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Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3) artwork

Final Fantasy XIII (PlayStation 3) review

"The multi-faceted nature of combat means that in Final Fantasy XIII, nearly every battle is a fresh adventure. That's not evident in the first few hours, where you're still learning new techniques and simply mashing the 'X' button allows you to slaughter most enemies that you encounter. The dynamic changes abruptly once you've been playing for a few hours, however, and you're suddenly going up against monsters so powerful that they can smash tanks, or you're fighting so many at once that they can overwhelm you almost before the fight begins unless you truly understand how to get the most out of your party members."

Cocoon is an island in the sky. Its people live in a technological wonderland. Outlying areas are marked by desolate canyons, sandy shorelines and lakes as smooth as glass. In contrast, the aggressively urbanized capital city that lies at the center of the floating world is memorable for other reasons: temples and arenas with domed ceilings, alabaster skyscrapers and great roadways that crisscross over a gaping abyss. Hover cars fill the skyline, buzzing every which way like bees swarming a hive.

The story that Final Fantasy XIII tells unfolds on a train that is departing from that spectacular capital city. Passengers have been rounded up from across the globe and now they are headed to the world far below, a hellish wasteland known as Gran Pulse. There they will live out the remainder of their days in banishment, quickly forgotten by the relieved neighbors and loved ones who remain in Cocoon. The outcasts riding that train are guilty of an unforgivable transgression: there's a possibility that they came in fleeting contact with a villainous L'Cie. No one in Cocoon wants to run the risk of turning into one of those magic-wielding monsters. Everyone will do whatever it takes to keep their world safe from such demons.

Throughout the remainder of a fascinating tale, players will learn that not all is quite as it seems. L'Cie paranoia fills Cocoon. Where does it come from? How can a civilization continue to thrive when it is so intent on consuming itself from the inside? Final Fantasy XIII explores themes more mature than anything witnessed in past installments in the series as it treads on unfamiliar ground. The title examines human nature in a more riveting manner than perhaps any JRPG before it and it does so by revealing substantial lore so deep and satisfying that a forty-hour campaign isn't enough to allow players to thoroughly absorb it all.

Yet for all of its strengths, the plot in Final Fantasy XIII isn't perfect. Unparalleled ambition and a winding narrative are made less compelling by a disappointing central cast of characters. Six heroes and heroines seem like they should provide drama and intrigue aplenty, but even the most striking moments lack punch because the protagonists are painted with broad and generally uninteresting brush strokes. The writers got the drama part right, but with the general absence of intrigue, the anguish and soul searching seldom matter. Players will likely respond to characters because they're uncomfortably odd (like Vanille and her apparent inability to take a step without a pleased exclamation or giggle) or contemptible (like Hope and his self-absorbed quest for vengeance), not because there's much of anything to like about them. This is a case where blander is better.

In spite of character shortcomings, however, Final Fantasy XIII works because the plot and setting perform their tasks so remarkably well. Players will tour a world more fully realized than perhaps any that has ever been featured in a JRPG up to this point. Each environment boasts a distinct beauty that is all its own, whether the area in question be a temple passageway or a grassy ledge overlooking a broad prairie. You can simply walk through each point if you choose, but then you'd miss the thousand little masterpieces that lie to the sides of the path most traveled. Anywhere that you choose to rotate the camera, there's something new to see. Given what has come before, the number of technical improvements that Final Fantasy XIII has managed is astonishing, but that's not even the best part. What truly allows the game to stand out from the bulk of its predecessors is the manner in which it establishes that strong foundation and then builds on it with a long-overdue and surprisingly polished overhaul of the core gameplay mechanics.

A new combat system lies at the heart of that overhaul. Final Fantasy XIII adeptly blends real-time combat with a more familiar turn-based approach. The result is a pleasing compromise that should satisfy fans of both approaches. Rather than shuffling through an assortment of characters and waiting for meters to fill, players assume control of the party leader while assigning general roles to teammates through the use of "paradigms" that can be customized before each conflict. If the party leader falls, the "Game Over" screen results. Keeping that character alive while inflicting as much pain on the enemy as is possible--and as quickly as possible--becomes an addictive process, especially because mere survival doesn't feel like enough. Battles are rated according to the amount of time that it takes you to stomp all over whatever foes you find. Managing to snag a five-star rating against an opponent that you previously struggled against makes every moment of strategy and customization that led up to that point feel all the more worthwhile, especially if you did so by clever play instead of level grinding.

Suppose that you find yourself battling one of the behemoths that are so common during the latter half of the game. You've fought such beasts before, so you know how this battle will go: you'll drain most of the dragon's life meter, then he'll stand up on his hind legs and completely refill his life meter before swinging a saw-like weapon at you. You'd like to avoid that development, if possible.

As your three characters dance around the field, you decide to try something different. Instead of launching right into an attack, you let your characters worry about defending as they cast spells to strengthen their attacks. You slowly chip away at the dragon's defenses, in the process filling a meter that will cause him to enter a "stagger" that in turn allows you to inflict more damage with each attack. As the indicator flashes and your foe's life level drops, you shift paradigms again. Now you're mounting an all-out assault, one that the game suitably labels as "relentless." The dragon shudders in the face of the onslaught and begins to flash. He's about to stand up and you know what's coming, except that moment doesn't come because your strategies bore fruit. Stumbling back, the beast doesn't have the chance to retaliate or to heal because you're hitting him too hard with a barrage of spells and sword strokes. He fades into a black silhouette and then evaporates. The battle is complete. You won and it feels fantastic.

The multi-faceted nature of combat means that in Final Fantasy XIII, nearly every battle is a fresh adventure. That's not evident in the first few hours, where you're still learning new techniques and simply mashing the 'X' button allows you to slaughter most enemies that you encounter. The dynamic changes abruptly once you've been playing for a few hours, however, and you're suddenly going up against monsters so powerful that they can smash tanks, or you're fighting so many at once that they can overwhelm you almost before the fight begins unless you truly understand how to get the most out of your party members. You'll spend your time between fights unlocking skills and attribute boosts from a cobweb of skills similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, or you'll spend your time assigning roles to your characters so that they more naturally step into them the next time you have to go up against an armored motorcycle or a lumbering beast the size of an apartment complex.

The intriguing plot, deep character customization and thrilling battles aren't the only strengths that Final Fantasy XIII possesses, either; the title also benefits from an assortment of significant tweaks to the long-standing genre formula. Many of those tweaks are obvious improvements that other games have already made, such as enemies that you can see--and avoid--on the maps. Players are also sure to appreciate the fact that life meters refill completely after each battle and spare you the headache of constant item use. For the first time ever, you may be able to work through an entire Final Fantasy game without needing to buy a single potion. Another nice touch is that deaths aren't any more inconvenient than they have to be. If you lose a battle, you can choose to make another attempt at it within a few seconds and if you happened to die against a boss, you can press a button to skip any cutscenes.

Not every improvement is immediately obvious, either. Small touches like a map that indicates the last few steps you took (eliminating the possibility that you'll get turned around) and an in-battle menu system that remembers custom commands for subsequent rounds prove that a great deal of thought went into the process of further refining a system that had already raised the JRPG bar several times. One notable and potentially distressing change--the lack of sprawling, generally lifeless towns seen in Final Fantasy X and its ilk--winds up feeling more like strength than the weakness that some fans might suppose, and the early lack of an expansive map to explore is rectified in the game's closing chapters. Yet another nice touch is the fact that all weapons and items and upgrades are accessible from each and every save point, which spares you from having to keep track of which shop in which out-of-the-way location sells which glorious weapon at what price.

Final Fantasy XIII may not have a cast of characters capable of inspiring the love fans have showered on protagonists from the early games, but that flaw is easily enough overlooked due to the sheer number of things that the game gets so very right. If consumers are fortunate, some of the game's technical strengths will become the genre standard in the years to come. It seems unlikely, however, that we'll ever see another installment in this series or in any other one that so competently combines a fascinating plot with an array of game-changing refinements and such a revolutionary new combat system. Its luster will someday fade, but this game is one for the ages.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 20, 2010)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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espiga posted March 22, 2010:

You rated this game 0.81255863312 points lower than I would have given it. You are clearly a biased hack who runs a stupid website that gets off on upsetting the perfect balance of metacritic scores.

There, beat the douchebags to the punch. =D
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honestgamer posted March 22, 2010:

I'm confident that I awarded the game an extremely fair score, espiga. I don't anticipate that I'll hear from many who felt that I criminally underrated it. A score of 7 for a game like God of War III, though apparently warranted, calls more attention to itself. Like zigfried, I don't assign scores to shock or titilate. I assign the scores games deserve. :-D
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jerec posted March 22, 2010:

10 years ago, I upset a lot of people by giving Goldeneye a 7.

Some things never change.
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espiga posted March 22, 2010:

Haha, I know, but I was bored at work and wanted something smarmy and potentially humorous to write about.
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CoarseDragon posted March 30, 2010:

I thought your review was very well done. If I did not already have the game I would probably at least rent it based on the review you have here.
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randxian posted March 30, 2010:

Outstanding. I like how the intro paints a picture of the dytopian society featured in this game. Also enjoyed reading about how combat can be so fascinating by combining different strategies. You really managed to make every aspect of this game sound interesting.

Although I've been one of the Final Fantasy skeptics since FF7, this review convinced me to try FF 13... except I don't own a Xbox 360 or a PS3.

One thing that bothered me slightly is I would've liked to perhaphs learn a bit more about this L'Cie character. Obviously, you didn't want to spoil to much, but since the intro was so great, I felt like I hit a brick wall going 80 mph when you name dropped the apparent antagonist and simply moved on. Maybe just a smidgen of background would be useful.
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jerec posted March 31, 2010:

L'Cie is basically the word for what all the main characters become. Powered up people, given a purpose, feared and hated by the regular people.
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- posted March 31, 2010:

I see where Randxian is coming from when he wants to learn more about the l'Cie, being a major part of the story. It's only mentioned once, with no explanation when it is name-dropped. The word is pretty meaningless with no context.

Nice review overall.
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honestgamer posted March 31, 2010:

Thanks for the comments. I've updated the opening three paragraphs slightly so that the L'Cie and their significance are explained more thoroughly. There's not really time to go into things any deeper than that. I want to avoid spoilers, but there's more to it than that: explaining any further will just invite questions with answers that invite still more questions with answers that spoil all sorts of twists and turns. Such is the nature of the game. I like the new text, though. Thanks for bringing its need to my attention.
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jerec posted March 31, 2010:

To be honest, I still didn't understand the concept of L'Cie, Pulse L'Cie, Fal'Cie and all that until a few chapters in. Glad that game has a datalog.
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randxian posted March 31, 2010:

Nice edit. In the initial draft, it read like it was one person, perhaps the story's antagonist. Somehow, the original draft did give me the impression that it might be like a virus or something instead, but it still wasn't clear.

This edit is perfect; you give just enough information without spoiling too much. I agree that sometimes you run the risk of simply creating more questions, which is the problem your first draft caused. This revision is fantastic. I feel like I at least have a handle on the general concepts in the game.
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CoarseDragon posted April 07, 2010:

One interesting thing about the game is that losing a battle is not really "Game Over" but the choice to load a saved game or retry the battle again. On boss fights you even get the chance to change up equipment if you fail the first time.
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zippdementia posted April 07, 2010:

It's actually a necessity in some battles, because your party changes and you're thrust into a boss fight without even a chance to adjust your all-important paradigms.

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