Final Fantasy XIII


PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360

Life would be a lot simpler without expectations. Expectations lead to disappointment, disappointment leads to despair, and despair leads to you vowing never to watch an Indiana Jones film again.

This is why it was with some trepidation that I approached the task of reviewing Final Fantasy XIII, which is out next week. The series – particularly iterations seven and eight – has provided me with many of my most cherished gaming memories. The game itself, more than five years in the making, is one of the most anticipated releases of the past two or three years. How could it fail to disappoint?

The story follows fairly standard RPG conventions. You control a ragtag group of outcasts, granted special powers for mysterious reasons and charged with saving the world over 50-odd hours of battling, cutscenes and levelling up. Pretty standard stuff.

But what FF XIII achieves is to take this fairly conventional format and push it to its absolute limits. Never before has a game been so beautifully presented, a story as well structured or told, or a group of characters made so vivid and likeable.

The graphics are what immediately impress – it doesn’t take long to see that this was the game high-definition was made for. Stunning cutscene after stunning cutscene – both graphically and in terms of action direction – punctuate the intoxicating array of exotic locales you find on your journey. The colourful variety on offer, from the fluorescent blue PSICOM weapons facility to the lush greens of bucolic Pulse, is a breath of fresh air from the washed-out greys and greens that dominate the contemporary gaming palette.

The scenery and character detail in these sections is simply astounding. Never before in a game have I with such frequency stopped to swivel the camera around, simply to marvel at the landscape. Even the mercifully Leona Lewis-less soundtrack is top-notch: it’s effortlessly atmospheric and offers a number of pleasing tunes you’ll have to prevent yourself from whistling around the office.

Voice-acting and dialogue too is, on the whole, of the highest quality. The script has some lost-in-translation moments, but it’s hard to quibble with the game’s eccentricities. Sure, it’s never really explained why Sazh has a baby chocobo living in his afro, or why each character has such exquisitely coiffured hair – but little touches like these make the Final Fantasy series memorable and completely distinct from other franchises.

Most importantly, the gameplay itself is genuinely fun. The battle system – essentially a souped-up version of the turn-based system fans of the earlier games will be used to – requires both quick thinking and careful planning. It’s all well and good having a gorgeous game with cinema quality FMV, but it’s the exploring and scrapping that’ll keep you playing long into the night. I’ve voluntarily gone back to retry fights on several occasions – aside from any levelling up value, it’s just satisfying to get your tactics spot on and vanquish an opponent as quickly as possible.

FF XIII probably won’t please everybody. For starters, considerable patience and attention are required to make sense of the story and battle system in the early stages. It took me a good three to four hours just to work out the difference between a Fal’Cie and a L’Cie (god and warrior knight essentially, you’ll thank me later) let alone the uses of “Paradigm Shifts”, or the complicated weapons-upgrading system. Those looking for a quick thrill might be best off elsewhere.

What many will find hardest to accept about FF XIII, though, is its unflinching linearity. Bucking the recent vogue for sandbox games and western RPGs with multitudinous paths and endings, here you have no choice in how the story progresses. You don’t even get to choose which characters you battle with until you’re about 20 hours in.

There are (as far as I can tell) no hidden playable characters, and there’s little incentive to grind your way to the best weapons and accessories. After 30 hours or so the game does open up somewhat, allowing you to wander and battle to earn upgrades and valuable items – but this is the one area where the game feels lacking in comparison with previous efforts.

What this lack of freedom does mean, however, is that story and character are brought to the fore. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve laughed at Sazh’s asides, been gripped by the narrative’s twists and turns and moved by the foreshadowing flashbacks – the likes of Fallout 3 and GTA 4 never really achieved this level of emotional involvement. It’s not often in a game you can say you genuinely care about the characters.

Occasionally, just occasionally, things do live up to your expectations. Some things even surpass them – and, for fans of the series, Final Fantasy XIII does just that. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, if you can accept its minor limitations and give it a few hours to draw you in, it could well be one of the best games you’ve ever played.

(Courtesy: The Guardian)

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