A very streamlined and uncomplicated experience, but a fun game nonetheless.
I've never been much of a fan of the FF series, mainly because of the ATB (active time battle) system. This game handles it differently and I actually like it, though it's still not as good as truly turn based. Like most FFs before it, this game takes the series in a new direction with a new art style, new characters, new world and setting, and more. You've probably heard a lot of negativity about this game, especially from fans of the series. Some of it is true and justified and will be gone over soon, but that shouldn't deter you from checking this game out if you're a huge fan of JRPGs.
GENERAL GAME INFO
There is some stuff you should know about this game that isn't going to get discussed in much detail here because it doesn't really apply to any of my sections, but it's still important to know. A big thing I and a lot of people have a problem with is the complete lack of explorable towns. There are no towns where you can freely enter houses and talk to people, maybe get a few side quests. In fact there are virtually no side quests in this game. Also, you do your shopping at the save crystals, with no NPC interaction. This doesn't really bother me but there is no mana or magic points in this game. Instead you use the spell like you would any other attack. This means that magic isn't overpowered like it often is. After every battle everyone is restored to full health. This bothers some people who also call this hand holding, but I just see it as cutting out the middle man. What I mean is most gamers restore their party to full health where efficient and removes any persistent status effects after every battle anyway. Yes it removes some complexity from the game, but as long as this doesn't become a staple in RPGs it doesn't bother me. I also want to point out this game's fast load times, especially for battles where a fast load time is most important.
The story is kind of confusing to be honest. You're thrown in this world you know nothing about and tons of things are going on and you don't have a clue. Eventually as the game progresses you figure things out. And to the game's credit it has a very nice codex system which tells you what's going on, recapping the story as you do it, and also describes characters as you meet them. Ultimately though most of the story is forgettable, though interesting enough not to be boring as you play it (at least to me).
This game actually has very good graphics. The character designs are great, the environments are well done, and the cutscenes are superb. Not only this but extra effort was put in the presentation of the game itself. What I mean is that among other things the menu is fun to navigate through because of all the little animations that happen.
The only real complaint is that the music is forgettable which is unfortunate because the older FF entries had memorable music. Everything else is great, the voice actors especially which do their job admirably.
Where this game really shines is the battle system. It's also the main reason to play this game which means if you don't dig the combat system, you probably won't want to keep playing. Battles are not random but are activated by touching an enemy on the field which transports you to the battle area. Instead of your characters being a line facing the enemy's line, everybody is on a field and able to move based on the actions taken. You can't move your characters manually which can make suffering through area of effect attacks annoying. You have a gauge that fills up over time which is what allows you to take actions in battle. The gauge is split into ATB segments; you start with 3 and can get 2 more via the crystarium. Actions take varying amounts of segments so you aren't limited to just 1 kind of attack or 1 kind of spell each turn; you can mix and match if you like (depending on the paradigm you have of course).
Up until the 11th chapter the party leader is decided by the game. From chapter 11 onwards you can pick the party leader. This is significant because you can only control the party leader in battle and the other 2 you choose to take with you into battle are controlled by the AI. Also, if the party leader dies it's game over period. The friendly AI is actually pretty good, with only a few flaws. The main problem is that if 1 of my people have died, the AI medic won't cast the raise spell to bring them to life unless I and them have health in the green. This forces me to use a phoenix down. Their priorities for using buffs and debuffs aren't perfect either. I wish we could have customized their actions a little like the gambits in FF 12. The AI also knows only to use spells and debuffs that have the most effect on a monster as long as this fact is revealed in the monster info.
The AI, in regards to which attacks should be selected and such, applies to the auto attack command of the party leader too. Its priorities of which buffs and debuffs to use, for example, rarely need your manual input. My main problem is this: the auto battle likes to mix things up sometimes when you are playing an attack class. My party leader was Sazh and he uses guns as well as magic. Having a character use magic 5 times in a row or guns 5 times in a row results in fast and fluid animation, which means your character is done attacking sooner and so can build up his ATB gauge sooner to attack again. The auto battle likes to have Sazh alternate between magic and guns during a single attack. This results in very slow animation which means it takes longer before he can attack again. I have no idea why they programmed the game to do this. Thankfully after you manually select something more efficient like a simple attack 5 times, you can then have the game repeat this action again. Further, this is remembered between paradigms so you can switch paradigms then switch back and it will still remember!
You better like this combat system and be fighting at least every monster you see because it's required of the average player. If you don't, you will be under-leveled late in the game and finding those weak enemies there owning you.
Something to note is that this game is very forgiving. If you should die during any fight, even bosses, you always get a retry option which will spawn you near the group of enemies that killed you, or at the start of the boss battle. To some this understandably feels like a lot of hand holding. To someone who's played the Shin Megame Tensei games it's a breath of fresh air to not lose an hour's worth of progress because an enemy got a lucky shot on the party leader. Of course if this bothers you that much you can always reload your last save whenever you lose a battle. I bet you won't though...
There are 6 characters in the game and each character specializes in 3 of the 6 paradigms, or job classes if you will. You can have the characters off-class, but it's a waste of crystarium points because none of them get good skills from it and the cost is very high. Only do it post-game and after you've maxed their main roles. How it works is that a character can only be in 1 paradigm at a time during battle. In the menu after battles you can alter the paradigm setups and change to those setups whenever you want in battle. Unfortunately you can only have 6 of these setups. These paradigm setups allow for very high customization because everyone has their favorite paradigm setups and characters to use. I personally never once used the sentinel paradigm, whereas other people love it. My favorite setup that I started every battle with was synergist, commando, and saboteur. Every battle has you being active and using strategy by switching your paradigm setups and this is certainly the highlight of the game.
LEVELING (CRYSTARIUM): 9/10
This game has a leveling system more akin to the sphere grid of FF 10 than the license board of 12. Unlike the sphere grid you don't place nodes to level your character. Instead you earn crystarium points in every battle and to navigate the crystarium grid you spend those points to unlock stat bonuses and skills. Traditional character levels and experience points do not exist in this game. Don't worry, even doing extra grinding you won't be anywhere near maxing out all your character's paradigms until well after post-game. Also, every character is different and has their own unique crystarium grid. For example, even though a few characters share the synthesis specialization, some of the skills they will learn will be unique to them, and others they share are learned at different levels of the crystarium compared to each other.
Each character can equip a single weapon and 2 accessories, with 2 more accessory slots unlocked via the crystarium. There is no armor or defense, which saddens me because the more equip slots the better. The accessories are pretty standard with the usual fire, thunder, etc. resistance items and items that increase your power, magic, or health. What's more is that you can level up these items, making them stronger using components found in treasure spheres and dropped by enemies. When an item is maxed you can use the correct transformation object to change the item into something else, usually a superior version.
LEVEL DESIGN: 5/10
A major complaint people have is the extreme linearity of this game, and it is completely true. I mean this literally, the majority of the game is you running along a corridor. Granted it's not always indoors, but the extremely limited area that you are allowed to move in, it doesn't matter. The game does open up much more on chapter 11, with huge open areas for you to run around in. However, chapters 12 and 13 are back to the corridor-fest of before. Chapter 11 is actually where all the post-game content takes place. The levels themselves look beautiful. You may be moving in a straight line through a corridor, but that corridor looks good.
The characters here aren't bad, though nothing really special. They're memorable too, more memorable than most of the ones in FF 12. There are 6 characters that you use to fight with and they all have unique personalities and motivations for doing what they do. Most of them are adults with no emos, and only 1 of them ever whines but he gets tougher later in the game.
There are many different enemies consisting of monsters, humans, and machines. There are also upgraded versions of most of these which are basically palette swaps but with more effort. The enemies also have their own strengths and weaknesses which once you discover you can use in an effort to defeat them faster. The enemy designs are also fairly unique and interesting. The bosses are also unique and challenging.
POST-GAME CONTENT: 6/10
Once you beat the final boss you get an option to save. Then you reload that save and can proceed playing the game right before the final boss, with the final crystarium tier unlocked. From here you can teleport to the chapter 11 area and partake of the post-game content. Pretty much all of what you will be doing is getting a task to fight a tough monster, very similar to the hunts of FF 12. This would be cool except for a few things. There are over 100 of these marks and you can only have 1 active at a time. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so annoying to travel around the area. This makes doing the marks very tedious. You have to run to the spot and get your mark, then run to wherever that mark is and hope you can beat it, then go find another mark-giver. Over and over. If we could have as many marks active at a time as we can find, then I wouldn't have a problem. Instead I can only assume they did it like this to artificially extend the time it takes you to do the post-game content. Me, I didn't bother beyond a dozen or so.
LENGTH AND REPLAYABILITY
This game is long, no doubt about that. Just beating the game will take you 50-60 hours, depending on how long you explore and admire the scenery. Finishing all the marks post-game will likely take you another 10-20 hours if you don't mind the tedium. Once you've beaten the game there's no real reason to replay; no new game plus or anything like that.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
Does this game deserve a lot of the hate I hear? I don't think so. Yes some of the things in the hating are true and described here, but as long as you play this game mainly to enjoy the combat and very polished visuals and gameplay (what gameplay there is), you won't have a bad time.
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