Judge it for what it is, not what it's not
I could start off this review with a cliché, such as saying that Final Fantasy XIII isn't for everyone. I could say that it's like Marmite: you either love it, or you hate it. However, if I said that, I'd be talking out of my arse. Every game, even the good ones, have people who love them and people who hate them. Final Fantasy XIII is no different. It's a good game, and whilst giving it criticism for its flaws is fair, I think a lot of the anger and distaste expressed towards it is more about what it's not, rather than what it is.
What Final Fantasy XIII is not, is a typical numbered Final Fantasy game. It's missing a certain depth from previous games, whether that be in the character progression system, micromanagement in battle or a distinct lack of minigames. And because it's not like previous titles in the series, the good changes are inevitably going to be overshadowed by the more dubious ones. And I say 'dubious' because they didn't necessarily have to be bad, even if the end result is that.
The biggest and most obvious flaw is the straight paths. Whilst existing to drive the plot forward easier than it has done in previous entries, the free camera and the ability to look around, yet not having the ability to actually explore these areas, really makes Final Fantasy XIII a dull conveyor belt of moving from A to B to get a smidgen of plot, before returning to the set path again for another hour of tedium.
What's even more baffling is how Final Fantasy X manages to do a similar thing, yet not make it boring where XIII fails. I think part of the solution is to resort to a fixed camera in some of these areas. Whilst the 3D camera controlled by the right thumbstick can be very liberating in most games, it only works against Final Fantasy XIII to highlight everywhere you can't go, and everything you can't do. I think locking the camera in place, giving us a select view of what we're allowed to see, would've made the straight path gameplay feel less limiting than it actually is. Of course, giving us a 3D camera for the more open-ended parts of the game is a given, but giving it to us when exploration isn't available is an incredibly jarring experience. Quite frankly, I'm surprised they did it this way.
When I mentioned a "certain depth" was missing from previous Final Fantasy titles, one feature I had in mind more than any other was its progression and item management. Crystarium in Final Fantasy XIII is like Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, only it might as well be in a straight line. It feels incredibly limited, as opposed to the Sphere Grid, which let us explore different paths of progression and allowed for a little overlap between characters. In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII's Crystarium was rigid and clearly defined. They wanted us to take our characters in a specific direction, and we'd be damned if we did otherwise. I can understand why they did this (it's a price to pay for the elimination of random battles), but it's a real dumbing down of something that wasn't necessary.
Another similarly disappointing system is weapons and items. The importance of items such as Potion and Phoenix Down is practically null after the introduction of Paradigm Shifts in battle, so I can understand why such little attention was paid to item management, but the lack of concern over expendables was carried over into weapon and armour management and customisation. Quite frankly, it sucks. Weapons require a certain amount of EXP before they Level Up, which is a traditional RPG mechanic. Sadly, the way to level up is to just throw as many inane "scrap" items at it as possible, until the weapon has accrued enough EXP to go up a level. After the said weapon has reached its maximum level, it can then be "transmuted" with a special catalyst item into a far more capable weapon.
Whilst there is a method to adding items to weapons (some grant double or triple EXP, for example, and the catalysts allow you to craft some uniquely powerful weapons), it's almost unpredictable to the point of my apathy. It feels like Square-Enix were on the cusp of introducing a system that was actually fascinating, where I could experiment with applying different items to my weapons to get vastly different effects, but instead opted for a randomised system that feels like it's missing so much. In the end, I stopped caring about the half-arsed weapon upgrades because it felt like a tedious drag on my valuable time. They might as well have granted EXP to weapons after battle and just automated the process, because manually applying EXP in such an unimaginative way makes me feel like I'm performing a routine, rather than exploring a rich system.
Another big flaw that separates Final Fantasy XIII from previous titles is also the lack of minigames. There's really not much to do, even when you get to the open-ended segments of the game, and it feels like they've missed a trick by not fleshing out the culture of Cocoon/Pulse in ways that they did in previous titles, such as Tetra Master (featured in Final Fantasy IX), Triple Triad (Final Fantasy VIII) or Blitzball (from Final Fantasy X). Whilst I didn't always fully engross myself in these minigames, the fact that they were there made the world feel that much more authentic, whilst providing relief from the main game which can be a long slog otherwise, and are dearly missed.
It's fair to say that Final Fantasy XIII diverges away from previous titles, and that a lot of these divergences are either ill conceived, or are a symptom of plain laziness. However, many of its enhancements on the series are unfairly stigmatised, or largely ignored, because people are upset about the game's linearity, its lack of towns, shallow progression and missing minigames. One of these differences is, potentially, its genre.
Final Fantasy XIII rests on the edge of what an RPG is, incorporating the style of action games, rather than the substance of them. This is a good thing. This attitude towards design has created a battle system that is fresh and exciting, fast-paced and original. Having played the initial parts of the game, it could be fair to say that the Auto-Battle feature is shallow and makes battling just as narrow and short-sighted as the game's lack of exploration, but when you get to play with all the possibilities of the Paradigm Shift you realise that the focus of battles has shifted from micro-level management of every character and every precise move they do, and into macro-level control of battles that have the style of action games like Devil May Cry with the role-based strategy of RPGs such as healers, tanks, buffers and so on.
Paradigms are roles that each of the characters play. They each have three in total, which range from Commandos and Ravagers (damage dealers and chain builders), through to Synergists and Saboteurs (buffers and de-buffers) and Medics and Sentinels (healers and tanks). Your party's combination of roles, known as Paradigms, can be shifted mid-battle, so that focus can change from attacking an enemy to defending and healing, or de-buffing an opponent's enhancements. When the depth of the system becomes apparent, micromanaging each character and their attacks (as it is in previous Final Fantasy games) seems more flexible, but ultimately more boring, than shifting the pace of the battle from afar as it is Final Fantasy XIII. For me it's a welcome change from the days of old, and I hope Square-Enix aren't pressured into going back to a more traditional battle system in Final Fantasy XV.
Another thing to give applause for is Square-Enix being bold enough to shake off some of Final Fantasy's more boring or tedious elements. Towns are great until you realise they're arbitrary rest points with which to heal your team up after a session of grinding, and the world map only gives an illusion of freedom; players are still ultimately meant to travel from point A to point B. A world map facilitates such, indeed, but it also allows players to stray out of the game's comfort zone for their respective character levels and encounter monsters that will obliterate them in seconds. My idea of fun.
Grinding has almost comprehensively found its death in Final Fantasy XIII too. The elimination of random battles (in its place, enemies appear in the world and you can totally avoid many fights if you wish) has meant that every encounter is visible and predictable. Some hardcore grinders may dislike this, but frankly I quite enjoy being able to progress in the story relatively quickly without having to dither for hours outside a boss area, cranking up my levels just so I have enough skill to take it on.
On the most part, I'd say that Final Fantasy XIII's gameplay is strong. It has a few flaws, some of them with solutions so obvious that I'm surprised they weren't implemented, but overall very well put together. But for a lot of people, myself included, narrative is what matters in Final Fantasy games. I'm pleased to say that like its gameplay, Final Fantasy XIII's plot fails to disappoint in most respects.
Yes, its plot is still platitudinous for the most part, like previous games, and the events happening are rather predictable, but that's part of the charm of a Final Fantasy game. Where there's room for improvement, however, Square-Enix have made it.
In terms of presentation, they've thrown exposition to the side and replaced it with the Datalog, an encyclopaedia of knowledge about the world of Cocoon and Pulse, its history, the characters, and a neat summary of events that have already happened. I much prefer this svelte presentation of the story - telling us what we need to know in order to progress the plot - rather than feeding us every little detail, and boring us in the process. That said, sometimes I feel they took a bit too much out, leading to me actually reading the Datalog's plot summary to work out what actually happened. The Datalog also resembles Mass Effect's Codex, providing us with details on characters, monsters, places and events that serve to enrich the game world, but are too unwieldy to plop into narrative. It's an overall welcome implementation that has led to solid storytelling on the most part.
Cinematic presentation, both pre-rendered and in-game, are very polished. Understandably so, considering how long Final Fantasy XIII was under development for, but nice little touches such as localised lip synching, superb graphical detail and beautiful 1080p FMVs (I played the PS3 version) are exactly what I bought my HDTV for.
Another impressive part of the narrative is, at the beginning, the switching of perspectives between characters. It allowed us to explore a large variety of places, and helped develop characters two-by-two, as opposed to having some of them drowned out by the more dominant personalities, such as Snow and Lightning, which is what happened in the later parts of the game when all six l'Cie band together. Another interesting part of Final Fantasy XIII is how few main characters there are, six in total. In previous games there's generally more than that who you can include in your party, but Square-Enix seems to have limited the number of characters to allow for them all to be explored in greater depth, and bar Vanille, I actually quite like them.
Vanille; perhaps the most annoying character in a Final Fantasy game. Ever. Yes, moreso than Rikku, and Vaan. Her mannerisms feel forced and irritating, her voice (played by Georgia van Cuylenburg) is contemptuous, and her character is one of the few platitudes in Final Fantasy XIII (and anime in general) that I wish would die. I don't necessarily blame the voice actress, after all she was probably making the best of a bad situation; a double whammy of a poorly written character and the hardships of translation probably led to the disaster that is Vanille.
Beyond her, though, characterisation is great. Hope (voiced by Vincent Martella) was the biggest surprise in this regard; starting off as an annoying brat (as the trailers portray him) he becomes a mature character who, whilst having little depth, isn't the petulant swine I feared he'd be. The strong-willed Lightning (voiced by Ali Hillis) and equally arrogant Snow (voiced by Troy Baker) play off each other well, and whilst they're rather two-dimensional, their development and delivery is convincing enough.
Surprisingly, Square-Enix have gone to great lengths to create a slightly less stereotyped black character in Sazh (voiced by Reno Wilson), who in the end wound up to be my favourite. His motives and back story were surprising and nicely drip-fed, and he felt the most balanced and human of all the characters, whilst Fang (voiced by Rachel Robinson) takes a back seat due to her late introduction and similarity to Lightning.
There were one or two instances in the plot where players are meant to know what's going on, yet characters don't. One painful scene in Nautilus, between Vanille and Sazh where the former (and us) is acutely aware of something that Sazh isn't, was drawn out for far too long. The effect of tension was washed away, and what was meant to be a compelling piece of storytelling became rather annoying.
Ending spoilers ahead
To summarise, there's a lot of little things wrong with Final Fantasy XIII, but none of them break the game in any meaningful way. Similarly, none of them even take it down a peg in terms of quality; I only got bothered by the problems when I actively noticed them, and whilst the game forces some of them on us in the initial phase (which is indeed inexcusable) I'd almost completely forgotten about them by time I reached the end.
What was supposed to work well, did so exceptionally. Every design decision in Final Fantasy XIII, both good and bad, was made in servitude of its narrative and its battle system. Both are improvements in many aspects on previous games in the series, and whilst a lot of the outlying features such as the lackadaisical character progression, linear footpaths, and dreadful item management can't go ignored, they are greatly outweighed by what's good about Final Fantasy XIII, which, whilst different from others in the series, stands proudly next to them.