The latest installation in Square Enix's flagship series, Final Fantasy XIII does a number of really cool things. I don't want to take a lot of time going into the mechanics under the hood, but you need to get the basics in order to get a feel for the game. The battle system is real time, the battle constantly goes on even while you're deciding what to do, you're only in direct control over the party leader though, keeps you from being overwhelmed, the other two party members are only controllable only insofar as you can dictate what class they use. Class management is an important part of the battle system, only commandoes can physically attack enemies, and ravagers deal elemental damage, along with a myriad of other classes, each character starts off with access to a small selection, and by the end of the game will have extensive access to three classes, as well as marginal access to the remaining classes. Which classes you use are determined by paradigms, sort of presets on which party members will be which class, paradigms can be switched at any time during battle. A typical setup would be to start the battle off as a commando and two ravagers, for dealing damage, but when you take too much damage, you might switch to a medic (for healing), a sentinel (to draw fire and defend) and a synergist (to cast spells on your party to raise their defense, speed, attack or others) once you're healed up, you'd switch back to the first.
It's a remarkably fast paced, and yet very traditional battle system. The screen can get very busy with all three party members, and however many enemies all performing actions at once, but I never felt overwhelmed to the point that I didn't know what was going on. There are a number of pieces of the UI that help contribute to that, most jarringly, whenever a character's hit points are critically low, or they're killed, the screen pulses red.
For character customization, you've got a very visual web of abilities and stat ups (think of a 3D version of the Sphere Grid from FFX) that is just jaw droppingly pretty. You spend points to earn abilities for specific classes, or attribute increases (strength, HP, etc.) which apply regardless of the current class. I really like this way of leveling up, although it really irked me whenever I was prevented from leveling up further simply because I hadn't progressed far enough in the story. I understand why they did it that way, to preserve the challenge consistently through the game, but sometimes I just want to be able to stomp my opponent in the floor, rather than be challenged.
The Final Fantasy series has slowly been going to a game method where you cannot access certain aspects of the game until they've had time to force you to sit through the tutorial. Never has it been as pronounced in this game, I literally did not feel like I was playing the game proper for at least thirty hours. It was another ten hours after that before I started to feel like I might have a choice for what to do next.
Which leads into my next observation, the majority of the levels in this game are simply long corridors with enemies in them. The general sequence would be to watch a cut scene, run down a corridor/valley/tunnel/etc. while killing monsters, and then watch another cut scene, rince and repeat. Up until nearly the end of the game, where you're given a large open area with a lot of quests (all of the find the monster and kill it variety), aside from this one area, and the final dungeon, everything was just so linear. Linear's not necessarily a bad thing, but everything in moderation, you know? Sixty hours of point A, to B, to C, gets pretty old.
It doesn't really need mentioning, but the game is of course stunning. Monsters and characters alike are highly detailed and smoothly animated, and the pre-rendered videos make me wish again that Square would create more CGI action movies.
So often in games, I'll be playing along, and doing pretty well, with consistent challenges, only to come up against an obstacle (usually a boss) that the skills that I've been building over playing the game just are not up to dealing with. Most oftenly this occurs in action titles, most recently I gave up on No More Heroes 2 because of one particular boss requiring twitch gaming skills to dodge his attacks or else he'll simply kill you. I put that game down after that. It's less common to encounter situations like that in an RPG, but here I've hit it in FFXIII. There's a boss, I think it's the end boss, but I don't know for sure, and this boss seems to have two abilities that can instantly kill a party member, if it kills one of the support characters, it's a pain to revive them, but it's doable, if it kills your party leader, then it's just game over. So, essentially this enemy has an attack that has a one in three chance of simply showing you the game over screen. I looked around online, and it looks like the solution is to equip an accessory on all three characters that prevents instant kill attacks, to an extent, if you take the time to fully upgrade it, it will give you a 60% chance to resist it. Naturally, since I've not faced an enemy thus far with an instant kill attack, I haven't bothered with these accessories. So I have to round up three of these items, and then spend a couple of hours upgrading them to the point where I might be able to beat this thing.
I don't know if I can take that at the moment.
So, aside from that one cheap boss, it's been a very fun traditional JRPG, which is good, because JRPGs are woefully lacking in the post PS2 era for some reason. Interesting to note is that this game has not a single mini-game. No motorcycle combat level, no chocobo breeding, no lightning dodging, or street fighter-esque button sequences for special attacks, it's very much just an old school RPG with a lot of really neat upgrades, both visually and mechanically.