I have always said that Japanese’s imagination knows no bound. And their commitment to production quality is truly an inspiration. If I am to combine all the cut scenes from the game Final Fantasy XIII, it can easily be one beautifully made anime in full HD glory (1080p). It takes me 80 hours to see the ending (still not completing the game yet) and I have lost track on how many and how long the cut scenes are. Especially in the beginning, I could literally spend a few minutes playing the game and then here comes the cut scene. It is long enough for me to make a cup of tea, finishing eating an apple, and wash my hands. As the story unfolds, the gap between the cut scenes lengthens depending on how fast or slow you progress.
Quite a few friends of mine asked if FF13 is indeed linear. To be frank, non-linear game does not mean that it is good. Linear game does not mean that it is bad. It is all about execution. In terms of storyline, there is nothing you can do to change the outcome, unlike other games. That also means that you do not need to play the game multiple times to see the complete set of sub-stories. For FF13, you play it once and be totally immersed. There is a fixed number of characters and gears you can develop, But which ones to pick is entirely your decision based on your preferred strategy. In fact, looking at the game play, the key feature that sets the game apart from the rest is that it has little to do with your reflex actions. It is the strategy you deploy prior to each battle and the ability to think on your feet every 5 seconds or so during the battle. The combat system is unique and has earned a lot of praises. There is no need to mess around with the positioning of your characters during a battle and it does not require you to frantically press the buttons on your controller to beat the enemy. At a macro level, you control the roles of your characters and switch them at one go by up to 5 defined sets created by you. At a micro level, you can choose to execute a specific action for the character that you have a direct control with. And because of the variety of enemies, you are forced to adopt a different strategy for each battle. Be it as a different role set combination, or even a different set of characters and gears.
Another noticeable difference compares to other role playing games is that the enemies in FF13 do not level as your characters level. You can go back and revisit your old foes that gave you a hard time and beat the crap out of them in seconds. Or you may get trashed by some unknown enemies that are so powerful that in the early stage of the game, all you can do is to flee. Because the enemies re-spawn, there is no shortage of action. In later part of the game, you can explore the area in any direction you prefer. Tackle the missions in any order you prefer. Or if to see the ending is all you want, you could skip the side missions.
While the enemies do not level, at the end of each battle, there is a 5 stars rating system. The more powerful you become, the target time goes down. In another word, you still need to work hard for a 5 stars rating. In some cases, it pays off to get that rating. Some of you asked if there are a lot of grinding, like other role playing games. I suppose the choice is yours. But I find it rewarding to do a bit of grinding to get more powerful and to farm materials to improve the gears.
Majorities of the battle are quite easy, I must say. The boss fights from the main storyline are often long (like more than 10 to 15 minutes of intense thinking). The boss fights from the side missions can be extremely hard. Some of the tough battles you may take a defensive stance, sacrifice the 5 stars rating, and win. Others will slab you with a doom counter if you are taking too long. A doom counter is one that you must beat the boss in 3 minutes or there will be an instant death. In short, there is no shortage of excitement. Needless to say, some are so tough that you have to further develop your characters and return for another attempt later.
Judging FF13 from the Western standard, it may fall short a bit (it is after all a Japanese RPG). But I happen to be thrilled by how beautiful the game is made – the colorful and unique environment, the memorable characters that are so easily to fall in love with, and the dramatic story development. These days, it is hard to find a non-violence game that does not come with blood and gore and sex – like FF13. If you wonder what the game play is like, here is a brief breakdown.
Part One – Stories And More Stories
In the first part of the game, you do not get to choose whose is or are in your team. It depends on how the story unfolds. There are lots of cut scenes. The combat system progressively gets more complex, a good learning curve that I like. Some comment that this part is too linear. I happen to like the fact that I am forced to learn how to cope with different characters and different team composition. In FF13, all the characters have different strengths and weaknesses. Part one took me about 30 hours to complete. It also accounts for the story of the 13 days prior to where you first started the game.
Part Two – Open Side Missions
Once you reach Gran Pulse, you get to venture to different parts of the map. As you complete side missions, portals are open to aid you in warping to a different location in the map. In this part, you also get to pick your team composition. You do not have to complete all the side missions. But they are rewarding. It did not feel like grinding to me, although I have to pass the same area multiple times. There is always something to be discovered.
Part Three – Head to Chapter 13
FF13 is divided into 13 chapters. After Gran Pulse, you can do one chapter and return to do more open area exploration and complete more side missions. The last two chapters can get pretty hard. That is where the experience (and confidence) you gather while doing the side missions pays off. Personally I love the story of FF13, although I must admit that I do not quite understand the logic of the Japanese.
Part Four – Open End Game Missions
This is where I am at right now. After the final boss of the main storyline is beaten, after the story is concluded, I am brought back to the save point right before the final boss. The difference is that I can now further develop my characters. There are 64 missions in total. Quite a number of them are designed for the end game. Missions can be retaken if getting a 5 stars rating is what you are aiming for. Or just for the fun of it.
Talking about save points, another good thing about FF13 (compares to other JRPG I read) is that there are tons of save points. You can pick up the controller, play for 10 minutes or so, stop and do something else in real life. I find that very useful.