It’s been some weeks now since the release of Final Fantasy XIII and those of you who’ve been following the site closely know I’ve been forced to put it aside for the moment due to the recent arrival of Resonance of Fate. So, while I haven’t even come close to finishing, in lieu of a full-blown review, here are my impressions on my first 35 hours of playtime with Final Fantasy XIII.
The Visuals – Like a Postcard in 1080p
I don’t want to harp on this point too much as anyone who has seen this game in action already knows, this game is simply beautiful. It’s easily one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played. The cinematics are vivid and crisp, but what is amazing is just how good the in-game graphics look in comparison. The character models in particular are highly detailed right down the zippers on their clothes. It’s remarkable that the PS3 version is able to pump out such images with little evidence of frame-rate drops or lengthy load times.
The environments also feature some very striking landscapes. I often found myself stopping just to admire the picturesque view. But all those fantastic visuals do seem to come at a cost. The actual explorable elements of the environment are quite narrow and linear, without much room for secret passages or hidden items.
The Battle System – Greased Lightning
In a nutshell, the battle system is an accelerated and concentrated version of its predecessors. While the basics will be familiar to any Final Fantasy fan (players wait until a time bar fill before issuing action in combat), it now borrows heavily in philosophy from other action RPGs like those of the Tales franchise.
Encounters are fast and frenetic, with some ending in as little as a minute (although this can vary greatly especially against bosses). Players control only the party leader while the computer AI manages your two allies. In a refreshing turn of events, your artificial comrades are quite competent: attacking your targets and exploiting enemy weaknesses. The AI is good enough in fact that most players will rely on the “auto battle” command (which automatically queues up a contextually appropriate set of actions) frequently just to keep up.
In terms of mechanics, battles are based on two systems: the character classes and paradigm shifts. Classes determine a character’s possible actions, strengths and weaknesses. The sentinel, for example, is a defensive support class. They have very high defense, the ability to guard/counter-attack and provoke enemies to attack them. So in combat they act as decoys and tanks distracting enemies while allies heal or pile on damage. And the developmental track for each class varies between characters. In the case of the sentinel, one may specialize in absorbing attacks while another just dodges them outright.
Which class is active also defines the behaviour of AI controlled allies in battle and so the particular set of classes your party members have equipped at any given time provides the foundation of your strategy. This is where paradigm shifting comes in. In the menu screens, players can generate or customize up to six sets of character class combinations (based on those available to the 3 active party members) called paradigms. Then, any time during battle, you can switch between these paradigms allowing you to adapt your skills and strategy to the situation.
Here’s a brief example: Against a strong enemy, you may want to lead off with a paradigm like Premeditation, which consists of a sentinel, a synergist and saboteur. The sentinel distracts the enemy while the synergist (buffer) and saboteur (debuffer), strengthen your party and weaken your target. Once that is done, you could switch to an offensive paradigm like Relentless Assault, 1 commando (fighter) and 2 ravagers (mages), to finish them off. Once mastered the mechanic is fluid, exciting and very rewarding.
Game Progression – A Slow Burn
The one thing about the game that seems to be garnering nearly universal criticism is the pace with which the game beginning chapters progress. Essentially, the word on the street is that the first 20 hours are boring and the game does not open up until chapter 11. After playing for a blistering 35 hours I’ve still yet to reach the coveted “good part” and I can honestly say, I don’t care.
While I must admit, it takes considerable time and effort to fully unlock all of the game’s features, but getting there is half the fun. The reason why being the way in which the game mechanics and narrative slowly unfold. You’re eased into the battle system at a moderate pace, keeping things fresh without a steep learning curve. And if you’re like me, you’ll keep playing just to advance the story and delve into the lore that makes up the world of Cocoon. While by no means is it a piece of classical literature, the plot and characters are just intriguing enough to maintain your attention.
This set of main characters in particular are some of the most interesting of any in the Final Fantasy franchise. Unlike some of its predecessors, all of the primary cast are multi-faceted (well at least two facets) and feel like they contribute to the story in meaningful ways. No more fluffy or superfluous characters. Just getting to know them, their personal motivations and individual tragedies just adds one more reason to keep playing.
Final Fantasy XIII, developed and published by Square Enix, was played for 35 hours. Currently on Chapter 10. Spotted: 1 guy named Cid, several Chocobos, 0 Moogles (quite disappointing really).