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March 23, 2010
Final Fantasy XIII - PS3 Review
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Square-Enix's gorgeous looking FFXIII!
So here it is. We've been waiting since E3 2006 for this game to come out and four years later it's finally here. Square-Enix have invested a hell of a lot into Final Fantasy XIII and with sales of over 2 million units in Japan since launch, and 450,000 on day one in America there are big sales to match. Fortunately for European gamers the launch in our territory was only a couple of months after Japan, and on the same day as America, so we didn't have to wait long to get our mitts on one of the biggest RPG releases in years.

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Final Fantasy XIII English version screen.
Final Fantasy XIII is set in Cocoon, a utopia in the skies where the inhabitants believe their world is a paradise and under the Sanctums rule has been living in peace and prosperity for many years. Mankind was blessed by its protectors, the benevolent fal'Cie, and believed that tranquil days would continue forever. Their tranquility was shattered with the discovery of one hostile fal'Cie from Pulse - the feared and detested lower world.

Now I could go into a lot more detail about the storyline, the characters, their relationships, and their histories but doing so would only spoil one of the richest, deepest storylines ever created for a game. In fact, that's one of the slight annoyances, there is simply so much information here that it is almost overwhelming and while the hours of cut-scenes do a decent job you will also need to look at the in-built encyclopedia/databank for more details, or clarification, on a regular basis. On a more positive note as you get further into the game game the storyline only becomes more engrossing and by half way through you will be absolutely hooked as the characters attempt to discover what their Focus, or fortune, is as a L'Cie.

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Characters in FFXIII looks stunning.
Unless you've been living under a rock franchise, along with Square-Enix's Dragon Quest, is one of the most popular RPG franchises on the planet with sales not in the millions, but tens of millions worldwide. One of the key selling points of this franchise has always been the storyline and as mentioned above that's a big winner. In terms of gameplay you'll move around on the screen encountering all sorts of enemies along the way which then places you in a battle.

Returning to Final Fantasy XIII is the Active Time Battle (ATB) system which gives players the ability to execute numerous commands in a single turn with the multi-slot ATB gauge. Whether inputting singular commands in each slot for consecutive attacks, or expending multiple slots at once to activate a devastating blow, itís up to the players to respond effectively to the battle conditions at hand. It's also possible to cast spells such as Quake which will damage all enemies on screen, Libra which detects the strengths and weaknesses of enemies and also summon massive Eidolons, which are massive god-like creatures used to inflict massive damage on enemies.

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Another gorgeous cut-scene.
The key points to battles though is the ability to "Stagger" the enemies. By attacking them frequently enough their stagger gauge will fill up. When staggered each attack you perform on them inflicts an ever increasing amount of damage. This certainly reduces the amount of time taken to defeat enemies and is critical in some of the boss encounters, which we might add can be absolutely epic.

One of the new game mechanics in Final Fantasy XIII is the Paradigm Shift. This allows you to, especially in the latter parts of the game from Chapter 10, set up your party with different attributes. You may, for instance, set up Snow as a Commando, Fang as a Commando and Hope as a Medic which will provide some pretty decent firepower as well as some medical coverage so Hope can restore HP as you're being attacked. Given that there are six characters, with three, and from level 10 six different classes this gives you a lot of ability to customize your battle team. During the battles you can hit L1 which brings up a list of Paradigms so you can switch your teams focus mid-battle. Need some magic power-ups, switch to a character Paradigm set with a Synergyst. Getting low on HP, switch to a team which has two Medics and so on.

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Enemies are lined up to attack!
So in terms of gameplay all the systems work quite well together from upgrading characters through the Crystarium, and weapons upgrades, to the Active Time Battle and the Paradigm shift. The problem is that the actual battles themselves are extremely repetitive. Most battles with the option for Auto-Select commands can be won simply by continually pressing X - how about the ability to hit R1 or R2 to dodge attacks? Or something with a bit of variety at least. Also extremely disappointing is the fact that you can't select the members of your party until, again, Chapter 10 in the game so until then you'll be travelling around and battling with whomever the developers decide to drop into the party.

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Lightning prepares for battle.
So lets talk about upgrading your character through The Crystarium. This is essentially a grid system which allows you to spend CP (Crystal Points) earned through battles to upgrade characters with extras HP, Strength or Magic as well as some new abilities. The problem with this though is that while it's similar to the Sphere grid in Final Fantasy X if anything it's even more linear. You basically have to follow a set path to upgrade your character, so you can't spend all your CP focusing on strength or HP. You need to do what the developers have put next in line. There are only a few optional branches available along the way until very late in the game (again, around Chapter 10) when you can select to have any of the characters upgrading along any path not previously available to them.

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Another gorgeous screenshot...
What really amazed, in a depressing way, was the extremely linear nature of the game - at least for the first 10 of the 13 chapters in the game. For hours you feel you're being fed down a narrow corridor with no alternate pathways, and no bonus areas to explore. If there is an offshoot it's usually to battle a couple of monsters before unlocking a floating orb/chest which may contain some money (Gil) or items. There are no towns to explore, few people to talk to (besides the hours of cut-scenes) and no shops to visit.

But there were other disappointments too. When you go to the save point you can upgrade your weapons or items, or buy or sell items, or save the game. Problem is when you go to a shop to buy items you can't then automatically upgrade weapons from within the shop. Instead you have to go back to the game, hit X to save, and then enter the upgrade menu. There are so many buttons not used in this game, why not Map the shop to the R2 button or something like that.

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Square-Enix have, again, set CG benchmarks.
As we mentioned in our preview one big disappointment is that this game is a single player only experience. Sure the game will last the average gamer around 40 hours to complete, but it could have been fun to add in some 3-on-3 battles where gamers could battle some characters against each other. Beyond that some multi-player side-quests similar to those in White Knight Chronicles would have been appreciated. Still don't despair as Final Fantasy XIV is just around the corner. Also there is some debate/decision making going on about downloadable content for Final Fantasy XIII at Square-Enix. One month it's out of the question, the next it's being considered so stay tuned for more on that.

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Showing some tenderness...
If there is one thing that this game absolutely nails it's the visuals. Using Square-Enix's Crystal Tools engine the level of detail is quite astonishing. Indeed while there is a difference in detail between pre-rendered cut scenes and the in-game visuals at times they are so insignificant that you will be wondering if you're in-game or watching a cut-scene (pre-rendered, or real-time). Enemies are superbly designed while kudos must also go to Square-Enix for some of the slickest menus, most brilliant visual effects from magic in the battles and a superb presentation overall.

Comparisons between the PS3 and XBox 360 version have to be made too as there is a big deal about the game hitting Microsoftís console too. It's clear that the PS3 is the big winner here, and I'm not saying that because I'm a Sony focused site, but the compression given to the hours of video in the XBox 360 version shows some terrible artifacting at times, and also lack of sharpness. Furthermore the 360 version runs at 576p while the PS3 game is 720p while both can be upscaled to 1080p. This is one game where the massive capacity of Blu-Ray has been used appropriately, and to full effect. Having said that, if you don't have a PS3 and can't afford the "upgrade" then the gameplay in the 360 version is nigh on identical.

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A screenshot from Japanese FFXIII.
Another area where this game excels is the audio. Admittedly some lines of dialogue are a little corny, and characters change moods a little to quickly and easily, but the actual audio presentation in this game remains top notch with some great use of surround sound channels, brilliant music by Masashi Hamauzu, and very solid audio effects as well.

Ultimately Final Fantasy XIII isn't all we hoped. Visually and sonically sure the game surpasses almost everything on the market, but the gameplay is just so limiting and repetitive. Quite how Square-Enix could design, let alone fully develop, this game is bewildering. Having said that though, it is a game that we still enjoyed playing through for the "experience", but it should have been much more then just a "very good" game.

Review By: Dave Warner

GRAPHICSWithout a doubt one of the highest benchmarks for visuals ever in a game.
SOUNDOverall the audio experience here is stunning although some lines of dialogue are a bit corny.
GAMEPLAYOh. My. God. How could Square-Enix develop such a linear, restrictive RPG (for the first 2/3 of the game anyway). This franchise is meant to set benchmarks, not get stuck in the 1990s!
VALUEAdmittedly the game is fairly lengthy at around 35-40 hours, but its repetitive and there's little to explore/do outside the main quest.
OVERALLIt a massive shame this game is so linear and repetitive. The story, visuals, and audio are all top notch, but it's all let down by the actual gameplay. Have a look, but don't expect a stunning, revolutionary, RPG experience.

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