or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ragnarok
Square Enix loves juxtaposing futuristic and fantastical elements in their Final Fantasy games. Whether its suits of mechanical armor infused with magic, or power plants siphoning the planet's spiritual energy, or a sorceress imprisoned in outer space, they're pretty much all about it. XIII presents this dichotomy by introducing the floating world of Cocoon, a futuristic human paradise, that hovers like a low-hanging moon over the primitive, savage world of Gran Pulse. Your party is comprised of denizens of both Cocoon and Pulse, with each side an alien in the midst of the others. So, instead of a new world to explore, you get two new worlds to explore.
I liked the linear nature of much of the game. One nice way to alleviate the impression that this is an on-rails RPG is to turn off the mini-map. Now stop staring at your destination icon and gaze upon the environments. That's better. Once you reach the surface of Gran Pulse, the world opens up a bit, and allows exploration, akin to arrival at the Calm Lands in X, one of many similarities between the two installments. Only then can you ride Chocobos, chase Cactuars, and settle Everyone's Grudge with the butcher.
Killa Advice: Once on the Archelytte Steppe, be aware that the pace of the game has changed. You will spend a fair amount of time on the Steppe, so make yourself at home. When you first enter the area, hug the left wall, follow it to another narrow pass that leads to a red Cieth stone and an impassable barrier. I believe this is Hunt 12. Completing 12, and soon after 14, will allow you to ride Chocobos and access previously inaccessable areas. Not only is this a nice diversion, but you can traverse the Steppe in a fraction of the time.
The battle system combines a lot of elements of previous iterations' systems that I've liked: X-2's frenetic pace, chain bonus mechanics, and job changing on the fly, as well as the strategic element of XII's party management. The Paradigm Shift is fun and well implemented, but occasionally I desired the ability to open up a Gambit screen and alter, say, Saboteur's priority list so that [Curse]>[Slow] was at the top of the order, but c'est la vie.
I also liked, much like in X, that the central protagonist's outstanding attribute was speed. With the correct load-out, Lightning is your fastest characterr, and combined with her unique Ravager ability Army of One, she can drive up chain bonus like whoa. Assigning party leadership allows you to choose that character's specific abilities in battle, call that character's eidolon, and use that character's unique ability. (For this last reason, expect to see Vanille flailing her arms about on the world screen quite a bit in the postgame.)
Yeah, that's right. I beat it.
Killa Advice: When you get to the boss of the game, go ahead and beat him. Don't worry about backtracking to do every hunt in the game first, as many of those hunts are far more difficult than the last storyline encounter. This will unlock the final expansion of the Crystarium, XIII's take on X's Sphere Grid, or, more simply, a visual reprentation of leveling up. This stage will allow you to obtain the fourth accessory slot, and also the really juicy HP increases.
I believe I have six hunts left: Gigantuar, the two Raktavijas, Atticus the Souless (the ultimate encounter in Titan's Faultwarrens), and three yet to be discovered marks. (Killa Deflation: You do not get to fight Titan. T_T) I plan to work on these foes, which I'm sure will involve a great deal of Adamantortoise poaching for the rare drop Trapezohedrons necessary to concoct the ultimate weapons.
In comparison to XII, I feel Thirteen comes off as a smaller, more limited affair, but much more focused, and with a more distinctive identity. The player party in XII seemed for much of the game to be bouncing from location to location, bystanders to the political events taking place in the larger storyline. (Two of the playable charcters were only tangentially connected to the storyline, and two others were mere hangers on.) The main characters of XIII feel much more developed, each one with a personality, and each going through a dynamic change (poignantly signified by their Eidolon battle). At the end of the game, it feels as if they are all fighting for something they believe in, and Square Enix made it clear that this game was about an internal battle within the characters as much as a struggle against a suicidal Fal'Cie.
I've talked a lot in the past about player motivation, antagonists as player guides, and how this influences game design. (Dormin in Shadow of the Colossus, Big Boss in Metal Gear, and Glados in Portal all come to mind.) In the world of XIII, Fal'Cie (demigods for lack of a more original term) bestow powers and purpose upon humans to do their bidding. Early on your group is branded by the Fal'Cie Anima, and this propels them along their collision course with the end of the game. The characters bicker over the merit and nature of their ultimate goal, but they must ultimately continue on. The illusion of choice is written into the game's story, and is central to the characters' development, and their rebellion against their world, their focus, and the Fal'Cie.
(This is perfectly acceptable and to be expected for a game that is trying to tell a tale. Just pointing out that in the wake of games like, say, BioShock 2, wherein your decisions and the way you choose to play determine the ultimate outcome, it feels a little uninvolved.)
I liked the use of Eidolons quite a bit. Though Gestalt mode may have seemed corny in the run up to release, the implementation in battle is worthwhile, and the way the Eidolons are shown in cutscenes adds a lot to the flair of the game. The scene following your departure from Oerba is definitely the visual high point of the game. It's also interesting to identify which returning Summons/Guardians/Espers/Totemas/Eidolons were reincarnated as Fal'Cie (Anima, Carbuncle, Phoenix, Titan) and which were your party's Eidolons (Bahamut, Alexander, Odin, Shiva).
Death of towns - I often write simple subject lines like this farther down in a post so I don't forget to mention it. Heh. No towns, and to be honest, I don't really miss them. I do most of my shopping irl online anyways, so being asked to buy Phoenix Downs and Dark Matter from the game's e-commerce sites is not so strange. The real casualty are sidequests, which, with the exception of the hunts, are non-existent. Not a dealbreaker by any means, as I obviously played it, but the defense of Fort Condor in VII, and the card battle game in VIII, hell, even Blitzball could be fun now and then. Being sidequests, they do not detract from the overall experience, as a player uninterested need not seek them out. But, if you can't get enough of a game, and want to do every single thing, you may feel a little let down. There's the storyline, the sixty-four hunts, and the arbitrary perfection of your characters. On to the Next One.
To sum things up, XIII is an excellent game, a strong showing for the franchise, and a visual spectacle. There are areas and scenes in this game like nothing you've ever seen before. I don't often have the opportunity to say that. If you enjoy turn-based battles, then you should thoroughly enjoy this logical progression towards a more exciting format. If you've speedran VII or completed Via Infinito in X-2, or took a day off to beat Yazmat in XII, then you may feel a little snubbed by the concise nature of this tale. Worth it all the same. Enjoy.