Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: Available now
There are so many pieces to any well written story, usually with many different fragments of characters that end up colliding, making the incomplete tale whole. It’s Day 13 and you’re not sure what kind of stage is being laid out in front of you, just glimpses of passengers on a train, dressed in similar garb. An armed guard is patrolling. As the cameras weave in and out, you begin to see the opening act for what it’s unfolding to become. You’re watching prisoners, two in particular, who are planning to escape. With a whisper back and forth, a quickening of pace begins as one of these prisoners dispatches his captor, freeing himself and his companion. As more prisoners are freed and as seconds pass, a war of survival between captors and captives ensues, and then the monsters start appearing. The next moments are now in your control, the stage has now been set, and surviving The Purge is left in your hands. Interested yet? These are just the opening moments of the latest installment of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series. This is Cocoon.
Final Fantasy XIII follows the events of a genocidal cleansing known as The Purge, bringing together an unlikely band of heroes fighting for survival, for their own personal reasons, against the ruling body known as The Sanctum. The government has brainwashed its citizens into the belief that magic-users known as l’Cie, created by demigod beings known as fal’Cie, are the enemy of the people. The people, in terror after what they’ve been told, think these creatures are beasts, when they really look like you or me. As the story progresses, the heroes become branded as l’Cie and are given an ambiguous task (a “focus”) to complete by the fal’Cie. If they are unable to complete this focus properly, the heroes run the risk of becoming zombie-like versions of their former selves. If it’s completed properly, immortality will be granted in the form of a crystal slumber. The shared focus of the characters could lead to the end of days or the safety of Cocoon. Each character has his or her own flashbacks of their personal piece of the story of the days prior to Day 13, giving you a further insight about why they fight and where each hero has come from to get to where they are now.
Once again, Square Enix has managed to almost revamp the playstyle of this installment, keeping it fresh from the previous game. It’s familiar to longtime FF players, but it works differently than the others. The battle party still has three characters (which you’re able to select later on), with multiple combinations of classes to choose at any time; this is known as the Paradigm system. Each character learns each class down the road, earning a new one or advancing further in their current classes after set points in the game, usually after a boss battle. Each battle party can have a set number of paradigms from which to choose, each generating a name so you can easily identify the combination when switching paradigms during combat. Switching becomes a necessity as you progress from chapter to chapter, never constantly using the same one. Technique Points (TP) have also been added, and are used for Summons or other spells that are normally MP-based; the amount of these points also grows as you progress. Other than some minor tweaks and the major combat overhaul, the game is familiar.
I judge most openings of later Final Fantasy games by the cinematic opening of the eighth installment. If it can hook me like that one did, then I’m in. The Paradigm System is singlehandedly the biggest achievement in FF XIII, adding a whole new level of strategy to combat. I happily admit I didn’t completely understand it at first, but as my characters gained new roles, things began clicking together. I was defeated a few times by more difficult monsters, and remaining ever stalwart, I kept a pad of paper next to me to write down which class combinations were more useful than the last (no, I didn’t Google). Moving on to graphics, it’s pretty safe to say that this is a rendered masterpiece; the game looks beautiful even in some of its grittier backdrops. Another wonderful addition is the ability to upgrade your weapons and accessories. If you find an item such as a conduit, it’s worth a certain amount of experience to upgrade the item’s level. If you don’t find materials worth using, then don’t worry—there’s a shop for that. Actually, there are many different shops that are accessible from the scattered save points throughout the world. Miss a treasure chest along the way? You can purchase it eventually as you progress through the story. Difficulty increased for me with XIII compared to XII. In another more-than-welcome change, you no longer have the ability to be in control of all of your characters at once, which is both a blessing and a curse.
The curse of not being able to control all of your battle party at once is pretty simple: they’re AI-based and do what their role would have them do. If they’re a Sentinel, they might miss a provoke, leaving your weakest link exposed. If you don’t use Libra, it’s likely a Ravager will cast spells that could heal a monster. It’s frustrating, but if your battle party’s leader dies, it’s game over. There’s a retry option that takes you back to before the fight, but it didn’t do it for me compared to the death and game-over situation. Be wary of your health and all should be well. Earning the needed Gil to purchase items is a bit of a pain, as most monsters no longer drop currency. They do drop items worth selling, but I found it to be a bit of a nuisance. In the world of Cocoon, everything folds or transforms, which makes me think Michael Bay somehow has gotten his hands on this game. Gunblades fold, Staves fold, Odin transforms into a horse and Bahamut into a jet. Yes, a jet, and don’t even get me started on the Shiva sisters turning into a motorcycle. A couple of the Summons I felt were done that way for story purposes. The attacks they did were pretty cool, but ultimately Transformers: The Cocoon Saga was rather unnecessary. Character development was on par, but with a big issue in my eyes; I’ve seen these characters before and I guessed nine out of 10 times what they were going to be like. My best example is that Snow is actually Sabin: same misguided protector looking for a purpose in the world and people to protect. Without revealing any spoilers to those who might still be on the fence about playing this game, I just want to say that so-called “evil people” are from Australia, which is my only gripe about the voice acting.
Traversing through Cocoon was a wonderful experience; I stayed immersed, so in my book Square Enix has done its job. This was really close to being my first five-star review, but issues mentioned above had a lot to do with its score. It lacks a few other features previous chapters have had: minigames, Easter eggs scattered about in the form of movies or cutscenes, and an overall linear feel that’s tough to get past. You’re left with some nods to the other games that made up for some of its shortcomings, but it wasn’t enough to be perfect. Square will always be the king of RPG titles to me, mastering their plots and bringing forth character identities that make you want to see where these characters are going. Playing through the main story, though, I’m pleased that Final Fantasy XIII finished on a logical ending point, as I had already known of its sequel, which was the main reason for me to play it. Is it worthy of a sequel? I absolutely think so. Let’s just hope it’s not X-2.