It simply wouldn't be a Final Fantasy unless the entirety of the Internet was crying foul over a few design choices. Complaints over the inclusion of fresh mechanics and the lack of most of the old ones have set the internet ablaze for the last decade or so, but such baseless claims often demonstrate ignorance over understanding. Ever since its inception, Final Fantasy has been defined by its ability to drastically alter its own formula and create a series of sequels thematically and mechanically different from their predecessors. The downfall of modern Japanese RPG's has lied with their increasing stagnation, but Final Fantasy remains immune because of its refusal to get comfortable with its own, often very well executed, mechanics. With claims of overwhelming linearity and a distinct lack of the series few mainstays, dissent has been no different in regards to Final Fantasy XIII. To the surprise of no one, these gripes have had little effect on the grand experience.
At first blush, Final Fantast XIII seems to be fairly light on content. Spread out over thirteen chapters, the first ten consist of nearly zero exploration. Bits of story and gorgeous CG cinemas are laced throughout, but, in terms of player movement, you're doing little other than plowing through extremely linear "hallways" cleverly disguised as sweeping vistas (an illusion betrayed by simply looking at your map). Occasionally you stumble across a branching path or a switch that needs to be thrown, but the focus is largely on progression. More than any other Final Fantasy in recent memory (especially the often schizophrenic XII), XIII is a focused, story driven entity.
On one hand, a linear path free of distractions finally functions in the context of the narrative. Getting sidetracked has often been quite easy in Final Fantasy games. Wasting time at the Gold Saucer or with Triple Triad may have been fun, but it often created a significant disconnect when placed into context with the overarching narrative. You're supposed to be saving the world, not screwing around. A focused quest might detract from the usual experience, but it adds a sense of urgency to the plot, a facet often genuinely missing in Japanese RPG's. Rationalization? Maybe, but I can't honestly say I was too bothered by XIII’s scaled back exploration.
The actual story ranges from serviceable to above average. In a nutshell, Gods known as the fal'Cie have created Pulse as a refuge that floats over and functions independently of Cocoon, the world below. Our heroes share a common fate, and then manage to get caught in a struggle between the two worlds (a struggle that needs to be resolved as soon as possible, there's the urgency theme again). Flashbacks to the thirteen days before the opening scene are sprinkled throughout the progressing narrative right up until the end, making for a fairly engaging, constantly unfolding narrative. There’s also a datalog (think Mass Effect’s codex) chocked full of extraneous information, should you wish to view it.
From a pure plot standpoint, Final Fantasy XIII falls victim to a number of tropes often associated with Japanese RPG’s. Characters whom withhold vital information until it can be transformed into a dramatic plot point and deus ex machinas to over explain any coincidence are omnipresent throughout the narrative, but said faults are nearly rendered inconsequential by the strengths of XIII's cast. While they're still beset with some awkward dialogue, the cast of XIII is quite strong. Sahz stands alone as one of the few rationally-thinking human beings to ever emerge from a Japanese RPG, and Snow gracefully shed most every preconceived notion I formed about his character. Lighting is essentially rendered as a brooding female version of Cloud Strife, but even she manages a few surprising (and sometimes fist-pumping) scenes.
Interaction between the cast hits hardest when it's dealing with its character’s families; Snow has lost (in a matter of speaking) his love, who is also Lightning's sister, Serah, and both are conflicted over the proper way to mend the situation. Hope's mother meets her end right before his eyes, while Sahz watches his son receive a similar fate. Vanille is a hard pill to swallow, but her relationship with Fang adds another layer of intrigue. The ensemble cast occasionally falls victim to inescapable melodrama, but they're far better offerings than the usual tripe cranked out by the genre. The voice acting, with the exception of Vanille, is excellent, even accounting for the hammy dialogue.
Final Fantasy XIII's art direction is amongst the most diverse, inspired, and technically proficient in modern gaming. The guys over at Square Enix, with over four years invested in the project, didn't settle for filling space with copied geometry or repeated textures, opting instead for otherworldly dreamscapes that often feel exclusive to their specific time and place. Nothing looks the same in Final Fantasy XIII. Palumpolum's neon highlights and persistent arches are offset by the overabundance of foliage, and Nautilus, a resort town, broadcasts a rich and vibrant color scheme with miles of depth. More organic environments, such as The Gapra Whitewood or the Sunleth Waterscape also do quite well to cast away the feeling of being tied to rails. With the exception of chapter 10 (and even that is considerably awesome), you're never buried in a dungeon or hastily constructed underground dirge. The camera, from nearly any angle, also does well to broadcast a sense of scale and purely cinematic feel. Every place you visit is fully realized in terms of structure and incredibly competent with regard to its art direction. Japanese game design has traditionally excelled over its Western counterparts in the art department, and XIII does well to maintain that claim.
Final Fantasy's music has always been integral to shaping its atmosphere, and XIII is no exception. While previous entries in the series have always shared a symbiotic link between a town or a character's theme with specific tracks, XIII leans more toward connecting a single piece with a specific chapter. The previous three entries in the series combined only made for a handful of memorable tunes, but a majority of XIII's soundtrack never fails to impress. Often using a mix of strings, electronica, and a surprising amount of vocals, XIII delivers one of the most memorable and atmospheric soundtracks in years. The remixed chocobo theme that covers your stay in Nautilus is fantastic, and the tune that bleeds throughout Chapter 10 is incredibly catchy.
If Final Fantasy XIII's marvelous presentation is one leg, the battle system is surely the other. You spend a considerably large chunk of XIII's runtime in battles, and it wouldn't be unfair to label it a dungeon crawler. This scenario would be a nightmare if combat didn't have the depth or speed to support 50+ hours of playtime, but thankfully that isn't the case here. Battles in XIII begin quite simply, but slowly (ever so slowly) new layers of depth are added chapter by chapter. It's not until chapter 11 where the game grants you any impression of freedom or a sense of improvisation in terms of who is in your party, where you're able to go, and what you're allowed to fight. While it's a little steep to ask the player to literally wait 20-25 hours before they can fully exploit the system, that doesn't necessarily imply everything beforehand is void of a challenge. Whether it's different party and class arrangements or the constant drip of new mechanics, XIII always has something new for you to do.
Active Time Battle returns, but not without a few drastic changes to the old standard. Visible, onscreen enemies are a welcomed return from XII, but the most radical shift is the lack of a failure penalty. If you lose a battle, you simply restart a few moments (with complete menu access) before the battle took place. You can also bail out of battles (running, essentially) and return to the same pre-battle spot. This eliminates the risk of losing significant progression in the middle of a dungeon, a long running RPG risk/reward staple, but it manages to work in the game's favor. XIII's battle system, once it's fully accessible, leaves a ton of room for improvisation and experimentation. In other RPG's I'd always play it safe and not try anything risky or stupid if I was deep in a dungeon, but, with XIII, I constantly found myself attempting all sorts of crazy battle combinations. Battles later in the game are also considerably lengthy, and being able to restart from the entry point isn't as moral-shattering as it could have been.
Much like the pace of the story, urgent is the word that best describes Final Fantasy XIII's combat. Active Time Battles are typically chalk full of rising meters and characters standing around waiting to hit something, but in XIII your party is always in motion, and so is your brain. This comes at the cost of directly controlling your party, precise input and game-over consequence is only granted to your "lead" character, but combat winds up being more frantic and more involved than in any previous Final Fantasy. In this system, controlling more than one character would be near impossible and, in fact, there's even an "auto" ability for the character you do control.
Hardly a “play the game for me,” Final Fantasy XIII is more about class management than it is spamming commands off a menu, a change in focus that mostly works thanks to the stellar AI. AI controlled party members are nothing new, Persona 3 and 4 did it with limited success, but they're much better behaved XIII. They adhere to their roles quite well and, with the exception of a few cases where they wouldn't attack the same enemy I was attacking, are nearly flawless. Hell, one time I crying foul when Sahz was refusing to use magic against an enemy, then I libra'd it and discovered it was impervious to physical attacks. The AI is a pretty smart cookie.
Character abilities are class based. Ravager (magic), Sentinel (tank), Commandos (physical attacks), Medic, Saboteur (enemy debuff), and Synergist (buff) round out the classes, and each can work in tandem with another. For example, each opponent has a "stagger" meter, which, when filled, typically allows for a quick and easy dispatch as it dissipates. Ravagers are good at building the stagger meter, but Commandos have the ability to maintain the meter. Sentinels and Medics are good for when you’re taking hits in the process, and the two buff classes are fine for tinkering around with particular strengths and weaknesses of certain enemies. Abilities, ranging from healing spells all the way to basic attacks, are all spent with units of the ATB gauge. A precious few abilities, such as the summon or libra (also quake, bizarrely) consume Technical Points, which are often in short supply.
Classes can all be arranged into combinations called Paradigms. Paradigm can then be prearranged into decks and switched on the fly during battle. A typical fight might start with COM/RAV/RAV to build the stagger meter, then shift to COM/COM/RAV once staggered, while also leaving room for intermittent switching to MED/MED/SEN to recover lost HP. A bunch of Paradigms are available, and none of them feel extraneous; there is a time and place for nearly every combination. In fact, Final Fantasy XIII will often slip you into scenarios where you only have two characters with limited classes, thereby forcing you to learn the ins and outs of each class. It's not uncommon to switch between four or five Paradigms per match, with more or less depending on your need for total optimization. It's a beautiful system that's as frantic as it is involving and, with the possible exception of X-2, way ahead of any previous Final Fantasy in terms of pure speed.
XIII is all about speed. Each battle even has a target time, and beating, meeting, or exceeding that time directly affects your up-to five star rating. Your rating only affects item drops, while your Crystal Points remain consistent. Crystal Points can be spent for each class in the Crystarium System, a skill-progression system most closely related to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid. While the first few levels of the system are fairly linear, at higher levels it eventually branches out and opens your characters up to a bit more customization. Specific abilities are tied to their respective classes, but status upgrade, like strength or magic, persist across classes. All characters, regardless if they're in the party or not, receive the same Crystal Points, eliminating the Japanese RPG thorn of not using a character for a while and then being penalized when he or she resumed several hours later and several under leveled.
What Final Fantasy XIII loses in sacrifice is directly proportional to what it gains in terms of accessibility. Yes, switching around Paradigms evolves into a devilishly complex rabbit hole of potential, but not at the cost of alienating potential new comers. Grinding isn't even necessary for the first ten chapters, and, while some boss fights are hard, if you play the game the way it’s intended it's easy to learn the system and build confidence. Sure, that's going to upset series veterans who would rather not have their hands held, but their persistence is eventually rewarded in the game's final chapters. Cie'th Stone missions, XIII's lone enduring side quest, function along the lines of Final Fantasy XII's hunts. It's a take it or leave it item (only a few are required to progress), but maxing those out with perfect ratings are sure to fill the need for more challenging battles. The item/upgrade system, which transforms enemy drops into experience for your weapons and armor, caters nicely to those who can't stand any equipment less than the very best.
In the end, Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay fits the limitations of its hardware generation. This has always been the case, whether it's the abundance of towns and lack of animation from the 16-bit days or the highly detailed but barely interactive pre-rendered backgrounds of the PlayStation iterations, Final Fantasy has always been constructed around its hardware. Most of XIII's development time was cashed creating the tools to actually build it, and the resulting game was constructed with that limitation in mind. While towns, traditional shops, player control, minigames, and other deliberate omissions might be missed, their absence doesn't detract much from the intended experience.