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Solo Gamer Review: Final Fantasy XIII - Page 2



GAMEPLAY (cont'd)

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The summons are still pretty fricking awesome
Gone also are the days of healing up your party after each battle, worrying about MP, and visiting Inns to replenish. In fact, the entire process of visiting towns has been streamlined out of the game, and this is probably a cut too far. Instead of buying new equipment at stores, there is an "online" shop in the XIII universe that allows you to buy and sell as much as you like whenever you visit a save point. You can access more weapons and equipment as the game progresses (which feels pretty arbitrary), but you never have to worry about which town has the best prices.

In addition to losing the marketplace and Inns, you also don't get any real sidequests, which is probably the most consistent complaint I've heard about XIII. It is true; much of the game (the first 30 hours and the last 10) is intensely linear. While many Final Fantasy games have dressed up the more linear beginnings and ends (the mind-numbing Midgar sections of VII notwithstanding), XIII does absolutely nothing to hide the fact that you are going from point A to point B and that's it. Granted, there is a point at which everything "opens up," just like in the other games, but this happens much later than you probably expect. Those first 30 hours can, at times, feel like an extended tutorial, like you're just waiting for the game to let you access everything as it laboriously lets you get used to each game mechanic one at a time.

Still, once you do get access to a more traditionally open world, it isn't exactly satisfying. You have access to "mission marks" (which are like the hunts in XII) and some limited chocobo hunting (as in hunting for treasure with a chocobo, not hunting chocobo), but not much else. This is where side missions and towns would be most welcome, but they are nowhere to be found. You can't even go back to places you've been before to seek out missed treasure (though you probably didn't miss any anyway). At this point, the game goes from holding your hand way too much to releasing you to do little more than grind for better stats (which, by the way, you can't max out until you've beaten the game). This is pretty frustrating, and is not recommended for the casual gamer.

Screenshot
So, um, now what?
However, you don't have to spend much time in the open section of the game; you can essentially spend as much time there as you want, and you can go back after you finish the story. Luckily, the linear parts of the game are pretty fun once you accept them. Even though you are basically just going from fight to fight and looking down the occasional branching pathway for treasure, it never feels as monotonous as it probably should.

My biggest complaint about the game is actually the weapon (and accessory) upgrade system. Long gone are the days of seeking out hidden dungeons or going on deep side quests in search of ultimate weapons. Instead, each character is given a certain number of weapons as you progress through the game, all of which are basically the same with a few minor tweaks. It is up to the player to upgrade those weapons using spare parts, which can be won from battles, bought at stores, or looted from treasure chests (er, treasure orbs). This sounds good in theory, but it is ludicrously complex and not at all intuitive. There are hundreds of different types of spare parts with seemingly random attributes for how much they can improve a weapon, how much they cost, and whether or not they increase/decrease bonus multipliers to your weapons and accessories.

It also takes an impossible amount of spare parts to improve a weapon by a single level, and each weapon has upwards of seventy levels at which it can be improved. The weapons also max out twice before reaching their ultimate level, and you have to apply a "transformative element," which is rare and expensive, in order to improve the weapon any further. Just like spare parts, there are multiple transformative elements, and only one type will apply for each weapon at each stage of its transformation. This leads to lots of frustrating trial and error and tons of wasted currency. Even going online or consulting a strategy guide won't help you sort through the pointless complexity much.

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This is the official strategy guide's idea of "simplifying" a single part of the process
I hate to do what I accused everybody of doing, but it would be really nice if we could go back to the old ways of finding and gathering better weapons, armor, and accessories instead of having to go through such a tortuous upgrade system. It's exhausting, time-consuming, and not at all rewarding. At the end of the process, your fully upgraded weapons don't even feel all that great.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the characters' leveling system. If anything, this system is far too simple. Each character is given a "crystarium," which is a leveling tree that you can build using your experience points (called CP). The tree is a lot like the game itself in that it is very linear with only a handful of tiny branches. You essentially pick whichever job you want to improve and apply your points to gather more spells, actions, strength, magic, and hit points. The crystarium is extremely limited at the outset, which prevents you from grinding early on to make supercharged characters, and only opens up at arbitrary points throughout the game. Infuriatingly, it is impossible to max out until you've beaten the final boss.

The problem with the crystarium is that you have no real control over it. If you want to boost a character's magic, for example, you have to boost his or her hit points and strength at the same time. Why have something like this, if you aren't really replacing the arbitrariness of a straight-up leveling system? On top of that, each character can reach a new level for each job (up to level 5), but there's no concrete difference between the levels aside from how far you've gone along the linear path. The crystarium feels like a neat concept, but its execution is terrible.

[Gameplay: 7.5 - The combat system is excellent, the leveling systems are awful, and the linearity, while problematic, isn't nearly as bad as the detractors say it is]



PRESENTATION AND SOLO GAME SCORE

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There is plenty of awesomeness here
I don't even know why I have to include this section, but here goes. Like every Final Fantasy game since VII, XIII has unbelievably high production values. The cutscenes are beautiful, exciting, and crisp. The loadtimes are surprisingly short for such a huge game. The scenery is awe-inspiring. There are no issues with frame rate or texture pop-ins. The music is wonderful. The sound is perfect. Even the voice acting is good, though the dialogue is filled with standard Final Fantasy cheese.

Also, XIII is as solo as it gets. It is impossible to play this game with anybody else. Heck, even avid video game voyeurs are bound to get bored watching you play. My wife can't stand being in the same room as this game. Plus, there are no multiplayer achievement points, because there is no multiplayer.

[Presentation and Solo Game Score: 10 - Seriously, it's Final Fantasy! Do you even need to ask?]


CONCLUSIONS

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There's no need for violence, people
Any fan of Final Fantasy who spends any time online will no doubt come across a wide range of opinions concerning Final Fantasy XIII. Some decry how far it strays from its roots and some praise it for being different. Despite the temptation to set my flag in either of these camps, I believe they are both right and both wrong.

In some places, the game does indeed stray too far from its roots to disastrous results. It is a bit too linear and the leveling systems are infuriatingly bad. I miss towns, hidden dungeons, and side quests. However, in other places, the game shines, especially in the ways that it differs from its predecessors. The paradigm system may just be the best battle system in the history of the franchise, even though it rips a certain amount of control from your grasp, and the story is far deeper and more thoughtful than any Final Fantasy before it.

Though I certainly have my favorites in the franchise, I refuse to say XIII is generally any better or any worse than the others, because in the final analysis, it is both. If you are a fan of Final Fantasy games, don't let the negative feedback keep you away from this one and definitely don't give up on it until you've spent some serious time getting used to the game mechanics. If you aren't a fan of Final Fantasy games, what the hell are you doing reading this?




FINAL TALLY
STORY: 8
GAMEPLAY: 7.5
PRESENTATION: 10
SOLO GAME SCORE: 10

TOTAL SCORE: 8.9

A great game for fans of Final Fantasy that, like most entries, has its share of both problems and excellence




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-e. magill 2/15/2011

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