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.