I've had a long, affectionate relationship with the Final Fantasy series, and perhaps the main reason I've stuck with the series for so long is that it takes plenty of risks with reinventing itself whenever it can. Final Fantasy XIII continues this tradition, and produces many fresh, exciting moments on its own right. The unfortunate part, however, is that it takes its sweet time getting there, making it a pretty divisive experience that you'll probably come to either love or hate.
First and foremost, the new battle system in Final Fantasy XIII is surprisingly engaging. Switching paradigms on the fly is super satisfying, and the whole thing takes on a feeling of guiding the flow of battle rather than getting into the nuts and bolts of things. It's an interesting design route that I think plays out really well. That being said, I can't understand for the life of me why you have to reload when your party leader dies. You have Phoenix Downs and a Raise spell for a reason, yet the game robs you of their usefulness via this contrived notion. Otherwise, battles are probably my favorite part of Final Fantasy XIII. Or at least, that and the production values. Final Fantasy XIII looks and sounds amazing, regardless of what version you're playing. The characters are finely detailed and smoothly animated, the backdrops are gorgeous, and the soundtrack is pretty catchy. I'll have to admit, however, that I felt the voice acting to be a bit cringe-inducing. It all felt unnaturally melodramatic and forced to me, though I could see it not bothering a lot of people.
What will probably bother a lot of people, however, is Final Fantasy XIII's pacing. This thing is a slow as games get (even more so than past games in the series), and even worse is that it holds your hand with the tightest of grips for upwards of thirty mind numbing hours. It introduces the game's numerous mechanics at a snails pace, and generally doesn't give you any room to act on your own. Even the aforementioned battles don't become the feature I like so much until the last tutorial rears its head about halfway through. In short, for roughly the first two dozen hours I barely felt like I was even playing. It's a mosh pit of linear corridors, cream puff encounters that can be won by simply mashing "Auto Battle", and lengthy cut scenes that do little to advance the plot. Speaking of plot, I didn't find it to be all that engaging or well told. Most of the dramatic moments boil down to the cliche "We can do it!" or "Never give up!" mantras of JRPG infamy, and the dialogue and writing do a pretty poor job at conveying whatever story the game is trying to tell. It ends up burying all the details within your cluttered menu, and I found the whole thing pretty forgettable as a result.
In my mind, the real key to enjoying Final Fantasy XIII hinges on your ability to make it through the tedium of the first two dozen hours, which is longer than most games last in their entirety. Those who do weather the initial drudgery, however, will be rewarded with some exciting gameplay features- mainly with respect to battles. Fans of the genre with plenty of free time on their hands will probably come away satisfied, but those with a taste for a more timely, interactive experience will be better served elsewhere.
For additional information on my review style and scoring system, click here.