As a person who has played a great many games, it may sound surprising that Final Fantasy XIII is the first FF title I've played in full. Oh, I dabbled in a PC port of the infamous sixth edition, and played a significant portion of 12 back when I had access to a PS2. Now, however, I actually have a *gasp* console in the form of a PS3 (which, I'll add, doubles as a DVD player, and connects to the Internet), and Final Fantasy and I were made for each other.
Why is that? Because the hallmark of the series has always been innovative and clever tactical battles, combined with excellent story telling. You may recall the place that Mass Effect holds in my gamer's heart (though I have not yet played ME2), thanks largely to its story telling and its deceptively tactical - for an FPS - gameplay. Add into that Final Fantasy's usually creative leveling systems, and you have the making of some of the best roll playing games in the world.
Now I've been told that, because I'm not a veteran of the series, XIII would not seem disappointing to me in the way it would to die-hards. I think that's probably right. Final Fantasy XIII is an exceptionally well polished game, well-told, beautiful, with excellent music and decent voice acting, an engaging enough story, and compelling characters. But, despite all of that, it's extremely railroaded, teetering somewhere in between pure adventure-gaming story telling and epic RPG awesomeness. Failing to decide either way is its biggest flaw, and what ultimately made it an experience I have no interest returning to.
Final Fantasy XIII begins slowly. The early battles - and, frankly, the game is essentially a series of battles and cutscenes, meaning these have to carry the title - are so simple and boring that it's tempting to give up. It takes hours of gameplay before things open up, before the tactics start to really flesh themselves out. Once they do, the game suddenly becomes fascinating and engaging, as you have to actually plan for each opponent and adjust on the fly rapidly when fighting, but it takes far too long for this to happen.
The battle mechanic is as follows: you control a single character, but have a party of up to three with you. You don't control the other characters, but you do assign roles for each character. Combinations of roles are called "paradigms," and heading into a battle you can select six paradigms to switch between as you fight. Early on, your paradigm choices are limited because your characters are still weak and can only execute one or two roles each, and your party is often limited to only two members. The six paradigms, then, are the only six possible.
Later, the game not only expands your party to three, but shortly thereafter gives you the option to compose your party as you wish. Suddenly the four or five valid options turns into dozens, and its not clear who should be in your party, let alone which paradigms will serve you best.
This, I would say, is the best part of the game. Once you have access to your whole party (and even with the silly artificial limitation of only using three members at once, even though the whole party is in theory traveling together), the experimentation in battle team composition, equipment, and paradigm usage is a lot of fun. For a while anyway.
Around the same time you finally end up on Pulse, a real planet below the orbiting world of Cocoon where the game begins. Pulse has more open gameplay - or at least is better at pretending to be open - and for the first time you can take on side quests away from the main plot. These side quests, however, are not especially engaging, as they are all in the "move here and kill this" vein. I completed only a couple before returning to the main plot, at which point I also found an unstoppable battle team and paradigm setup that won me almost every battle for the last 20 hours of the game.
That, above all, was the most disappointing thing. As my characters became more advanced, it became increasingly clear that there was little need to mix and match. The specific strengths and weaknesses of my opponents were insufficient to challenge my combination of Fang (physical attack), Vanille (magical healing), and Sazh (magical buffing and attack). I stomped my way through the ending portions of the game, restarting only a small handful of battles due to defeat. Most battles were over in a fraction of the target time.
If anything, my biggest critique of Final Fantasy XIII is that it was too user friendly, too easy to dominate. Sazh's haste spell made my team an unstoppable force, especially combined with how easy it was to boost Fang's strength to twice everyone else on my team. We attacked quickly and ferociously, and I wondered where the challenge lay. In many ways, having set up my paradigms for the end game, I simply let the game play itself and watched the cutscenes when they came.
Also disappointing was the end of the story. Without ruining it, I'll say that I had high hopes for a dark and sinister ending, or at least a major plot twist. My experience as a Knights of the Old Republic veteran, in particular, had me on guard for sudden surprises, and I fully expected that the Fal'cie (basically deities who run society) who had been manipulating us the whole way would turn out to have really out maneuvered us in the end. But it wasn't so. Rather, our final epic battle was against exactly who I thought it would be against, in more or less the way I expected since the midpoint of the game. In a story with so much potential, being so obvious was disappointing.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII is a well-made game, and a console game. It lacks the sophistication of PC strategy and top-down rpg titles, and while it does have an engaging combat system, it's also easy to beat that system. Its greatest strength is its polish, its amazing visuals and audios, and its good story-telling. Unfortunately, it falls short in far too many areas to be a great game, and must be satisfied rather with being a merely good one. Which is sad, because the resources and sales that the Final Fantasy series has at its disposal means its capable of so much more.
I've read elsewhere that Final Fantasy XIII is a "failed experiment," that Square Enix is trying to innovate, and that this time they got it wrong. I think that's not fair, because FF XIII is, in the end, not innovative enough. It fails, not to deliver on its promise, but rather to set its ambitions high enough. I hope, come the 14th edition of the game, that Square Enix will reclaim its throne in the console-based RPG world, but it will only do so if it sets its aim higher.