Having originally started out as a PlayStation 2 game, Final Fantasy XIII has certainly enjoyed a long, and sometimes bumpy development cycle. One thing has never changed though, the anticipation surrounding this game. After Lightning was first shown during E3 2006, fans were eagerly waiting the next small snippet of news. They just wanted to find out more about the next installment into one of the most successful franchises of all time. Well, the wait is over. Final Fantasy XIII is finally here and it comes packed with plenty of new innovations and a completely new cast and story.
In a story about circumstance, a group of individuals manage to join together and succumb to the same fate, that of the l'Cie. An ironic fate considering many of them were due to be purged for coming into contact with a l'Cie themselves, something which they, the citizens of Cocoon, have been taught to fear their entire lives. Not because they should, but because they fear what they don't understand. After all, Cocoon is just one part of the world. But it's a part where the majority of humanity resides, high above the lands of Pulse, and it's been in seclusion for centuries - just waiting for something to justify the paranoia.
The arrival of these l'Cie does just that, and Cocoon goes into turmoil. However, the characters themselves are equally confused. They have become what they have learnt to hate, but they also know what could happen to them. When someone becomes a l'Cie, they are given a "focus", which is essentially an objective they need to complete. If they complete it, they are granted eternal life and turn to crystal, but if they fail, they become a Cie'th and roam aimlessly, losing control of themselves. They all have the same focus though, and it means that unlike previous Final Fantasy games, the story is more centered around the team, than the individuals within the team.
Each character has their own personal challenges to face, but because of this, there isn't a huge amount of development and any development that happens is spread evenly throughout. The plot also hinders this too, as their goal is the most important aspect and that's always the key focus. This might not be so bad, but everything just seems a bit flimsy. Nothing ever really happens to make the player care about their goal, or the events that surround it. Why? Because details are held together by a very loose thread, and there is a strong reliance on circumstance, as opposed to substance. It makes the whole endeavor seem rather shallow and convoluted.
One aspect that certainly isn't convulted though, is progression through the game. It's largely linear and this has its advantages and disadvantages. Initially, the game forces players to use certain characters, presumably to make them familiar with them, and to teach them about the different classes that are present. It can become quite annoying though - getting forced to use a character that's unwanted isn't overly fun. However, the linearity provides focus. The story is focused purely around the team, and their isolation from the world. Providing players with towns and villages would be completely redundant - nobody would talk to them and there would be nothing to do there. The game does open up more towards the end and players are free to explore vast plains, but even when this happens, it doesn't add or detract from the experience. It just offers something different.
Also offering something different is the character progression and battle system. Characters now gain CP (Crystarium Points), which they can spend in the Crystarium. Points must be spent to travel between the different nodes, which are all geared towards one of the six classes: Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, Synergist and Medic. These are just fancy names though, as they basically translate as Warrior, Black Mage, Paladin, Enfeebler, Enhancer and White Mage. The Crystarium has levels caps though, and characters can only progress further in a Crystarium class once they have beaten certain bosses throughout the story. Although characters can only initially use one Crystarium, towards the end, they can actually gain access to all of the classes, so each character can essentially become as powerful as the next. It's a system that like previous Final Fantasy games, allows players to choose how they wish characters to progress, although it can still be a bit restrictive.
The battle system is also a bit restrictive, although it's easy to see why. Gambits (found in Final Fantasy XII) have been removed, and the AI can now think for itself, to a certain degree. Players can only dictate the job class of AI, but after this has been done, it's free to learn and perform its own actions. It actually works surprisingly well, with only a few issues coming on the defensive side of play. Giving the role of the Synergist or Healer to the AI means they won't necessarily do things in a desired order, but they do also adapt quickly. If they see an enemy only does magical attacks, they won't bother casting Protect from then on against that particular enemy. Players can also choose to have the AI essentially control their own character, as they can choose an "auto" moveset. They can still perform separate actions though, or repeat the last turn's actions.
It's the way the classes work that makes everything a lot more dynamic though. Each has their own benefits which they bring to the team, but they're also completely restricted to what they've learnt so far - there is no sharing of abilities between jobs, just stats. A Medic can only perform curative spells, so they can't deal damage. A Sentinel is essentially purely defensive too. This is where the Paradigms come into play, and in turn the Paradigm Shift. Paradigms are party set-ups, and six can be made although this often isn't enough combinations. The party can then change between these pre-determined set-ups throughout a battle. So for example, a party might start off with a Commando, Ravager and Saboteur, but once the debuffs have been applied, they could change to another Ravager. Everything seems very well thought out and it makes battles enthralling. There's no more sitting back and relaxing, as things can change in an instant, requiring action. And this hasn't even talked about perhaps the most important innovation - Stagger Meter.
Each enemy has a Stagger Meter, which is incremented each time they're hit and effectively acts as an guide to how much damage is being done to the enemy. It starts off at 100%, and it increases until the enemy is Staggered. Using Ravagers increases this more quickly, but a Commando is necessary to stop it from declining quickly. It's possible to get it all the way up to 999.99%, so characters can do almost 10x normal damage if played out correctly. While Staggered, most enemies also get stunned when they're hit, but it only lasts for a finite amount of time, upon which it returns to 100% again.
There's a lot of good about all the changes made to the battle system, but it's not perfect though, and there are some niggling points. For example, the first time a Paradigm Shift happens in battle, it shows an extended animation, but the action carries on. It means that the Stagger Meter might decline, meaning attacks are missed, or damage is taken. Characters also walk around freely, which is fine until Sentinel classes are involved. They frequently stand near the other characters, which is fine, but when they're supposed to be attracting enemy fire, seeing them standing near friendly characters against enemies that do Area of Effect damage can become frustrating. There are also numerous strategies to employ, but the game seems to penalise some. Doom is cast during some fights that the game has decided have gone on too long, so a fight which lasts 30 minutes could come to an annoying climax. Fortunately, in something which can be seen as a godsend, dying in a battle doesn't put players back to their last save point. Instead, it just puts them infront of the foe they couldn't defeat, allowing them to rethink their strategy and party setup.
Final Fantasy games have always been synonymous with good graphics and Final Fantasy XIII makes sure that tradition continues. The graphical quality and level of animation during the CGI cutscenes is just astounding and they're definitely some of the highlights throughout a game that already looks gorgeous. Each of the stages throughout the game has its own personality, and the expansive levels later on certainly put things into perspective. Many also wondered how well the music would hold up without Nobuo Uematsu at the helm, but Masashi Hamauzu does a commendable job. A recurring theme is present, and it helps to hold everything together. Eternal Love is one of the standout tracks, but there aren't many others that grab the imagination.
Side quests and Final Fantasy go hand in hand, and it's something which some players might find a bit lacking with this installment. The main campaign certainly has some legs, clocking in at around 40 hours, and for players who like making their characters super powered, maxing out the Crystarium will certainly take some time. However, aside from that, there is only really the hunting of Marks to entertain players. The lack of a new game plus is a bit of an oversight, and although players can go back into the world after completing it, it doesn't really feel the same.
Final Fantasy XIII is easily the best JRPG of this generation, and one of the best RPGs too. It looks amazing, and the battle system is a breath of fresh air. The refinements that have been made make battles exhilerating, and while some control has been taken away, it seems necessary. The story, while not the strongest, still serves as a suitable vessel and it offers something different. Its linearity helps too, as it works in tandem with the story. Final Fantasy is about innovation, not making the same game again. Based on that premise Final Fantasy XIII is a success and it pushes the genre yet again.