Final Fantasy XIII is unmistakably a Final Fantasy game. It's set in a rich universe, with a cast of clashing personalities who ultimately unite to save the world. Nothing new there.
Set in the outlandish futuristic universe of Cocoon, a host of gadding personalities are sewn together through crossing fates — they are branded the mark of the l'Cie, a stamp which demands they do the bidding of their rulers the fal'Cie and destroy Cocoon. Cue tears, epic orchestral swirls, and lots of grinding.
In main protagonist Lightning, Square Enix has looked back to its most successful character — Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife. Despite not looking anywhere near alike, there are personality traits that carry through, and the comparison remains a reasonable observation throughout. Hardened warrior Sazh bares more than a passing resemblance to FF VIII's Barrett, while narrator Vanille could be compared to Tifa. What's reassuring about Final Fantasy XIII is that Square Enix looked to its best games for inspiration, and largely came up trumps with a universe and characters you can relate to. There are no gimmicks in XIII: the cast feels natural. Well, for a JRPG anyway.
With around 60 hours of play, Final Fantasy XIII's universe is absolutely its greatest strength. Every element of the game's world has been well constructed, well considered and precisely laid out. The world feels like it has a history and characters feel like they have pasts, resulting in an engrossing plot that, while it can get convoluted, is constantly fascinating. The Datalog in the game's menu allows you to look up the meaning of certain terms, or track the history of certain events, so you can really engage yourself in the characters and the fiction.
Sure, Vanille's voice might annoy you, Fang's Australian tones may not fit and Hope may be a snotty-nosed child, but there's something charming about the cast. Short of the Chocobo that lives in Sazh's afro, they are without gimmick. They fit the universe, and their story is interesting. Factor in numerous multi-layered plot lines and you're given a meaty incentive to follow what happens next.
Final Fantasy XIII's battle system is fantastic, too: a simple premise with bold, flashy results. Essentially, three-man squads are assembled from the game's main cast of characters, each character with a unique set of roles which they can focus on at any point in the battle. For example, your team might consist of a Medic, Ravager (essentially a wizard) and a Commando. The medic's job will be to heal the team, the commando to attack and the ravager to both attack and increase the enemy's chain, a percentage that multiplies the damage inflicted. All enemies have a "Stagger" point which allows you to really let rip and do damage. This would be interesting on its own, but in Final Fantasy XIII each character can learn different abilities meaning you can have different combinations of roles. These combinations can be set-up in the menu and then changed on the fly during battle with the L1 button. That means you can switch from being all-out attack to all-out defence almost immediately, offering you a range of tactical options. It sounds complicated in writing, but Final Fantasy XIII does a great job of pacing out the learning curve so you feel comfortable with each new element as they are gradually introduced. It's a battle system that's accessible to newcomers without being gimped enough to disappoint Final Fantasy fans.
It's common knowledge that Final Fantasy XIII is an exceedingly linear game (we'll go into more detail later), but that doesn't stop its surroundings from being tangibly delectable though. Early locales are noticeably bland, but once you let the game get its footing, it gets particularly impressive, if only from an artistic stance.
The inclusion of a mini-map seems like a joke: it's a straight line. The fact is, Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay boils down to a string of battles taking place on a long corridor ending in a cutscene. The variety just isn't there, and when the cut scenes don't come soon enough the gameplay starts to become really tedious. It's a shame because the battle system is great, but when it's all you've done for the past 50 minutes, it really starts to grate. Sure, grinding is a staple of the RPG, but the truly great games manage to break up the tedium often: Final Fantasy VII, for example, punctuates frequent battles with exploration. Final Fantasy XIII is simply battle - battle - battle - battle - cut scene, and when the formula does eventually change it feels too little, too late. The very early hours especially are a slog.
That's not to downplay the quality of the cut scenes: as always, the quality of the CGI on display is unbelievable. The in-game character models are beautifully rendered, but nothing really compares to the CGI. Its simply breathtakingly done, with unbelievable attention to detail. When actually playing the game becomes a slog, Square Enix is on-hand to win your enthusiasm back with a rip-roaring CGI cutscene. They really don't disappoint.
We also have reservations about some of the casting in Final Fantasy XIII. Cut scenes focusing on Hope and Vanille will leave you wanting to slit your throat. Given the possibilities made available by Blu-ray, it would have been nice to see Square include the original Japanese voice track in the PS3 version of the game.
Final Fantasy XIII's greatest strength is its obsessive attention to detail in every element of its universe. The gameplay, while boasting an interestingly paced battle mechanic, is often far too monotone. Ultimately, you'll sit through the occasional bouts of tedium simply because Square Enix dangles an astounding CGI cut scene at the foot of them; only you can decide if that's reward enough.