Say what you will about Final Fantasy, but this is one franchise that has never been afraid to make drastic changes. After years in development, Final Fantasy XIII is finally here but not everybody is going to like the new direction for this venerable series. Could it be that Square Enix changed too many ingredients and will now leave a bad taste in your mouth? Thankfully my experience with this lengthy adventure game tasted good, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was one game a lot of long-time fans want to spit out.
Final Fantasy XIII takes no time getting started. We jump into the action right away, with a daring escape from a confining train. We're quickly introduced to Lightning and Sahz, a couple of mysterious characters that seem to be on some sort of mission. Across town is a group of ragtag freedom fighters looking to bust into a huge facility and battle some evil-doers. Their leader is Snow and he too seems to be on some sort of mission. There's this girl he's looking for, somebody that has been taken from him. It turns out that everybody is after the same thing, a girl named Serah that is unwittingly going to change their lives forever.
We're told from the start that there is a Borg-like race of people who will kidnap you and leave their mark on you. These people are given a tattoo and a focus, a task they are given that will ultimately be the final thing they do in their life. If you do not complete this special task then you will be magically transformed into a blood-thirsty monster. If you do manage to complete your task, then will be rewarded for your hard work by turning into a lifeless crystal statue. For obviously reasons anybody who gets one of these tattoos fears for their life, because no matter which option you choose it isn't going to end well for you.
Serah has this mark, and her boyfriend (Snow) and family (sister Lightning) are trying to save her. Unfortunately, Serah isn't looking to be saved. She's here to convey an important message before she is magically transformed into a crystal statue. Her message is to save the world or die trying. No pressure.
Before they know it, these strangers (which also includes an annoying teenage girl named Vanille and a shy boy named Hope) are all given marks and a focus. At first glance their focus suggests that they will be the people that bring on the destructive forces and end the world as they know it. Could they be the evil they are trying to defeat? Are they going to be responsible for millions of people dying? One thing is for certain, this is one group that is not going to wait around to find out.
Much of the game's first half is spent bouncing between multiple people in completely different areas of the world. While Final Fantasy games have dabbled with this sort of storytelling before (Final Fantasy VIII managed to incorporate this narrative with great success), this takes it to a completely different level. If it comes down to face time, you would be hard pressed to tell me who the main star is. Eventually the game settles down and it becomes the "Lightning Show," but Final Fantasy XIII always feels like an ensemble piece.
The game's narrative is far from the only change made in Final Fantasy XIII. For the first ten hours I was completely baffled by many of the changes made to this long-awaited sequel. Things that you have come to expect from every Final Fantasy game is nowhere to be found. Gone are the wide-open dungeons ripe for exploration, in their place are a series of narrow corridors. Gone are the towns where you gather information and visit the local Inn, in their place is a save point that doubles for a shop. You no longer have to worry about what kind of armor you wear, since there isn't any. At first glance it's all completely different, sometimes in confusing ways.
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