The Optima system (known in the West as Paradigm) is the ace up FFXIII's sleeve. To start with, each party member can use three of six Roles, similar to the Jobs in previous Final Fantasy entries. An Attacker ﬁ ghts with weapons, a Blaster with magic; an Enhancer buffs up party members while a Jammer debuffs enemies; and Defenders draw attacks while Healers heal the remainder of the team.
You can customise six different Optima formations and switch between them in battle. So with a party of three, you may choose to quickly Break an enemy with an Attacker/Blaster/ Blaster Optima, switching mid-battle to throw in a Healer as necessary, and so on. You don't control your teammates' actions so much as the team itself.
Even when you ﬁnd your preferred Optima set-up, you'll have to rearrange them often, as certain monsters and bosses are susceptible to speciﬁc combinations of Roles. Also, the story forces changes upon you as party members come and go. For example, Snow might hang back
to try to dig his ﬁancée (who's turned into a giant crystal) out of a lake (which has also turned into a giant crystal - talk about futile), and suddenly you've lost your only party member capable of a Defender role at that point.
The battle system takes time to master and is gradually implemented over the game's ﬁrst ten hours or so, with tutorials written eye-scrunchingly small. However, much of the ﬁrst 20 hours has your team splintered into small groups through a series of plot contrivances, hampering the strategy element, and battles can feel more like balancing a spreadsheet than playing a game. It does gel, but newcomers will have to be patient.
HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS
As ever, your characters can unleash epic Summons, or Eidolons (see page 70), to tackle ﬁerce bosses. As in FFXII, characters must tame his or her Eidolon in battle to earn their protection. Once beaten, only the Eidolon belonging to the party leader (who you don't get to pick until halfway through the game) can be used on enemies. You can ﬁght alongside the Eidolon or mount it in Drive Mode (Gestalt in the Western version) to pull off heavy attacks for a limited time. For maximum effect, Break an enemy before summoning your Eidolon.
Winning battles rewards your party with Tactical Points needed for Summons and other spells, plus Crystal Points, which you can spend on levelling up their various Roles for increased abilities and HP in the Crystarium (tap triangle). 'Grinding' through maps and battles is essential, sadly, or you'll be seriously under strength for the next big encounter.
About 30 hours in, the game opens up. As the group ﬂee the futuristic techtopia of Cocoon for the plains of Gran Pulse, a series of side missions open on a vast map though these do just consist of more samey battles. Hardcore ﬁnal fantasy fans will ﬁnd much joy in farming CP from the respawning monsters that populate Gran Pulse, allowing for major upgrades that make your team near- invincible. Others will have switched off hours ago.
FLAB OF THE LAND
Final Fantasy XIII's grand ambition is also its downfall. The game feels bloated and repetitive - too much movie, not enough game. The cheesy characterisations and overwrought dialogue (at least in the Japanese version) will make you cringe - and there must be over 25 hours of movies. Some cut-scenes and syrupy ﬂashbacks are so long they can be paused, appear on your map and have their own save points.
Yes, it looks amazing - from the lines on their lips to the soles of their shoes, the detail in the character models is unreal - and the battle system, though repetitive, is fun. While FFXIII is advertised as an RPG, the main role you play is that of viewer.
Worth importing? Japanese speakers aside - wait until March 9th in the UK. Series' stalwarts will appreciate the successful fusion of FFIV's ATB system and FFXII's real-time battles, while enemies appear in the ﬁeld, like FFXII, doing away with random encounters. If you've not played an RPG since PSone classic FFVII, you'll relish the slick combat and next-gen sheen, but for some, the series' most grandiose and obtrusive narrative to date, may prove too big a hurdle.
Looks the part, but we'd hoped for more variety in its 60-hour sweep.