A black sheep with a pretty coat
While it might lose me points with the "cool" crowd, the one game that actually turned me into "this is something I do for fun" to "this is a huge part of my life and interests" was Final Fantasy VII. Whereas previously I made occasionally pick up a game intended for the hardcore, for the most part I strictly relegated my game purchases to more "fun" titles. But Square's monolith of a game was what compelled me to focus more on games driven by story, character development and immersion rather than ones driven by entertainment. But whereas my tastes have over the years included other genres, my interest in the JRPG has waned and the 50+ hour and linear "bunch of young emo brats saving the world" plots grew stale. Which made my opinion of Final Fantasy XIII a hard one to pin down: is it bad by design, misunderstood, a flawed masterpiece or something that I've simply grown out of regardless of quality. Certainly the new black sheep of the series, along with Final Fantasy VIII, 13 is nearly horrendous or one of the best RPG's in recent memory, it's just a really impressive and off-putting oddball.
The plot of Final Fantasy XIII revolves around 6 characters (Lightning, Vanille, Snow, Fang, Sazh and Hope) who have been branded the title of "l'Cie": people chosen by beings called "fal'Cie" to accomplish what's called a Focus. Through the use of dreams, it's a l'Cie's job to complete this Focus unless they want to see themselves turned into a monstrous creature. But the government of Cocoon, a giant floating city above the world of Gran Pulse, has always seen these people as a threat and are to be banished from Cocoon if found. With their Focus at hand, all 6 characters are going to be travelling through cities and lakes and various areas to accomplish their Focus.
Much has been said about the game's linearity and on one hand, the game is extremely noticeable in how it funnels you to the next cutscene or boss, it's really a more obvious version of something JRPG's have done for years. Sure you could travel wherever you want, or at least be fooled into thinking you can, the design of the world terrain or the needed activation of plot scenes had to occur and FF 13's method is really just streamlining this process. This is both a blessing and a curse since you don't get bogged down by sidequests or needing to power level just so a dungeon is more easier and the story is constantly unfolding. However the formula of always moving forward with little path deviation coupled with cutscenes or boss encounters can make the game strangely repetitive. That is until you get to the second half of the game where sidequests galore are opened up, exploration is recommended and there's a giant world for you to walk around in which will either induce feelings of "finally I can do what I want!" or "um....there's so much stuff to do, where do I even start?"
Like FF 12, 13 has been given a bit of an overhaul in terms of how its battle system works and while it looks familiar, it plays far different. In a party of 3 you are only controlling one main character with the other 2 being AI. Their behaviors and actions are based around roles, or jobs if you'd prefer, and they boil down to Commando (normal attacker), Ravager (black mage), Medic (white mage/healer), Synergist (party buffer) Saboteur (enemy de-buffer) and Sentinel (tank-like decoy). You can set up a combination of roles known as Paradigms to best suit the situation. Do you want an all-out assault or warriors? Or more strategic uses such as a commando dishing damage, somebody buffing the party while another aggros the enemies and takes barely any damage leaving the others mostly unscathed. Keeping track of who's doing what, what needs to be done next and any surprises requires quick thinking and although the game isn't hard per se, walking into a fight and spamming attacks will result in quick deaths half the time.
Another addition is something known as the "Stagger gauge" where the more enemies take damage and getting them to the end of a bar, attacks get a big increase in damage and speeds up the fight. That last part is really the one negative about 13's battle system in that for as frantic and fast-paced as it is, the battles are remarkably slow to actually finish and they grow tedious the longer they go. While there is a retry option (kind of like a checkpoint prior to that battle) spending 25 minutes on a boss - literally - and then losing is aggravating. Not to mention if boss battles go on for too long, they'll actually cast Doom on you which is a cheap way to lose a fight and needing to do another 25 minutes wears thin.
In a similar vein of the Sphere Grid of FF 10, characters level up by accumulating points then spending them on a grid. So instead of reaching a level and stats increase, you can decide whether you want an increase in magic, strength, gain a new ability or a health upgrade. While it does allow for some group customization, only in specific places will it unlock the next tier which again speaks to the linear progression of the game.
If there's one thing you can definitely say about Final Fantasy 13 is that it is absolutely gorgeous. From the crisp-as-hell cutscenes to the gorgeous art direction found in many locales, the game's long development cycle is clearly on display. In fact, I kind of wish it had a cinema viewer so you can re-see many of the cutscenes. Voice acting is decent and works really well but it's kind of in the middle; it's not sort of bad a la 10 (laughing scene anyone?) and isn't as stellar as 12's. Only real character I have an issue with is Hope since even from a story standpoint, the progression of his character just couldn't outweigh the whiny-ness. Music, done by Masashi Hamauzu (Saga Frontier 2, Tobal No. 1, Unlimited Saga) is actually quite good and the use of themes and eclectic musical styles from blues to jazz to a rock/electronica mix makes it a dynamic though not as hummable soundtrack.
Unlike some games which you can recommend at least in specific examples ("well if you like this style of game..."), it's very difficult to actually recommend Final Fantasy 13 yet not one I'd suggest everyone avoid either. A schizophrenic game and one where the traditions of the East are trying to be combined with the success of the West leaves it in a constant state of good enough to be played but most likely not one you can completely devour.