In Medias Res: Final Fantasy XIII Review

WARNING!

This is not a good review of Final Fantasy XIII. In fact it’s not even really a review, it’s more like a VERY in-depth exploration of the first 10 chapters of the game, with way too much detail and a surprising number of addendums and epilogues, most of which were written at different times. When I wrote this “review” of Final Fantasy XIII, I had not only not yet completed the game, I also didn’t understand how the Stagger mechanic worked, buffing and debugging, or even Gestalt Mode and Paradigm Shift beyond the basic tutorials the game provides. Embarrassing. For the record, I did go on to master the Crystarium and gain every achievement (including the soul-draining Treasure Hunter) except for the one that involves five-starring every Cie’th stone mission, but I’m like three away! At any rate, for a longtime Final Fantasy lover and first time Final Fantasy XIII player’s very confused thoughts on the game when I was still in the middle of playing (hence the title, In Medias Res), read on…

-edit, December 2013

I am currently at Chapter 11 of Final Fantasy 13, and if you’re familiar with the game and have played through it you will know that, despite having already spent twenty hours playing the game, I have only JUST reached the main area. Yes, in this 13-chapter game, you don’t really get full access to explore until chapter 11. I admit that I haven’t finished the game, and as such I cannot give a truly complete review on how this game holds up for me, but having experienced so much already in the first 10 chapters, I’m going to give my thoughts on the characters, story, and gameplay of FF13 so far.

Part 1: Story

There are two areas of the world of Final Fantasy 13: the sprawling overworld wilderness known as Gran Pulse, and a floating shell above the surface known as Cocoon. The majority of the story takes place in Cocoon, where in the peaceful seaside town of Bodhum, home to the game’s main protagonist, Lightning, a fal’Cie is discovered. The fal’Cie are huge, magical machines that have great powers, and the Cocoon fal’Cie serve as protectors of Cocoon, providing it’s citizens with light, food, and advising the government on important actions that need to be taken. A l’Cie who is branded by a fal’Cie is given a task to complete, known as a Focus, and if they complete their task in a certain amount of time, legend says they will turn to crystal and be granted eternal life. Should they fail to complete their Focus, or run out of time, they instead are transformed into a vile creature known as aCie’th. Cie’th begin as dark monsters wandering the world, but eventually they turn to stone, trapped forever in that form until someone else completes their Focus.

The fal’Cie discovered in Bodhum is not a Cocoon fal’Cie, but a Pulse fal’Cie, meaning that it came from the wilderness below, which the people of Cocoon live in constant fear of attack from. There is an outcry from the people of Cocoon that the Pulse fal’Cie and any people who came into contact with it be migrated to Pulse, so as not to take any chance of contaminating their safe haven of Cocoon with anything from the world below they so fear. The government, in response to the outcry, begins a process known as “the Purge,” in which all of the Cocoon citizens in Bodhum who saw or came into contact with the Pulse fal’Cie, are placed on Purge trains to be shipped out of Cocoon as refugees. The government tries to make it seem like these people are selflessly sacrificing their peaceful lives on Cocoon for the fate of the other citizens, but resistance begins mounting when the Purge trains reach a place known as the Hanging Edge, and it becomes clear that the Cocoon government, Sanctum, does not intend to move these people to the world below at all, but to conduct a mass extermination of all the refugees.

The story’s main protagonist, Lightning, boards the Purge train because her sister, Serah, was made into a Pulse l’Cie by the fal’Cie that appeared in Bodhum, and was taken hostage within it. Because military personnel are exempt from the Purge, Lightning resigns from her position in Coccoon’s Guardian Corps and boards the train in an attempt to get close enough to the fal’Cie to find Serah. The game begins when Lightning fights back against the military on-board the train and begins heading toward the fal’Cie in search of Serah. She is accompanied by Sazh Kazroy, and in another area of the Hanging Edge, Serah’s fiancee, Snow Villiers, is mounting his own resistance, taking in volunteers and giving them weapons. During the battle, one of the citizens is killed, a woman named Nora, and though Snow is very upset with himself because he feels responsible, he presses on to the fal’Cie, also in search of Serah. He is followed by Hope Estheim, son of Nora Estheim who died aiding Snow’s resistance, and a mysterious girl named Vanille, Hope following Snow into the fal’Cie wishing to confront him over the death of his mother, and Vanille following for her own reasons which aren’t yet stated.

Our five main characters meetup in the chamber just ahead of the fal’Cie, where they find Serah, who asks them to save Cocoon, and turns to crystal before them. Snow and Lightning, furious at Serah’s fate, rush forward into the fal’Cie, followed by Sazh, Hope and Vanille, and after a battle with the fal’Cie whose name is revealed to be Anima, all five characters are restrained by tendrils coming from the fal’Cie and lose consciousness; while unconscious they see a vision of an apocalyptic future filled with destruction.  When the cast awaken, they find that they’ve been made into l’Cie by the same fal’Cie who branded Serah. Like Serah, however, they have no certain way of knowing their Focus, the task they must complete in order to turn into crystal and gain eternal life, or else be transformed into C’ieth. All that they have is their vision of the apocalypse, Ragnorok. Snow believes that their focus is to save Cocoon, as Serah asked them, and that since she turned to crystal immediately after asking them, it must have been the right thing for them to do.

The party begins to split when they find Serah, still crystallized, and Snow stays behind, knowing that he’ll be captured by the military as a fugitive l’Cie, to try and protect Serah. Lightning and the others continue on their way and eventually wind up in a mountainous region of Cocoon filled with robots that built their own small city out of the scrap material from the ancient war between Cocoon and Pulse. Lightning resolves that she’s going to plunge right into the heart of Cocoon’s government in the capital city of Eden, and destroy the fal’Cie of the same name who pulls all the strings in Cocoon’s government. The party’s final split occurs when Lightning leaves to go and destroy the fal’Cie, and Hope follows her, wanting to grow stronger so that he can confront Snow and get revenge for the death of his mother. Vanille and Sazh decide to run entirely the opposite direction to avoid being captured by the military. Snow, meanwhile, is captured while trying to protect Serah, and meets Fang, another l’Cie who works for a division of the Guardian Corps secretly aiding the fugitive l’Cie.

And that’s basically the main setup of the story. It’s a lot to happen in the first few chapters of the game, and you don’t get a ton of gameplay to break up the story. There is just SO MUCH STORY in this game, and this is coming from a person who has probably played Final Fantasy 10 upwards of 50 times before, and I know all of those (unskippable) scenes by heart. If Final Fantasy 10 was an interactive movie, this game is an interactive miniseries. I’m just going to go ahead and say that while the story sets up very nicely, it doesn’t ever really take off. The whole game, all you hear about is fal’Cie and l’Cie. Now granted, they’re the main focus of the story, but there aren’t really any interesting side-stories, everything all goes back to the Pulse fal’Cie that was discovered in Bodhum, and you’re treated throughout the game to numerous flashback sequences of the thirteen days in Bodhum from the time the fal’Cie is discovered, up until the time the citizens are Purged. But the game is so focused on this story that you don’t really get to play very much, and when you do you basically walk a straight line until you get to the next scene, fighting a chain of enemies as you get there.

Then there are the aforementioned flashback sequences. Some of them make me want to pull my hair out. It’s so over the top with it’s romance. We just watch Snow go on and on about how he’ll do anything to protect Serah, while Serah cries and runs around screaming about how she’s a l’Cie, “enemy of Cocoon!” (get used to hearing that, every character’s going to say it a few times). And it’s not that I can’t do cheesy romances, either, but the romance between Serah and Snow just doesn’t have any BASIS. We don’t KNOW these characters, and we as players (or, more appropriately, viewers) aren’t invested in the fate of their relationship. I guess in a sense it’s moving to see Snow risking everything time and again for Serah, but it’s not like in previous games when we meet the couple and watch their relationship build. Basically, this game doesn’t have it’s “lake scene,” for all you Final Fantasy 10 players who know what I’m talking about. They tried, but as far as I can tell, they haven’t done a great job at building up the romance, or even really making most of the characters very interesting.

The floating world of Cocoon

Another thing is the plot. It’s just not extremely interesting. It sets up well, but nothing ever really happens beyond the initial setup. Every single plot twist in this game is that some character or another turns out to be a l’Cie or a fal’Cie. And then (spoilers ahead), you learn that the leader of the Sanctum government is actually a fal’Cie disguised as a human, and he informs the cast that their focus is not to save Cocoon, but to destroy it. One of the main characters must transform into the monster Ragnorok and use their power to destroy Cocoon, as a sacrifice to the original Maker, the god who created the world, and when Cocoon has been sacrificed, the Maker will return to Gran Pulse to put the world to rights again and return it to it’s “former glory.” Upon learning this, the main cast all decide that they’re not going to be tools of fal’Cie, and that they’re going to fulfill Serah’s wish and save Cocoon, even if it means not completing their focus and turning into Cie’th. We also learn that Cocoon is sustained by a fal’Cie called Orphan who uses his power to keep Cocoon alive and floating.

Doesn’t this sound awfully familiar?

In Final Fantasy 10, the main cast learn that the higher-ups in the government have pulled the wool over the citizens eyes, and that one of the members of the main cast must transform into a great beat, the Final Aeon, in order to defeat Sin, the monster that plagues the world. Within Sin is Yu Yevon, a Summoner who uses his power to create and sustain Sin, his floating armor. It’s all very similar to what’s going on hear.

Then you have this game’s sequel, the main plot of which is that Serah goes on a journey to find Lightning, who mysteriously disappeared upon defeating Orphan in the climax of Final Fantasy 13, which is pretty reminiscent of Final Fantasy 10’s sequel, in which Yuna goes on a journey to find Tidus after he mysteriously disappeared upon defeating Yu Yevon.

Basically, a lot of this story has been done before, and done better. There aren’t a lot of layers to this story, or to these characters, many of them are pretty one-dimensional. Every plot twist is that someone or something is a fal’Cie or a l’Cie. The only break we’re given from the main storyline are the flashback sequences, which usually consist of the main characters filling out their mostly shallow backstories, or a lot of cringe/vomit-worthy love scenes between Snow and Serah. The story moves at an extremely slow pace, and when the action finally begins, it’s pretty unsatisfying. I fear Final Fantasy may be beginning to go down the same self-indulgent road as Kingdom Hearts with convoluted plotlines. While the plot of this game isn’t atrocious, it’s just not very interesting, and while I’m not here to compare this game to all of it’s predecessors, it certainly doesn’t make me feel as invested as the storylines of any of those games did.

They see me rollin’

And let’s not forget the constant string of references to past Final Fantasies. There are so many that it’s not even hitting my nostalgia buttons. The first battle in the game is probably the best example: Lightning, the ex-soldier, and Sazh, the (I’m just going to say it, Square are the one’s who did it, not me) gun-toting black man, face off against none other than a guard scorpion. Yep, first battle, guard scorpion. Players of Final Fantasy 7 will instantly recognize the first boss fight of that game, against a guard scorpion. Now, I’m not saying that Sazh is anything like Barrett just because he’s black, but you kind of have to wonder about how racially conscious the designers are; Sazh is a black man carrying two pistols with an afro so thick that a small bird literally lives in it. In addition, every time there’s a scene that’s focused around Sazh, bayou-style harmonica music starts up. Ultimately he’s one of the better characters despite a lot of the cosmetic aspects of his character being pretty stereotyped.

Apart from the opening sequence, there are just tons of references, however small, to past Final Fantasies, to the point that it’s almost annoying. It’s like the game isn’t even trying to come into it’s own as a Final Fantasy title, it’s just using plotlines derived from Final Fantasy 10 and including a lot of references to past games already beloved by fans of the series. There’s a moment in the story, I can’t remember exactly when, but you’ll notice it if you’ve played Final Fantasy 10, where Sazh stands on a ship and and holds onto a rope in exactly the same pose from exactly the same angle as Tidus’ iconic entrance into Luca from Final Fantasy 10. Things like this happen constantly during the first few chapters of the game, thankfully they eventually start to die down a bit. It’s not that referencing the past games is a bad thing, but it’s just so excessive near the beginning of the game that it honestly becomes annoying.

Part 2: Characters

Many times, when playing through a title in the Final Fantasy series, or any game where you’re given a list of party members from which to choose your main team, you choose different people when you play through the game again and again, because you like the characters and you want to get to know them better and use their strengths and weaknesses in your party. The problem with Final Fantasy 13 is that of the main cast of six characters, probably only three are genuinely likable.

The main protagonist, Lightning, is a Final Fantasy hero we’ve all seen before. Quiet and cold, she’s a fierce warrior who doesn’t say much about her emotions, and the only thing we usually see from her is anger and determination. It’s interesting to note that apparently, during the creation of Final Fantasy 13, Lightning was intended to be a “female Cloud,” or rather, she was intended to be modeled after Cloud, the main protagonist of Final Fantasy 7. This is actually kind of funny to me, if it’s true, because Cloud was actually a flirtatious, overconfident, somewhat lovable smartass. He wasn’t cold or stoic or mean whatsoever, he was kind and laid back. If Lightning is modeled after any Final Fantasy hero, it’s Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy 8, the two have very similar quiet dispositions, all gunblade references aside.

Regardless of who she may or may not have been based on, Lightning is an okay main character. I like her, and I think that anyone who plays the game will like her, but I don’t think I LOVE her. She doesn’t really move me the way that past heroes have, and even a whiney brat like Tidus still managed to make me care about his situation. Lightning is just sort of a stereotypical fantasy hero, quiet and calculating, unmatched in combat, and determined to get what she’s after at any cost. She fits the role of leader, but she doesn’t really pull at anyone’s heart strings.

Then we have the game’s secondary main character: Snow. I’m going to say this now: I. HATE. Snow. I have never disliked a character as much as I dislike Snow. Everything that he says and does makes me want to punch him in his smiling face. He’s such a “good guy” trope. He always does what he thinks is right in every situation, never leaves anyone to suffer, and pounds his fists dramatically and screams at the INJUSTICE of every situation. Oh, the melodrama! Snow takes personal responsibility for the suffering of everyone around him, he goes on and on about how he MUST fight to do what is right, always, and spends the majority of the first half of the game screaming “Serah!” at random intervals. He’s cocky and annoying, I absolutely can’t stand anything that comes out of his mouth, he has not had a single moment where I’ve found his character to be redeeming at all. I absolutely cannot stand him, it’s like his character was conjured up to try and bring in players who’ve never played the Final Fantasy series by putting in the most streotypical heroic good-guy ever and giving him a corny romance with a pretty girl in a miniskirt.

Not all of the characters make me want to vomit and pull my hair out though. A good slice of the main cast is very likable. Sazh is the voice of reason amongst the group, and the only who seems to think like a rational human being. He’s also one of the most moving characters in the story. His motivation is to save his son Dajh, who is, predictably, a l’Cie, by completing Dajh’s unknown focus for him. In a sequence quite surprising for a Final Fantasy game, Sazh even puts his pistol to his head and attempts to kill himself. Hope, on the other hand, is a character who I really want to like, but just can’t. He begins the game as a complete weakling, crouching down behind people and screaming for his life and crying about every situation he finds himself in, and as he travels with Lightning becomes so hell bent on revenge with snow that he becomes outraged and overconfident, charging off into battles in an attempt to become stronger and get revenge. His whole plotline sounds good, but it just doesn’t really do it for me, it’s all so melodramatic that I don’t really buy it.

Fan service anyone?

Oerba Dia Vanille, better known simply as Vanille, serves as the narrator of the story. Vanille is perhaps the most likable character in the game, and her story is probably the most interesting, as she ultimately becomes one of the central figures of the main plot. I am a bit disturbed by how much blatant fan service Vanille delivers throughout the game, however, constantly jumping around and laughing in an extremely sexual manner. Seriously, it sounds like Vanille has an orgasm every time she is even remotely stimulated by anything. When she’s not being dramatic or narrating, she’s giggling like a schoolgirl, throwing her butt in the air and rolling around in the grass squealing in excstasy because she likes the way a flower smells or something. She let’s out an orgasmic scream with her legs mounted atop her Eidolon when it unleashes it’s final attack, a massive explosion. It’s kind of funny to me that I did not notice this whatsoever the first couple of times I played this game, but on my current playthrough it was pointed out to me and I can’t believe I never noticed it before. Still, Vanille is a really good character, and a good choice to be the narrator. She also sports an odd Australian accent that goes in and out randomly, so that sometime’s she sounds British, sometimes she sounds American, and sometimes she sounds like a British-Australian hybrid.

Oerba Dia Fang, or simply Fang, is a warrior who, like Vanille, hails from Gran Pulse. I’m gonna go ahead and say it, it’s pretty heavily implied that Vanille and Fang are a couple. They don’t come outright and say it, but if you play the game you’ll see what I mean. Apparently Fang was originally designed as male, but later changed to female, so it would make even more sense if you factor in the possibility that there may have originally been a romance planned for these two. Fang joins the party about halfway into the story; she too sports an Australian accent, and is another of the more likable characters in the main cast.

Altogether, the main cast leaves a lot to be desired. With the exception of Fang and Vanille, most of them just aren’t very compelling, and their backstories don’t really make me as a player care about them that much. I think the fact that Square Enix tried so hard to break all of the Final Fantasy traditions in this game hurt them in this area as well as basically every other. There’s no token non-human character, and everyone kind of blends in. Hell, can’t we at least have them all wearing ridiculous outfits that look silly when they all stand together in a group? No? Fine.

Part 3: Music

I don’t have very much to say about the music in this game, except that it’s mostly the same two tracks rearranged for different situations. Most of the area music is the main theme of the game, a cute love-ballad, rearranged to fit the mood of the area, and most of the intense cutscenes use a rearranged version of the main battle theme, which is also Lightning’s theme. Nobuo Umeatsu is said to be making a return to the Final Fantasy series, and I’ll be very grateful when he does, because with the exception of the theme songs of the games, which have been mostly pop ballads, the music of the Final Fantasy series has been extremely forgettable since he left after Final Fantasy 10. That being said, I don’t dislike the music of this game, it’s just not very diverse or memorable. The battle theme is pretty, but it’s just about all you’ll be hearing apart from the main pop song that’s been woven into the music of the areas and cutscenes.

Part 4: Gameplay

And here it is. The gameplay. As I’ve mentioned before, this game tried very hard to break all of the Final Fantasy traditions, which I respect, because I like originality. However, I think they tried so hard not to be a Final Fantasy game that the battle system is, at times, totally ludicrous.

Firstly, characters do not have stats in this game apart from strength and magic. Yep, that’s it. If defense and magic defense are factored into these stats, I don’t know, because the game certainly does not tell me. There are items that increase your damage resistance and magic resistance by a certain percentage, which is the closest you get to actually having a defensive stat. Your armor comes in the form of accessories, much like it did in Final Fantasy 10 and 10-2, with these items doing everything from increasing your HP, strength or magic, to giving you elemental resistances and increasing the effects of items. Having no stats apart from strength and magic seems like it would make battling simpler, but it doesn’t.

The battles take place in real time, which is something we should all be used to by now, and characters act via an Active Time Battle gague that fills up gradually. Every move has an ATB cost, rather than an MP cost, and you can choose as many moves as you want based on the ATB points you have. All of the characters start out with 2 ATB gague segments and gain more as time goes on. Because it would be too difficult to decide what all three of your characters do with all three of their ATB gague segments while running around in real time and getting pummeled by enemies, you only control the party leader, and the other characters act on their own to support you. There’s also an Auto-Battle option, which queues up what the computer decides to be the most effective action at that point in battle, such as healing the character with the lowest HP, or using a wide-ranged attack called Blitz to attack multiple enemies at once.

Everyone has access to different roles in battle, which correspond pretty closely to the job system Final Fantasy veterans are already used to, with roles such as Commando (Warrior), Ravager (Black Mage), and Medic (White Mage). During battle, you set which characters are fitting which role using a Paradigm. For example, if you have Lightning as a Commando, Hope as a Ravager, and Vanille as a Medic, that is a Paradigm called Diversity. During battle you can switch between the Paradigms you have set up, which is known as a Paradigm shift.

This all sets up very well, and it could work out great. However, for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t. That is because enemies are defeated mainly using a concept called Stagger. Whenever you battle an enemy, they have a Stagger bar in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and you fill it by using a variety of attacks, which requires a lot of Paradigm shifting so that your characters can perform different moves. However, this mechanic just hasn’t really panned out in my personal experience of playing. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe you just have to be a Dungeons and Dragons type to really get this battle system, but the majority of enemies I battle are very difficult to Stagger, and the only way to really make them Stagger is to constantly switch between Paradigms. That doesn’t seem too bad, but it takes all of the fun out of battling. You never really get a chance to do anything, or decide what actions to take, because you have to spend the whole battle constantly Paradigm shifting so that your opponent’s stagger gauge will go up.

Another important thing to note about Staggering is that though your party fills an opponents stagger gauge by attacking, it’s also steadily falling back down to zero, so you have to act fast to keep it from starting all over. However, there are times when an opponents Stagger bar moves so painfully slow that it can take five to ten minutes just to defeat one enemy, for exmaple you can be battling an enemy whose Stagger point is at 200%, and the percentage their Stagger gauge has reached will be 199.8%, but five more attacks don’t even fill it up to 199.9%! Other times, their Stagger gauge drops so rapidly that there is literally no way to attack in time to keep it from dropping to zero and restarting, and Paradigm shifting causes your characters to stop battling for the few seconds it takes to shift, which leaves you entirely open to attack, and causes your opponent’s Stagger gauge to drop back down to zero again!

On top of the difficulty of staggering opponents, your party is so weak in the HP department that you have to have at least one character healing the other party members at virtually all times! This doesn’t even help most of the time though, because a Medic will launch four Cure spells at one character at a time, and if two characters are injured then you have to wait for them to queue up another four Cure spells to lob at the injured character who will probably be dead by the time they get to doing it. Medics also aren’t provided with very effective spells, as I am now at chapter 11 of 13 and have still not upgraded beyond Cura, or even seen Curaga in my list of upcoming abilities, even though I know that the spell exists in the game. And guess what else? You are only given Potions with which to heal your party. Basic Potions that are ineffective most of the time for healing and only help somewhat if your character equips an item that doubles their effectiveness. On top of that, the time that it takes for a character to do their item animation usually causes me to get killed and lose the battle, because there’s a second or two of delay between selecting the item and the party leader using it.

And if you think you can get through the game without Paradigm shifting, guess again. This may work in some of the earlier chapters, but by the time you get to Chapter 11, enemies have so much HP and (presumably) defense that you can attack for minutes on end and still not see any significant decrease in their health, nor an increase in their stagger bar, so you’re left constantly Paradigm shifting in an attempt to do some damage to them, but whenever you shift to any sort of offensive Paradigm your characters are immediately pummeled to near-death and you have to switch back to a defensive Paradigm just to heal everyone, at which point the opponent’s Stagger bar has dropped to zero and you have to start all over again! The enemies also have so much health that it’s nearly impossible to defeat some of them without staggering them, especially bosses. In Chapter 11, many of the enemies have HP ranging from the hundred-thousands to an enemy with literally five-million HP! FIVE MILLION! Ruby goddamn Weapon from Final Fantasy 7 only had 800,000! From what I can tell, the characters HP, Strength and Magic all increase dramatically near the ending of the game, but a player shouldn’t have to go through 80% of the game with low stats, fighting beginner level enemies, only to be thrown into a grand open plain filled with enemies that have five million HP!

There are no towns to explore in this game, and as such, your shops are all available to you at save points, and you gain access to new shops by defeating important enemies. In the shops you can buy items, but you won’t spend much time buying items in this game because the game does not give you any gil. Occasionally you’ll run across a treasure sphere with a little gil in it, but it’s nothing substantial. You cannot earn money from battling, you cannot earn money from side quests, you cannot earn money from anything in this game, all that you can do is sell items, and usually the only items that fetch any significant amount of gil are weapons. The concept of selling items for gil, as opposed to just earning it from enemies, was used in Final Fantasy 12, but in that game, enemies dropped loot, the sole purpose of which was to sell so that you could have gil. In this game however, enemies drop components, which could be sold for gil but wouldn’t be enough to provide you with any real money, and besides, you would just spend the money you earned buying more components, because of the weapons system.

The weapons system is the only part of this game that I think I really like. Components that enemies drop can be used to upgrade your weapon, in a concept similar to weapon synthesis used in Final Fantasy 8 and the Kingdom Hearts series, except that instead of hunting down the right component pieces for the proper upgrade, you can use any component to upgrade any weapon, because they all have an EXP value. For example, a character’s weapon may require 1,000 EXP to level up to level 2, so you can use components whose combined EXP values equal 1,000 or greater to upgrade to the next level. If you overshoot the amount needed, the weapon will automatically add in the extra EXP you gave it and continue upgrading to the appropriate level. Leveling up a weapon increases it’s strength and/or magic depending on the weapon, and when it’s reached it’s maximum level (which from what I can tell is about level 26), you can use a special kind of component that acts as a transformation agent to change the weapon into it’s next form. For instance, Lightning’s default weapon the Blazefire Saber maxes out it’s level at level 26, and you can use the transformation agent Perovskite to upgrade the weapon to it’s second form, Flamberge, and eventually when it’s maxed it’s level out again, upgrade it to it’s ultimate form, Omega Weapon.

Weapons are not the only thing that can be leveled up, as accessories too have levels, and increasing these levels can increase their effect, such as providing you with more elemental resistances, or strength, magic, and HP bonuses. Items with single effects like the Doctor’s Code, which doubles the restorative effect of Potions, max out at level 2. The weapons system can be confusing without a guide though, as it’s hard to tell when comparing a new weapon to a currently equipped weapon which has better stats, since the new one will always be on level one, and some of the weapon and accessories abilities, like Stagger Lock and Deprotect reistance, aren’t really ever explained to you without you doing your own research.

The characters level up through a system called the Crystarium, which is the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy 10 reincarnated. The Sphere Grid was a fantastic system for leveling up characters, and this game pretty much sticks to the Sphere Grid formula, except that rather than gaining a Sphere level and using each level to progress to the next node of the grid, you use Crystarium points, which are this games Experience points, to progress to the next crystal, which will increase your magic or strength, give a new accessory slot or ATB gauge segment, or grant you new abilites to be used in battle when using the role you’ve gained the ability in. The Crystarium is a solid level-up system, but because the pacing of the game is so slow, you’re given basically a level cap on how far you can progress through the Crystarium in your given chapter. By Chapter 11, crystals have gone from costing four hundred, seven hundred, or a thousand Crystarium points, to up in the thousands and ten thousands, and it’s apparently only going to get more expensive from there. By the time every member of the party is given access to every role of the Crystarium, learning the techniques for new roles costs thousands of Crystarium points just for a single crystal! The problem with the Crystarium, is the same problem that exists with the enemies and the area layouts: the pacing.

The pacing of this game is horrible. It is, for the most part, an interactive movie. You spend the majority of the game walking on narrow paths down a straight line, and fighting groups of enemies with your only goal to the end of the path where you’ll watch another cut scene. The areas are basically straight lines handed to you on a silver platter, and your only objective is to battle through the hordes of enemies to get to the next cutscene. It sucks all of the fun out of exploring and training your characters. It’s terrible game design that the player spends the first 10 chapters running down narrow paths, only to be thrown onto the sprawling plains of Gran Pulse that is literally a gigantic open field filled with enemies. Chapter 11 also introduces the Mission system, in which you find Cie’th Stones that, which basically give you a beast of some sort to kill, similar to the hunt system from Final Fantasy 12.  The problem is you really have no idea where to look for the marks you’re hunting, and trying to aimlessly wander around gets you killed by the hordes of dragons and behemoths with hundreds of thousands of HP, motionless Stagger gauges, and strength stats so high that you have to spend the whole battle with them healing yourself.

Eidolons make an appearance in this game as well, and unlike Final Fantasy 12, which made an effort not to use any of the classic summons, the majority of the Eidolons featured in this game are familiar summons like Shiva and Bahamut. Whenever one of the main party members is in great distress or feels the need to give up (such as Sazh attempting to shoot himself, or Hope asking the others to leave him behind), their personal Eidolon appears and challenges them in battle. The method of defeating an Eidolon is not by reducing it’s HP to zero however, since it has no HP gauge. They also cannot be staggered, as they have no Stagger point. The method of defeating them is to fill their Gestalt Gauge, which fills based on different actions characters use in battle, but really all you need to do is keep paradigm shifting and using a variety of abilities. Every Eidolon battle begins with the Eidolon placing a Doom counter over their l’Cie partner, and when the counter reaches zero, the battle ends unfavorably. Once you’ve filled the Gestalt gauge, however, you can claim the Eidolon as your own and enter Gestalt mode, though you won’t be able to actually use Gestalt modes abilities in the initial battle.

Eidolons are summoned using Technical Points, which you acquire through successfully completing battles and unleashing full ATB gauges, and each l’Cie can summon their personal Eidolon, no other. Unfortunately, Eidolons aren’t really as powerful as they seem. Summoning an Eidolon during even a normal battle against a few simple monsters doesn’t really make the battle dramatically easier, as opponent’s are still very difficult to stagger, and your Eidolon doesn’t do such a significantly higher amount of damage than your character that it easily turns the tide of a battle. Instead of HP, your Eidolon has a Gestalt meter that steadily decreases, and at any time you can enter Gestalt mode, in which your Eidolon transforms into a vehicle of some sort for your character to ride and battle atop. They morph in a style similar to the that of the Transformers series, sometimes into beasts, such as Odin morphing into a horse, which Lightning rides atop, swinging Odin’s twin swords, or Brynhildr morphing into a car, which Sazh drives. This actually caused quite a stir amongst Final Fantasy fans when details and footage of Final Fantasy 13 were first being made public; I personally don’t really mind the transforming aspect, as it provides a unique style of gameplay that happens entirely in real-time. Upon entering Gestalt mode you’re given a list of abilities, along with Gestalt points you can spend to use each ability, and a finishing move with a cinematic final blow that does a lot more damage than any of the others. Unfortunately, as I said, Eidolon’s don’t really turn the tide of any difficult battle, so you’ll find that you haven’t really done too significant an amount of damage to a boss if you summon an Eidolon, and because of the limited amount of Technical Points your party is given, you can only summon an Eidolon once per battle.

This game has also completely changed status effects, which are divided into subcategories Debuff, Debilitate, and None. I still don’t understand what the majority of them do. Debuff status effects all decrease stats, such as Deprotect and Poison, Debilitate hinders your ability to act, such as Fog and Curse, and None… well, I can’t really figure it out, apparently instant death is somehow involved. I have about no idea what all of these new status effects do, I don’t know the difference between Fog or Haze, I don’t know how Debrave is directly related to Brave, if it cancels out Brave or if it’s just something different altogether, the status effects make no sense to me, and while as a player I should learn these effects, most of them aren’t explained within the game, and considering the game wastes no time explaining extremely simple things like how to use a Potion, you would think that the designers would have though to explain the basic game mechanics of a new game in the series that doesn’t have the same status effects or stats as any of the others! The battle system, along with everything else in this game, tries so hard to be unique and break the Final Fantasy mold that it completely forgets to be a solid system for battling!

The final new concept of the battle system is the ranking system. At the end of each battle, you’re given points on how well you completed the battle, a rank of zero to five stars. This rank does absolutely nothing whatsoever, it doesn’t give you experience, it doesn’t let you keep the points you earn to spend on something, it’s just there to judge you for no reason at all. This isn’t an arcade game where you’re trying to get a perfect score on each level, it’s an RPG, and there’s no need whatsoever to rank how well you did in the battle, because that’s entirely beside the point!

The battle system is so full of fresh, new ideas, that it seems like it’s going to pan out very well at the beginning of the game, but by Chapter 11, it’s all falling apart: enemies are overpowered and extremely difficult to defeat, characters can’t gain more than one or two crystals at a time because of the ludicrous cost of leveling up, gil is sparse because it can only be obtained by finding items and selling them, battles consist of mostly letting the computer do the actual battling while you command from behind the scenes with Paradigm shifting, Eidolon’s are underpowered, even easy bosses have so much HP that you have to dance around them for minutes a time, slowly wittling down their HP gauges and sometimes never staggering them, and on top of that you get the added insult of making a zero-star rank if you complete the battle in anything less than a minute or two, even on bosses.

The difficulty spikes so high in chapter 11 that it’s like you’re not even playing the same game anymore, and you have to spend a lot of time level grinding to be strong enough to defeat even the weakest of enemies on Gran Pulse. You go immediately from walking straight lines to a huge open field covered in deadly enemies you have slim chances of defeating, and are left to fend for yourself entirely in a game that hasn’t set itself up to even have an overworld this close to the ending. You’re given what you want if you’ve been bothered by the linearity, but the wide open space is just as bad, it’s so non-linear that you’re left having no idea what to do, and whichever course you decide on will involve battling your way through hordes of extremely strong enemies you’re not in any position to fight yet. In addition, this chapter gives you such extreme stat bonuses (like a normal strength crystal going from giving you +4 strength to +80) that it’s like the real leveling up and exploration was just tacked on at the ending so as to give the pesky players who want real gameplay instead of an incessant pummeling of story something to silence them. The pacing of this game is horrifying, going from your stats being in the hundred to the thousands within a couple chapters! You spend 80% of the game walking straight lines with the game holding your hand in every aspect, to being forced to level grind from what was probably about level 20 to about level 50 in two chapters. The game has tried so hard to have a compelling story that it completely sweep gameplay under the rug in favor cutscene after cutscene of l’Cie and fal’Cie.

Conclusion

I have never been disappointed in a Final Fantasy game. Ever. Even games that I didn’t particularly love, I could still have fun with and see the advantages of. I appreciate when a game tries to create a fresh atmosphere and a new style of gameplay, and sometimes it can be rough to adjust to. But this game blatantly ignores gameplay in favor of it’s story, and that’s just ridiculous. If I wanted to watch a Final Fantasy movie, I would go get one of the many that have been produced. I came to this game hoping to find something that would capture my interest and keep me hooked on playing for hours, building my team and creating the perfect combination of weapons and abilities that worked for me. But instead, I have spent twenty hours walking a straight line, only to level up painfully slow, and then be thrown into the final three chapters of the game, where absolutely all of the team building and leveling up occurs.

The mistakes that this game makes are absolutely unforgivable, and I am not a hard gamer to please. I enjoy very simple RPGs, give me something to level up and a big field in which to do it, and I’m happy. But the overworld of Gran Pulse is not the same thing whatsoever, and it makes me really angry that the Final Fantasy franchise would create a game so story-centric that it doesn’t even attempt to have compelling gameplay that makes a player want to come back. Replay value has always been a key factor in the fun of any RPG. Why would I want to replay this game? To watch the same melodramatic story play out again, only to be treated to hour long interludes of walking down straight paths and fighting enemies that take minutes to defeat, so that I can barely level up whatsoever, and then be treated to more cutscenes? What would be the point? The battles in this game just becomes less and less fun as the story progresses, and eventually the only reason you’re playing is to see what happens next in the story, which isn’t in itself all that compelling in the first place!

I thought that Final Fantasy fans were just doing what all fans of major franchises do when they said that Final Fantasy 13 was a disappointment, and that Square Enix’s games were going downhill, and they were just complaining because they weren’t getting Final Fantasy 7 all over again. I’m happy when a game tries it’s best to be an individual and not exactly the same as it’s predecessors. But by the time you’re near the ending, Final Fantasy 13 just isn’t an extremely fun game. I really don’t see any reason to play it again, and that’s just sad. It’s not completely devoid of fun, it has it’s appeal, but it’s sad to see the Final Fantasy franchise attempt to cash in on the storyline it’s so renowned for by focusing so much on the story that gameplay goes virtually unnoticed. I’m really surprised, because I have always expected top quality games from the Final Fantasy series, and it has never let me down before. But this game has let me down, and I’m sad to say that. I sincerely hope that when Square Enix goes back to the drawing board for the next Final Fantasy installment, which should be another installment in the Fabula Nova Chrysallis series that Final Fantasy 13 is a part of, they’ll try and keep in mind that players keep coming back to their games not just because of the compelling story and characters, but because of the solid, unique, fun gameplay that each installment has offered.

Square clearly spent a lot of money making this game pretty. The characters and areas are beautifully rendered, the cutscenes are spectacular, the creatures and places are stunning and beautiful, the music, while not nearly as memorable as music in the past installments, is cinematic and sets a good mood. The concepts for the gameplay are good, but they’re ignored for most of the game, and by the time they finally come to fruition, the game’s almost over, and it’s far too late to give the player an overworld to explore. The slow pacing, lack of gameplay, oversaturation of story and melodrama, and well-intentioned but ultimately bad attempts to be individual among it’s predecessors make Final Fantasy 13 a truly dissapointing game that starts strong but becomes weaker as it draws to it’s final climax. I’m not finished with the game and I know that I still have more of it to experience, but based on my twenty hours of gameplay through 11 of the game’s 13 chapters, I am really saddenned to see a series that I have always had faith, trust, and hope in, make such a big mistake as blatantly disregarding gameplay for a pretty, cinematic game that is more or less an interactive film. A beautifully rendered interactive film, but not a compelling game. I came to Final Fantasy 13 expecting a game, and what I got was a film. I don’t know what else to say except that I hope that when Final Fantasy 15 finally rolls around, we’ll be given a game that’s not only unique in it’s storyline and characters as well as beautifully rendered and detailed, but provides solid, FUN gameplay. I want to have fun when I play a game. This game has not delivered in it’s fun factor.

I give Square Enix all the credit it’s due for the beautiful cutscenes that they clearly spent all of their time working on, but I’m sad to see a franchise of the magnitude of Final Fantasy, of which I have so much personal investment in, having spent my childhood and the majority of my life enjoying these games, slipping to such a degree as it has with Final Fantasy 13. Here’s hoping the next one is a lot more fun.

Afterword

Since writing this review I’ve finished the game, and while I still stand by the points I made here, I’ve since learned that a lot of the trouble I was having with the battle system was due to ignorance about the basic mechanics of the game. For instance, I was using mostly commandos, and the game doesn’t ever really tell you that commando’s are virtually incapable of staggering enemies, and that ravagers are the main enemy staggerers. It also doesn’t go into detail explaining all of the new status effects, the new weapons and armor system, it doesn’t talk about Synthesis Groups whatsoever, gives only a vague outline of how to upgrade weapons and armor, and you’re left with virtually no idea of what certain weapons and armor will upgrade into. If the game takes the time to hold your hand through teaching you how to use a Potion (which, in addition to being virtually worthless in battle, is the only healing item in the game, aside from Elixirs, of which I received one on my entire playthrough and it was right before the final boss), I would think it would explain the different between Debuffing and Debilitating status effects, how damage is dealt in battle considering the only stats your given are Strength and Magic, or how to upgrade to a weapon’s final form, since it uses a different catalyst than the original and there’s no way to see which catalyst upgrades which weapon without trial and error.

By the end of the game, the fun factor drops nearly to zero; I was extremely bored with the final dungeon, which was just a tedious line of overpowered enemies that I don’t know how you’re expected to defeat if you haven’t grinded or upgraded your weapons, which by the way it’s reccomended that you don’t even do until AFTER you’ve beaten the game. It’s like the whole story of the game is just a buildup to being able to do the Cie’th Stone missions after you’re finished. And in case you’re wondering, the story doesn’t really get any better, it’s pretty much just a lineup of people saying the words “l’cie,” “fal’cie,” “cie’th,” “focus,” “crystal,” etc. Vanille and Fang’s backstory is never really fleshed out, a lot of things happen in the finale of the game that don’t make sense, like Fang attempting to save Vanille by… killing her? The party turns into Cie’th, and then suddenly they weren’t Cie’th, the party destroys Orphan even though their goal was to save Cocoon by NOT destroying Orphan, the main villain of the game WANTS you to kill him, it’s all very confusing and didn’t really add up by the end. The sad thing is, once the brief action is done in the final scene and Vanille and Fang transform into Ragnorok to save Cocoon, the ending scene is only a few minutes long. I spent 50 hours watching hundreds of cutscenes just to finally complete the quest and get a very brief reunion between Serah and Dahj and their families, and that’s it. No epilogue, no explanation of what happened to the citizens of Cocoon, nothing. All of the rest of the story is told through a series of web novellas called Final Fantasy 13 Episode Zero, a prologue, and Final Fantasy 13 episode 1, an epilogue. It was pretty disappointing, the one thing I thought this game would hold up it’s end of the bargain on was lengthy cutscenes, but ironically the only time in the game I wanted a lengthy cutscene was the ending, and it was disappointingly short, though the action in the finale of the game was still great.

The fun factor of the game goes WAY up after you’re finished with the main story. Gran Pulse is much more fun to explore than any area of Cocoon, the missions are a fun system, and the ability to customize all the characters of your main cast without worrying about hordes of overpowered enemies adds so much to the fun. It really seems like Final Fantasy 13 is intended to be played in two parts: the main story which as I’ve said in an interactive movie, and Gran Pulse which you can’t fully explore until after you’ve beaten the game.

In fact, you aren’t even given the entire Crystarium until after completing the final chapter, and even though all characters can develop in any role, they aren’t all given the same abilities, and due to the outrageous CP cost for learning abilities in other roles, characters are mostly confined to their initial three roles. For example: you can make Sazh a Medic, but the only abilities he’ll ever learn are Cure, Esuna, and Cura. Then there are some characters whose central roles are Medics, who don’t ever gain important Medic abilities: Vanille is the only Medic to learn Curaja, and Lightning never learns Raise, even in the final tier of her Crystarium. Characters do all learn a “signature” move though, such as Lightning’s Army of One, which is a cinematic Omnislash-type attack, Fang’s Highwind ability, which does extremely high damage to staggered enemies, usually breaking the damage limit, and Vanille’s Death ability, which has a certain percentage of chance to kill an opponent instantly, and is your best bet for fighting Adamantoises before you’re ready.

All in all, Final Fantasy 13 was pretty much a let down, but there is some hope: the postgame is a lot more fun than the actual story itself, and the sequel, Final Fantasy 13-2, looks worlds better than it’s predecessor. I watched the first half hour or so of the sequel’s gameplay, and a lot of problems with the original are rectificed while the good aspects of the original are improved upon: the player starts right in the middle of the action, quick-time events had been added, the player can choose the way certain scenes play out, and even influence the ending of the game. In fact, there are nine different endings to Final Fantasy 13-2, consisting of one canon ending and eight “paradox” endings.

The story of the sequel is immediately more interesting: Lightning is a warrior in a strange world called Valhalla, locked in a deathmatch against an enigmatic villain named Caius, Serah lives in the town of New Bodhum on Gran Pulse, and sets off on a search to find Lightning, who is thought by everyone to be dead, insisting that Serah’s memories of meeting up with Lightning and her party alongside Dahj were a dream, and that Lightning had in reality sacrificed herself to become the crystal pillar holding up Cocoon when it fell to the earth. In addition, the battle system seems to have been improved upon: Paradigm Shifts happen instantly, enemies chain gauges seem to fill much faster, and enemies actually award you gil for defeating them! Also, the entire Crystarium is available from the beginning of the game, and has been given some improvements as well.

Kupo!

The areas in Final Fantasy 13-2 are open and non-linear, exploration is more interactive with the inclusion of a jump button (the first main series Final Fantasy to ever officially give the player the ability to jump at any time), the setting is much more interesting, between the wilderness of Gran Pulse and the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Valhalla. The music also sounds much more interesting, rather than being the same three or four tracks remixed for different occasions, the tracks I’ve heard just from the small portion of the game I’ve seen have been interesting, different, and incorporate a much more rock and dance oriented feel, with the strings and orchestras from the first game still present and mixed in. Even though the battle theme that was woven into almost every track in Final Fantasy 13 appears again, but it’s much more interesting with the diversity of the sequels soundtrack. Also, did I mention there are Moogles? Yep, Serah’s weapon is a moogle that transforms into a bow. Her partner, Noel, may look like he was plucked right out of Kingdom Hearts, but Final Fantasy 13-2 still looks very promising, and looks like a lot more fun than the original.

Almost all reviews of Final Fantasy 13-2 unanimously agree that it’s a vast improvement upon it’s predecessor, and from what I’ve seen of the game I agree. The story is more involved, the gameplay more fun, the outcome is affected by the decisions you make, it’s much more of an RPG and less of an interactive movie than the first game. The cinematics are also a lot more interesting, and everything about the game seems more fun. I still have some achievements to work on, as well as finishing the missions, but when I’ve completed this game I’m really considering playing Final Fantasy 13-2, as it seems to improve greatly on everything this game missed the mark with.

Altogether, Final Fantasy 13 is not the greatest entry in the Final Fantasy series, but at the very least, it’s a good setup for Final Fantasy 13-2, which may be the first sequel in the Final Fantasy series to be significantly better than it’s predecessor. Hopefully when I embark on my next Final Fantasy adventure, I’ll be greeted with a story that’s more engaging (and frankly more interesting), and a style of gameplay that’s a lot more fun than this one has been. While Final Fantasy 13 isn’t a complete failure, it’s certainly a let down, but it’s sequel seems to have what it takes to make up for the slip-ups in this game.

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