Way back when, I created an internet handle entitled SpudlyFF8Fan. Obviously, I was a pretty big Final Fantasy fan at the time, Final Fantasy VIII in particular. In the last few years, though, I’ve grown relatively disinterested with the series, ignoring everything from the blockbuster “numbered” installments in the series like Final Fantasy XII, the spin-offs like the Crystal Chronicles series and the myriad of handheld ports of the old-school titles. But on a whim, I picked up Final Fantasy XIII and while there have been plenty of complaints about the game, I still find it to be a generally enjoyable, though admittedly spotty, experience.
Regardless of the particular game, you can always count on Final Fantasy titles to include cutting-edge graphics and a story-centered experience. Naturally, Final Fantasy XIII follows suit. The story itself is among the most convoluted tales in the series. It takes place on a flying city called Cocoon, where magical monsters called fal’Cie can give humans powers (these empowered people are called L’Cie). With those powers, they are given the ultimatum to complete a certain task (called a Focus) and die a heroic death (or do they?)…or don’t and turn into a monster. Naturally, a bunch of stuff happens and your entire party becomes empowered and must complete their Focus. I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but the story as a whole tries very hard to straddle along many lines, with a plain-and-simple mythological tale framed in a definitively futuristic setting (you’re going to be fighting many robots and Fallout-style shock troopers). At a few points, the game shines with this blend. The large majority of the time, however, it feels forced and oftentimes, goofy. The greatest example of this being Shiva, a mainstay summon, turning into a motorcycle, Transformers-style, for one of the lead charaters. Yes, you read that right.
Graphically, the game does what it tries to do. It looks sleek, stylish and just generally excellent. Characters, enemies and environments are detailed and well-crafted and even though this game was designed for the Playstation 3, the Xbox 360 version retains almost all the visual luster of its counterpart. The sound is also strong, with quality voice acting and strong music that establishes strong mood at the game’s key moments.
As with all games, though, what is most important is the gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII’s battle system blends together elements from many past Square-Enix RPGs, dashing in bits and pieces from Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VIII, Xenogears, Final Fantasy XII and more. Final Fantasy VIII-style Active Time Battling returns, but with a twist. During battle, instead of waiting for a meter to charge, hitting attack, and then waiting for it to refill, characters now have “ATB Levels”. A character’s meter, for example, is presented as four points. It takes one segment to use a regular attack (so a filled meter would allow the character to attack four times). Other actions can take one or more segments, allowing you to stack actions, or throw them out one-at-a-time, if you so choose.
Another noteworthy fact is that when they say “active” time battling, they mean it. As battles progress, characters and enemies walk about the stage and initiate their own attacks. There are instances where an enemy can dash across stage during your attack, leaving your character slashing at air and having the enemy zoned closer to the remainder of your party. Naturally, you can use this to your own advantage on a move-by-move basis, choosing just the right time to have your character activate a defense boost or timing an attack in order to abruptly end an opponent’s turn. This little nuance annoys some and pleases others, but it’s an important part of any fight, regardless.
The one feature, more than anything, that will define your experience with the game is the “Auto” feature in-battle. Let me start by saying that, like Final Fantasy XII, you only control one character at a time. The others are permanently on auto-pilot. As discussed, any given turn for a character will probably include multiple actions. To ease the menu-flipping burden, Square-Enix added a function that automatically has the game pick out the best attacks to use based on available information on the enemy (that is, the automatic attacks change to exploit weaknesses, once discovered). For better or worse, the majority of battles are reduced to mashing “Auto-Attack”. Granted, the alternative of scrambling through menu after menu is just slightly more unappealing, but the AI-centric battling takes a lot of satisfaction out of the game as a whole.
In spite of these flaws, though, Final Fantasy XIII is a game that’s fairly easy to spend time with. While the story is beyond confusing and gets further complicated by the cockamamie Japanese nuances and character archetypes, the game is still something that can be comfortably tackled by veteran RPG players. The game doesn’t measure up to many modern American RPGs, whether they’re Oblivion or, more similarly, Dragon Age: Origins but it’s still a fairly enjoyable title that can last a long while.