It’s difficult to say where Final Fantasy XIII will ultimately rank in fans’ esteem, but it seems unlikely to be anyone’s favorite. A little over 25 hours in, I can already say with some certainty that it won’t be mine. It's not horrible, but it's definitely disappointing. I was hoping for a next-gen sequel that built on the strengths of its predecessor, but as it is, the new installment seems like a step backward. The combat’s flashy but even more hands-off than that of Final Fantasy XII, and outside of the combat — well, so far, there's very little outside of the combat worth speaking of.
Discrete battles are back, initiated by contact with the still visible-in-the-field but not really free-roaming enemies (they stick to their spawn point waiting to rush, or be rushed by, the characters). The ATB gauge returns, this time working like action points to drive your attacks and abilities. You issue commands to the party leader only, while the other characters are entirely AI controlled.
What you can do is change their roles: attacker, healer, enhancer, etc. The system isn’t analogous to XII’s gambits, as you might guess at first; the roles aren’t ways of prioritizing which of many available actions the characters use, but actually define which actions are available. For instance, while an attacker will use (weapon) attacks every turn, the same character as a healer will sit idle if there's no healing to be done. Rather than attending to a character’s role individually, you switch among a handful of whole-party configurations you set up in the menu between battles.
If you’re the sort of player who prefers to micromanage battles, this system is emphatically not for you. In fact, it actively discourages detailed examination. If you agonize over which of the dozen damage counts to flash across an enemy corresponds to which of your attacks, or why the AI chooses a certain attack when another would do more damage, or if you linger over the menu under your enemies’ continuous onslaught, you will drive yourself insane.
Attacks come thick and fast, and even if you choose the automated commands for your leader, you always need to keep an eye on the action and be ready to change roles (which takes effect instantaneously). You heal automatically between battles, but there’s no penalty for dying — and you will die, thanks in part to the infuriatingly arbitrary game-over-when-the-leader-dies approach that has been employed. You simply restart at the point just before that battle, plus, save points – which are also where you shop and upgrade equipment – are around every corner. The battle result screen gives you points and a rating based on your performance.
What this all amounts to is a combat system that's clearly more about visceral, quick-and-dirty scrapes than drawn-out tactical confrontations. The speed and spectacle of it can be thrilling and engaging, but how much you actually enjoy it depends on how willing you are to embrace this approach.
Unfortunately, the character progression doesn’t add substantially to the combat experience. It’s much like the sphere grid from FFX – points accumulated from battles are spent to advance between nodes on a set path, with each node being a stat upgrade, new ability, etc. Unfortunately, there’s no substantial branching to the paths, and it’s hard to get to get very excited about a new ability when that mostly just means something new for your party members to do in the background.
Graphically speaking, there are some truly impressive texture and lighting effects on display, and other standouts like the subtly expressive facial animations are approaching uncanny. After slogging through some dull early environments, there are more and more later on that approach the intricate design and grandeur the series is known for.
However, even the best-looking environments are strictly window dressing, since your movements are generally constrained to a single narrow, linear path. There’s very rarely any openness or alternate pathways, and when there are, they're only ever short diversions to treasures. Movement itself is far from smooth. Running straight ahead is simple enough, but fine control, such as trying to move into position for a contextual command, or sneaking up on enemies for a preemptive attack, is a chore given that you always move either too fast or too slow, the camera is sluggish, and changing direction is one of those irritating halt-then-lunge affairs. Add to this the freakish ubiquity of invisible walls, and simply moving about is more frustrating than it should be.
The story progression is just as linear as the ground you walk on. The player proceeds through battle after battle until the boss fight, then it’s off to the next chapter and the next group of characters. To some extent, this is par for the RPG course, but usually there's at least some chance for exploration or side quests. XIII has nothing whatsoever along these lines to distract you from simply plowing through to the next story-dictated destination.
The story itself is somewhat unmoving. The first 20 hours or so are largely about the main characters and their personal grievances. The characters themselves range from amusing to absolutely intolerable, but overall seem as one-note as a watch alarm. Even if I didn’t understand a word of Japanese (as it happens, my Japanese is hardly perfect, so take all this with a grain of salt), scene after scene of dirty looks, strangulated noises, and collapsing to knees in emotional agony would be enough to tell me that the sophistication of FFXII has been abandoned in favor of the tritest music video-caliber melodrama.
This sensation is most pronounced in sections that are backed by actual electro-pop tracks, complete with cheesy English lyrics. The soundtrack in general is nicely composed if even more stylistically inconsistent than usual. Pop songs like those give over to grand orchestral pieces, then something straight out of a jazz lounge, and even the occasional track that sounds like it wandered over from Katamari Damacy. Thankfully, the main battle theme is one of the better tunes.
Bear in mind that everything I say here is in no way meant to be comprehensive. The portion I’ve played likely amounts to less than half the campaign. There’s still plenty of time for the story to improve, and it’s quite reasonable to expect more in the way of open exploration and side quests later on. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but so far, Final Fantasy XIII is shaping up to be one of the weaker entries in the series.