Good intentions, but misses the mark
Final Fantasy XIII is a game that from the very start cannot decide whether it wants to hold the player's hand or throw them right into the thick of things. By now most people have heard about how long the game takes to really open up the gameplay, but at the same time the player is thrown into a complex world with little explanation or anything even resembling a coherent introduction. A lot of this can probably be blamed on wanting to hit a larger audience, but for a series that already has a large fan base I cannot help but think this was misguided. Maybe this is just the world we are in now with expanding game budgets, but that is an argument for another article.
The combat system in Final Fantasy XIII is both its strength and its weakness. Once you are presented with the full range of options available to you the game truly is amazing, at least as far as gameplay is concerned. However the long and slow road it takes to get to this point is pretty much unforgivable. For a good portion of the beginning of the game you have a minimal party consisting of one or two members and little in the way of combat options. This leaves you spamming the auto-attack option and wondering if this is really all there is to the game. Thankfully you eventually get a full party, the ability to swap characters, and the heart of the entire system - Paradigm Shifts. This simple concept is the entire reason the auto-attack feature exists and once you start getting into the more difficult fights you will be glad it is there.
There paradigm system basically places you in the role of a coach for your battle team instead of the standard JRPG system of choosing attacks for all of your characters. This means how you complement the paradigms of the different characters and when you choose to shift those Paradigms is much more important than what actual spells, skills, and attacks are chosen. As you progress through the game this system can become so complex that you will find yourself shifting Paradigms every few seconds in reaction to the shifting field of battle. As you can imagine this would leave little time to choose the actual attacks your character would perform, thus the auto-attack feature.
The plot of Final Fantasy XIII is where the game really has a weakness. As I mentioned earlier at the start of the game you are given little introduction and are thrown right into the story. This is not always a bad thing, but in the hit the ground running story you are quickly overwhelmed with characters, world history, and a vocabulary filled with complicated and similar terms. Thankfully the story eventually slows down and lets you catch your breath, but as soon as you actually get a grasp on what is going on everything is thrown out the window to be replaced by a confusing sprint for the finale.
Furthermore the point in the game that everyone cites as the place where the gameplay gets good (Chapter 11) is also the point at which the plot completely falls flat on its face. You spend the entire game up until this point relying on the plot to keep you going through the mind numbing gameplay, but then the story is dumped and you lose all momentum. If the game is going to spend that long keeping things progressing in a linear fashion I would prefer things remain that way instead of dumping that pace in exchange for a brief period of limited open world exploring.
I think a final big issue with the plot of Final Fantasy XIII is a poor implementation of the codex system from the Mass Effect series. While the latter uses this brilliantly to expand the world for those who cannot quench their thirst for lore, FFXIII relies on this system to pass crucial plot elements and concepts on to the player. This means that if you ignore these codex updates or even worse do not know they exist, you can be left in the dark in a room that is already a confusing labyrinth. While I will give credit to Square Enix for bringing this concept into the JRPG world, I have to fault them for failing horribly with it to the point of hurting the narrative.
Final Fantasy XIII does do a great job of presenting a beautiful world to the player. The environments are gorgeous, the enemies are detailed, and the characters actually look not too crazy and outlandish. I noticed hardly any slowdown while playing and players will be missing out if they do not utilize the camera to catch glimpses of the world around them on their travels. This is doubly important due to the linear nature of the game, so rotating the camera at all angles while exploring can help to pass the tedium of moving in a straight line.
This would not be a Final Fantasy game if it did not also include pre-rendered cut-scenes and we are treated to some great ones this time around with one of the best coming towards the end of the game. This is the one category though where I have to fault both the limitations of the Xbox 360's medium and the lacking port job of Square Enix. Some of the cut scenes are so poorly compressed that you will not be able to ignore the artifacting and poor quality. The developer definitely could have sunk more time into better compression, but the limitations of DVDs can also be blamed here.
While Final Fantasy XIII is far from the best game in the series you cannot help but see a good game somewhere in here. The combat system is magnificent when fully realized and if you were able to experience it for a larger portion of the game it would be even better. The story is not far from standard JRPG conventions and if it had been slowed down and not pushed off on a codex system could have been engaging and something to keep you wanting to see more. The game itself was beautiful and probably one of the high points of the entire experience. If the game left one lasting impression on me it is that I definitely want to see Final Fantasy Versus XIII to see what lessons were learned.