Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful, challenging game. Its story is typically complex and angsty, as you would expect from Square Enix by now. Gameplay ranges from breezy and hilarious to hair-rippingly difficult. The characters got under my skin quickly, and while at times they can be quite tropey, the moments when they progress and develop makes the cliches worthwhile.
This game is long. I restarted it a couple of times, but never got past the beginning of chapter nine. But the last time I played it I pulled on my big girl pants and finished the game. I’m so glad I did, as it doesn’t really open up to its full potential until chapter eleven or so.
The scenery in some of the chapters is breathtaking. It’s a visually rich game, with a lot of texture, depth and colour, and a strange mix of organic and synthetic creatures that make the backdrops unique from other RPGs. Square Enix have always been creative with their monsters (some might even say flamboyant, or just plain wacky) but I believe this is part of the charm: you know you’re playing a Square Enix game just from the look of the structures, creatures and vegetation. But really, where it all comes into fruition is in chapter eleven when you reach Gran Pulse. Gran Pulse seems an idyllic eden when you first arrive.
Ah, but when you take a proper look at the creatures milling around waiting to greet you, you quickly notice some of the fanged, clawed, tattooed and extremely violent-looking beasts pacing back and forth or galloping across the landscape alongside you, and suddenly it’s not such a warm, fluffy place anymore.
Saying that, it’s still stunning, and it’s sprawling which was lovely after the linear style of the early chapters. There are a lot of cut-scenes that are a treat too, like the descent to Gran Pulse.
This game has been criticised for its lack of NPCs, and while that’s true on a ground level basis, I really liked the secondary characters you meet along the way. It’s just a shame that you see so little of them and only have minimal interaction (I would have liked to learn more about Jihl Nabaat, Yaag Rosch, and Hope’s dad. And dear sweet lord, Cid Raines). Some of these characters are ambiguous, and they struggle with what they believe as events change in the game world.
Another thing that was heavily criticised is the linearity of the early chapters. Didn’t bother me at all, mostly because the story opens up at the exact moment the characters open up and make decisions about what they’re going to do. The gameplay mirrored the characters’ personal journeys.
The paradigm system is fun once you know how to use it. There are six different roles available to the characters: commando, ravager, sentinel, synergist, saboteur, and medic. Each character specialises in three main roles, however, during battle a character may only use one of their main roles at a time, for example Lightning can be a commando in a fight but she can’t be a ravager at the same time. You have to manually switch to a paradigm where she’s set as a ravager if you want her to use magic-based attacks. Often you have three characters in your control as you move through the game. I mostly used Lightning/Fang/Hope as their specialties complimented each other nicely. So a paradigm could look like this: ravager/commando/medic. You can have up to six paradigms preset before battle, and during battle you can switch between them. I loved this concept, as it forced me to think about my battle strategies before diving in, and I had to figure out what would work best for each different foe. It’s not the sort of game you just skim through by mashing the X button.
Farming was surprisingly fun, particularly at early stages and then again later in the game. I did quite a lot of it for Crystarium points, to make money, and to get hold of components I could use to upgrade weapons. There are some Frag Leeches in Gapra Whitewood in chapter five that give good CP and a fair amount of organic materials you can use to raise the upgrade multiplier. Plus, killing those unsuspecting Frag Leeches was fun, man. Another good spot is Mission 7 in chapter eleven; lots of points, money and components to be made there, and as you fill out your Crystarium you notice how Bituitus gets easier to beat.
Cid Raines is an interesting character with a decent story arc. He’s also bloody tough in a fight. In the end I used Lightning, Snow and Sazh for my team, and mostly stuck to the medic/sentinel/synergist and commando/commando/ravager paradigms to defeat him. It took me a couple of tries before I got him, and on the third go I used Fortisol and summoned Odin to help out. Once he was staggered he was a breeze, but getting that stagger is tricky, especially when he de-buffs your party every forty seconds or so. He definitely posed the biggest challenge up to chapter ten. And I loved every second of it.
As far as main characters go, some are way cooler than others. My favourites are Lighting, Fang and Hope, though Sazh and Vanille were fun at times. Snow is probably the one I connected with the least, but he had a couple of sweet moments when his bravado dropped and he showed his true feelings. The scene between him and Light in Gran Pulse was especially nice.
And the ending. It was lovely and bittersweet. I admit to wibbling quite hard while watching the last scenes and when the credits were rolling. I didn’t realise just how completely invested I was in completing the game and having a well-rounded experience.
Tedious encounters every few seconds. This is probably the main thing I dislike about the game: the amount of small, irksome battles you have to take part in. With a few of the enemies it’s possible to run straight past and avoid fights, or even use a Deceptisol to cloak yourself while you sneak by, but I hate letting enemies go on the first run, even if I know they respawn. So you get a single corridor and maybe five or six separate mini-battles, and that takes up time. Lots of time. This is especially annoying if you can see the save point or treasure sphere just ahead.
Some grunt fights are absurdly difficult. I’m guessing this was the developer’s way of making players think carefully about their character builds and the paradigm settings, but to me it was tedious. Some bosses you encounter on mid-game level become regular grunt type monsters a couple of levels later, and while you’re generally stronger thanks to levelling at the Crystarium, it takes ages to work through them. About the only reason to tackle things like Behemoth Kings is for the CP.
The camera panning. Sometimes you’re running around a corner and you need to see what’s ahead, but you have to wait for the camera to catch up. Mostly, you can pan it yourself, but there are a few times when you can’t and it’s really annoying. I like controlling the view on screen at all times.
There are a lot of criticisms from fans about this game. A number of gamers say it’s one of the toughest to complete in the series. The thing is, when a game company changes the mechanics of a franchise of course long-time players will find it jarring. It’s different from what they know and they have to re-learn things. I had an advantage with FFXIII because it was the first FF I played seriously (putting aside some stints in VII, and being a fangirl of AC and some of the side-OVAs).
Speaking of future instalments… I gave Final Fantasy XIII 2 a hearty try, but sadly I could not gel with the characters or get into the story. Lightning Returns looks awesome but I haven’t got around to playing it! One day. Soon.