With Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix can lay claim to a long list of magnificent achievements. There's no question that this is the most stunning looking example of a Japanese RPG on the market, taking the series trademark mix of high-fantasy and glossy science-fiction to a whole new level. The gap between cutscene and in-game graphics is now virtually non-existent, with superbly detailed characters, exceptional cinematic effects and sumptuous lighting.
The game world is one of incredible beauty. FFXIII has a great story, an intriguing back-story and - in tough-talking warrior, Lightning - the strongest lead the series has had since Final Fantasy VII. The latest revision of the active time battle fighting system turns out to be a brilliant piece of work, simplifying the whole process to keep the action flowing and menus and stats to the minimum, but offering layers of depth that grow more and more interesting as the game progresses. The score is 90% phenomenal, and the voice-acting is mostly excellent. Taken as a whole, FFXIII should have been the new high benchmark not just for the series, but for the Japanese RPG genre as a whole.
Unfortunately, there's just no getting around the fact that, for the first 10 to 12 hours of play - the sort of time in which you'd complete most modern action games - Final Fantasy XIII just isn't that much fun to play.
It's a combination of linearity and monotony that comes close to killing the whole experience. The game throws a curve-ball by plonking you right in the middle of the story, with our heroes - an embittered female soldier, a grizzled veteran with a chick nesting in his afro, a surfer-dude resistance leader, a perky teenage girl and a grumpy youth - fighting on the fringes of a floating city against an oppressive regime and a mysterious "purge". Fortunately it's not long before the plot gets going and starts making sense. If only the same could be said of the gameplay.
For many long, long hours, playing Final Fantasy XIII is a question of wandering through nearly single-track dungeons, fighting anything and anyone that blocks your path until you hit the next cutscene. The game picks the character's you'll play for that section of the chapter, and all you can do is play ball. Any sense of exploration has gone out of the window.
This might not be so bad, but Square Enix has gone overboard in its efforts to make the game accessible to even the most casual gamers. For the first few hours, the game strips out all the intricacies of the combat system, leaving you with just the barest bones of interactivity. With party control as such eliminated, all you need do is select your current hero's attacks, use a heal or potion every now and then, and you'll be fine. In fact, you don't even need to do that. A rather generous and clever "auto" function chooses the right ability at any time, meaning that your success for a sizeable early chunk of the game relies on your ability to hammer one button on the controller until all enemies are dead.
It's a disappointing start, not enhanced by some cutscenes that cross the line between moving and cloyingly sentimental, and some spectacularly annoying party members (with ever-upbeat jailbait heroine Vanille laying an early claim down as the Jar-Jar Binks of the piece).
Luckily, if you can get through the first 6 to 8 hours with some interest still intact, FFXIII slowly blossoms into a more interesting game. The experience system - based around a slightly bizarre web of interconnected floating crystals - begins to unlock new attacks, magic spells and special abilities, and the game's system of "roles" and "paradigms" begins to come into focus. Basically, each character has a number of roles - effectively character classes - with differing health and attack bonuses and capabilities. These allow them to switch between offensive, defensive and support classes according to the current battle situation.
The clever bit is that you need to switch classes in the heat of battle using "paradigms"; combinations of different classes that specify, say, that one of your party is a healer, one takes on a support role while another goes for all-out attack. This in turn becomes important because of the way that powerful enemies need to be made to stagger, through a constant barrage of attacks, before you can really deal out much damage. If you want to take down the most ferocious boss beasties, you'll need to understand which paradigms work to raise their stagger gauge, and which will keep your party alive when they strike back, and when to "shift" rapidly between them. This is where the skill and fun of the fighting really lies.
On top of this, FFXIII hasn't left those old spectacular summonings behind. The latest variation on the classic theme has you defeating these god-like beings, known as Eidolons, then being able to summon them to your aid, where you'll fight in battle beside them or allow you to mount them for devastating combo attacks. Again, this adds a layer of sophistication and depth to the battle, as Eidolons can only be used for a limited time, and knowing when to unleash them is a vital tactical decision.
Even as the game approaches its mid-point, FFXIII still has its sections of mind-numbing tedium, and the lack of cities, shops, side-quests, NPCs and all the usual Japanese RPG furniture makes the whole experience feel rather claustrophobic. All the same, as time goes on the plot and the characterisation begin to take its hold, and once you're past that point it's hard to leave the game alone. And eventually the game does give you more of a chance to roam and make decisions for yourself; it's just a shame that it will take you a truly epic amount of time before you see it at its best.
To my mind, this is the crux of the FFXIII problem. The more you go on, the better it gets, but should you really be forced to slog your way through many hours of mild tedium before you really start having a good time? In the West, Bioware has successfully made the RPG more accessible without making it any less interactive or engaging, and it's a shame that Square Enix hasn't managed the same feat.
Final Fantasy XIII has stretches of grace and majesty that any big-budget game would kill for, but also stretches of plodding mediocrity that make you wish you were doing something else instead. As a result, for every fan for whom this will be one of the games of the year, there will be someone who won't ever see the game blossom. If you're not committed, don't sign up.