Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t hide its linearity. The game is heavily directed. The choices you make from character development to story progression are controlled. You’ll walk down straight paths, not branching dungeons. You won’t find towns, or even people to talk to. You won’t explore – well, not for the first twenty hours, anyway. Everything is fine tuned down to the amount of levels you can gain (the game caps you at certain points until you progress farther in the story.) On paper, these sound like hindrances, but in execution, this provides players with a Final Fantasy that concentrates on the series’ two strongest points: story and the combat mechanics.
The first several hours are used to drive the narration. Combat is scarce and the battles that do occur are mainly used as graphical set pieces. It isn’t until three hours in that you’ll get to do much more than tap the X button and run around. XIII is an interactive movie that slowly morphs into a combat heavy experience. With its frequent save points, the beginning is meant to be watched episodically, and if taken in chunks, works great. Whether this pacing works comes down to how much you enjoy the story, and for me, the narrative was strong enough to keep me going.
The story revolves around six playable characters. The world is on its way to destruction, but the game concentrates on motives of individuals rather than the bigger threat. For most of the game, the cast is at each other’s throats, which works really well. Some are selfish, some are arrogant, and some are lost. They aren’t perfect and their flaws make them interesting to follow, which is why the final third of the game’s narration is a disappointment. Everyone unites to fight for the greater good and character development is abandoned in order to concentrate on the bland antagonist. It's always hard to like a story when the ending is so disappointing.
Complementing the personalities of the cast are the expressive facial animations of the character models. Brows wrinkle with subtle movement eliminating the dead eyes that plague many games. Hair sways in the wind. It seems like a trivial thing to mention, but it demonstrates the level of detail in the characters.
Just as stunning is the universe itself. Colorful and rich with detail, the art designers have done a great job of bringing everything to life. At one point, you are dropped into a gigantic open landscape. Monsters as tall as skyscrapers tower over you as giant birds fly through the sky. Off in the horizon you can see mountains and oceans. All of it seems tangible. By the time you reach this point, the focus of the game has switched from story to combat and you truly get to enjoy the best Final Fantasy battle system I have ever played.
Two of the three members in your party are AI-controlled, and the one you control will mainly be directed by selecting the automatic command. The strategy and most of your attention will be involved in manipulating the “Paradigm System.” Each party member has six roles they can take (healer, magic user, fighter, etc…). From these six classes, you will create various combinations with your three party members, which are called Paradigms. You can have up to seven Paradigms stored at a time. If you want your team to heal, you will need to switch to a paradigm with a healer. If you want them to go all-out offensively you will have to change to a Paradigm accordingly. Paradigms are basically sets of job classes you will be shifting during battle. These shifts are instant, and you will be doing them a lot during the fast passed combat. Even though you aren’t instructing specific commands, the combat system requires your full attention. It is not passive by any means.
Battles are self-contained, meaning your health is restored after each one. There is no penalty for defeat. Upon failure, a retry option is presented and you are placed at the moment before the battle occurred. Without the worry of magic points, health, and game over screens, common enemies have been toughened. You no longer have to slog through waves of dungeon fodder in order to find a bit of challenge in a boss. The difficulty doesn’t feel cheap, either. Because of the games linear and heavily directed nature, it is perfectly balanced. You are never required to level grind in order to defeat a tough enemy. If you lose, it’s because your team wasn’t set up right. It’s nice when an RPG can create a battle system where the challenge comes from strategy and not just statistical imbalances.
XIII is paced differently than any Final Fantasy before. With a game that’s over fifty hours, it has time to deliver a compelling narrative while the combat waits. It has time to develop a deep combat system. It has time to try a different approach and pacing to gaming. Sadly, the combat and story never match stride. When one is at its best the other is far behind. If you go into XIII hoping for quick engagement, you’ll be disappointed. If you don’t need instant gratification, the overall experience is one worth experiencing.