Final Fantasy is one of those epic series that seems to transcend fad or the whims of gamer fascination. Constantly reinventing itself, it's as relevant (or even more so) now than it was in 1987. This, the thirteenth iteration in the main series (there have been numerous spin-off titles as well), has arrived some four years after the release of the previous title.
To describe our breath as baited is like saying space is really big or that it's nice to beat the Aussies in a one-dayer.
The backdrop for Final Fantasy XIII is a world in chaos. The powerful government is deathly afraid of the world below and they're using that fear as an excuse for what amounts to ethnic cleansing. Thrust right into the middle of the conflict, you'll take control of a vast array of characters who find themselves playing a key role in how things play out.
Without ruining too much of the story (which, lets face it, is something you should discover for yourself in any Final Fantasy game), you'll soon form up a band of heroes and begin an epic quest to resolve the situation. That the party you form up resembles the cast of Lost, we assume, is a complete coincidence... (there's even a slightly silly Australian girl!).
Normally we'd talk about the visual presentation of a game a little later, but for Final Fantasy we're going to make an exception: Final Fantasy often sets the benchmark for visual delights and, as this is the first to hit the current generation of consoles, how it looks is something a lot of people are going to want to know about straight away.
Final Fantasy XIII looks unbelievably good. The pre-rendered cutscenes are preposterously gorgeous, of course, and the game-engine sequences aren't a let-down either. This game looks incredible. The art style and its execution is second to none.
The only thing that lets it down is the weightless and slightly quirky way in which most of the characters move around the environment (helped not even a little bit by the twitchy camera and character controls).
The non-interactive story sequences are numerous and lengthy, yet never bore you as they reveal the story or fill in background detail on some random character. If you've got a big TV and want to show people what HD or a next-gen console is all about, there's no better way to go about it. Rumours suggest the 360 is a little less impressive, but, with only PS3 code to test, we were unable to ratify these claims for ourselves.
Gameplay in Final Fantasy XIII revolves around you running your character (which you get no choice about - you play certain characters at certain times and cannot switch them, even in combat) around the map until you encounter an enemy, at which point it switches to combat mode. If you're quick, you can initiate combat mode before the enemies become aware of you (netting you an opening attack before combat-proper begins) but most enemies will spot you far enough out to make this fairly rare.
Combat starts off pretty basic - time fills a bar and, once it's topped off, you perform the actions you've queued up. Actions take different amounts of time to perform (so a powerful area-effect spell might take twice as long as a single attack). They also have different results, so there's a little bit of thinking to be done, but there aren't many moves to choose from and the "auto combat" button is so shiny, it's hard not to hit it.
Target selection is performed by choosing names from a list, which in turn changes which enemy you're targeting. While this makes perfect sense and works well enough, there are occasions when you'll be attempting to target a specific character because of where they're standing, which can be quite hard when your only selection method is a list that doesn't reflect the enemy's actual location.
As you get used to the way things work, however, the system evolves, adding the ability to execute moves before the time bar is completely full (a necessity, as this bar grows longer as your adventure continues). You'll also pick up the ability to change the way your team roles are assigned, summoning, and more. The way the system is gradually expanded is perfectly paced, resulting in a complex and involved combat system you can become an expert in.
Character levelling is handled by spending points earned each in successful battles. The better you do in combat (which generally comes down to killing things faster than the par time), the higher your rating, which in turn leads to more points and better loot.
You then use these points to advance your character's abilities down one of a number of trees in a direction you choose. The interface used for this character expansion is, like many of the game menus, rather confusing, and was clearly designed with aesthetics (rather than usability) in mind. You'll get the hang of it quick enough, but that doesn't stop it being a bit weird.
As you progress through the game, encountering new characters, advancing the story and unlocking more of the game's functionality, your inbuilt guide computer will gain more and more entries. These entries help to explain every facet of the game, including both re-explaining key story elements and actually expanding on the backstory of the world. If you don't mind pausing to read from time to time, this system works really well and helps to flesh out the game's lore in a way only a series of full-length movies could otherwise do.
There are no real towns in Final Fantasy XIII, so commerce is handled by interacting with regularly spaced terminals through which you can buy, sell and save. Quite how these little machines end up in some of these outlandish locations is up for discussion, but they do. You gain access to more retailers through this internet-shopping-like experience as you progress, and the retailers you can access will gain more stock from time to time as well. Fortunately the system clearly indicates when something has changed, so figuring out when you should check back with a retailer relies only on you being awake, rather than having to pay any particular attention.
Initially the maps are very linear, with no options as to how you progress. As you play, however, these areas gradually start to provide you with some light exploration opportunities until ultimately the map opens right up. This will annoy some people to start with but it really is a great way to gradually introduce the levels of complexity present in the gameplay mechanics. By the time the world gets big and scary, you'll have the skills and options with which to tackle it.
The sound in FFXII is, unfortunately, a mixed bag. The voice acting is awesome (even if one of the characters is kind of annoying, it still suits her and is well done), with a great soundtrack with all the epic sweeping scale a Final Fantasy game deserves. The effects are great in the cutscenes but in-game (particularly when just wandering around) they'll occasionally be glaringly awful. Overloud shoes thumping around being an obvious lowlight. Still, overall the package is very solid and frequently spectacular.
Final Fantasy XIII is a fantastical foray into a magical imagination. Ably supported by gorgeous visuals, the gameplay ramps up at a rate than can only be described as perfection as you fall in love with the characters in your party and the environment in which they adventure. It's not perfect in every way but the imperfections that are to be found are like dust on a diamond - there, certainly, but utterly irrelevant. Final Fantasy is back and it was worth every second we had to wait - here's hoping we don't have to wait for the PS4 or Xbox 720 for our next adventure.