Review: You can't l'Cie me
In recent years Square Enix has demonstrated that they are not afraid of greatly altering Final Fantasy, even if the die-hard fans of the franchise don't like it. Whether it's making a direct sequel to an existing Final Fantasy game, an MMO, or whatever you want to call Final Fantasy XII, the company has to be given some credit for mixing things up every time, in a noble attempt to keep the franchise from falling into stagnation. Final Fantasy XIII is perhaps the most radical departure yet ? building on many mechanics introduced in Final Fantasy X and borrowing trends from other popular games in its genre, XIII is a tightly scripted RPG with a vast array of character customization, impossibly beautiful visuals, and a fast-paced, challenging battle system. Yes, it's very linear and holds your hand for way too long, but sticking with the game rewards players with some of the best combat the series has ever seen, despite the head-scratching design choices that litter the forty-hour adventure. The wait was long, but the result is another excellent entry into a series that rarely delivers a bad game.
Final Fantasy XIII takes place on Cocoon, a floating land mass that's something of a satellite to the land below, known as Gran Pulse. Here on Cocoon the people are sheltered from Pulse, which is painted as some kind of hell by government propaganda. Unsurprisingly the populace falls for it, fearing anything and everything related to Pulse. Yet that fear doesn't match the fear they have for the l'Cie, a human who has been ?chosen? by the fal'Cie, another sentient race that come mostly from Pulse. Anyway, on Cocoon, even being in the same area as a l'Cie is enough to be ?purged?, or dumped down to Pulse, a punishment meant to prevent any unwanted l'Cie contamination. This is where the game begins, as a Purge is taking place. Through the eyes of many characters, you see the ramifications of the Purge. The main character, Lightning, decides to join this purge voluntarily, in a desperate attempt to rescue her sister Serah, who was branded a l'Cie. Another character, Snow, is engaged to Serah, and he, too, works to save her regardless of the consequences. It's not long before other characters join the fray, but tragedy befalls the group as they're all branded l'Cie and given a confusing goal, or Focus. This ends up being the driving force for the entire game.
The heart of any Final Fantasy is its battle system, and FFXIII is no different. This time around, the engine is a hybrid of the fast-paced mechanics from Final Fantasy X-2, and the order-driven combat of Final Fantasy XII. The game offers no control of other party members ? you can only play as the party leader. To compensate for that, the game offers a real-time role switching mechanic known as Paradigm Shifting. Every character has three specialty classes that offer a wide variety of skills (with a grand total of six overall classes between the six main characters), and to access them you have to set up Paradigms that take advantage of them. Mastery of these is essential to playing the game well, as good players will likely be switching roles frequently to take advantage of a situation. It offers a great deal of tactical strategy that is far deeper than past Final Fantasy games. Though you can't play as the other characters in your battle party, making good use of Paradigms results in intelligent AI that takes advantage of weaknesses, casts plenty of buffs and debuffs, and will alter their strategies if the situation demands it. Most importantly, the Medic class will do nothing but heal and remove status effects and won't waste time attacking fruitlessly.
Of course, Final Fantasy XIII features the ability to summon allies to aid characters in battle. Dubbed Eidolons, these giant friends are sure to be familiar ? names like Shiva, Bahamut, and Alexander are bell ringers. However, gaining possession of these summons requires actually engaging in battle with them. It's not like regular combat though ? when the battle begins, the Eidolon will cast Doom, which sets up a time limit for victory or face instant death. To win you must fill an on-screen gauge before the time runs out, and then your enemy will become your ally. Using them in battle is also quite different. Upon being summoned, the summoner will fight alongside the Eidolon like normal, but pressing the proper button ?transforms? the summon into a chariot of sorts, a character the party members ride on. The attacks are different than normal, but you can only perform so many moves before the summon expires. Even if you don't transform, there's a time limit to how long the Eidolon stays in the fight...it won't stay forever. Summoning has another trick ? it will instantly heal and remove status effects from party members once the battle returns to normal. It's a nice tactic if you're in a pinch. It might be the only time you use the summons though ? it's pretty easy to forget all about them, and really, they're not necessary. It's possible to play through the game without using them at all.
Character progression is handled through the Crystarium, which is similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Rather than gaining experience points and leveling up in the traditional way, the game hands out ?Crystarium Points? after each battle which are used to power up each of the individual classes. The catch is the game installs a ?cap? of sorts, wherein you cannot go past a certain point on the grid until certain events and battles occur. This removes the ability to over-level and make the game a cakewalk. In most respects this makes the game more challenging ? and it is tough in many places, with the whole ?your character dies and it's game over? thing ? but some surely will be frustrated by the lack of old-fashioned power leveling. Towards the end of the game there's a handful of points where grinding might be necessary to max out the grid, but most of the time there are enough battles to keep up the character development without falling far behind.
For those just starting the game, you might be wondering where all this tactical combat and in-depth character progression is. This is problem one with Final Fantasy XIII ? the game takes too long to introduce most of the mechanics of the battle system. You have to wait for a major story event to unlock Paradigms and the Crystarium, and you'll be waiting even longer for the Eidolons come into play. Until then, it's just your basic ?press X to win? battle system without any real depth. This is a common theme for XIII, as almost everything comes slowly. It takes half the game just to finally align all six party members into a group and allow for party customization. Prior to that event, either the game automatically selected combatants or there weren't enough people to require it because your party was split into smaller groups. Even when you can create your own party, the game stupidly resets all your created and edited Paradigms the instant someone is switched out. In my case, I just kept the same three party members for the remainder of the game to avoid dealing with this.