wess's Final Fantasy XIII (Xbox 360) review

One ugly duckling. Which becomes a slightly above average duck.

I've had a pretty longstanding love for the Final Fantasy brand, originating from back on the Playstation with Final Fantasy 7.  While not every game in the series has blown me away, I generally feel like they are well made adventures that continue to be unique even after so many iterations.  Final Fantasy 13 kind of continues along that path, and delivers some things that are certainly unique, but the whole experience is held back by some questionable design decisions.
 
There are many things I enjoyed about FF13, and one of my favorite aspects of the game was how the combat system works.  Fighting in real time, in a full 3D area, with the ability to switch your party's class makeup on the fly makes the combat very fast paced and entertaining.  Since you only control one character directly (and generally are best served to set him/her to auto-attack the whole battle), the strategy really stems from the class makeup of your team, and switching constantly to give yourself the edge is really the crux of combat.  This is definitely a unique and fun twist on traditional JRPG combat, and it really depresses me that you go the vast majority of the game without being able to experience the full-blown system.  While the combat is designed for 3 characters at a time, you spend the better part of the game with only 1 or 2 characters to use, which seriously detracts from the fast pace and strategy that should be available throughout the game.  Also, while the leveling system could have been fun and dynamic, since the game limits you to a small set of upgrades for each chapter, it basically works as a linear leveling system, rather than the "choose what your characters are good at" system that it pretends to be.
 
The story also suffers some similar issues to what the gameplay encounters.  While the story is interesting, unique, and deep, the game does not roll out anything interesting until you've made serious progress, making the first half or more of the game utterly boring in terms of both combat and storytelling.  In all honesty, I wonder if 30-50% of the game could be removed, and if doing so would actually improve the experience greatly.  To make matters worse, instead of giving meaningful plot points during the games numerous and occasionally lengthy cut-scenes, you are usually forced to enter your menu and read your "data log" to actually make sense of what is going on, which again raises the question: why do things like these cut-scenes need to be in the game?  My answer is no, but that isn't completely due to the lack of meaningful content within them, but also due to the god-awful writing and voice acting.
 
When I actually reached the end of the game, I was extremely impressed with most of the aspects of the game.  It has a crazy fantastic world, an epic story, a well crafted combat and leveling system.  All those things are good, or at least decent - at the end of the game.  The problem is that they are not good for the first half or so of the game, and even though I was happy at the end, thinking back to the beginning made me cringe.  For a game as long as this one, spending half of the game not enjoying it means you're spending more time not enjoying it than it would take to fully complete many other, much more enjoyable games.  For that reason, even though the latter parts are quite impressive, I can't wholly recommend FF13 to anyone who isn't ready for a long, long grind.

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