In many ways, Final Fantasy XIII is like its cast of characters. It, like its cast, is initially fragmented and pulled in multiple directions at once, with glimmers of true potential occasionally peaking out from beneath a surface that’s overly melodramatic and hard to warm up to. But then, there is a moment where the game – like its cast – suddenly comes together, and finds its purpose. It becomes truly enjoyable; it becomes a title worthy of standing along the other giants in the series like FFVI and FFX.

If only it didn’t take 20 hours of being merely “eh, it’s good” to get there.

FF13 feels like a direct reaction to many fans’ criticisms of Final Fantasy XII: It was too open-ended and sprawling; there wasn’t enough focus on the story to carry things through, etc. In a severe case of “be careful what you wish for,” though, XIII veers sharply in the opposite direction.

In Final Fantasy XIII, you will run down paths that – barring some nooks and crannies holding not-so-hidden items – are essentially lines that maybe turn and twist a little. You will move from battle, to cutscene, to running down a hallway, to another battle. Even the game’s Crystarium advancement system initially feels like a limited, on-rails version of Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid. The game leaves the training wheels on for a very, very long extended tutorial. If you run into FF13 as a fan of the series expecting expecting any amount of open-endedness or exploration, the initial linearity will almost certainly put you off the game. FF13 seeks to offer a very tightly controlled experience right out of the gate, and the game seems to reason that exploratory freedom is a small price to pay for that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, the controlled experience doesn’t work perfectly, either. FF13 tries to hit the ground running right out of the gate, and stumbles and falls on its face. What’s clearly intended to be an exciting scene to get almost all of the game’s cast introduced to the player feels like a jumbled mess, and meeting so many characters at once means that it’s harder to get to know them. XIII makes the mistake of assuming that we care about the characters at first, and early scenes that could have been emotional had they happened later on in the game – after we’d had a chance to get to know and like the cast – simply feel ham-fisted and overwrought.

But the good news is that the characters do become likable, though some are quicker to warm up than others. Sazh, the airship pilot and cynical comic relief with a baby Chocobo living in his hair – and who is yet a surprisingly serious character – is easy to relate to right away, but other members of the cast like the angry teenager Hope or the peppy (and high-pitched) Vanille will take longer to grow on you. But grow on you they do, and the moments where you see a separate bunch of characters grow into a cohesive team are enjoyable and, dare I say it, rewarding.

The game’s story – so very crucial to a Final Fantasy – drags slightly behind its characters in development. The sheltered world of Cocoon floats above the wild world of Gran Pulse, and the inhabitants of the former have lived in constant fear of the latter for centuries after an invasion and war between the two. Both Cocoon and Pulse are governed by demigod-like beings called fal’Cie, which have the power to mark humans with brands, turning them into l’Cie – in turn for magic powers, l’Cie are given a Focus which they must complete.

Succeed in completing your focus, and turn into a crystal for the rest of your life. Fail, and become a mindless, nightmarish monster. Within a few hours, the game’s cast has all been marked as l’Cie, and must figure out whether their mysterious Focus is to save Cocoon or to destroy it. And once they somehow figure out what it is, what do they do about it?

Those few sentences sum up what it takes almost 20 hours for Final Fantasy XIII to do anything about. The game drags its heels, preferring to edge around the questions and events, jumping from one different group of characters to another with flashbacks thrown in between. It’s an experience that works fairly well in retrospect – as an “Oh, I see why they did that now” moment of realization – but one that feels very dull and uninteresting while you’re actually playing it.

Fortunately, Final Fantasy XIII is bolstered by its excellent combat system, which may well be the series’ best. It does away with many conventions of the series – you control only one character at any one time, you have no MP or limit on skills, and your HP is refilled after every battle – and while the changes sound horrible on paper they work excellently in practice. Characters are able to switch between different combat roles called Paradigms on the fly at the press of a button, and setting up and mastering the use of different Paradigms is crucial to success.

Swap to a defensive Paradigm to withstand an attack, turn to a Healer-heavy one to soothe your wounds, and then go all-out offense to strike back – the Paradigms give the combat a wonderful sense of ebb and flow; and they (and the nifty animations) make the combat feel less turn-based and more interactive than it actually is. The lack of MP and auto-refilled HP means that every fight can be a challenging one since the developers never have to worry about you being healthy enough for a boss fight, and you will almost certainly die to some of the regular enemies in the game, especially later on.

Once the game’s story finally comes together; once you understand the characters and see them become a team and a family; once you’re given full control over this unique and entertaining battle system, Final Fantasy XIII is fantastic. It never stops being somewhat linear other than several areas near the end of the game (and some sidequests that are really just monster kill missions), but it gives you enough control over your characters and party that you feel like you can have more of an experience that is yours and not just what the developers wanted you to have.

It’s a beautiful game with absolutely stellar art direction and some of the best-looking graphics around no matter what system you play it on. It has a stellar soundtrack – Leona Lewis and all – and is polished to a mirror shine. The second half of Final Fantasy XIII is on par with the series’ best as the game marches towards a very triumphant and satisfying ending. In the end, it’s worth it – just be prepared to slog through repetition on your way there.

Bottom Line: With immaculate presentation and some stunning imagery and music, Final Fantasy XIII hits its stride halfway through. Once the characters grow up and band together, the plot finds its Focus, and the gameplay takes the training wheels off to let gamers make the most of the stellar combat system, it’s an excellent JRPG, just one with severe pacing issues. However, the overly-linear first half and overly-dramatic early character interactions may throw some players off at first. It ends up being worth it, but it can feel like a very long 20 hours.

Recommendation: If you like JRPGs, Final Fantasy XIII is worth a go. Just be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

Score: [rating=4]

Sazh Katzroy may actually be John Funk’s favorite Final Fantasy supporting character of all time.

This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.

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