I'm not going to get into all of the usual and detailed hoopla I tend to write about when I do these reviews; Ben's already got all of that covered in his review. My Final Fantasy XIII is more of an op-ed, sort to speak, albeit one with a legitimate score. Many of you guys know I love Final Fantasy, and I love traditional RPGs. I hold Final Fantasy VII and XII very near to my gaming heart, because I love the amount of freedom and exploration both offered. I loved the battle systems, and I loved the customization aspect of both games. Everything that made Final Fantasy VII and XII so great is practically missing from Final Fantasy XIII. And thus, Final Fantasy XIII is not really a true-blooded role-playing game, and it's arguably not even a true Final Fantasy game. Dare I say it, Final Fantasy X-2 was more proper than this here is.
Again, if you're looking for details on combat mechanics and so forth, take a look at Ben's review for that. In any case, Final Fantasy XIII is the antithesis of the Japanese-RPG, as with this iteration the franchise has succumbed to the pressures of making a game super flashy, fast-paced, and, for lack of a better word, 'cool'. As soon as you engage in your first battle, you immediately get the sense that the game has lost its focus. And the more you progress and the more the combat opens up (use of paradigms, summons, etc.) the more you realize how numb the experience can feel.
I use the word numb because Square-Enix has taken a ton of control away from you. So much so that you only get to control one character during battle, while the others are A.I. and fight on their own, where as in Final Fantasy XII you had the option of controlling all three or automating them. Furthermore, you are assigned a party leader, and no matter who that leader is, you cannot switch him/her out, forcing you to play that character for a lengthy duration of time. And that's my other issue; the characters in the game get split up so often that you'll find yourself in command of characters you don't enjoy. Why a developer would intentionally force you to control characters you may not enjoy is beyond me.
Then there's the whole linearity. Sure, Final Fantasy X was pretty linear, but XIII takes it to a whole other level. The lack of towns, the lack true character interaction, the lack of legitimate shops to visit, interesting places to wander off to, the lack of all that essentially makes this the most soulless Final Fantasy to date. To top it all off, Final Fantasy XIII has easily the most boring first 10 hours the franchise has ever seen, it's boring enough to make you want to quit. But I kept playing, and eventually the game really did get better, and the characters I once disliked (Vanille, Hope, Lightning) did get treated to a number of revelations, which fixed their character development considerably.
The story comes off as immediate and way too complicated, and you're just hit with this ton of bricks the moment you boot up the game. There's so much to process that it's borderline overwhelming, at first. Usually the stories unfold a bit more gradually in FF games, but not so with FFXIII. This also contributes to the boring first 10 hours, since such a huge chunk of the story is given to you at the beginning, all you're doing during those 10 hours is running away without any further story progression up until at least about 13-15 hours in. And once the story begins to progress, it actually becomes quite good.
Now, the combat system I have my issues with. It's too frantic, it lacks composure, it lacks focus, and it's not very engaging, because it can be very frustrating to constantly have to switch "Paradigm" setups (job roles for characters) back and forth all throughout the battle. That said, once you get used to it, it's tolerable and if you get the hang of it, it can be fun. Unfortunately due to the speedy nature of it, you'll spend more time looking at bars on screen than you will the combat, as you'll constantly need curing and other status improvements to keep your fighters up. You can slow down the battle speed through the game options, but unfortunately it doesn't help all that much.
Additionally, the game has a bad habit of blindsiding you and throwing you into battles unprepared. Many times I was thrown into fights where my Paradigm setup was not optimized to my liking or to the requirement of the battle. Now get this, if you lose and select retry, the game restarts you from right before the battle and automatically opens up the menu for you to perform your optimization. Now tell me this, why doesn't the game do that in the first place? Absolutely idiotic design there.
I do like the leveling system, and the Crystogenesis system is very reminiscent of past upgrade systems in Final Fantasy X and even XII. From battles you'll earn Crystogen Points (CP) which you'll use to upgrade your characters with via the Crystarium. Enhancing weapons and accessories is done by trading in items you've collected for EXP. Enhancing your stuff will make it more than just stronger, but will also add additional attributes to the item you've enhanced.
Having said all of that, it sounds like I absolutely hate Final Fantasy XIII. I don't. In fact, I actually like it quite a bit. The more I play, the more I like the combat and enjoy grinding to earn more CP, and the more I want to see the story unravel. The problem is that this isn't a Final Fantasy game. It feels like six years ago, when Square-Enix started developing the game, they said "hey, let's make this really cool and different RPG game", and then the executives said "sure, but because it'll never sell as an all new IP, we need to slap a Final Fantasy logo and number on it."
So therein lies the problem: Final Fantasy XIII would've fared better as a spin-off FF game, because quite frankly, this is not what I come to expect out of a franchise that has defined the RPG genre. This is simply too much of a departure. And ripping away so much of the freedom that I've had in the years past? Unacceptable. Imagine the main Metal Gear Solid series suddenly turning into a God of War/Devil May Cry clone? It simply wouldn't fit into the core series of the game. Sure, it might be a good game on its own, but with a legacy behind it, it simply wouldn't work. And thus why Konami's Metal Gear Solid: Rising does not have a number attached to it, but rather a sub-title that clearly says 'this is a spin-off'.
So why the fairly good score then? Well, like I said, the game does pick-up. About 15 hours in and lots of stuff changes. The first 10 hours are largely an introduction to the game as throughout that period you'll constantly see new tutorials during battles and such. Initially, the cut-scenes and some of the cheese is hard to witness, but the quality of the story goes up, as does the quality of cut-scenes. Once your characters also become stronger, things get a little better, as well, but you'll definitely run into a number of battles that you'll have to try and try numerous times.
Also, there's a certain feeling embedded into the game that makes you want to keep playing just to see what happens next, and the linearity of it all certainly makes that aspect easier to embrace. I'm not saying the linearity is good, but it does make it easier to just keep going and going, without worrying about straying off the path.
I'll keep the technical stuff like visuals and sound quick, since Ben has covered that in his review, as well. Final Fantasy XIII looks nothing short of amazing, and it damn sure better, because seeing as how environments are fairly limited in scope, there's little excuse for the game to not look great. The characters are easily the most detailed aspect of the visuals, and the animation really stands out too. Also, the image is very polished and the CG cut-scenes are absolutely astonishing in detail.
Lastly, the sound is pretty good, but not the best an FF game has seen. The soundtrack lacks a certain charm or even character, and voice acting for Hope and Vanille is excruciatingly bad sometimes. Nevermind the fact that for the first 15 hours of the game Vanille is just about the most annoying Final Fantasy character ever. But to make matters worse, her awkward Australian accent sounds slurred, and almost fake (it isn't, the voice actor is actually Aussie…and pretty hot too). But the peppiness of Vanille is too much to stomach, it really is. And Hope, even though he changes up a bit later on, he's hard to listen to, as well.
So, I have a lot of negative things to say about the game, but I don't hate it. I'm disappointed. It's just a radical departure and it's definitely a blemish on the series' legacy. The lack of tradition here is appalling. And Square-Enix's excuses about not having things like towns and an open world are total bull, if you ask me. The bottom line is that this game was neutered for numerous reasons: to appeal to a different demographic, to take up less storage space making it easier to publish for the Xbox 360, and because development of the game had already gone on for over 5 years. I have no doubt in my mind that development for Final Fantasy XIII stopped and restarted multiple times over the course of time, and that would best explain why this is such a massive leap backwards for the franchise.