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CONSOLE: PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 DEVELOPER: Square Enix PUBLISHER: Square Enix
// review by SoyBomb

Another fantasy that isn't final.

NOTE: I am reviewing the PlayStation 3 version of this game, but both versions are essentially similar.

If you compare the original Final Fantasy to Final Fantasy XIII, what similarities do you notice? To be honest, you won't find many, most notably the fact that they are both video games and that they are both RPGs. One is a very distant memory of the other, and fans of the origins of the Final Fantasy series who had since been living under a rock would be quite rattled by the strides that have been made in the past quarter century. Heck, even the developer isn't quite the same, what with the loss of series' creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. From the humble beginnings of four warriors seeking justice in defeating evil and restoring the world, we now arrive at Final Fantasy XIII; the ultimate goal may be the same, but how we arrive there is a whole new journey.

Final Fantasy XIII puts you in the shoes of six different individuals, each with their own backstories and motivations, as their fates become intertwined. Lightning, a former soldier now going solo. Sazh, the lighthearted fellow looking for a way to free his son from the government's grasp. Snow, seeking a way to free the curse on his fiancé. Hope, his mother having been killed from Snow's carelessness and seeking revenge. Fang, a former drone reawakened for unknown purposes. Vanille, a carefree girl with a secret she pretends to forget. All of these people are brought together by the powers of the fal'Cie, overseers of their world. After going to see a recently discovered floating fal'Cie in the sky and it having caused a bout of mass panic amongst the citizens of Cocoon, they (except for Fang, who shows up later and has her own story to tell) are forced into battle and then later branded as l'Cie. Now they must complete an unknown Focus or be turned into Cie'th, pained tortured beings who can do little but wander until their bodies can take no more. How pleasant. The story follows them trying to figure out how to save themselves and the place they call home from powers they have yet to comprehend. Heavy stuff.

The story gets fairly complicated, especially considering the backstories of so many people intertwining. (I could hardly give a decent explanation without this turning into a multi-volume book.) Perhaps it's a bit TOO verbose because Square thought it was necessary to keep a log of all the events, all the people you meet, all the mythology and lore of the world around you. If you forget any minute detail, it's all written down for you for easy reference. And thank goodness it was there because this story is thicker than an eruption from a molasses volcano.

Final Fantasy XIII employs an active battle system; that is, there's no time to loaf or sit around pondering your next move. You have to act at the spur of the moment! The enemy will not wait for you to whip out that healing potion; it will relentlessly pound you into the ground if you stand around with your finger up your nose. Each character (to a maximum of three in your party) has their own set of possible actions, and it's up to you to select the right one for the situation for each turn. Should you choose to Auto-Battle, the game pleasantly selects the best course of action for the targeted enemy. You can also choose your own move set for attack, cast some spells, or toss an item in the mix to help yourself or your comrades-in-arms. Once your ATB (Active Time Battle, not this guy) gauge is full, he or she will perform the determined actions. You can perform them if the gauge is less than full, but not all of your desired actions will be done.

As you attack an enemy, its chain counter increases. The chain counter always shows a percentage, and this relates to how much damage you will deal from 100% and upward (it never dips below 100%). Typically, magic spells increases the percentage on the meter significantly, but physical attacks allow it to decrease at a slower rate. Failing to continue attacking will result in the meter going back down. Every enemy has a Stagger Point; that is, when you reach a certain percentage (such as 250%), it will enter a Stagger State and be even more vulnerable to damage, though the meter will then slowly drop back to its regular state. You can still toss magic at it and make that percentage leap to up to 999%. Sometimes the enemy will be stunned until the meter drops back down, giving you even more time to deal hits without needing to worry about healing.

This game also introduces the concept of changing classes as needed, referred to as a Paradigm Shift. Final Fantasy games in the past have already explored the concept of changing classes and, through that process, gaining new skills. Final Fantasy XIII takes this one step further and allows you to actually change your class mid-battle as many times as you wish. If you need a straightforward fighter, you can call up a Commando. Need some quick healing? A Medic'll do you some good. Magic required? A Ravager shall be your guide. Perhaps you want to focus the attention off the others so they can heal up; the Sentinel will draw enemy fire their way. The Synergist can boost the stats of your allies, while the Saboteur can throw negative statuses at the opposing team. You can have up to six Paradigms available at a time, Paradigms being the set of roles each character will have when it is activated. For example, you can have two Ravagers and Commando, or one Medic, one Sentinel, and one Synergist, perhaps. Having suitable Paradigms that will benefit you in the battles ahead is key, as well as knowing when you switch between them so that you can gain the upper hand.

Look at all them graphics. So beautiful, yet so afflicted by war. Makes you think.

Let me run one thing by you: some battles can be tough. Your proverbial buttocks could very well be kicked many times for any number of reasons. It's not that Final Fantasy XIII is a particularly difficult game, but without knowledge of exactly how to use Paradigms as efficiently as possible, you're going to have a rough time. In certain rough battles, for example, you'll NEED to have a Sentinel in the field when a boss whips out a devastating attack; the Sentinel's innate ability to decrease damage taken for the entire party is of high value. Blitzkriegs that could normally wipe out everyone will actually just severely bruise them, giving you a bit of time to heal back up. So Paradigms play not only an important role, but a crucial and necessary role. Of course, once Chapter 11 rears its head, that's when enemy parties will kill you because you are assuredly too weak and are not SUPPOSED to fight them yet. The game won't tell you that, mind you. That could've saved me from wasting time trying to do the impossible and kill the impervious.

Summons also make an appearance, but they're highly unnecessary to use for the most part. Frankly, they're just there for show as far as I'm concerned. They're not called Eidolons (and not pronounced quite the way I expected: eye-DOH-lunz, as in the greatest member of The Monkees, Micky Dolenz). Whenever someone becomes particularly emotional (and what RPG wouldn't be without someone going nuts?) for the first time, their Brand calls upon their Eidolon to appear. There, they must fight that Eidolon in what I consider to be the most difficult battles in the game. You have a time limit (or, more accurately, a Doom Counter over your head where you die if it reaches zero) to defeat it by raising its Gestalt Gauge by achieving various goals specific to that Eidolon, such as using magic on it or by healing allies. The goal isn't to defeat it but to show you are worthy. These are required story-based battles, and they may cause you to tear out your hair. Perseverance, my child... Upon successful completion of the fight, the Eidolon will turn into a motorcycle. ...WHAT?!

So... now that we're out and about killing enemies, I guess we just sort of run around, gather up experience points like every other RPG, and "level up", right? It's that simple, yes? Not quite. Final Fantasy XIII introduces the Crystarium, a method of tailoring the improvement of your stats and skills to your liking. Similar in nature to the Sphere Grid of Final Fantasy X, the Crystarium lets you "purchase" stat increases (HP, strength, magic effectiveness), abilities (magic spells, physical moves), and even the occasional extra accessory or notch on your ATB gauge. Crystarium Points (CP) are won by completing battles, so essentially, you ARE engaging in battles to level up. Just... not in the way you would expect. Each role has its own Crystarium, so you can focus on being a better Commando, for example, or you can sprinkle your CP all over the place if you prefer. Strength, HP, and Magic improvements are universal, so if you upgrade any of those, the enhancements stick no matter what. No worries.

Maybe it's simply because this is my first RPG played using a fancy HD television, but the graphics in this game are beyond gorgeous. The exquisite detail and attention paid to every corner and crevice of the worlds of Cocoon and Gran Pulse are beyond stunning. Those regions deemed to be desolate appear exactly as such, but those intended to be gorgeous also resonate. Although some of the more action-filled scheduled events are pre-rendered FMVs, the majority of the cutscenes use in-game graphics, and they still look great! The character models can easily relay a variety of emotions, and it's great to see detail put into each one. The "background characters" take a bit of a hit, but that's to be expected since they're of lesser importance.

The soundtrack, as provided by Masashi Hamauzu, the composer behind many of the tracks in Final Fantasy X and Unlimited SaGa, among other things, is quite decent and provides excellent accompaniment to the alluring environments of the game. That being said, the music is not as "in your face" as Final Fantasy games of olde. Sharp, direct melodies have been phased out in favour of more atmospheric tones. This works in the game's favour, though, because you'll likely be too busy looking around or speedily contemplating your next move to require a funky tune blasting in your face. Here's another surprise: the voice acting isn't terrible! Everyone does a decent job at portraying emotion and sounding natural. I feel bad for Hope's voice actor, though: he must have been brave, having to endure line after line of Fromagian dialogue. Seriously, he's the irritating Tony Robbins of Final Fantasy, constantly throwing uplifting one-liners our way. Hope is the one character you hope becomes a Cie'th.

Final Fantasy XIII isn't your grandmother's Final Fantasy, but it's still in a league of its own. The presentation is absolutely wonderful, the gameplay keeps you on your toes, and aside from a few head-scratching and controller-tossing moments, the difficulty isn't overly extreme. This has been a bit of a polarizing game, and I can see why: my comparisons to old Final Fantasy games, as sprinkled semi-generously throughout, are not only my own. Final Fantasy XIII is a different beast altogether, but as a game that stands on its own two legs, it's certainly one that can captivate both the heart and the thumbs of RPG fans.

That ending, though... bleh.

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