Review: You can't l'Cie me
Strange design choices are unfortunately a hallmark of Final Fantasy XIII, ranging from nitpicky stuff to wondering if the boys at Square jumped off the Tokyo Tower and scrambled their brains. Obviously the well-known fact that the game is insanely linear sticks out, but it's almost fascinating to see just how much of a straight line the game is ? it truly is a series of tubes. If you played FFX, perhaps this won't bother you, but at least that game had some free exploration here and there and a few more branching paths along the way...not to mention towns and shops and stuff. Shopping ? something that's barely emphasized and can mostly be ignored aside from buying healing supplies ? is all done through save points, explained in the game by Cocoon's heavily online-based economy. The towns that you visit are either long abandoned or just non-interactive backdrops to battles, making them eye candy and nothing else. While some are sure to appreciate the heavily streamlined approach, taking these out makes the game seem like one long grind of battles with almost no downtime. It's not until Chapter 11 that the game opens up a little, but even then the wide-open expanse you visit in this chapter is littered with enemies that you probably can't beat, making the group run for cover into yet another linear dungeon.
Strangely enough, that area is best saved for when you complete the game. By that point, you'll be strong enough to fight the gigantic enemies on the map and handle the large selection of side-quests that become available. It's a truly baffling design choice ? it makes the core game seem like a warm-up, and now the real game is starting, like a bizarre ?expert? mode for those who care enough to keep playing after the credits roll. These side missions and adventures range from saving Chocobos to dealing with Cactuars to OH GOD WHY THREE TONBERRIES AT ONCE WHY. With over 60 in all, it adds a ton of bonus content to the game, and some unlock ancient Pulse vs. Cocoon lore. Yes, it's possible to do many of these quests before finishing the game, but it's not really worth the effort. Even nuttier is the inclusion of at least four additional locations to the game that you encounter or unlock during missions ? but not in the main game. Considering what's in these places, it would have been worth visiting to see it during the story. Instead people who just want to finish the game and move on won't even know they exist.
What makes the game overcome all these weird and frustrating mechanics and design choices is the battle system. It can't be emphasized enough just how enjoyable it is. It's easy to tell that Square was influenced by numerous other games in the genre ? most specifically the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. It begins with the familiar ?instant game over? if your character is KO'd in a battle ? a well-known trick from SMT. To compensate, XIII allows for an instant retry of any failed fight, which is actually pretty cool and beats loading a save and powering through an area again to reach the point where the game ended. The emphasis on buffing party members and debuffing enemies also seems to come from Megaten, where many fights are made much easier by smart application of those kinds of skills. The same applies here ? a boss fight that seems difficult can become a cakewalk by just lowering their defense and raising your attack. The tactical precision required is perhaps a new thing for Final Fantasy fans who are used to just powering through fights, but it's a welcome change. Paradigm Shifting is a fantastic way of having control of characters without actually controlling them. Having a wide variety of Paradigms to switch between depending on the situation is a necessary evil, but it's also another great tactical addition to a Final Fantasy battle system. In short, fans of RPG combat could very easily forget all about the weird quirks of the adventure and focus directly on the fun, challenging, tactical, and fast-paced battles.
Though a lot of it is non-interactive backdrops, the visuals of Final Fantasy XIII are stupendous. Character models in particular stand out for their realistic movements, gestures, and, most importantly, their eye animations. Seriously, after years of games where characters speak to each other with blank stares, actual & realistic eye movements are easily noticed and appreciated. Enemy design is pretty solid, if a bit repetitive, but boss fights tend to feature massive monsters that take up the entire screen. The visual design ranges from science-fiction meets modern style on Cocoon to the wide-open plains that are seen later on, and all of it looks great. The downer, of course, is that you can't visit a lot of this stuff ? huge areas are deemed small by the narrow path the game makes you walk down. To speak the highest of the visuals would be to discuss how the in-game engine almost matches the CG cutscenes ? you can tell the difference after a while, but at the start it's almost impossible to tell what's real-time and what's CG. Considering FFXIII actually started as a PlayStation 2 game, it's amazing how it all looks on a high-definition game machine.
Final Fantasy games are known for great soundtracks, and XIII delivers...mostly. It starts out great with the title music, moves into the really good battle theme, and continues with the epic boss encounter tune. The rest is a hodge-podge of sci-fi inspired music, generic fantasy compositions, and some occasionally brilliant overworld themes. A lot of it repeats itself too, making the soundtrack seem a little thin. All is forgiven upon hearing the jazzy interlude that makes up Sazh's Theme. Oh...and the infamous ?My Hands? doesn't appear until you beat the game, and it only runs for a couple minutes. Crisis averted? The voice acting is solid, if not spectacular ? Square still lags behind companies like Atlus in delivering a top-notch localization, but this is some of their best work. Perhaps you might be annoyed by Vanille's overly bubbly on-again-off-again ?Australian? accent, but that probably is the only polarizing role that I can think of. Some of the dialog is pretty ugly though, with more cheese than a dairy farm...but it's the kind of cheese that fans of FF are quite aware of. In a nice and unusual touch, Square actually synced the voices to lip movements...mostly. It still looks a little awkward but it's better than the ?speak, but see their lips move for five seconds after they finish their line? weirdness from most localizations.