There is a moment in Final Fantasy XIII where everything just clicks.
The intricacies of the completely overhauled combat system come into focus; the meandering, convoluted story begins to take shape; the characters stop being insufferably standoffish and begin to coalesce into an engaging menagerie of heroes; the character progression system begins to offer the player a variety of thought-provoking choices; and the game begins to live up to your (I'm assuming) lofty expectations, and Final Fantasy XIII becomes an experience which can go toe-to-toe with the best entries in the franchise.
The game gets exceptional after this one moment -- but, regrettably, this moment came for me after suffering 15 hours and 30 minutes of pure, unadulterated tedium.
Everything you know about Final Fantasy has undergone a massive renovation since Final Fantasy XII for PS2. The tropes of the franchise are all included in some shape or another, but have largely been stripped down and streamlined in an attempt to make XIII accessible to a much wider audience. This isn't as horrific as it sounds -- in some ways, the fast-paced combat and simplified character progression systems represent clever evolutions of ancient gameplay mechanics.
These changes require a thorough indoctrination from the player before they can be truly appreciated, as does the overarching story the game intimates over its massive, 45-hour span. Square Enix has frequently stated its intent to continue exploring the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe throughout the next decade; as such, the necessity for a thorough primer on this new mythology is unquestionable.
Unfortunately, the tempo at which Final Fantasy XIII conducts the player's familiarization with its conventionalized gameplay mechanics and overarching Crystallis mythos is extremely lethargic, turning the first third of the game into an exhausting crawl. Fifteen-and-a-half hours probably demands more from a player's patience than they'll be willing to give -- especially if said player is one of the Final Fantasy newcomers the game is seemingly tailored for. Still, if you can make the time investment, there's a lot to love about the roundabout story.
That story focuses on a timeless conflict between two worlds: the civilized, monarchical society of Cocoon and the beast-riddled, lush landscape of Gran Pulse. Both realms are governed and sustained by the godlike Fal'Cie, entities which are capable of siring ordinary humans, turning them into weapons of mass destruction against the opposing domain.
If you can make the time investment, there's a lot to love about the roundabout story.
In true Final Fantasy fashion, XIII starts you off on an explosive train heist, giving you control over characters you know literally nothing about. Though it does so at a leisurely pace, the game eventually reveals some pretty compelling origins for these characters, mostly through frequent, effective flashbacks that recount the 13 seemingly innocuous days that preceded the events of the game.
Each of these characters become relatable at varying speeds. Sazh, the steadfast airship pilot who offers frequent doses of levity during the game's most melodramatic cutscenes, and who also has a baby chocobo who lives in his hair, will quickly capture your heart. Snow, the forlorn, reckless bruiser who (in every other sentence) reminds everyone within earshot that he is, in fact, a hero -- well, he takes a bit longer to adjust to.
Perplexingly, Final Fantasy XIII keeps its sextuplet of protagonists divided into three groups of two for a large chunk of the game. Though each character appears to have the potential to be interesting, they just don't shine while they're adhering to the game's compartmental introduction. However, once the characters are brought together, and begin to forge engaging relationships between one another, your concern for their well-being increases exponentially -- as does your interest in the mission that has been forced upon them.
If you've got the endurance required, there are 30 or so truly wonderful hours of game to be played.
Each character can fulfill a variety of these roles, allowing players to set up multiple combinations of archetypes that they can switch between at will during a fight. For instance, most of the easier fights can be handily won with a Commando and two Ravagers -- but if things start to get thorny, you can switch to a Commando and two Medics with a couple of swift button-presses.
The game's combat rewards strategy and swift execution with a combo meter. When the meter is filled, combos drastically increase the amount of damage the enemy takes from your attacks. Finding a balance between boosting this meter, doing damage and, you know, not dying presents a fast-paced and refreshing take on the turn-based battles of yore.
However, it takes a while to get to a point where you can start developing strategies for yourself. In those grueling, first 15-and-a-half or so hours, you will have no control over the characters selected for your party. What's more, the game's new character progression engine, the "Crystarium," doesn't offer much room for specialization until later in the game. If you fight every monster placed in front of you, you'll always have enough experience to hit the level cap for each of the roles accessible to your character, no questions asked.
Still, even when you're not entirely in control of the composition of your party, XIII's combat is incredibly exciting. I'd go so far to call it one of the best innovations that's visited the franchise in quite some time, if I hadn't just soundly bestowed that honor on baby chocobos that live in people's hair.
Another noticeable aberration that Final Fantasy XIII brings to the table is its unswerving linearity; though in retrospect, it's difficult to take umbrage with the game's straightforward design. Until one of the game's later chapters -- which offers a massive, open landscape filled with rewarding sidequests -- every area you'll navigate, places you on a narrow beeline toward the next cutscene with few branching paths leading to clandestine treasures. It's jarring, to be certain; though every installment in the Final Fantasy franchise (save, perhaps, for XII) has a linearity about it.
The respective stories presented in Final Fantasy I–X drive the player on a path between towns and dungeons, all leading to the inevitable resolutions. There are sidequests, sure -- though they mostly offer metaphysical bonuses that will aid the player in conquering that conclusive boss fight. Final Fantasy XIII is different in that it exerts that linearity on the player in a much less transparent capacity.
If you've got the endurance required to suffer Final Fantasy XIII's radically unbalanced pacing, there are 30 or so truly wonderful hours of game to be played. It's unfortunate that XIII's plodding introduction requires so much from the player -- 15 hours and 30 minutes is, after all, enough time to play most other games to completion. Still, after viewing the satisfying, Leona Lewis-infused conclusion, I'm of the firm position that the end easily justifies the means.
Editors' note: This review is based on the PS3 review code of the game provided by Square Enix.