There's a simple beauty in recalling a Final Fantasy game that you've played. All of the negative aspects of the game fade away, and you're left with the most poignant experiences. Final Fantasy XIII doesn't disappoint in that regard; it's filled with points of emotional gravity and intensity. Whether it's a cut-scene or a boss battle, Final Fantasy XIII goes above and beyond your typical RPG expectations.
Sadly though, Final Fantasy XIII has negative aspects in abundance, to the extent that some fans will be put off. A quarter of the way through the game I had found little to enjoy, and I only truly began to adore it in the game's final chapters. At over forty hours of gameplay, Final Fantasy XIII is an investment, and a challenging one at that.
So let's state the obvious first: Final Fantasy XIII is astoundingly gorgeous. Character models are gloriously detailed and animated exquisitely, which almost excuses their ridiculous outfits. Nothing like fighting off armies of monsters in a miniskirt or a trench-coat, right? Still, each character's outfit is refreshingly original and contrasts well in the turbulent combat system.
Combat becomes excessively pretty as you gain new skills and face new enemies. The way spells envelop your opponents has to be mentioned: Ice crystallizes over an enemy's model, fire will roll across them, water will splash and bubble, and it all looks very dynamic in each new fight. Since you'll be seeing the same spell effects all game long, it's great that they put the extra work into making them visually appealing.
The game's environments, both in combat and out, are the best you've ever seen in an RPG. While there are a few cases of simple grass fields with tall brown cliffs, the majority of areas are sprawling cities, untamed jungles or indescribably imaginative dreamscapes. There's still some reused textures and models, and plenty of monsters that vary in color depending on their difficulty. It's all standard fare for Final Fantasy.
Also wonderfully standard for Final Fantasy are the cut-scenes, and they are everything expected and more. Simply the best of the best, it doesn't get any better than what Square Enix creates here. As per tradition, the most dramatic portions of the game are all conveyed through cut-scenes. The ability to sense a character's emotions based on their body language and facial animations is clearer than ever. There are no negatives to be found here.
The voice acting and soundtrack share a similar level of quality. Square Enix has always had excellent production values in this regard. Unfortunately, the worrisome localization issues that have plagued previous Final Fantasy games are still present. There must be a cultural divide where certain characters become frustrating and annoying in during localization. It would be easy to blame the voice actors for their character's faults, but if anything the voice actors do their best to maintain a level of empathy. It's not easy, as the characters are still completely ridiculous, but their effort is notable.
A mostly orchestral soundtrack reinforces the best moments of Final Fantasy XIII. You'll find yourself pressing buttons in rhythm to the battle music, and it all feels very natural. The other portion of the soundtrack, the J-Pop and alternative rock side, has the opposite effect and will potentially ruin poignant moments. It's not that that the music is inherently bad, it's the contrast between the two styles. The seriousness and emotional tones evoked by the orchestral songs are torn asunder by the ham-fisted pop and rock. It's akin to playing Lady Gaga during your wedding ceremony as opposed to the reception.
Plot-wise, Final Fantasy XIII unintentionally follows a very polarizing serious/not serious theme. When the characters aren't taking part in extremely intense scenarios, they're casually pondering the depth of the situation they find themselves in. Love, death, and other overtly emotional circumstances are watered down with hours of endless indecision and inaction. If the story was entirely composed of the game's cut-scenes it would flow perfectly. Unfortunately this is an RPG, and requires the majority of the game to take place between cut-scenes. The result is that most of the plot feels like filler, as if there are certain time markers to reach before something important can happen.
Pacing ultimately becomes Final Fantasy XIII's enemy. The first ten hours of the game reveal little beyond your party's dire situation. The next twenty hours will slowly fill in the back-story and resolve the personal issues between your party's members. It's only in the final quarter of the game where you'll feel driven to progress. And in Final Fantasy fashion, XIII will climax in a spectacular manner. I could even go so far as saying this is my favorite Final Fantasy ending yet. Still, the return on investment is dubious at best.
The characters themselves are polemic, though every player will find a favorite in the colorful cast. Lightning and Fang are two of the strongest female protagonists in recent memory. Neither fall into the over-sexualized harpy or annoying damsel-in-distress archetypes, unlike poor Vanille who is the latter. The men are weaker characters, whose decisions all stem from specific events that occur early in the game. Sazh deserves extra attention because he has a baby Chocobo living in his afro. While they all have their faults, there is something in each of them that you can empathize with.
Final Fantasy XIII's trend of starting poorly and building into something substantial pertains to the combat and gameplay mechanics as well. You'll traverse extremely linear corridors, and should you stumble into a roaming monster the active battle system jumps to the forefront. While you can only control the leader of the party, you can trust the AI to do what is most effective for their class. In fact, you're better off letting the AI select what actions you perform as well. This will allow you to focus on combat's best feature, the paradigm change, which allows you the ability to change your party's classes on the fly.
Early in the game, you'll be limited to only a few classes, with even fewer abilities and that creates a very slow learning curve. It will take upwards of three hours before players even begin accruing experience! As the time flies by you'll earn new skills and abilities, but the most important skill will always be quickly swapping jobs to account for different situations. By the end of the game the combat becomes frantic and challenging in a extremely strategic manner. Until that point, there's the tedium of balancing the need to progress quickly with the frustrating increase in difficulty.
And Final Fantasy XIII really does become difficult! Roaming monsters often require a complete overhaul of your party before even entering battle. You'll become used to losing the first encounter with a boss just so you can discover his strengths and weaknesses. And there will always be the need for more hit-points, so a monster can't kill you in a spontaneous attack. The easiest approach requires you to stop and grind low-health, large reward monsters, and then continue on while avoiding as many fights as possible. This slows an already staggered pace to a crawl at points, but the alternative is an endless series of difficult fights with little reward.
About 2/3 of the way through the game, an area opens up with a variety of side quests and monsters of different levels. It is worth noting that players should do as many of these side quests as possible, because the difficulty steeply rises when you leave the area. The missions that I experienced all required you to kill a specific monster or group of monsters. It was all a little underwhelming, but the experience was much more rewarding than grinding.
In what's likely to be the most disappointing aspect of Final Fantasy XIII, there are no inns, towns or NPCs to be found in the entire game. Final Fantasy XIII is basically a single path from beginning to end, filled with roaming monsters, boss fights, and save-points. Even the side-quest missions will eventually lead you towards the game's final areas. While the linearity does fit with the game's themes of exile and the search for redemption, the lack of any safe havens or NPCs really does Final Fantasy XIII a disservice. It robs the player of any points of reflection, and instead forces them to consider only what's ahead. While that's not inherently bad, it makes the game more of a grind then it should be. Its also so very unlike Final Fantasy's traditions
When the game is over, you'll be able to stop and think about the experience. Yes, the majority of Final Fantasy XIII can become a mix of frustration and boredom. Yet, when the final boss dies and your sense of accomplishment melts those negative aspects away, you're left with a great game. There's an epic journey filled with dramatic moments, interesting and emotionally driven characters, and exciting and challenging combat. That doesn't excuse its faults, as you shouldn't have to complete a game to realize how much you enjoyed it. Still, that's what happened for me, and you'd be missing out if you didn't experience it as well.
Final Fantasy XIII March 9, 2010 on PS3 and Xbox 360 and October 9, 2014 for PC.