MSRP: $59.99 (on sale for $43.99)
by: Mike Katsufrakis
Final Fantasy XIII, the latest entry in the long-running series, marks a very large departure from the games that came before it, but at least the story is familiar: a disparate group of plucky and/or taciturn adventurers have to accept the hand fate has dealt them and team up to save the world (or at least their friends and family). Stop me if you've heard this before.
In an effort to bring new players into the fold, mechanics are introduced painfully slowly, and it's not until several hours into the game that you are allowed to even begin assigning Crystarium (read: experience) points to level your characters jobs. For the first 25 hours or so, the story follows a completely linear path, and so do the areas you explore. Though most of the previous titles in the series are just as linear, FFXIII doesn't even attempt to mask this fact. The graphics are astounding, and it really feels like the developers thought that the pretty scenery would distract players from noticing they're being funneled down a hallway.
Fortunately, the combat system is the star of the game, and where I derived maximum enjoyment from my experience. Rather than bringing back the turn-based Active-Time Battle systems of yore, FFXIII instead puts you in control of a single character in quasi-real time. Your abilities and your partners' behaviors are dictated by what job you currently have selected for them, and the flow of combat revolves around taking combinations of classes called Paradigms and using them at the right times. Got an enemy on its heels? Switch everyone over to an offensive Paradigm? Need healing? Swap to a Paradigm with a Sentinel (tank), Medic (healer) and Synergist (support/buffs). It's a great system, and easily the best the series has seen in a long while.
However, it is unfortunate that the bulk of the combat system is locked away or teased through the first half of the game. Though eventually all characters gain access to all job classes, you are initially locked to a select few. The game doles out new features as if it thinks players won't "get" it, so the initial stretch plays as an extended tutorial, and it's immensely frustrating, especially once you reach Chapter 11, where the entire system opens up and you're given a large, open world to explore at your leisure.
Despite all of the above, I personally enjoyed the hell out of FFXIII. Is my love for this game a result of genuine enjoyment or Stockholm Syndrome? It's hard to say, but all I know is that I cannot possibly recommend it for everyone. If you're willing to put 25+ hours into the game before everything becomes awesome, there's a wonderful experience to be had.