I remember when Final Fantasy VII came out there were television commercials and a soda promotion. There hadn’t been anything like that in scope before.  I ended up playing Final Fantasy VII, but it was on the PC.  I also played Final Fantasy VIII on the PC because I didn’t have a Playstation.  Because of this, I am not adverse to playing a recent Final Fantasy game on a system made by someone other than Sony.  This is part of the reason why I got Final Fantasy XIII for the Xbox 360.

 

It’s impossible to not notice how beautiful FFXIII looks.  The main characters in the game are rendered especially well, with some of the best lip-syncing and animations ever seen on a home console.  While it would be amazing to see this in just the cutscenes and running animations, the battle animations are just as impressive.  The members of your party attack with weapons, leap up into the air, do backflips, and get knocked over when hit.  When looking at some of the non-integral characters in the game during cutscenes, they lack the detail given to the main characters (not to mention have some of the oddest wardrobes seen since Buck Rogers in the 25th Century).  While you don’t see this very often, it is a tad jarring when it does happen.

FFXIII keeps the game interesting with the number of environments.  Lush jungles, dark mechanical cities, ice caverns, urban landscapes, and vast countrysides are just some of the backgrounds encountered.  The amount of variety of enemies within FFXIII is astounding.  Not only are enemies specific to their environments, but they are more than just a pallete change to get a diverse enemy list.  While some of the enemies are similar to each other, you can’t complain about the number of different enemies contained within the game.

 

The graphics in FFXIII do suffer a little bit in the Xbox 360 version.  When looking at several diagonals on the screen the details do look a bit jagged.  The hair style of lighting really shows this effect throughout the game.  This is only a minor complaint though, and it shouldn’t prevent you from purchasing the Xbox 360 if you don’t have a PS3.

Musically FFXIII contains one of the most diverse soundtracks.  One scene in particular is memorable because of the harmonica being played in the background while two characters talked to each other.  Some of the other background music is just as memorable, but you also have your standard background music.  It does its job, giving you a good sense of the mood of the game without becoming overbearing and taking over the entire scene.

 

Final Fantasy XII had great voice acting and I eventually warmed up to Vaan’s voice acting, I feel very similar about FFXIII.  Lightning, Hope, Snow, Sazh, and the others have excellent voice casting.  However, there is one character that I have an issue with, Vanille.  While her voice isn’t as annoying on the same scale as Minmei from Robotech, I really didn’t find her voice matching the character completely.  The emotion and inflections in the voices add the right personality to the dialogue.

 

Fans of the Final Fantasy series will see many similarities to previous Final Fantasy games.  A set of characters from different backgrounds is destined to save the world.  While their paths all take different directions, in the end they all end up meeting in the same place.  Their personalities don’t always mesh with each other, but they figure out that it’s better to work with each other and destroy the impending evil than bicker with each other.  At the beginning of the game two characters are trying to save the same person, reaching her at the same time.  Once they discover her they fail to save her and plot revenge back at the force that caused her tragedy.

As you continue through the game, you end up finding out some back story for each of the characters.  Either flashbacks focusing on the character or dialogue between members of the party are used to flesh out the characters.  Further explanation is included in the Datalog.  These entries only take a minute or two to read, and they fill in a few details not given.  It is a great way to also refresh your memory about the characters should you step away from the game for a while and decide to come back to it.  Unfortunately, to get the back story means that you spend time with each specific character.  Some characters are more interesting than others as far as their story goes.  Their usefulness in battle also varies greatly depending on your play style.

 

Entering into battle has some similarities to Persona 3 where you hit the enemy with a weapon before you enter into the battle scene.  In FFXIII, you do see the enemies ahead of you.  To enter battle you run into them.  However, if you are crafty enough you can sneak up on them and perform a preemptive strike against them.  Basically the preemptive strike gets every enemy in the party into Stagger mode.  You won’t be able to hit all of the enemies before the Stagger is depleted, but it can really shrink the number of enemies to make the battle more manageable.  Most of the time you will need to Deceptisol Shroud to sneak up on a group though, because even if you are sneaking around most of the time you will be detected, even at the last second.  It also doesn’t help that the game determines when you enter into a group contact because sometimes I have felt that I got into a group before detection, hit an enemy, got detected, and then went to the combat scene.

The battle system has many similarities from previous Final Fantasy games.  In FFXIII, you only control one character, similar to FFXII.  That character’s Active Time Battle (ATB) bar shows up on the bottom third of the screen, with commands showing up underneath.  You are able to let the system choose which commands fill up the ATB bar, or you can do so manually.  Filling up the ATB bar quickly is essential to fighting against your enemies.  Using the auto command will be based on how much you know about the enemy.  If that enemy has strengths or weaknesses, it will tune the commands to that.  The ATB bar was also found in Final Fantasy 7, although this mechanic isn’t exactly the same in FFXIII.

 

However, most of the time you aren’t alone in your battles.  While you don’t have direct control over them, you do have the ability to influence their behavior with Paradigm Shifts.  Each character in your party has different roles. Six different roles are available: Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Medic, Synergist, and Saboteur.  When first starting out, three different roles are available to each member of the party.  The Paradigm Shift switches roles on the fly.  Not all combinations are available and you might have to set up the different Paradigms you want available to you during battle.  The more options you have available, the better off you will be.

 

Using the Paradigm Shift is important because all enemies have a Stagger bar as well as a health bar.  When an enemy enters Stagger, they act differently and are often vulnerable to attacks.  The Commando increases the Stagger bar a little but decreases slowly.  The Ravager increases the Stagger bar significantly, but it depreciates very quickly.  Using a combination of the two helps to fill the Stagger bar and keep it filled.  This causes you to change your Paradigm Shift often, balancing the different attacks with changing to a medic for healing.

Another important difference is that the number of hit points that you have in your party doesn’t climb to astronomical heights.  The number of potions, Phoenix Down, and other items you get isn’t nearly as high as you might expect.  Part of the reason for this is the fact that your party heals immediately after every battle.  This speeds up the game significantly and doesn’t require as many healing items.

 

Each character has three different roles assigned to them.  After each fight, you are given Crystarium points to be used in the Crystarium.  Leveling up happens here.  Anyone familiar with Final Fantasy X should see similarities to the Sphere Grid, except there is a bit of a three dimentional element to it.  Spheres represent different abilities afforded to you in that role.  Occasionally the spheres branch out to a separate node, but for the most part it is a straight progression.  As you use the Crystarium Points, more spheres are lit and the more enhancements you get.  Eventually you get to a point where you get to level up your character.  While it takes you a while to actually level up, gaining hit points, spells, and other stats helps you feel like you are making constant progress with the characters.  You have to be careful not to forget about the Crystarium though.

 

What would a Final Fantasy game be without massive summons.  In FFXIII, those are called Eidolons. To claim an Eidolon for a character, you need to meet up with it and then battle it.  Once you have given it enough damage, you can subdue it.  From that point on, the Eidolon can be summoned.  While you can deal a lot of damage with the Eidolon, the amount of damage it delivers doesn’t seem to be as impressive as other FFXIII games.  They look great and the animations of their summoning are incredible, but they don’t feel as integral to gameplay as they could be.

While the combat does feel streamlined because you only control one character and you can auto-fill the Active Time Bar, other parts of the game seem streamlined as well.  There are plenty of save spots, and these save spots allow you to access the different shops throughout the game.  However, you aren’t going to find cities with lots of people around who stare at you and say, “…”  Battles also are able to be retried from a spot shortly before the battle started instead of loading a save game.  Not losing most of your work since the last save point is a lifesaver, even though save points are spread generously throughout the levels.

 

While the cutscenes look great, there are times when they break up the game too often.  It gives the sense of battle, walking, battle, walking, cutscene, walking, battle, rinse, and repeat.  It doesn’t help that the first half of the game is very linear.  I don’t have a problem with a JRPG being linear, but not being able to choose your party or your leader is very frustrating and I would have stopped early in this section if Final Fantasy wasn’t on the cover.

 

The loading times in FFXIII are acceptable, but loading the game to the hard drive is worthwhile if you have the space.  The loading times only take a couple of seconds when the disc is installed on the hard drive.

 

While FFXIII doesn’t boast the 100+ hour length of other RPG titles, you still will get your money’s worth out of FFXIII.  The game will last you at least 40 hours, but because of how the story sets up most of the game, you might not want to play through 20 hours to get to the area where the world opens up.

 

When FFXIII starts out you are literally thrown into the story, meeting characters that may or may not be integral to the story.  It’s like being thrown into an action movie without knowing the plot.  FFXIII gives you limited options and slowly lets you find out who these characters are.  It slowly unravels layer after layer and takes so long for the training wheels to be taken off that only gamers who feel they can put up with the hand holding should get this game.  While the emphasis on the story of Final Fantasy XIII makes for an interesting tale, the gameplay feels sacrificed, making FFXIII a good game but unfortunately not a great one.

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