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Final Fantasy XIII
Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Few things are as polarizing as numbered Final Fantasy releases. The day, no the minute, a new game is released in the "core" series (any game with a number behind it), it's immediately met by legions of trolls, apologists and whatever else the Internet is able to cough up. Some defend, others attack - it's the gaming equivalent of the Obama administration. Final Fantasy XIII is no different. It's going to leave some players in total ecstasy, while leaving others disgusted and disappointed.

Aristotle's Poetics was written as a practical guide to writing drama. Aristotle often complained that dramatic works skewed towards spectacle while offering little substance. The same complaint can be made about Final Fantasy XIII. The game is nothing but visual and audio spectacle with little substance below the surface. Final Fantasy XIII is absolutely stunning to look at. Characters are amazingly detailed, right down to hair that looks and acts like hair. If you want something to show off to friends, this is it. Even more impressive is there's no slowdown or awkward moments where items clip through pieces of clothing. It's all about details.

Music is just as epic, though not as memorable as past games. I loved every piece of music in the game, but can really only recall a simple melody outside the game. Though not a major issue, but considering past games feature some of the more memorable game tunes, it's disappointing. Voicework is spot-on and, with the exception of the always cheerful and incessantly irritating Vanille, characters are a joy to listen to. Good thing too, because you'll spend a lot of time doing just that.

I've had a bad feeling slowly building in my gut for the last year over Final Fantasy XIII. I'm a fan of the series and wanted it to be good. Scratch that, I wanted it to be great. But the more I heard from developers and saw in footage, the less sure I became of myself. Despite misgivings, I jumped in and while not completely dissatisfied with the end result, that uneasy feeling in my gut was for a reason.

For a franchise built on "great storytelling," Final Fantasy XIII's story is a mess. Looking past the numerous cut scenes slowing gameplay to a grinding halt, it drops players right into the middle of a convoluted narrative. No time is given to developing the world, the characters or the situation... you're just tossed in and expected to accept it. Entries are provided in a datalog whenever something new is uncovered, though they only provide scraps of clarity.

Story is further hampered by the lack of a true protagonist. Though you're led to believe you're following the series' first real female hero, Lightning, you'll spend just as much time playing as party members as they stumble through their own little adventures. The first couple hours are extended remixes of characters whining and complaining about their situation. There's never an indication of where the story is going until Chapter 11 (of 13), and when the true threat is revealed, it's not that great. I don't mind following multiple characters, but the splits happen too often. It's really hard to make any sort of connection to characters.

Final Fantasy XIII is easily the most linear Final Fantasy to date. Gameplay goes from 5 - 10 minute cutscenes where your characters do all sorts of cool things right into linear levels. As you move from point A to B, you'll find a few treasures and fight monsters. It's only when you get to the magical Chapter 11 that everything opens up and Final Fantasy XIII begins to feel like a real Final Fantasy. But, just as soon as the game finds its fun, it immediately returns to you a claustrophobically linear structure.

Final Fantasy XIII removes most of the "difficult" elements from RPGs. Characters don't level, so there's no grinding, and levels are straightforward, so you'll never get lost in a dungeon. Both sound great, but have a negative impact on difficulty. Everything is right there in front of you, removing most of the interesting decisions that make RPGs fun to play. Your party completely auto-heals after every encounter, so other than a few incredibly long fights, there's never a real sense of panic. Entering a dungeon without potions isn't a death wish and even if you do, it's a sure thing you'll find a few laying in front of you.

Even more unsettling, the game tends to play itself. Combat is one of a handful of highpoints, but if you want, you can set the game to auto-battle, removing another set of interesting decisions. Oddly enough, the auto-battle option plays into the need to constantly monitor your party during combat. This is important because, if the party leader dies, it's game over. Early in the game, this won't be an issue but when larger groups and one-hit kills show up... well, guess who is always the first target.

There are no random encounters. You have the ability to sneak up on enemies, but it rarely works unless you have access to special items, though these are rare finds. There's no way to determine an enemy's range of sight and they have a tendency to turn around at the very last minute.

Game Mechanics:
Battles are one thing Final Fantasy XIII gets right - mostly. Battles are menu-based and combat is a mix of real-time and turn-based styles. Actions happen in real time, though you must first cue them up on the Active-Time Bar, which is always refilling. It opens up a few interesting decisions, particularly since you can prematurely pull off moves by pressing (Triangle), but the whole "Auto-battle" concept puts a damper on the situation. You'll fight like hell not to use it, but it's a like solving a trig problem by hand when you have a calculator next to you.

Though you're limited to direct control of your leader, you can still order party members using the Paradigm System. Everyone in your group has a group of assigned roles on combat that play into particular Paradigms, or strategies. For instance, one strategy might involve a melee-based Commando, paired with a magic-focused Ravager and status-affecting Saboteur. Depending on their assigned role, characters will use certain attacks in combat. You can switch Paradigms at any time during battle, and part of the fun is figuring out which will work best in different situations.

Choosing the right Paradigms plays into the Stagger system. Hitting enemies where they are weakest fills a Stagger meter. Hit the right percentage, and enemies will take more damage from attacks or even stop fighting. Figuring out the system is great, though too many battles rely on Staggering an enemy before you can do any sort of real damage. This is expected for major bosses, but slows down some smaller fights.

I'm really not sure what audience Square Enix was going after with Final Fantasy XIII. It doesn't go for the JRPG (or series) audience, but at the same time, it doesn't go for a larger audience. Instead, it aims in the middle and misses the mark.

Final Fantasy XIII will have its fans; the dedicated series fans who will play or purchase anything as long as the Final Fantasy name is emblazoned on the front. At the same time, it is going to leave a lot of fans feeling like a jilted lover. There are some really good things happening here, but getting there is a slow-burn.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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