- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Final Fantasy XIII (from Square Enix, reviewed for PlayStation 3, rated T for teen, $59.99).

This epic role-playing franchise, around for more than two decades, returns with a computer-animated adventure built for high-definition gaming consoles.

A single player controls the fate of heroes in a stylish fantasy universe where the pricy production values on minutiae as simple as a character’s fluid hairstyle probably far exceed development budgets for many entire video games.

What’s the story? Paraphrased from the manual: The inhabitants of Cocoon believed their world was a paradise. Under the Sanctum’s rule, Cocoon had long known peace and prosperity. Mankind was blessed by its protectors, the benevolent fal’Cie. Their peace was shattered with the discovery of one hostile fal’Cie.

The moment that fal’Cie from Pulse the feared and detested lower world awoke from its slumber, peace on Cocoon came to an end. Fal’Cie cursed humans, turning them into magic-wielding servants. They became l’Cie chosen of the fal’Cie. Those branded with the mark of an l’Cie carry the burden of either fulfilling their Focus or facing a fate harsher than death itself. After 13 days of fates intertwined, the battle begins.

Play the role: A player loosely guides a character around eye-popping environments mostly confined to a linear obstacle course cluttered with creatures and soldiers looking for a fight.

As the story progresses, a shortlist of controllable heroes band together, including rebel leader Snow Villiers; former Guardian Corps elite soldier Lightning Farron; gun-packing Sazh Katzroy (with Chocobo chick hidden in his afro); despondent boy Hope Estheim; an odd, giggling girl named Oerba Dia Vanille; and the double-bladed-spear-carrying Oerba Yun Fang.

Through various story threads, teams of these heroes assemble (by player selection in much later levels) to explore and challenge a variety of exotic biomechanical monstrosities such as Pantheron cats, Alpha Behemoths, a winged Daemon Incubus and Ciconia Velocycles.

Other than fights, a player’s activities include opening treasure spheres for valuable items, collecting gil (currency) to buy stuff, discovering strange fluids, using shrouds to cloak characters before attacks or enhance a party’s abilities during a battle, and riding a Chocobo.

Get to the action: After four hours of roaming, watching a never-ending parade of gorgeous cut scenes and fighting an assortment of PSICOM soldiers, blood fang bass, Cie’th ghouls, Zwerg droids and annihilators, I have not yet lost a fight and still have very little idea of my purpose.

So goes it with this plodding extravaganza, anchored by real-time, command-based battles that find a player controlling the attacks of a lead character in a team, quickly picking a chain of actions, watching the results and then quickly picking more attacks until he or the enemy has perished.

I have to admit, after hacking and slashing through the highly entertaining and interactive God of War III, this type of chronic and ultimately complex menu-driven, turn-based system is just plain boring.

Attacks involve waiting for a gauge to fill and then pressing the “x” button to unleash a chained assault that can be set automatically or chosen by type in the frenzied moments.

Battle nuances include a paradigm shift to give team members different assignments, including Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Synergist, Saboteur or Medic.

The player also can boost a character’s power using acquired crystogen points while visiting the Crystarium, a three-dimensional collection of crystals shaped by attribute enhancements and development paths.

A final option requires the use of technical points to either scan an enemy’s weakness or unleash a character’s Eidolon, a fantastical and powerful being, which can help turn the tide of a battle.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Looking over the massive, solidified waves of frozen Lake Bresha while walking along its icy surface; battling and harnessing the power of the twin Eidolon sisters, Shiva and Stiria, and watching them turn into the coolest of motorcycles for Snow; the black-and-white dream footage of the Ragnarok beast; staring into Serah’s beautiful face and eyes; dazzling menus; and Snow and Serah gliding through a fireworks display.

Violent encounters: The screen sizzles with the eye candy and special effects of swinging blades, exploding gunshots and magical spells unleashed during every battle. Each battle ends with either a hero slumped over in defeat or a terminated enemy disappearing in a melting black form. A menu displays a team’s statistical accomplishments.

Read all about it: There is no comic book for the latest game, but Final Fantasy XII had its own manga series in 2006. Check out the One Manga Web site (www.onemanga.com) for the first three translated chapters, available to read online.

Pixel-popping scale: 9.5 out of 10. The Final Fantasy series has constantly set the benchmark for photo-realistic, computer-generated animation, and the latest game never stops eliciting gasps from viewers. The cut scenes are an anchor here; we easily get a director’s-cut-length movie for gawking.

As far as the live action, having to focus on menus in the corner of the screen in order to perform attacks during battles leaves little time for one’s eyes to drink in the actual results. Audience members tell me it’s stunning.

Also, as spectacular as the game looks, the musical score from Masashi Hamauzu totally undermines the on-screen drama and emotional impact as it meanders through scenes and battles.

Extras: An extensive Datalog acts as an on-screen instruction manual and encyclopedia, delving into the rich history and culture of Cocoon, covering everything from the War of Transgression to the mighty fal’Cie Phoenix.

What’s it worth? In this age of ultimate management and immediacy, I wish Final Fantasy XIII offered better character control and got more quickly to its strategic, interactive mix of action. Although it’s truly a digital masterpiece and an artistic achievement for the video-game medium, its developers revel in their wonderland but seem to forget what made the expansive role-playing elements of the Final Fantasy series so great.

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