It certainly has its flaws, especially for old-time Final Fantasy fans who want something in a similar vein. XIII throws out the window a lot of staples which some people consider to be vital to the series. Correctly? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For instance, towns are more incidental to the workings of older Final Fantasy games than integral. It’s different, not having them, but they don’t actually contribute that much when they’re there.* Really it saves a lot of unnecessary running around to stock up (Fable III did the opposite; post to come later on that).
A lot of the changes make the game less difficult, or at least that’s how it seems. Everyone’s health and abilities reset after each battle, with the exception of moves that require TP (summons, and a few other useful moves, which I used mostly for emergencies). There is no MP, so no worries about using it all up before a big boss. Items were more valuable to me than spells – at least at first. Once I figured out that the game was giving me loot to sell rather than gil, I began to rack up funds, and nearer the end of the game this valuable loot becomes rather common. When it came to the final boss(es), my concern was not for what abilities I could or couldn’t afford to use on each stage, but for what paradigms I could bring.
The paradigm system allows each character to fill three different ‘roles’ (initially) which act like jobs or classes in previous games. Your medic is your white mage, your ravager is your black mage (although the roles are more flexible than that makes it sound); you can even have a team of three ravagers, if elemental damage is what you need. Paradigms are combinations of these roles, and you can switch mid-battle – e.g. from a cautious Commando/Sentinal/Medic to a Ravager/Ravager/Sentinal for staggering an enemy, followed by an all-out Commando/Commando/Ravager assault to finish him.
The thing is, switching paradigms is about the only input you’ll have in your battle. The player only controls one character, the party leader. Even then, you’ll be chiefly using the auto-battle system that the rest of the party is using too, since the game figures out the best move from the information available (elemental weaknesses, immunities, etc). You have the option of hand-picking your abilities, but FFXIII works very fast, and the auto-battle saves enough time to be a much better option unless you really feel the computer has messed up its decisions. This game sacrifices strategic management for fast action, a trend which recent Final Fantasy installments should have forewarned us of. They have long been moving away from the convoluted, slow, and repetitive strategic battle systems (not that I minded those, really!)
The game does become more strategic, as your paradigms get more flexible and the enemies get trickier. The late fights frequently seemed to be programmed to make you make use of your paradigm combinations, almost like a Zelda-esque “we gave you an item, now use it on this boss we prepared earlier” battle. The oft-touted problem with FFXIII is that it takes ages to get going. There’s no challenge to it early on, and auto-battling with only two characters isn’t very interesting. Most players seem to have dropped the game before they got to anything which showed the system to its best advantage. Even then, die-hard Final Fantasy fans are not going to appreciate the ‘dumbed down for a general audience’ difficulty level.
Battles aside, what really makes this a different kind of Final Fantasy is that it is incredibly linear. They shield it behind nifty auto-jumps that send you all over a three-dimensional map, but when you look at the mini-map even these will only send you in a straight line. I am of the opinion that this is the culmination of a trend and not a sudden change. There was no overworld in FFX or FFXII, only points between which you could fast-travel. In FFXIII you barely even get that, but with a linear start-to-finish story there’s very little reason to backtrack. Treasure is easy to find and side-quests are non-existant. The only non-plot activities I have found are the equivalent of FFXII’s hunts, and only give you new battles (encouraging creative paradigm use again). No longer is Final Fantasy about exploring a world. Make of this what you will, but FFXIII plays like an elaborate visual novel sometimes.
Really, I play Final Fantasy for the stories. They may not be the most original in the world, but they’re entertaining and when done well they pull you in. I never clicked with FFX (the main character is a modern jock! Not my type) and it was halfway through FFXII before I realised I really didn’t care what happened to the characters at all. I’m not a level-grinder and if I have trouble with a boss, it’s wanting to know what happens next that make me keep trying. FFXIII was an enjoyable story for me. The voice actors deserve credit for pulling off what could have been some rather cheesey scenes (always the case in FF) with believable emotion. The ending was as bittersweet yet hopeful as the rest of the story, and I was glad to have seen it through – which is more than I can say for the last PS2 installment of the franchise.
* Yeah, yeah, immersion, fleshed-out world, a sense of a place that’s there for something other than just you. Sure. But does it really make a difference? Otherwise they could go the opposite way, and include shops which sell non-protective clothing, non-health-regaining food, and useless toys and trinkets. You know, for a sense of realism.