It’s all in the name. The 13th main instalment of a series that has relentlessly spawned subsidiaries over the past decade, the distinguishing factor is in those words as a title, rather than a brand. A true Final Fantasy – only the second since 2002 – is still an event.
This time around, it’s also a big reveal. Final Fantasy XIII changes the basic formula of the series radically – to an extent that no pre-release talk hinted at – and strikes out on its own. Even the most basic assumptions about what a Final Fantasy game should be are left at the door: this can barely be described as a roleplaying game. You won’t come across a single town worthy of the label, talk to shopkeepers or be swept into an intricate minigame. Your characters don’t even level up for the first few hours. It’s best to get the beginning out of the way: it’s a disaster of pacing that both bores and condescends to the player. There’s an excellently rendered cutscene to start off, and for the next two hours you’ll do little but run forward through walled-in environments and press a single button over and over to dismiss enemies. By the time you encounter anything approaching a challenge, FFXIII is stirring one emotion in particular: boredom.
The combat system is the culprit. Square Enix has constructed a masterpiece within the structure of turn-based battling, but the game is scared of you getting it wrong. While the system is complex, it’s not too hard to get to grips with the basics, but you won’t have access to the full capabilities of your party until around 20 hours in. It introduces every element at a crawling pace, and seems to think the only way players learn is through repetition – you’ll get a new tactic and then have to barrel through a series of identical enemies that are defeated by spamming it.
When your party is finally operating at full capacity, there’s still more of the linear story to trudge through – and it is a trudge. The game’s producers have gone on record as saying that western audiences don’t understand this first section, but in fact we do: it’s just a bit rubbish. The first 25 hours of the game are one long corridor of palette-swapped enemies, fights that never quite find the right level of challenge, and cutscene after cutscene (after cutscene) leaving your joypad entirely idle.
Then it all goes right. Your party decamps to Pulse, a sprawling, slightly-more-open world beneath Cocoon, and the real FFXIII begins to emerge. It’s that combat system. You directly control the party leader, with two support characters fighting automatically, but you can also control their roles: there are damage dealers, tanks, medics and so on. Any combination can be pre-arranged, and up to six can be swapped between on the fly when in battle. The scope for customising your loadout doesn’t initially seem overwhelming, but it quickly becomes clear what a difference a change makes, and how small a number six really is.
The enemies span the full gamut: hulking, nimble, pack-hunters, solo attackers, magic-based, physical brutes, immune to some things and weak to others. Each also has a ‘Stagger’ bar, separate from their health. Fill this to the top, and damage is doubled while new offensive options become available. Your role is management. Use Evened Odds to heal your wounds, bulk up and soften your enemy (with a party of Saboteur, Medic and Synergist). Switch to Tri-Attack to fill their Stagger meter quickly (all Ravagers). Switch to Hero’s Charge to maintain the level of Stagger while healing any damage done in the meantime and adding new buffs to your party (Commando, Synergist, Medic). Another Tri-Attack and, despite resistance, they’re staggered – unleash Endless Assault (Commando, Commando, Medic), launch them in the air and begin dealing out the big blows. They don’t touch the ground for the next 30 seconds, and by the time they’re down, they’re out.