A great game worthy of the Final Fantasy title it carries.
The story is simple for an entry in the Final Fantasy series. In the world of Cocoon, the Sanctum has issued a purge to eliminate all citizens who've come into contact with the fal'Cie -- the deities of this world -- from Pulse, the much-feared world below. However, six individuals connected by this threat would eventually become slaves of this deity -- which are named l'Cie -- in order to end a much larger threat that could destroy Cocoon altogether.
The individuals are as follows. First is Lightning Farron, the main protagonist, and a female at that. She is a soldier with Cocoon's Guardian Corps, and her mission is to save her sister Serah, who has also been enslaved without knowing her task-her focus, as the game puts it. Joining her in that same mission is Snow Villiers, Serah's fiancé, the hot-headed leader of a resistance group. Joining them is Hope Estheim, a teenage boy who loses his mother during the purge; Sazh Katzroy, a civilian pilot searching for his son; Vanille, a happy-go-lucky girl trying to escape the mayhem; and Fang, a mysterious woman working with the Army.
All of these characters are voiced and developed superbly, with each of their unique stories keeping my interest from beginning to end. The best ones are Lightning, Snow, and Vanille, with their stories taking surprising turns that left me glad I got to know them as long as I did. Players have often told me that the worst one is Vanille, but I honestly don't find her as annoying as they claim her to be -- I find Tidus from FFX twice as annoying.
The story develops further as these characters develop, bringing a story very unlike other Final Fantasy games before. Instead of having a single story driven by a main plot, with characters developing because of the plot, it's the opposite with this story, providing a Western way of telling a story that I found refreshing in the face of a familiar element that was starting to show its age.
The world they throw the player into is remarkable, as is to be expected from a Final Fantasy games. There's one area where a lake is converted to crystal that's sublime in its presentation, a brightly lit forest filled with the most unique plants and wildlife I've ever seen in a video game, and a vast expanse of land on the world of Pulse that is truly breathtaking. Players think they know Final Fantasy worlds, but none are like the one in XIII.
The combat system is by far the deepest and greatest aspect of the game. It uses Active Time to test the player's reaction time and skill in creating last-second strategies. Many of the enemies are relentless in this game, and the player is forced to create strategies using battle paradigms. One uses all physical attacks, one uses defensive tactics, and the rest are variations of magic-which isn't consumed like the previous installments-that are offensive, medical, or strategic. Using any combination of these paradigms, the player is allowed to strategize quickly and effectively.
Gaining skills in this game is also very simple, using a genesis system similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X, but with more refined characteristics. Defeated enemies give the player points to use on the paradigms of any character they're upgrading. The higher the rating for that move, the more points it costs. This eliminates the need for mindless farming and grinding for experience points (these things are meant to elongate a game and manipulate the player into thinking they're achieving something more than they're actually achieving). Weapons and equipment can also be upgraded by similar means using various items dropped by enemies or found throughout the world.
One thing that annoyed many players is the linearity of the first half of the game, which can be off-putting for die-hard fans of the series used to the open-ended worlds meant to be explored. I'd be lying if I said it didn't strike me as odd at first, along with the minimal narrative which forces the player to read about the lore instead of exploring it for themselves. When this happens, however, the player can't appreciate the time and effort put into the design, like a game that progresses in a linear fashion. These areas, though they may be straight paths which veer off at one or two places, are very well designed and unique in their presentation, surroundings, and enemy placement.
The soundtrack to this game also went through a few changes. While Nubuo Uematsu remains MIA from the series, Masashi Hamauzu comes into the fray to deliver his take on the series iconic sounds. While very few audio clips make it into the final mix, the soundtrack is nothing short of beautiful. Packed with modern influences as well as classical, this soundtrack delivers on both atmosphere and emotion. It does contain a few more piano interludes than usual, but these are welcome additions for me. The sound editing is also fantastic, with no noticeable technical hiccups like framerate drops or sound lag.
In all, the game is a terrific example of how change can be a good thing for a series, great as it is, that has become stale in its presentation and gameplay mechanics. The presentation is grand, the characters are deep and memorable, and the overall gameplay is outstanding. While it may alienate die-hard fans who avoid changing something they're used to, I believe if they gave it a chance they could appreciate the finer aspects of the game in lieu of the things that make them cringe.