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A new Final Fantasy
The Final Fantasy franchise is its own worst enemy. FF games are often beautifully crafted by a dedicated team of developers. They are released years apart from each other and preceded by a monumental avalanche of pre-release hype. It's almost an iron clad certainty that reception of a Final Fantasy project is going to be split down the middle, half will resent having to wait for something that wasn't worth it, the other half will bask in the glory of yet another masterpiece.
FFXIII is no exception, a heavily delayed title that follows on from possibly the best entry in the series and for the first time seeing a simultaneous multi platform release.
So, is it worth dedicating another few months to Square Enix latest project?
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Square Enix continue their obsession with meteorological names in FFXIII. The game follows the story of Lightning as she fights to save Cocoon, FFXIII's world, from Ragnarok. Meanwhile, the military 'purge' entire populations to stop the spread of L'cie, magical beings linked to a mysterious containment area known as Pulse. Lightning and her companions soon become L'cie and must go on the run as they ponder what there destiny is.
That is of course exactly as confusing as it sounds. The convoluted plot can be frustrating, at times irredeemably so, but it does straighten out a few hours into the game. Many things become clear around the 5 hour mark in fact, the almost non-existent combat system and the sparse environments blossom into something genuinely engaging. The wait is hard and it is perhaps near sighted of Square Enix to have inserted so much build up into a game that needed to lay all its cards on the table from the outset.
The whole story of FFXIII has a general vagueness to it that is constantly at odds with player immersion. L'cie, Fal'cie, Pulse, Cocoon, Eidolon, Psicom, these are concepts thrust into the mindset of the player with little explanation and some may find the lack of clarity intimidating.
These frustrations aside, the overall scope of the tale is breathtaking at times, Cocoon is a truly unique world, one that could house an entire franchise of games.
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Final Fantasy XIII does not disappoint with its new set of characters. They are all genre mainstays but they manage to engage and excite in equal measure. Lightning herself is suitably stoic as the moody heroine and sidekick Sazh is good comic relief (the tiny Chocobo that resides in his afro is always good value). Of the two younger characters, Hope impresses as the obligatory angry orphan, Venille on the other hand is a bit too much as a precocious flower child.
Snow is sure to become a fan favourite with his headstrong ruffian, always spoiling for a fight and coming to blows with Lightning over the leadership of the group, its his story that you will find the most engaging.
Elsewhere, the villains are generally giant beasts, religious zealots and military types, nothing to rival the might of Sephiroth.
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All Final Fantasy games are lookers. From the integrated FMV in FFVII, to the next gen baiting graphics of FFXII, each installment is a benchmark for its native technology and XIII is no exception. From the outset, Square Enix establishes a visual dominance with a spectacular opening movie that would put entire games to shame. From then on we take in the usual epic FF vistas, from a gigantic crystalised lake, to lush open fields, even the tried and tested industrial metropolis looks gorgeous pumped out in glorious HD. Character models are detailed, even though they possess that hyper-real sheen usually seen in the FF universe.
The only downside is a stifling camera that at times has a mind of its own, zooming close to the player and distracting from the epic vistas surrounding them. It's frustrating that after all these years, Square haven't perfected a decent camera to better display there knack for epic visual flair.
The Xbox 360 version is notable for being equally as lush as the PS3 version. It ships on 3 DVDs, as oppose to PS3's one shiny Blu Ray, but aside from this there is little difference. Loading times are slightly longer on PS3 and things are only slightly less glossy on 360, but other than these small blemishes, both versions are identical.
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Cocoon is a big world, unfortunately you wont be seeing much of it. This is because for the most part the player is boxed into the environment by corridors and closed off areas. Its not usually traditional for Final Fantasy games to have free roaming, open world environments, but it wouldn't hurt to venture outside the boundaries Square Enix has set for the player.
Locations are predictably beautiful for a game with such high production values, but the closed off areas and fussy camera mar the players perspective far too much.
The art style is a strange blend of the fantastical seen in FFX (both games feature elaborate light shows) and the imperial majesty of FFXII. It's a shame that FFXIII never establishes its own unique style, instead borrowing liberally from the looks of the other games in the series. Although what is present is breathtaking enough to warrant awe.
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You would be hard pressed to find a combat heavy RPG in the first few hours of FFXII. To say the least, nothing much happens during what can only be called an extended prologue. Unfortunately, even after this considerable intro, nothing much awaits the player on the other side.
Completely scrapping FFXII's fantastic battle system in favour of a more traditional turn based format is a big mistake. The combat system gives the illusion of freedom with the presence of enemies on the field, much like in FFXII, and the ATB system allowing for quickfire custom commands. Essentially though, the battle system in FFXIII has absolutely nothing new to add to the franchise. Paradigms add a variety that is sorely needed, changing the role of your characters on the fly, so as to better negotiate tougher battles. This system only serves to aid control of your NPC teammates and is not essential for those wanting a more hands on approach.
It falls then to the upgrade system, here utilising the manipulation of a 'crystalarium', to liven things up. A traditional levelling up system has been modified slightly to include weapons, equipment and paradigm classes. All of these can level up as the player becomes more experienced, its a rewarding system that is at odds with the dull combat model.
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So, the latest Final Fantasy is just as frustrating as the last 12 installments then. Beautiful and ground breaking in terms of looks, the game is bursting at the seems with visual opulence, but it lacks considerably in the substance department.
One thing that is evident is the complete lack of any sort of NPC presence outside of your own squad, gone are the bustling cities and towns, filled with hundreds of little conversations. Instead Lightning traverses the world with only the bickering canned dialogue of her small group of companions, its ultimately a lonely experience. This element of the game is a prime example of what Square Enix has done with FFXIII, in an attempt to improve the formula, they have taken away a lot of the things that made it so great in the first place.
Final Fantasy XIII is an often brilliant game that is still capable of sucking you in for hours at a time with its endless battling and grinding. Although when the grand tale of Lighting and the fate of Cocoon has finished, you'll find that there isn't much worth remembering.
Its unfortunate, but FFXIII doesn't feel like the latest excellent installment of the FF franchise, it feels like a dry run for something better. Square Enix hasnt been lucky with their RPGs of late- Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, Last Remnant and Infinite Undiscovery all saw middling reactions from the gaming public and it seems Square have decided to play it safe with this project.
A proto-RPG, testing the waters of the current generation. XIII is apparently part of a self contained series, all set on the world of Cocoon. The last time Square Enix tried this was with FFX, that game and its Charlies Angels style sequel is infamously the most ill-received in the franchise. FFXIII may suffer the same fate.