The primary thing that many fans come to Final Fantasy for is the battle system. Luckily, the battle system in Final Fantasy XIII is one of the game's strong points. While the real-time battle strategy might make fans of Final Fantasy X cringe, a fair amount of strategy is involved. The system will pit three characters on your side against anywhere from one to six enemies. The battle system has the player controlling only one of the characters (whomever the team leader is at the time) while the other characters are controlled by the AI. While this may sound like a monotonous recipe for disaster, Square Enix actually does quite a good job implementing the system into the game. The strategy really comes into play when the paradigms are introduced. Paradigms essentially shift each characters' class with a couple button presses. This is particularly helpful during long boss battles as it allows characters to buff, debuff and heal, then in about three seconds, switch to an all-out offensive paradigm.
Summoning is also a part of the battle system, but it really feels as though it has taken a seat on the back-burner for this game. The characters are able to summon Eidolons, which are able to fight beside the team leader who summons it. In order to gain an Eidolon, however, each character must "defeat" it in a battle. While you don't have to drain the beasts of their HP, you will have to get a high chain of attacks working in order for the Eidolon to "yield" to you. Once defeated, the beasts join the team and are able to be summoned for a small sum of TP. Only the team leader can summon Eidolons, which can be frustrating if you want to summon a certain one, but don't like playing as that character. The Eidolons don't deal nearly as much damage as they have in the past it seems, until they go into gestalt mode, where they transform into vehicles of some sort. Once in gestalt mode, the Eidolons really have a chance to bring the damage to the enemies, but their appearances in battle are usually very short lived and underwhelming.
While Final Fantasy XIII is ambitious, it falls a bit short of expectations set forth by the Final Fantasy faithfuls. For one, the linearity of the game just kills any notion that Final Fantasy is based in an open-world environment. While Some direction is good, Final Fantasy XIII takes any choice that the player might have in the first 25 hours and just completely destroys it. You literally are on a rail for the first two discs, which will turn many series and genre fans off. Another problem with linearity exists with the characters development engine, the Crystarium. The player may develop each of the six characters along six different roles using the CP experience points they obtain through participating in battles. The problem with the system is that there is little deviation in each of the paths, leaving the only real choice to be made in developing each character in which role to develop first.
There is one big issue with the battle system, however. Players are able to select "Auto-Battle" or some variation of that depending on the role, which is not only the most efficient way to do battle, but also the most uninvolved. It's simply amazing how many encounters simply turn into pushing the "A" button quickly instead of actually selecting which attacks to do. The game really feels more like an RPG simulator in that regard. When the battles are slightly one-sided in favor of the player's team, the battle system in place in Final Fantasy XIII is not only very uninvolved, but very ineffective. The battle system is much more strategy-focused rather than battle-focused and at times it feels more like a management exercise than an actual RPG battle.
As far as graphics go, Final Fantasy XIII is a very welcome change from many of the first-person and third-person shooters that insist on using a color palette that consists of brown, black, gray and yellow. This game exhibits some of the most beautiful scenery ever witnessed in any game's setting. While some of the game is fought from inside the mythical metropolis of Cocoon, once the player gets out and experiences Pulse, there is no denying the gorgeous nature of the game. The cutscenes are also something to be marveled at. If you have a nice TV with HDMI hookup, you are in for a treat when the scenes involving fireworks come up every so often. The colors are unlike any other game and the vibrancy will catch you off-guard if you've been playing a lot of Gears of War, Halo and Modern Warfare.
One thing that Final Fantasy has always been known for is the deep storylines. While this game doesn't quite have the story depth of Final Fantasy VII or X, the story is compelling enough to hold your attention until the end. The characters are interesting and varied enough that you'll care what happens to most of them. The only real problem with the characters themselves is that they just don't feel developed quite enough to make them feel alive. Sure, much of the team has plenty of background revealed, but other members just have an uninteresting and unintentional shroud of mystery surrounding them.
One other thing that tends to plague the characters is the sudden awkward moments of dialogue that have the ability to bring the otherwise great scene to a screeching halt. Some of the lines spewed by these characters can be so cheesy and melodramatic that you might think you're watching a children's show or a soap opera. Some are just flat out embarrassing, particularly some that seem to aim to teach the player a moral lesson out of nowhere. The dialogue can seem forced at times, but overall it is about on par with what players have come to expect from Final Fantasy titles. One thing is obvious, however: the voice acting is miles better than any previous voiced Final Fantasy game.
The mythology of this Final Fantasy game is about what fans usually get with titles in the series, but something just doesn't seem to click at times. Perhaps it's due to the mythology being so deep without any real explanation at first. Figuring out the origins of certain terms and the motivations of certain antagonists can prove very tricky at times.
One frustrating thing that occurs with this game is a constant change in difficulty. Some fights will have the player ready to throw their controller out the window, while other subsequent battles will see the characters breezing through without breaking a sweat. This inevitably leads to the ugly concept of "grinding", where players will stay in a certain area and face enemies with the intent of raising their characters' attributes. While this might not seem like a problem, many players will become bored with fighting the same group of enemies over and over again if they get stuck on a certain part.
Also, as the players progress through the story, they will notice that many of the enemies throughout the world are just re-skinned versions of previously faced enemies. This can add to the monotony of the game at times, but the story explains it well enough. There are some instances where it just feels like a cheap recycling of the same enemy designs.
Speaking of enemies, throughout the game, you will face some of the most daunting boss fights ever seen. Some of the bosses have the odds stacked so heavily in their favor that you might think you'll never win. This can create an incredible sense of epic victory once the intimidation factor wears down and the battle gets really going.
While Final Fantasy XIII may irritate some with it's sharp difficulty curve at times and it's linearity, there is absolutely no denying that this game is an incredible value, even at $60. The title can easily last you 100 hours if you take your time and do a few side quests, but at the very least you'll be spending about 50 - 60 hours with a normal play through. There is much to do in the world of Pulse, so don't think that the story's conclusion means you're done with the game.
Final Fantasy XIII had the potential to be one of the greatest games of this generation, but a few glaring issues caused it to fall just short. The battle system's idle feeling in less important battles and the weak dialog is easily made up for by the longevity the title carries across it's three discs, but the linearity will definitely turn several people away. If Final Fantasy XIII was as good from the start as it was from 25 hours in, the game would have a much greater appeal and would receive a much better rating. Instead, the game's early stalling cost it valuable points and really thwarted an otherwise spectacular and immersible experience.