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Final Fantasy XIII for the PS3 and Xbox 360 lives up to the expectations of the famous series and delivers an experience that is both visually amazing and profoundly deep. Its linear narrative draws you into the world of Cocoon and Pulse before opening out into the experience every Final Fantasy fan has been waiting for. Though the collection of characters may be iffy to some, nearly every aspect of this game is a tremendous and visually stunning ride that simply has to be experienced.
Set in the sealed, shell-like city of Cocoon that floats high above the surface of the world known as Pulse, Final Fantasy XIII is an excellent blend of Science-Fiction fantasy and melodrama - a million miles away from cheap 360 or PS3 cheap imitation adventures. Here in the city people fear the natural environment of Pulse, believing it to have mind-altering effects and a threat to the safety of their fear-filled lives. The government of Cocoon quarantines and exiles anyone believed to be under the influence of Pulse and very soon you'll find yourself an enemy of the state and on the run from government forces.
This story takes in a huge range of themes and issues - some of which are obvious and others that are not - and political and social overtones are pretty overt in their delivery but the story also has a subtle side to it that gives Final Fantasy XIII a depth I wasn't expecting. Some of that depth can be found in the characters back story; the links between them prior to the game are told in flashback and it leads to the slow reveal of histories and the nature of the world they inhabit in a beautiful manner. This isn't to say the characters are all likable or flawless. There's going to be many who despise Hope for his whiny and pathetic nature, the voice acting of Vanille is excruciating at times and I personally found Snow to be the most generic hero character I've seen in a Final Fantasy game - which is saying something.
But as the hours went by those characters started to change and develop, becoming more interesting and meaningful with each passing moment. This slow burning development of characters and story works wonders if you can commit yourself. I found the relationships in this curious world of Cocoon and Pulse have become special to me. Although I rented the game for my first play through I may well be on the hunt for a cheap 360 game to ensure prolonged access.
There's a sense of depth and beauty that burns through this entire game and even if certain parts of the story or dialogue take an erroneous step, it always seems to make up for these minor shortcomings with a dramatic vista or passage of incredible game play.
Final Fantasy XIII's directed experience grabbed me from the start - linearity that the series has toyed with in the past but never taken to this extreme before. There's very little deviation from the main path, both literally and figuratively, until halfway about 20 hours in when it starts to gradually widen out into a more open experience.
This is all to Final Fantasy XIII's advantage as the linear opening keeps things moving forward and feeling fresh. I've lost count of the RPGs I've played on 360, PS3 or even the Wii that have overwhelmed me with their world, characters and battle system by front-loaded their content. Final Fantasy XIII keeps everything manageable and slowly introduces its combat and strategic elements with expert pacing. It's succeeded in making me, someone who's previously been apathetic towards Final Fantasy, embrace the series and this iteration with an unexpected passion.
The game is also visually beautiful in every way imaginable. From the gorgeous vista that plays behind the title screen to the environments of Cocoon and Pulse and characters like Sazh and Lightning, this is a vivid reality. The PlayStation version edging may have the edge on raw quality whilst the Xbox 360 appears to have a more stable frame-rate.
As with every new Final Fantasy this visual quality is almost as important as the game play itself. But game play has moved on as well. I appreciated a better ratio of cut-scene to exploration and combat for instance. There's no 45-minute movie to watch or hours of dungeon crawling before you can advance. Instead, the story is delivered in brief scenes that convey the right kind of information and split up the combat into far more manageable chunks that going back to a previous Final Fantasy will seem awkward and archaic in comparison.
The battle system also gets an update, with some impressive genre-defining additions. Control is limited to your main characters as other party members follow your lead automatically. This isn't a simplified system by any means - you can shift play-style or 'Paradigms' at the touch of a button and alter your stance to aggressive, defensive, magic-based or healing-based with ease.
It's a faster style that makes every battle a challenge and requires your full attention for stronger enemies. The tactical awareness you'll need going into boss battles or tougher encounters isn't the same as previous Final Fantasy's but there's no doubt that you need to think about what you're doing if you're going to succeed. And hey, they look really good too with fluid character animation and a varied array of enemies to battle with.
Other changes include auto-healing after every encounter ensuring that you're always ready for the next challenge without having to pointless manage your inventory. It's a change that I simply adore and wish it could become the standard across all Role Play Games from this moment on just like being able to start the same battle again immediately if I fail or feel my situation is too far gone to care about. It makes progressing through this epic game a delight and takes away a lot of the dull grind RPGs have hard-wired into their game play mechanics.
Summons also return and can change combat situations dramatically with their devastating attacks. A new feature that pushes combat to even more extremes is the Gestalt mode that allows you to ride or join with each character's Summon to perform a unique attack. All of these are extraordinary in scope and delivery - Lightning can summon Odin and ride him into a group of enemies whereas Snow's Gestalt mode sees him mount the Shiva Sisters who have merged to form a motorcycle with deadly attacks. It's not just icing on the Active Time Battle system cake - these powerful Summons are crucial to success in many of the tougher battles that the game throws your way.
Final Fantasy XIII for the PS3 and Xbox 360 is a tremendous game that's worthy of its hype and high scores. Even if you've never considered yourself an RPG player in the past then this is one of the most accessible, yet deeply involving, examples of the genre. At 40 hours the experience isn't overblown - the perfect candidate for video game rental - and the linear beginning will leave you gripped until the very end. You are unlikely to find this on the cheap 360 or PS3 shelves for some time. With its flawless visuals, interesting characters and divine music, I defy anyone not to fall in love with this game and the amazing experience it'll bring.
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