If March wasn't already a month of gaming note thanks to the upcoming God of War III, Square Enix's North American release of the latest sequel to its primary uber-franchise Final Fantasy makes it doubly so. It's hard to believe that a whopping 13 games in the series even exist--more if you count the myriad spin-offs--but XIII is notable among other reasons for being the first in the series released for this generation of consoles. The last, Final Fantasy XII, came out back in 2006.
The Final Fantasy series has always been known for its graphical and musical superiority, and it's great to see chapter XIII on a PS3 just for its next-level visuals alone. But as we played the latest edition, we wondered if Final Fantasy is a franchise due for a serious makeover.
Battle systems have evolved greatly over recent Final Fantasy games, but the main "fight the monster" event still takes place in a pull-away battle moments after you approach an enemy. The turn-based fighting, though now happening in a semi-real-time environment, still doesn't let you aim and attack like in hybrid RPGs like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2. Having been spoiled on those types of truly next-generation role-playing games, we entered beautifully rendered 3D landscapes in XIII expecting to freely fight instead of being pulled out of the experience with menus. Lengthy cut-scene movies aside, Final Fantasy XIII has nearly become a fully 3D game, and feels baby steps away from a Fallout-type transformation.
Final Fantasy XIII is also a game that, though cross-platform, might be a better candidate on a PS3 than an Xbox 360. On the PS3 the game fits on one BD-ROM disc, and no big install is required.
Final Fantasy XIII is a game that's heavy in cyber-futuristic gloss, more like Final Fantasy VII and X than more fantasy-driven chapters like XII, for those who follow the series. The early stages of the very long adventure are also quite linear, which might frustrate fans of more wide-open RPGs or satisfy those who are intimidated by freedom. The plot, involving a walled-off technological world that exists separately from a wide-open landscape of wild creatures, sometimes feels like the setup for "Avatar."
The soundtrack, monsters, and art design are all well above par and nearly make this worth a purchase on those terms alone, but be forewarned: newcomers to the Final Fantasy series will find themselves as alienated as ever. This is a very "Japanese"-feeling game, and though fans will scoff at such a comment, for more-casual gamers looking to dip their toes in, it's less inviting than Mass Effect.
It's great to see Final Fantasy continuing ever-onwards (as an old Phantasy Star fan, I only wish Sega had done the same), but by the time XV rolls around we hope Square dives fully into real-time adventuring.
Final Fantasy XIII is available now for the Xbox 360 and PS3; worth noting is the fact that the 360 version spans a number of discs; the PS3 version is contained on one Blu-ray disc.