Final Fantasy XIII
5th Mar 2010 | 14:06
Of course, you know what to expect. Someone let the would-be ﬁlmmakers at Square Enix loose on the PS3's Blu-ray capacity. It doesn't take a genius to work out that Final Fantasy XIII's narrative ladles selﬂ ess heroics, histrionic melodrama and, above all, breathtaking CG modelling into a story so long and extravagant it makes Lawrence Of Arabia seem like a Laurel and Hardy short.
In a lavish civilisation manipulated by a Holy Government, the over-privileged inhabitants of the ﬂoating city Cocoon have been conditioned to fear the denizens of Pulse, the world below that spawned them. Meanwhile, a mystical race born of crystal, the godlike fal'Cie, pluck citizens they consider useful and brand them as l'Cie servants, imbuing them with magical powers to do the fal'Cie's bidding and turning them into crystal after they've served their purpose.
It's this fate that hangs over the game's six playable characters, as they too are etched with the mark of l'Cie. But as the plot unfurls over the course of the 60-hour game, it actually gets harder to care about their plight - not least because so few of them are likeable in the ﬁrst place. Heroine Lightning is the game's stoic central lead, but around her are a bunch of irritatingly cliched team members (see Light side, dark side). The main antagonists are also woefully underused, and the evil Galenth Dysley is a charisma-free zone. Sephiroth he ain't.
This would be forgivable if the gameplay were a little richer. For the ﬁ rst 25 hours or so of game time, it's as linear as a piece of string. There's no exploration, no side quests, no choice at all outside of battle. Characters are switched in and out with jarring frequency, and all you really have to do to progress is press up on the left analogue stick until the next short ﬁght or extended cut-scene. Lightning jumps nimbly around the scenery, but you're still just pressing up. Snow enters a beachside bar or Sazh and Vanille visit a packed theme park, but there's no interaction whatsoever.
MOVING ON UP
In the end, the backgrounds - while gorgeously detailed - are so superﬁcial they cease to matter. Just keep pushing up and you'll get to the next bit. In terms of level design, it's less sophisticated than Pac-Man. Although you can usually control the camera with the right stick, it sometimes becomes ﬁxed without warning, reinforcing the nagging feeling that the player is barely relevant to the game. The occasional puzzles aren't rocket science, either. One has you pressing switches on four separate machines to proceed, ﬁrst dispatching the monsters that guard them. Another -possibly the most tedious, infantile mini-game in history - has you chasing Sazh's pet Chocobo around a pre-determined series of scenes. What is this, 'My First RPG'?
The battle system alone offers a chance to ﬂ ex the grey matter and implement a bit of strategy. Monsters are visible on the map, so no random encounters, and ﬁghts are fast paced. Taking direct control of just the party leader, you assign commands to the Active Battle Gauge (or use the automated feature to save valuable seconds) using e; these are unleashed as a combo attack when the bar is full. Most commands take up one ATB slot, but the more powerful ones require two or more.
Time these to go off in between attacks from your AI party members and you'll not only sap your enemy's HP but also ﬁ ll their Break bar. Once they enter a Break state, you can close in for the kill, dealing major damage until they either recover or die. In other words, focusing your attacks on one foe at a time and with the right rhythm allows you to eliminate them faster. Happily, monsters have their own energy bar, so you know when it's better to pause for that pee.
The Optima system (known in the West as Paradigm) is the ace up FFXIII's sleeve. To start with, each party member can use three of six Roles, similar to the Jobs in previous Final Fantasy entries. An Attacker ﬁ ghts with weapons, a Blaster with magic; an Enhancer buffs up party members while a Jammer debuffs enemies; and Defenders draw attacks while Healers heal the remainder of the team.
You can customise six different Optima formations and switch between them in battle. So with a party of three, you may choose to quickly Break an enemy with an Attacker/Blaster/ Blaster Optima, switching mid-battle to throw in a Healer as necessary, and so on. You don't control your teammates' actions so much as the team itself.
Even when you ﬁnd your preferred Optima set-up, you'll have to rearrange them often, as certain monsters and bosses are susceptible to speciﬁc combinations of Roles. Also, the story forces changes upon you as party members come and go. For example, Snow might hang back
to try to dig his ﬁancée (who's turned into a giant crystal) out of a lake (which has also turned into a giant crystal - talk about futile), and suddenly you've lost your only party member capable of a Defender role at that point.
The battle system takes time to master and is gradually implemented over the game's ﬁrst ten hours or so, with tutorials written eye-scrunchingly small. However, much of the ﬁrst 20 hours has your team splintered into small groups through a series of plot contrivances, hampering the strategy element, and battles can feel more like balancing a spreadsheet than playing a game. It does gel, but newcomers will have to be patient.
HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS
As ever, your characters can unleash epic Summons, or Eidolons (see page 70), to tackle ﬁerce bosses. As in FFXII, characters must tame his or her Eidolon in battle to earn their protection. Once beaten, only the Eidolon belonging to the party leader (who you don't get to pick until halfway through the game) can be used on enemies. You can ﬁght alongside the Eidolon or mount it in Drive Mode (Gestalt in the Western version) to pull off heavy attacks for a limited time. For maximum effect, Break an enemy before summoning your Eidolon.
Winning battles rewards your party with Tactical Points needed for Summons and other spells, plus Crystal Points, which you can spend on levelling up their various Roles for increased abilities and HP in the Crystarium (tap triangle). 'Grinding' through maps and battles is essential, sadly, or you'll be seriously under strength for the next big encounter.
About 30 hours in, the game opens up. As the group ﬂee the futuristic techtopia of Cocoon for the plains of Gran Pulse, a series of side missions open on a vast map though these do just consist of more samey battles. Hardcore ﬁnal fantasy fans will ﬁnd much joy in farming CP from the respawning monsters that populate Gran Pulse, allowing for major upgrades that make your team near- invincible. Others will have switched off hours ago.
FLAB OF THE LAND
Final Fantasy XIII's grand ambition is also its downfall. The game feels bloated and repetitive - too much movie, not enough game. The cheesy characterisations and overwrought dialogue (at least in the Japanese version) will make you cringe - and there must be over 25 hours of movies. Some cut-scenes and syrupy ﬂashbacks are so long they can be paused, appear on your map and have their own save points.
Yes, it looks amazing - from the lines on their lips to the soles of their shoes, the detail in the character models is unreal - and the battle system, though repetitive, is fun. While FFXIII is advertised as an RPG, the main role you play is that of viewer.
Worth importing? Japanese speakers aside - wait until March 9th in the UK. Series' stalwarts will appreciate the successful fusion of FFIV's ATB system and FFXII's real-time battles, while enemies appear in the ﬁeld, like FFXII, doing away with random encounters. If you've not played an RPG since PSone classic FFVII, you'll relish the slick combat and next-gen sheen, but for some, the series' most grandiose and obtrusive narrative to date, may prove too big a hurdle.