Final Fantasy XIII starts out with a bang. Remember the Final Fantasy XIII trial bundled with Advent Children Complete? That’s how Final Fantasy XIII opens. Lightning, Sazh, and Snow assault Cocoon in an attempt to save *someone*. Amidst the chaos, Hope’s mother plummets by saving Snow’s life and chipper Vanille tries to cheer him up. The two younger party members chase Snow in a mini-spaceship and that’s how five of the main characters meet up. All of this happens in the first hour and compared to Final Fantasy XII, XIII hits the ground running. Unfortunately, their efforts are in vain when the rescuee turns into a crystal and the five heroes become l’Cie.
Snow isn’t too phased by his fate. He’s adamant about protecting everyone and everything, especially Serah, Lighting’s sister. Hope, contrary to his name, is distraught and a downer. Sazh acts as comic relief and a counterbalance to Lightning’s stoic and often cold personality. The story is told in past tense with Vanille as the narrator. At first, you don’t understand much about the characters, only they were caught up in an intense battle. Flashbacks to a particular fireworks scene fill in the gaps during the first few hours.
In the very beginning, Lightning can attack and use a wide circular slash. Snow has his fists and hand grenades. Both characters, if you get the timing right, can hit a group with their secondary attacks. That isn’t always easy because enemies, like PSI-COM units and Pantherons, move on their own. Lighting runs around the screen too, even though you can’t tell her where go. During battles everything is in motion, but you still control the action via menus. Attacks take up a different amounts of ATB gauge. A basic attack or spells like Ruin or Thunder use one one bar. Radial Strike and enhancers like Faith consume two. Lightning quickly gets three ATB bars so you can make her do a three hit sword combo, Radial Strike then Ruin or slash –> Ruin –> slash. Whatever you can fit into three bars is OK. You don’t have to wait for her ATB gauge to fully fill up either. As long as you have one bar filled you can attack. Perhaps, the new ATB interface is like a flashy version of Chrono Cross or a revision of Dissidia’s menu battle mode.
Unlike all of the other Final Fantasy games, you can only control the party leader in battle. If it’s Lightning you can select her attacks and only her attacks. The other two characters are computer controlled and follow their role, whether its healer, enhancer, or spell-slinging blaster. You can change the party’s roles and skill sets by activating a Paradigm Shift, but you can’t tell Hope to cast Cure, for example. This is a huge change, but it works within the bounds of Final Fantasy XIII. Fights are fast, so fast that it isn’t possible to directly manage three characters at once while adjusting attack timing to pummel enemies into break status (we’ll get to that). Your allies also attack independently of a turn system so it’s possible for Snow, Hope, and Vanille to rush the same enemy at the same time.
Final Fantasy XIII also gets rid of magic points. Hope can cast Aero and Cure non-stop. Technique points (TP) kind of replace MP. These are used to activate special abilities like Full Cure and Libra, which scans enemies for weaknesses. TP recovers a tiny bit after every battle.
Each role like attacker (i.e. commando in the US version) is loosely based on MMO jobs. Let’s take a look at them.
Attacker – A melee character and the only role with the fight command.
Blaster – Mage. This role has access to elemental spells, but lower max HP.
Defender – Basically, a tank. Sentinels have specific block commands like Rise Guard.
Enhancer – Buffer. Enhancers can cast spells like Faith, Protect, and Brave.
Healer – The self explanatory HP recovery job.
Jammer – Debuffer. This role debilitates enemies with spells like Deprotect.
And each role has its own crystal to level up. You can boost roles, not characters, by spending crystal points to travel along routes. Take Vanille as an example. She can be either a Blaster or Healer in the opening hours. Spend points on the Blaster route and you can get access new spells like Aero plus stat upgrades. However, those attack up Crystaliarum you earned in the Blaster route are only active when Vanille is a Blaster. Switch to Healer and Vanille has a different set of stats and skills. It’s up to you to decide if it’s better to supercharge Vanille’s healing abilities, make her a master mage, or distribute points equally. Characters automatically gain new roles as the story progresses. Vanille eventually learns the ways of the Jammer and Lightning picks up the healer role.
Almost all of the enemies in Final Fantasy XIII are visible. You can run past robots, if you want, but it’s better to sneak up on them. Catch an enemy off guard you start the fight with a preemptive strike. That makes Lighting or whoever the leader is hit all enemies and put them close to break status. Notice the meter underneath “Pulsework Knight?” That’s the boost meter. Each fire spell, gunshot, and boomerang to the noggin increases it and the amount of damage you do. Fill the meter up to send that enemy into break status, which dramatically increases the amount of damage you deal. It’s a good idea to focus all of your attacks on a single foe to charge the boost meter. It bumps up a bit with each blow, but falls rapidly if you aren’t putting pressure on the enemy. Since Lightning or Sazh act on their own, you have to time Snow’s attacks in between theirs to keep the boost meter going.
Before you rush into battle you can enhance your party with smoke. Power smoke buffs your characters with spells like Haste and Brave. Sneak Smoke makes it easier to sneak up on enemies. These powerful items are consumable so you can’t enter every battle with an advantage.
Areas are presented beautifully with spaceships whizzing in the background and ice crystals sparkling in the air. I dig the passive party chat system too where your active allies chat with voice acting while exploring frozen lakes and junk yards. Final Fantasy XIII’s presentation is amazing, albeit linear. The first few chapters in Final Fantasy XIII are like a straight forward dash to each cutscene. Early “dungeons” don’t have many alternate paths or hidden treasures to discover either. There is a lot of (maybe too much?) hand holding in the beginning. You can’t choose a leader or party members. There aren’t any sidequests or goals other than pushing the story forward. One nice thing about this section is an abundance of save points. Save points also act as shops and craft zones where you can upgrade weapons with enemy drops.
Summons play an important role in Final Fantasy XIII, but Snow can’t control the Shiva sisters right away. He has to prove his worth in a special, somewhat symbolic, battle. <Warning this is neat-o, but a spoiler!>
You can attack Nyx, but that isn’t the way to “win.” Snow has to act as a defender and absorb damage while Styria heals him. Remember how Snow wanted to protect everything? This is like Snow’s rite of passage, his version of the Cecil vs. Cecil fight in Final Fantasy IV. If you can get Nyx to fill the drive gauge before the timer above Snow’s head counts down to zero he jumps on the Shiva cycle and drives away.
Next time… hands on Gestalt mode!