Beautifully crafted but short of magic
So, here it is. The most anticipated RPG of all time, the latest entry in the most hallowed of gaming franchises, and the title expected to give the beleaguered PS3 a foothold in its native Japan where its a Sony exclusive. But while its easy to be seduced by Final Fantasy XIIIs luscious graphics, epic score and beautifully-crafted characters, scratch beneath the gloss and there are problems to be found. Nothing to stop you from buying this exquisite example of console swashbuckling, of course, but niggling issues that lose FFXIII that elusive fifth star as it doesnt quite live up to the blitzkrieg of hype heralding its arrival.
For the most part, FFXIII is sublime. The visuals and presentation throughout are overwhelming, raising the bar for adventure games that follow in its wake and appearing closer to the world of James Camerons Avatar movie that a normal console game. The characters you meet during your epic journey are also remarkable, with each of the heroes and villains imbued with depth and personality, their unique personas conveyed in the convincing dialogue they deliver and even in their realistic body language. From a gameplay perspective the experience is also sharply addictive, with combat thats deep, gripping and intuitive, allowing players to take part in swift-yet-strategic skirmishes that can be intricately planned in advance, but are flexible enough to allow gamers to be spontaneous and change tactics on the fly. And while the time-honoured routine of levelling-up your hero has been refined in Square Enixs flashy Crystarium System of character development, at its heart this familiar level-boosting is much the same as always, but with a friendlier and more sensible approach that will hook long-time fans and embrace newbies alike.
But why four stars? Well, from an exploration perspective, the game is oddly linear for the first 20 or so hours, lacking the freewheeling sense of adventure seen in other Final Fantasy games and recent RPGs such as Mass Effect 2, and making the experience feel oddly creaky and old-fashioned. (Sure, the tale opens up and allows more freedom once you pass the midway point, but hoarier gamers may feel slightly cheated during their first forays into FFXIIIs sprawling world, which initially feels like a traditional dungeon crawl.) And while the game features some of the richest and best-developed characters in the franchises history, there are fewer non-player characters to interact with than youd hope for, which is a constant source of disappointment as, given how well-rounded the characters are in other areas, you fully expect everyone you see along the way to have a fascinating story to tell.
At the end of the day, though, dont let our four-star score put you off. While it has minor problems that you wouldnt expect from an adventure with such a prestigious pedigree, Final Fantasy XIII is still a monumental piece of software, and a quest no digital daredevil should be without.