A cocky self-proclaimed hero with a charming sneer and a heart of gold. A sultry, no-nonsense ally you can rely on for a sly quip and a warm hug. These characters sound like standard role-playing stereotypes, but to Final Fantasy XIII's credit, they transcend formula and wriggle into your heart. Like many other Final Fantasy ensemble casts, the misfits at the center of this tale feel like old friends, and like old friends, they will excite your spirit, move your heart, and sometimes exasperate you. Their story is grand and compelling--as absorbing as you could hope for in a long role-playing game. That's just as well, given the fun but flawed game woven around this excellent tale. This is an intensely focused, exceptionally linear adventure that offers a few illusions of choice but never makes good on them. Fortunately, the battle system is fun and engaging once all of its elements fall into place, and it will keep you pushing forward even when the story lulls in the second half. Yet don't let the flaws dissuade you from playing and enjoying Final Fantasy XIII. It's a good-looking RPG that delivers the emotional poignancy and strong production values you expect from this beloved series.
Vanille and a Flan come to blows. Mmm. Doesn't vanilla-flavored flan sound good right now?
The aforementioned cocky hero is Snow, the spiritual leader of a ragtag group of rebels in the world of Cocoon, though he isn't the soul of Final Fantasy XIII's story. That honor goes to Lightning, a likeable, strong-willed beauty on a vision quest to save her sister. In the first few moments of the game, you meet both Lightning and her accidental companion, Sazh, a good-hearted former pilot whose afro serves as home to a chocobo chick. (Don't worry: This bit of silly humor is not taken to extremes.) Eventually, this duo is joined by four others, drawn together by dramatic events, intertwined pasts, and a seemingly unachievable goal. The cast is diverse and the members play off of each other well. Tension between the resolute Lightning and the stubborn Snow is relieved when anger gives way to honesty. A young man called Hope blindly lets revenge cloud his judgment, even while admitting that nothing will stop his broken heart from bleeding. With a single exception, these are winning characters that are easy to relate to, providing a haven of comfort and familiarity in an attractive but unusual world. That exception is Vanille, an incessantly irritating waif whose superbubbly voice and high-pitched monosyllabic chirps exceed tolerable limits, even in a genre known for squeaky, bright-eyed heroines. Fortunately, the bulk of the voice acting and dialogue is quite good, though RPG purists should take note that there's no option to hear the original Japanese voice tracks.
It's best to discover the intricacies of the narrative on your own, given the constant stream of shocks and high drama it provides. But the excellent setting deserves special mention. Metal behemoths called fal'Cie lord over two distinct worlds: The raw and dangerous underworld called Pulse and the high-tech, elaborately designed world of Cocoon that floats above it. Cocoon is all shiny sleekness and crystalline craftwork, a fascinating marriage of the organic and the synthetic. Sophisticated machinery and finely wrought buildings dominate the urban backgrounds, and every last stone and spire looks as if great care went into creating it. The attention to detail is astounding, so there's always something to catch your eye, whether it is the fancy latticework of a fence, the decorative patterns spreading across a wall like ivy, or the complex networks of pipes and planks. The art design is beautiful and varied, yet it's also consistent. Not a single detail seems out of place.
Don't ever get a tattoo when you're drunk.
The technology behind the game isn't as impressive as the art, but it still does a good job of bringing the world to life. Textures and cutscenes are surprisingly blurry at times, and the game lacks the high-resolution crispness of its PlayStation 3 counterpart. Yet Final Fantasy XIII still looks lovely, and few rare frame rate drops aside, nearly every battle and every leg of the journey moves fluidly. In combat, party members and monsters flit about the battle arena while damage numbers float about and bright spell effects saturate the screen. Outside of combat, the idyllic landscapes and striking cutscenes almost always impress. It almost goes without saying that the pretty visuals are accompanied by an equally enchanting soundtrack, which is notable for both the theatrical swells and the quieter themes that contrast them.
As you make your way across airships and through crystal caverns, the journey's narrow focus will be almost as striking as the pretty environments. Some games in the series have been markedly linear, but Final Fantasy XIII is even more conspicuous in this regard than its predecessors. While there are some exceptions, such as in a primeval grassland, you are generally moving in one direction: forward. If you feel outmatched in battle, you can backtrack to take advantage of respawning enemies and grow a bit stronger before moving on, but you'll rarely need to do so. The linearity is even more pronounced because the walkways and corridors you follow are usually rather narrow, and there are few extraneous tasks to provide variety--no minigames to complete, no puzzles to solve, and aside from a few key moments, no populated towns to investigate.
Alexander is back. Doesn't he look menacing?
The upside to the linearity is that the story maintains its superb stride through the first half. Final Fantasy XIII opens up during a central stretch, letting you take on a few side quests that involve killing a certain monster or group of monsters. Unfortunately, this is when the story begins to lose some of its edge; the characters lose focus and the game follows suit, doing little to break up the wandering. A jaunt through a tall tower that follows drags on for too long--perhaps ironically so, given that it will make you wish for the game to return to its previous pace, linearity and all. When the final chapters get underway, the plot becomes thrilling once again and the earlier tempo is restored. It's easy to appreciate the stretch of freedom considering its rarity, but the story needn't have languished so drastically.
Fortunately, the action drives ever forward. It starts simply, but by the end of the game, it'll be testing your fingers, as well as your wits. Combat is menu driven, and while you only directly control a single party member, you do maintain indirect control of the other two adventurers that join you. Each action you take, whether it is an attack or a spell, uses up a certain number of segments in your ATB gauge (that is, your action bar). The gauge is always moving upward, so battles take place in real time, though the combat's reliance on menus and the gauge's innate limitations make fights feel like more of a turn-based/real-time hybrid. When it reaches its upper limit, it will carry out the sequence of actions you've queued up. (Conversely, you can interrupt the bar and unleash your accumulated moves before it reaches that point.) The trick is that you can't access your skills willy-nilly. Rather, each party member assumes certain roles--medic, commando, saboteur, and so on. If you've entered combat as a saboteur, you'll only be able to perform saboteur actions (poison, curse, slow, and the like), though you can switch roles at any time, provided you've trained in the role you wish to assume.