Final Fantasy XIII
5th Mar 2010 | 00:01
RPG fans are going to buy Final Fantasy XIII. No surprise there. But what is surprising is that under that stat-ridden RPG skin is the core of a fast-paced, hard-hitting action game that could even turn the heads of button-mashing face-stomping Killzone and God of War lovers.
Most RPGs, including many of the past FF games, bog players down with mundane number crunching, finicky and repetitive levelling-up, dull-looking dungeon crawling and slow-paced, complex turn-based battle systems. All that comes part and parcel with the genre. FFXIII pushes all that to one side and shoves you through an explosive eventful quest at an alarmingly action game-like pace.
It's not a shallow RPG by any means. It has all the elemental attacks, status-changing spells, stat-boosting items and summons commands of the previous games. But, not to seem like we're contradicting ourselves, its the streamlined delivery of all of this that's genius.
Everything from the intricacies of the FFXII-inspired Action Time Bar (ATB) battles to the truly epic story, the characters and even the universe in which everything takes place unfolds in such a clever way as to never once feel daunting or overwhelming. It feeds you information in small bitesize doses, giving you enough time to digest before serving up the next portion.
The battle system is the key to every RPG and FFXIII's is one of the best. Hardcore FF fans will have already analysed trailers and dissected how it all works, but essentially the whole system centres around the ATB, a self regenerating bar that's divided into segments. You queue up a number of commands, each taking up a specific number of ATB segments, and choose your target.
The ATB takes just a few seconds to charge fully at which point your character launches into action, executing your chosen moves in the order you queued them with hard-hitting brutality and eye-pleasing flair.
It's fast. Really fast. Before you have a moment to pick your next move, the ATB is charged and your fighters ready to go mental again. So your brain and fingers are verging on meltdown as you choose from standard or elemental attacks, magic spells, items and summons moves.
The game boots your ass along even faster with other speed-driven elements. Each blow to an enemy builds up that foe's attack Chain bar. When full the enemy becomes 'staggered' making them weaker to attack - an essential factor in beating many of the game's tougher foes. The catch is that Attack Chain gauge rapidly depletes when the enemy's not being hit, so an almost constant barrage is required to charge it fully and achieve that essential 'staggered' state.
End-of-battle status screens also rate you based on the battle time with better ratings awarding you better dropped items and more Crystarium points (FFXIII's experience points).
And so you see that battles, while plentifully sophisticated, are all about going batshit mental on your foes and slaughtering everything as fast as you can. It's brilliant.
Seriously - this editor is one of those action game-types mentioned earlier, and usually not one for turn-based strategy, yet I find every battle in FFXIII truly thrilling. Even though you're not actually pushing the 'slice' button, the fast ATB system gives fights a sense of immediacy. It's a far cry from those dull turn-based battles of old RPGs where the fighting on screen felt completely detached from your hugely pre-emptive menu management.
What's really clever about it is how, as deep as the system is, it's all completely manageable even to action-game brains. A clever Auto-Battle command helps you along by automatically queuing up a list of moves and suggesting a target, keeping battles moving along without completely playing the game for you.
Then you have the Paradigm Shift system. That's a whole other layer of strategy which gives you control over the roles the other members of your squad play. While you only directly control one character (much to the distress of some hardcore fans), the other players fight away automatically according to the roles you set them.
A Commando is a hardcore attacker. The Ravager's attacks are weaker but charge the chain attack bar faster. Sentinels cast stat-boosting spells on team mates while Saboteurs reduce the defense stats of enemies. And your good old Medic heals your team. Hit L1 at any time during battle and you can change the roles of your team, which is absolutely critical to survival, and key to finishing battles quickly for high ratings. But with six roles and a maximum of three fighters in a squad, there are plenty of strategies to pick.
There are huge debates on the internet over some of the game's more restrictive elements, but for as much as the game restricts you in one area, it gives you freedom elsewhere. Yes, only directly control one person in your party, but the paradigm system gives you plenty of strategy and control over the actions of your whole team. You can also still equip and customise the weapons and accessories of everyone on the team.
There's also much talk of the game's linearity. The directors, responding to this criticism, say it's intentionally linear in earlier stages while the player learns the game's nuances. And while we think 15 hours of dead straight single-path linearity is a little overkill, we think it a clever move. And come to think of it, we can't see much difference between this and the equally linear 'go-here-do-this' mission chains of almost all previous Final Fantasy games.
And it matters even less when you consider that moving through the game's chapters flicks your control between the five characters who are most of the time each exploring different areas, keeping things fresh. And these paths lead you through some of the most gorgeous environments we've witnessed - so much so that we found ourselves eagerly anticipating our arrival at the next area.
Meanwhile you're kept gripped by a story that unfolds via well-written in-game dialogue (although at times obviously translated from Japanese) and undoubtably the highest quality CGI cutscenes in any videogame. Ever.
It's truly enchanting stuff, with the lead characters, Lightening, Snow, Sazh, Vanille and Hope, unwittingly caught up in an unavoidable fate and a centuries old battle between two worlds - the peaceful utopia of Cocoon and the unknown yet much feared underworld of Pulse. The latter is where the game's linearity subsides, making way for more open environments with sidequests and hidden bonuses that give players the freedom to explore.
Final Fantasy XIII isn't just a game you merely enjoy. You fall in love with it. It's gorgeous worlds have you stopping to admire them in complete awe, while a graceful soundtrack massages your brain (despite the unfortunate replacement of the original Japanese theme with a song from Leona Lewis). That along with the lovable characters and their desperate plight, and the brilliant ATB system come together to form an enchanting 60-hour quest.