When you get to the 13th entry in a game series, it's hard to approach it as a fresh entity; when you've been playing Final Fantasy games for twenty years, you have to take history into account. This makes it challenging to give Final Fantasy XIII a fair review. On its own, Final Fantasy XIII is a perfectly fine example of a typical Japanese role-playing game, where a rag-tag band of colorful characters joins together to fight a threat and save the world; nothing that reinvents the wheel, but a fine game nonetheless. Judged against the Final Fantasy games that came before it (even though Final Fantasy XIII itself is a standalone title, not a direct sequel), it doesn't fare so well. The characters and plot are nothing we haven't seen before; it's like they were designed by committee to appeal to RPG players. There's something soulless to the overly linear Final Fantasy XIII, something missing that makes it not feel like a Final Fantasy game at all. Of course, if you're new to the series (and to RPGs in general) you might not mind.
Final Fantasy XIII initially feels right; the storyline involves learning some new vocabulary words, like any good fantasy story should. The game takes place between the world of Pulse and the city of Cocoon that floats above it. The utopian Cocoon was created and is operated by mysterious beings called the fal'Cie, who are opposed by the fal'Cie on Pulse below. Fal'Cie can mark humans, turning them into magic-using l'Cie, who are imbued with a quest to fulfill. Fail to fulfill it, and the l'Cie turn into the zombie-like Cie'th, but if they succeed the l'Cie are turned into statues of pure crystal—not exactly a win-win situation. Feeling a little confused? Fortunately, Final Fantasy XIII includes an in-game encyclopedia and plot summaries, so if you're left scratching your head after a cutscene, you can ask the game to dumb it down for you, which you will probably need to do, at first.
The player-characters who are tangled up in this fal'Cie and l'Cie mess are your standard RPG tropes. There's the stoic and hardened warrior protagonist, Lightning, who at least breaks the mold somewhat by being female. Some of the party members that join her are likeable, like the sweet-hearted brawler Snow, but there are some definite problems with the cast. The comic Sazh is not going to win Square Enix any awards for the most enlightened portrayal of a black character, and the unfailingly perky and squeaky-voiced Vanille may make some players want to throw their controllers through their TV screens. These characters fit archetypes, filling roles that gaming companies know appeal to RPG fans. There's something cynical to the way they were tailor-made to hit RPG nerd buttons.
Setting story and character aside, though, the game is technically excellent. Final Fantasy XIII spent four years in development, and the time and effort shows. Characters are beautifully rendered, detailed down to a flush in the cheeks or the faint scruff of whiskers on the chin. The cutscenes are like watching a top-quality CGI movie. Of special note is how Square Enix took the extra effort to redo the character lip sync for the English-language release, instead of making the English dialogue fit to the lip movements from the Japanese version. The voice acting itself is—with the exception of the aforementioned grating Vanille—top notch. The soundtrack in particular also stands out worthy of praise, even if it somewhat inexplicably features a Leona Lewis track as its theme song.
The game's actual battle system and mechanics are worthwhile. Combat uses the Active Time Battle system, in which a gauge fills up over time, and actions can be slotted and chained together depending on how much time is in the gauge. The player only has active control of one character at a time. The other two members of the party are controlled by AI; however, the player can guide what the non-active characters are doing by means of the Paradigm Shift system. In this system, the player can set certain roles for each character—focusing on defense or healing, for example—and can switch them on the fly respond to different battle conditions. Combat is fast-paced, frequently against many enemies at once, so adapting tactics to the situation is important. The system for leveling up abilities is customizable, too, letting you focus on improving abilities for specific combat roles.
While the battle system is well-suited and enjoyable, certain elements may make it too easy for veteran RPG players. The first option in the combat menu is auto-battle—press that button and the game makes choices on what attacks are best suited for the situation for you. You can choose your attacks yourself, but the siren call of auto-battle can be hard to resist. In addition, your characters are healed completely after each battle, eliminating the need to worry about healing items or making it to the next save point. Even if your party does fall in battle, you can simply use the retry option, which puts you back to just before the battle began, with no major losses. These changes remove a lot of the tension and excitement that make RPGs fun.
The more troubling—and surprising—problem is that the game world of Pulse and Cocoon lacks depth. While previous entries in the series have always had an overarching story, they've also been filled with places to explore, stocked with colorful inhabitants. The size and richness of the game worlds were a large part of the appeal of the earlier adventures. Square Enix largely abandons this familiar RPG element. There are no towns in Final Fantasy XIII, and there are very few non-player characters to talk to. A large portion of the game is simply a constant linear push, frequently literally along a straight line, from battle to battle and cutscene to cutscene, with no stops for freedom of exploration or to get a sense of the world. This linearity makes the game seem somehow lonely, somehow empty, a change that is sure to stick in the craw of old-school Final Fantasy fans.
Final Fantasy XIII is, at its core, a technically excellent and solid RPG, and one that's not afraid to change up some of the traditional elements of the genre, even if those changes are a turn-off to more traditional fans. Those who expect more from the Final Fantasy series might find themselves left cold by the storyline and characters, but it's just as possible that Square Enix's calculated choices will make this someone's favorite Final Fantasy yet.