform any kind of action. As you progress in the game you will gain more ATB gauges which will result in you getting more hits on the enemy per turn. Each ATB gauge represents one action. If you have four ATB gauges available then you will hit the enemy a maximum of four times per round. However, if you want to get that quick, final hit on the boss you can hit the “Y” button after only one gauge is filled and hit him before he can hit you. This can change though depending on the situation and your strategy. Additionally, if you want to use Fire against the boss that will only take up one gauge, however, if you want to use Fira that will take up two spaces resulting in you only hitting the enemy three times in that round. The good thing with that is that even though you only hit him three times you were able to hit him with a more powerful spell. This is part of the strategy that I was speaking about earlier where you have to decide which is the most effective against any particular enemy.
Along with that is the star within the battle system, Paradigm Shifts. Paradigm Shifts allow you to change your characters role in real time at any point in the battle. If you start out the battle with two medics and one ravager you can quickly change it to a setup where you have all three commandos, for example. Your party members stay the same, your skill set just changes. You can create your own paradigms to suit your play style and you can have up to six at any one time. The paradigm shift is integral to winning battles as those who can use it effectively will have a much easier time defeating enemies. One of your primary goals in any battle is to stagger your opponent. The way that you do this is by combining your attacks with other party members to fill the enemy chain gauge. Once that is full the enemy becomes staggered and is more vulnerable to your attacks. Once that has happened you can change your paradigm to one where all three party members are attacking or whatever you feel is best to inflict the most amount of damage. One of my favorites was being a Commando because you can launch an enemy into the air as a Commando and “juggle” him for a bit in the air which makes him even more vulnerable. The commando is the only class that can do that though so you have to keep planning out in your mind what you are going to do. If you get the timing right you can even pick a paradigm where there are two or three commandos in your group and you can keep the enemy in the air sending up one of your party members as another one is just finishing their attack.
Yet another option that you can use to attack your enemy is the Eidolons. There are a couple of different ways that you can go about this. You can issue standard attacks with your Eidolon beside you doing the same or you can work together and control the Eidolon. This results in a bit of fighting game mechanic where you have a set number of points and each action will take away points. For example, if you hit the “A” button along with up on the analog stick you might charge the enemy, whereas, if you hit the “Y” button you will go all in and unleash your most powerful attack. You have to find just the right balance to maximize the damage because you will only have control of the Eidolon for a very small amount of time. During every battle you will also want to use the “Libra” spell. What this does is it automatically scans your enemy and gives you their details, such as their weaknesses. Once that is done your party will attack the weakest parts of your enemy. So if it turns out that this particular enemy is really vulnerable to fire then your party will start doing a bunch of fire spells (as long as that spell is available to them). This is especially useful against bosses. If it doesn’t seem like you are doing much damage be sure to check the details because there is usually a hint in there about what you want to try and do. It should be noted that you only have to do this once per enemy. Once you have successfully scanned a Flan, you won’t have to do it again. In addition to leveling up your characters you can also level up the equipment and accessories they use. If you have something that you are not using anymore you can even dismantle it to get parts for the items that you are still using. I pretty much stayed with my original weapons the whole game and simply upgraded them a lot to the point where they were more powerful than the new weapons I was finding.
Another really nice new feature that Square Enix introduced is the datalog. This is the place to go if you don’t know what is going on in the story. Whenever an event takes place the details get added to the datalog. You can go into it at any time and read about what has happened. Existing entries will change from time to time too, however, there will be something signifying a change has been made so you don’t have to read everything a million times to find out what has changed. If you are one of those people who will play this game for a while and then not come back to it for a couple of months you will love this feature. When you are starting up your game you get a brief synopsis of the most recent event that took place and then you can go into the datalog to dig deeper if you so choose. The datalog has entries relating to events, people, locales, Cocoon Society and a lot more. It is a one stop shop for all of your Final Fantasy XIII information. It is one of those things that people who really want to get invested in the story will love while at the same time being something you never have to use if you don’t care.
As I mentioned above there are going to be some people that don’t like how linear the majority of this game turned out to be. I did not have a problem with it because I was interested in the story and Square Enix did a great job of presenting it. With that said though there is a point in the game where things start to open up. You will get full control over your party, along with the abilities and classes they can learn, and you can even do side missions if you so choose. I don’t want to spoil the circumstances but you do get to make some choices late in the game about whether you want to help or ignore a situation. There are no random battles so you can always avoid a fight if you so choose, unless you must participate in a fight for storyline purposes. Square Enix also did a great job at developing the main characters. I enjoyed all of the characters and thought they all brought something interesting to the group. There is one of them that can be a bit whiny, however, as a group, I really enjoyed this cast. They all have their own distinct personalities while at the same time showing similar traits. Square Enix also redid the lip synching for the English version of the game which further helps with the immersion.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII is an exceptional title. I really don’t have any big complaints about it and thoroughly enjoyed my time going through the world of Cocoon. I fully intend on going through it again at some point as well as trying to get all of the achievements. Square Enix has done a fantastic job merging some old school j-rpg hallmarks with some more modern principles and ideas. This game can be as deep as you want it to be. If you just want to go through it and not dive any deeper then you have to then you can do that, however, you would be cheating yourself out of part of the experience. If you are a j-rpg fan, or a rpg fan in general, you definitely need to give Final Fantasy XIII a chance. There is a reason why main Final Fantasy titles are normally the pinnacle of a generation.