But, yes, *adjusting glasses and preparing professional tone*
I will divide this review in some parts: Story; Characters; Gameplay; Music - each one with a rating system from one to five ★ (yes I am a major grudge holder >3)
Final Fantasy XIII is a game that definitely marked a new technological era, being the first Final Fantasy title developed for the advanced ps3 system. Designed to be played on big screens, it certainly brought along fantastic landscapes, demanding the full capacity of the acclaimed ps3 system when it pertained to graphic enhancement.
The main aspect to the story, as stated by Square Enix, is that it was meant to be a story of people fighting against fate. Truthful to the Final Fantasy style, that means standing up against world established law, and certainly a good deal of travelling around. Nothing original to the series, but always catchy if done correctly. For a great deal of fans, the story felt repetitive and too linear (but that is intimately related to gameplay so I shall address this issue later.) However, for all its unoriginality, I feel that SE succeeded on creating yet another title that kept the player interested by adding a solid background to many characters instead of focusing only on the main ones. It might feel sort of deja-vu to established players but still interesting enough, and it's a rather solid story for those trying a FF title for the first time.
Like any other game, FFXIII wouldn't succeed due to beautiful imagery along. To accomplish its established plot, there need be a strong set of characters and, in this, I believe SE excelled in this title. The creators certainly proved bold by giving the main role to a female character. However, Lightning proved to be a much acclaimed character, strong and determined, but also bearing her flaws. Fang, too, was shown to be a strong female presence and, instead of washing each other out, the characters compliment each other. The rest of the cast was also given its own spotlight, as the player learns more about each character's past and what makes them tick. Regarding character development, I believe none changed more than Hope, whom the player can see growing from a lost scared kid to one who lives up to his namesake. Snow is the strong male presence of the cast and, despite his hero vibes (that he doesn't tire to point out) he is an important part of the cast. The game has its own comic relief mostly through the way of Sazh and the chocobo and also its share of characters that may not be what they look like at first glance, like Vanille. Aside from the main cast, the minor characters presented are also very well developped (like the members from NORA and the Cavalry) making the player wish they could learn more about them. The only character that lacks in development or in some original personality is, sadly, the main villain, Dysley (I tend to call him Barty.) But let's not have a bad sheep wreck the points on this.
The sore spot for this title, I believe, is the battle system. Deviating too much from classic Final Fantasies, its new battle system seemed to be both popular and dreaded. I tend to think more of the latter (as I feel all those more used to RPG gaming will do.) The issue here is that SE seemed to have tried to incorporate both ATB system along with some more realistic feel to the battles. Like previous titles, the ATB would have most likely sufficed, the idea of even having a battle rating that needs for speed in fighting rather more than any tactics in an RPG, really made for a messy battle system. I confess that even after beating the game, I am still baffled with the battle system at times and, in result, that has me trust in the AI to solve things instead of making me want to even learn things right. In that aspect, FFXII was completely different (for, even if the player sometimes felt it was too much hack and slashing type, one still felt the urge to take matters into their own hands.) Aside from the rush which you are supposed to fight in the game, the fact that Game Over occurs everytime your party leader is defeated makes for one of the most frustrating systems I have ever encountered in all my RPG years. Being randomly defeated by some lesser monsters that just happened to spam on you (looking at you, flans) doesn't make for much of a drive when it comes to battle, even with all the added save points. The only saving feature would be the fact you can sort of control summons (even if with the added timer.) The Paradigm system is also innovative but it would be better if you didn't have to fumble while deciding what kind of attack you need while the provebial clock is ticking (oh gosh don't let me get started on the Doom counter...)
Battles aside, the rest of the game doesn't fare much better when it comes to gameplay. The chance to explore is rather limited (despite the whole hopping around, you don't really have much map space to go by.) Speaking of maps, SE did a royal screw up by having it turn with each turn your character takes, which means you will get very lost on Gran Pulse the first...few hours you end up stuck there. Speaking of wide planes, Gran Pulse is the only example of it in-game so you better get the chance to explore that gigantic place...along with the sole sidequest in the whole game. Of course, the fact there are no easy means of transportation at first (not even one single feathered friend aside the one on Sazh's head) means you have to be rather patient with covering it all slowly on foot and pray you don't get lost due to your faulty map once again (excuse the ranting, 'tis a rather sore spot.) Another small detail (mind the pun) is the font and text size. I am uncertain whether the menus are legible in a larger screen, but for someone that is stuck playing the game on a very old TV (and still big for its years, mind you), I certainly was frustrated on finding I could barely read what I had equipped, much less the whole of datalogue with extra info the game offered. It seems Square Enix was hell bent that the fans purchased their game along with a proper LCD screen... But, because they rather like their fanbase, SE has corrected these 'minor' issues...in the sequel, that is (extra tadbit: the first copies of FFXIII-2 seem to have a glitch, that is meant to be eventually patched.)
In character development, instead of levels we have, once again a sort of sphere grid system, very much similar to the on from FFX. It brings nothing new to the game and, although all the colors are pretty, it really stands for just that (also it might be easy to accidentally skip a nod or two in some points, as it happened with an extra Accessory nod for Vanille with me. So, a major one, that one.)
One thing that stayed true to its origins was the soundtrack. Even though the story itself is set in a steampunk modernist world, the music manages to follow along, but still possesses its share of tracks that really make you nostalgic. Each piece holds a part of the essence of whatever place it is trying to portray. To build a world, you can't have only fantastic scenes and landscapes, you also need the proper music to solidify it. Tracks like Sulyya Springs and Lake Bresha will certainly remind you that you are playing a Final Fantasy title. Dust to Dust with its soft vocals and the place it plays at - a ruined antique city - will certainly bring you back all over to old Zanarkand in FFX.
Furthermore, the battle themes certaily don't lose their touch, with Defiers of Fate making you feel the frenzy of battle and Eden Under Siege as some of the bosses themes setting it down on stone that you are trying to overcome fate. of course it all wraps up on the main boss's theme, Fighting Fate, portraying the awesome chorus fans are so used to in FF titles.
Also, the fact there are mainly English vocals (even if dissimulated) is a definite bonus to Western players. A particular inspiring theme is Will to Fight (seriously, I could link pretty much the whole OST here.)
Overall, it seems to me that SE trusted too much in the pretty graphics to conceal some major flaws in the game. It's still enjoyable, but far from being the best FF title out there. Still, it has its good points and, thus, it deserves this rating from me.
Overall rating: ★★★★☆