Reviews

Final Fantasy XIII

Stunning and strategic, but this linear, fan-splitting RPG takes 25 hours to hit stride...

Of course, you know what to expect. Someone let the would-be filmmakers at Square
Enix loose on the PS3's Blu-ray capacity. It doesn't take a genius to work out that Final Fantasy XIII's narrative ladles selfl ess heroics, histrionic melodrama and, above all, breathtaking CG modelling into a story so long and extravagant it makes Lawrence Of Arabia seem like a Laurel and Hardy short.

In a lavish civilisation manipulated by a Holy Government, the over-privileged inhabitants of the floating city Cocoon have been conditioned to fear the denizens of Pulse, the world below that spawned them. Meanwhile, a mystical race born of crystal, the godlike fal'Cie, pluck citizens they consider useful and brand them as l'Cie servants, imbuing them with magical powers to do the fal'Cie's bidding and turning them into crystal after they've served their purpose.

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CRYSTAL CHRONICLES
It's this fate that hangs over the game's six playable characters, as they too are etched with the mark of l'Cie. But as the plot unfurls over the course of the 60-hour game, it actually gets harder to care about their plight - not least because so few of them are likeable in the first place. Heroine Lightning is the game's stoic central lead, but around her are a bunch of irritatingly cliched team members (see Light side, dark side). The main antagonists are also woefully underused, and the evil Galenth Dysley is a charisma-free zone. Sephiroth he ain't.

This would be forgivable if the gameplay were a little richer. For the fi rst 25 hours or so of game time, it's as linear as a piece of string. There's no exploration, no side quests, no choice at all outside of battle. Characters are switched in and out with jarring frequency, and all you really have to do to progress is press up on the left analogue stick until the next short fight or extended cut-scene. Lightning jumps nimbly around the scenery, but you're still just pressing up. Snow enters a beachside bar or Sazh and Vanille visit a packed theme park, but there's no interaction whatsoever.

MOVING ON UP
In the end, the backgrounds - while gorgeously detailed - are so superficial they cease to matter. Just keep pushing up and you'll get to the next bit. In terms of level design, it's less sophisticated than Pac-Man. Although you can usually control the camera with the right stick, it sometimes becomes fixed without warning, reinforcing the nagging feeling that the player is barely relevant to the game. The occasional puzzles aren't rocket science, either. One has you pressing switches on four separate machines to proceed, first dispatching the monsters that guard them. Another -possibly the most tedious, infantile mini-game in history - has you chasing Sazh's pet Chocobo around a pre-determined series of scenes. What is this, 'My First RPG'?

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The battle system alone offers a chance to fl ex the grey matter and implement a bit of strategy. Monsters are visible on the map, so no random encounters, and fights are fast paced. Taking direct control of just the party leader, you assign commands to the Active Battle Gauge (or use the automated feature to save valuable seconds) using e; these are unleashed as a combo attack when the bar is full. Most commands take up one ATB slot, but the more powerful ones require two or more.

Time these to go off in between attacks from your AI party members and you'll not only sap your enemy's HP but also fi ll their Break bar. Once they enter a Break state, you can close in for the kill, dealing major damage until they either recover or die. In other words, focusing your attacks on one foe at a time and with the right rhythm allows you to eliminate them faster. Happily, monsters have their own energy bar, so you know when it's better to pause for that pee.

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