Final Fantasy XIII

The first thing that deserves a word is the combat system.

In real time, with no pause whatsoever, the Active Time Battle bar dictates the tempo of every feat on the battlefield. Its reserves are spent when characters perform abilities. You can chain low-cost moves or perform more expensive ones according to your taste. Available abilities depend on your character’s active role.

Techniques like Libra, used for analyzing enemies and summons, rely on another yellow bar located beneath your Health Points. Another big one, the Stagger bar acts as a timed signal that your enemy is prone to additional damage. It’s a flashy bar that catches your eye even more than your enemy’s Health Bar.

When it pops up, you can exploit your enemy’s weakness and intensify your assault using a trio of Ravagers; he will not be able to resist your attacks. Expose your opponent to critical damage, but be aware that your crew can be vulnerable to Stagger, too.

You can only control one designated leader at a time. All other characters on your team are run by a good AI. The game’s Paradigm System, designed to help you balance your team, is built upon six classes that resemble classical fighters, wizards and tanks, but with fancier words. A Ravager, for example, specializes in offensive spells, while a Synergist buffs your party and a Sentinel draws enemy fire and efficiently absorbs attacks.

Throughout your adventure, you’ll be routed to specialize in three specific classes for each character, though as you get to the end, you’ll be granted the freedom to assign and learn just about anything you want, with certain abilities remaining character specific.

Your first strategic endeavor involves choosing which characters you want on your team. In spite of who you select, you won’t be able to have all skills at your disposal simultaneously on the battlefield, so it’s necessary to think through your party carefully.

Taking a closer look, you have six paradigm slots available to configure and later choose from during battle. Within each paradigm, you can assign party members one role at a time according to which strategy might be required in a fight. If you think you might need all of your characters to perform healing duties at the same time, you can design a slot in which everyone is a Medic.

If, on the other hand, you create a paradigm with no Medics, nobody will have the ability to heal when that paradigm is active. When you want to switch duties in battle, with just two immediate clicks, you can instantly shift paradigms as you seamlessly continue to fight.

During battle, AI team members work well, helping to maintain a continuous flow of action. When it gets to a point where directly managing your healer is no longer convenient, AI members automatically perform necessary commands without any delay, faster than your manual decisions would have been.

The camera magnificently tracks characters around the scene as they act in battle, and their movements are not just there to be observed. By reading the way characters move, you can use their positioning to your advantage.

Giving the command to attack a mob in the opposite corner, if done at the right time, can save you from being hit by someone rushing you. Then again, doing so with poor timing will cause you to miss your target as he executes an animation that prevents you from reaching him.

Observing a range of situations reveals that some priorities are strictly predetermined. Reviving a character that’s out for the count or getting rid of an adverse status effect is never as important as healing the party, which always seems to be the AI’s first thought. You’ll want to compensate for this manually by always keeping a paradigm on you where you can instruct specific commands by yourself.

This is where all the cracks of this controversial game begin to appear – where the word “limit” starts to have a pivotal presence. As one crucial flaw, you can revive a character on your team, but as the leader, you can’t die. If you do, nobody can revive you: it’s game over.

In this installment, each character learns the ability to summon an Eidolon, a mythical entity artistically designed with a particular mech-like style, which provides support on the battlefield. However, more often than not, the need to call on them for help never really seems to arise. Using items is given a free pass without any specific requirements, and you can do so whenever you want.

Globally, the approach is different from the use of Gambits in the previous game. It loses in customization but gains a lot in time management, both on and off the field. A lot of work was put into the automatization process, a big focus for the game’s developers.

Despite how it may seem, the controversial auto-battle command was not put in place to take power away from players. It replaces an obsolete attack command that for decades millions of gamers pressed in random, useless, and time-wasting battles, which gave only the impression of freedom and progression. Another element that Square Enix prevailed in getting rid of you can spot by making Lightning spin around like you used to do with Cloud.

Enemies are placed over the map with surgical precision so that you can’t excessively grind levels. When you run into an enemy, you can bulldoze through it in seconds if you’ve mastered the system. In contrast with traditional Final Fantasy gameplay, the classic Flee command is absent in battle.

In its place, there’s a Retry option, which allows you to resume from right before combat. Players with a keen eye will detect the game’s behind-the-scenes checkpoint system, which saves and recalls any change performed before the player’s last attempt. Nice touch.

It’s clear that tons of effort has gone into creating a seamless experience, from the cutscenes to the battle sequences to explore mode. That said, unfortunately it’s still not there. While the quality of the in-game presentation matches that of cutscenes, when you start and finish fights there’s still a noticeable transition. Feedback is provided to you after every battle so you can check how well you understand the mechanics.

Just like the Crystarium progression system, the path you follow in-game is an undeniably straight line, giving the appearance of freedom only in the last third of the story when the game noticeably spikes in difficulty and gives you full control of your party. In fact, it’s so linear that it almost feels as if you’re watching a play-through of a game like Pandemonium.

The camera has a tendency to stay quite low and behind your back, a placement that takes some time to get used to.

A narrow playable area grants your partners the power of invisibility, allowing them to take a few steps without prompting a fight.

The scenario in which something is being tightly guarded by a monster is way overused, and is a gimmick to compensate for a lack of real exploration.

It’s not like you really need items after every brawl, as each character is automatically fully restored. In this installment, doing battle is about meeting the game’s level-grinding quota, and finding some support accessories as you go.

Most of the scraps you gather are components in the weapon upgrade system. A limited number of weapons (eight to be exact) are obtainable for each character, and each weapon has a level counter you can max out by using the aforementioned items. Frankly, not engaging.

It’s a long hit-or-miss list of random attempts that leads you to waste the few collectibles you have on upgrading, without a clue as to the most efficient way to use them. The truth is, to reach the endgame it’s not necessary to spend even a second on it. You can beat the final boss using level-one weapons and accessories without much hassle.

Resource management is available in the game’s many save points, which sometimes seem as if they’re around every corner – at one point you literally reach one after every battle. These checkpoints grant you access to every shop in a time-saving manner.

It’s true, there are no towns or places to visit like in traditional JRPGs, but what’s the need for that anyway? Shopping is accessible more than ever without any tiresome backtracking, though you won’t spend much time on it. Surprisingly for this genre, you never really earn any valuable amount of gil.

Fully voiced NPCs talk naturally as you walk by. In the context of the world of Cocoon, how much criticism will this receive? Not much to be honest.

If in the past you’ve found the franchise’s many clichés ridiculous, like characters getting resurrected with miraculous feathers throughout gameplay before getting permanently killed in cutscenes, or enjoying leisurely personal errands or fishing in between rushing to save the world, fear not.

This time all these limitations coherently suit the mission. From the moment you start the game, Lightning is constantly on the run. The task of reaching a target and accomplishing a mission is a consistent plot element that shines, and is reflected in gameplay mechanics, too, making the experience more homogenous and genuine.

Cocoon is a world in conflict, a land under the yoke of god-like machines where kids are on the frontline of a rebellion. The story of Bodhum’s population under quarantine echoes the situation of our real planet Earth ten years after it was first told.

More often than not, characters are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Clashes between on-screen personalities and opinions won’t take long before they become annoying, and unfortunately the dialogue won’t offer any reprieve, with its excessive reiteration of extremely obnoxious and monothematic whining from an immature Nico Rosberg.

The situation’s many nuances, which the player is expected to understand, are inadequately represented, so much so that occasionally you may feel compelled to stop your advance and read the Datalog to fill in any details you might be missing.

Villains in this game won’t have much screen time or significance. Final Fantasy XIII fails to offer an intriguing universe or properly establish any interesting elaboration on themes like inescapable fate, obedience, oppression, identity, and family.

It has no items, no towns, no side quests, and no romance to personally connect with, a thing most fans hope for but would never admit to wanting. That said, disliking it doesn’t mean that its setting is unworthy of the experiment.

Compelling on paper but supported by lackluster writing and expansion, this game’s biggest fault lies in wanting to err on the serious side, treating sensible topics like politics, religion, and propaganda, but taking a cowardly step back for commercial purposes.

Lightning starts off well, but no background is provided for her. We don’t know where she’s coming from or what she’s gone through, making it impossible to feel attached to her personal objective and motivation. If Vanille seems more prominent and leaves a stronger impression, it’s because she was originally intended as the main character of the game.

Internal struggles amid development and the absence of a shared vision for the game are both public and apparent, but it’s not all Square Enix’s fault. Also in the mix is PlayStation 3, a console that’s created a lot of expectations in the era of high definition graphics, yet is devoid of any conclusive role-playing games.

Graphically, this game is the jewel of its generation. It still impresses after a decade, even if the PC port deserves plenty of critique for Square Enix’s lack of attention. Fingers have been and should be pointed at unacceptably compressed, pre-rendered cutscenes that are full of noise, and at bad frame pacing with slowdowns, even in the Crystarium menu. The rock-steady footage you see here has been made possible with an external mod, resolving most of its inconsistences. This is not just a futile technicality.

What you see on screen really makes you appreciate the expertise and talent hired by the studio to develop Final Fantasy. The confluence of the audio and graphics departments offers a gorgeous impact.

Regardless of all its shortcomings, the restricted use of recycled assets and the fact that separate teams were assigned to individual maps exemplify the craftsmanship developers hoped to achieve with this game. This explains the lack of an open map, open world, and crowded places filled with side quests. Square Enix’s philosophy is quality first. And when compromises are necessary, cuts are made elsewhere. The game’s soundtrack was the first to be composed by Masashi Hamauzu, already co-composer for FFX.

It features a brave use of modern synthesizers that defines the gap between this installment and the preceding era of Final Fantasy. Even more notable, it’s the first time the traditional victory fanfare has been absent post-battle. And while there’s a new catchy motif to accompany Lightning, it’s honestly over-abused in the first part of the game, where some kind of variance would have been appreciated.

Ever top-notch, the music is occasionally mismatched with the activity occurring on-screen. The official theme is performed by an international pop star, a move that clearly expresses an intent to go international and helps give a more Western cinematic outlook to the product.

FF13 has had to manage an intense amount hype and an audience that is just not ready to embrace change. In truth, even a major part of its staff wasn’t ready for it. Final Fantasy has always been about innovating, advancing the vanguard, using cutting-edge technology and systems, and taking risks.

The generation of the day needed a Final Fantasy. What they received is a decorous one that bravely leads by pushing an action-oriented format everybody wants to adopt, even if nobody else at the time dared to put their name on it first.

Final Fantasy XIII had to endure the burden of being released at a time when transition and evolution was mandatory for its genre, and the hardware just like the audience was unprepared for that fact.