Can this really be Final Fantasy?
It never is the Final Fantasy of course, they keep on coming and coming and fans have been waiting a literal age for this one. Final Fantasy 13 is an odd beast if you've played the iterations up until this point, if you were looking for something that returns to the days of yore with characters like Tifa and Cloud Strife: then you have come to the wrong place. Final Fantasy 13 is about as removed from that as an apple is to an orange. Yet don't let the change in direction put you off too much.
This is a huge heavy story that some Western audiences are going to find a slog, it's typically J-RPG with heavy doses of melodrama and moody characters that make Squall and Cloud look positively saintly at times. As per usual it's told in glitzy CGI and in-game engine cut-scenes that can be skipped. The production values are high and the graphical quality is excellent. We're not going to spoil the story at all, so if you've come looking for a blow by blow account of that, sorry.
It's an Active Turn Battle system, real time and to begin with it seems shallow and very simple. The whole game for around 25-30 hours can be described as a linear progression through the story with little chance to change your character or your role, but as time passes and you get further on, 5-6, 10 or so hours in you start to open up various elements of the game. Elements that expand the battle system such as the Paradigm roles where you can choose a role that fit the character, some roles are healers and some roles excel in battle. Once you open these up, experiment with the role system and get access to the Crystalarium, where you can begin to level up your characters abilities and give them new powers, the game opens up somewhat in terms of play.
Otherwise to begin with it really is a choice of picking what skill to use, what dude to attack and rinse/repeat. It has cut down a lot on the previous Final Fantasy games, removing towns and shops and adding the ability to buy what you want and sell what you need at local save points. You can also access the weapons/accessory upgrade screen from here when you open the option. Here you can take the components that are dropped by monsters and often found in the various levels, trade them in for XP to get a weapon or item to change somewhat, adding more damage and so forth. These items level up your stuff and it becomes more potent, there's more to it than that, but that is the system in a nutshell.
The problem is that it takes a long time to open up these options and those who haven't got the patience to get this far, they're certainly not going to want to slog through 30 or so hours to get to the open world style area of the game, not when previous Final Fantasy titles offered you airships and alternative side quests a few hours in. When you do finally get to the open area, be warned, this is the area where you can see the J-RPG influence of the game, it's grindy, grindy, grindy time. If you want to level up your characters and get the best weapons, well, be prepared for more repetition and same-old-same old side missions.
If you like that kind of thing, there's nothing wrong at all with an MMO-style grind-fest; it is gloriously expected of this type of game.
The battle system GUI is slick enough, you navigate the main world with your party member (one the game dictates) and eventually you can make your own battle team. Again, taking the choice away from the player near the start makes the game a little less immediate in terms of gameplay options. There are some alternate routes in the game world and you can find some secrets when exploring, you encounter monsters in real time and can get a sneaky pre-emptive strike on them which alters the battle significantly. Or you can run away/avoid a conflict most of the time. There are also summons/Eidolons and you have to defeat these to earn them, it's often a game that leaves you feeling: is this more trouble than it's worth.
There is one thing that Square does very well, that's production values, especially on Final Fantasy. 13 is no exception and the game is gorgeous in every way, from the superbly rendered CGI to the excellent use of in-game graphics to create interesting environments and good looking characters. As you can expect there are some oddball choices in clothing and monsters, but its par for the course. The game engine delivers on virtually every level with high quality texturing, lighting and graphical effects that make it one of the best looking PS3 games to date, right up there with Uncharted 2.
The animation engine is high quality and the characters all have a unique personality, especially when it comes to battle. There are some really great Summons in the game (you can skip them too) and the special animations for the various Eidolon's are excellent. All in all there's nothing that we can fault in terms of animation at all, so it gets a big resounding thumbs-up.
The physics are decent, what's there works and it produces the desired result, usually seen when an enemy is thrown into the air by a vicious juggle or used in the in-game engine to perform some scenery destruction. Apart from that, it feels very low key.
The monster AI is pretty good; bosses use their abilities fairly well and give you a run for your money early on as well as in the later stages of the game. Your party AI is usually good as well, giving the right amount of support and reacting to the chosen role in the Paradigm System.
As to be expected the audio side of FF 13 is flawless, there's not much that we can say about it really. It delivers atmospheric audio and makes a great show of pumping the adrenaline in battles.
The music for the game is on form with some delightful themes and stirring battle tracks, great stuff.
The voice work is pretty sharp; there are some excellent performances from the main cast and incidental actors. The dialogue reinforces the J-RPG moral heavy story with some typical style scripting and storytelling. It can rest heavy on Western shoulders but it's not all that bad.
Final...nope, not even close
This is so far removed from the previous Final Fantasy games that it's bound to put some gamers of the series right off. Judging from what many of you already had to say, that's pretty true. Yet for all the hate out there for it, there are many new fans who like the cut-down immediacy of the game and if they can manage the slog to the open world area then they will be rewarded. Give it a chance and if you manage to get 30 or so hours in, you're doing quite well all things considered.