Perhaps better than any other game franchise, the Final Fantasy franchise excels at world-making. Each edition of the main series (save X-2) has created a whole new universe with a new set of rules and a new set of problems. Though each entry into the series is massively different than the one that came before, there is something in the way each of them plays, in the way each of them feels, that tie them together and make each, very definitely, a Final Fantasy title. With the newest entry into the series, Final Fantasy XIII, that pattern holds.
The story here is relatively typical of the Final Fantasy games – there is a gross evil out there that wants to rule all of humanity and attempts to do so through the use of fear and brutality. The group of playable characters in the game, led by Lightning and Snow, realize that they are the only ones who can possibly stand up against this brutality, and even though they may not always wish to step into the role of savior, eventually they do. This review could go into greatly more depth at this point about he l'Cie being created by the fal'Cie and the Sanctum's Purge and the creation of the world of Cocoon and the theories Cocoon's inhabitants have about the lower world, Pulse. However, we will not do that here.
Examining the story in great depth would not only mean little until you actually play the game, it may just ruin some of the story for you. As has become tradition in Final Fantasy titles, there are an incredible number of cutscenes and flashbacks, and bits of the story only come out in dribs and drabs. To try and recreate the narrative in linear fashion in a review destroys reveals and might lead to you getting bored and tuning out from the game, which is something you don't want to do as that will inevitably mean that you'll miss some bit of information you'll actually want.
The biggest problem with FFXIII though is that if you do miss some piece of information, while you may be slightly lost for a little while, it won't change the way you progress through the game. While all Final Fantasy games have a beginning, middle, and end, this one feels much more linear than most, providing you with very little opportunity to stray from the path of the story the game has laid out. In fact, early on in the game you'll note as you travel that there is, literally, a very definite path for you to traverse and that even if you want to peak around a corner to see what's there, an invisible wall will stop you.
What the game does offer, perhaps, instead of choice in path, is a whole new perspective on battles. In our hands-on preview piece, we noted that the game offered a new battle system which focused heavily on the notion of the "Paradigm Shift." In battles, you only directly control the leader of the three member party, but you do indirectly control everyone else via the Paradigm Shift. Each party member takes one of a number of different roles – Commando (warrior), Ravager (magic to help Commandos deal damage), Sentinel (defender), Medic (healer), Saboteur (inflict status effect on enemies), Synergist (magic support against status effects on team). It is the combination of these roles creates different Paradigms. As with many latter day Final Fantasy battle systems, it is incredibly in-depth, but the game does start you off very slowly, adding to the battle system bit by bit with plenty of helpful tutorial battles to get you into the swing of things. Although as a player you won't be pushing a button to swing a sword, you can still time an attack to deal the most damage (and save yourself from getting hurt), and you will constantly be shifting Paradigms throughout a battle – you can set custom ones before battles begin – so as to utilize your team to the best of their ability. Eidolons are back in FFXIII as well, with each character getting one Eidolon that can be summoned and used in battle until they run out of Summons Points (similar to HP).
It maybe slightly disconcerting that you're timed in each battle and once you've won you'll get to see how quickly you made it through in comparison to how quickly the game thinks you ought to have; you'll even get a star rating based on your performance. However, it works, and even though you'll only be directly controlling one of your players, but the time you have the full battle system in front of you, that'll be as much as you can possibly handle.
Winning battles earns you Crystarium Points which are used to help the characters learn new skills and magic, and increase strength, hit points, attack points, magic points, etc. All of those increases are done in a fashion similar to the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, and are really quite easy to figure out.