I know, I know, I'm extremely late on this one, but I thought that I'd try and get a fair way through the game before I decided on my overall feelings towards this game.
I love it.
Final Fantasy XIII is a game which for some reason, has been poorly received by hardcore fans of the series. Not to say that the game doesn't have a flaw or two here and there, but I really don't understand why it gets so much hate.
I guess I'll address my biggest gripe with the game straight from the get go: Gil. For some reason, the mighty Square Enix decided that Gil was not to be earned from fights in FFXIII, oh no. The tried and tested formula is forsaken in this installment in lieu of a new system of item selling. After battles, you often receive a component which can be used to upgrade your weapons. However, some of these items will inform you that they can be sold for a premium. If you see this message on the component description, you had better sell it INSTANTLY, or you might find yourself selling 50,000 Gils worth of components for 5 or 6 experience on a weapon.
This aside, the game does a great job of making you want to get these components, for more than just Gil farming. The weapon leveling system in FFXIII is, as far as I'm aware, a new edition to the series, at least in this format, and it's a real treat. Components can be used to upgrade your weapon's strength and magic stats, eventually leading to them being "starred". When this happens, you can use catalysts to upgrade the weapons to their next level. For example, when you star Fang's "Bladed Lance", using a Trapezohedron will turn it into the new weapon, "Glaive". What is interesting, and what compels you to continue to upgrade weapons after this, is that the upgraded weapon will tend to have slightly lower stats than its upgraded little brother. However, it can be upgraded further, leading it to be even more powerful. The same system is employed for items, but from what I've seen, the biggest use for this is upgrading an item to it's star level and them dismantling it for several, equally useful items.
The leveling system in FFXIII is fantastic, it's as simple as that. Do you remember the Sphere Grid from FFX? Take that, give it a 3D facelift, remove the points cost for going back on yourself to activate bypassed nodes and add the ability to use the points you have up to where you are to gauge how close you are to activating the next node. It's called the Crystarium and it's most certainly the best leveling system in a Final Fantasy game I've seen, outside of the standard lvl.1,2,3 etc. As the Crystarium advances, more choices and paths open up, so using your points carefully could lead to some boss fights becoming comparatively easy, if you've chosen a sensible path.
Combat, in standard Final Fantasy faire, is turn based, using the ATB (Active Time Battle) system over FFXII's Gambit system. The combat is fast paced, with the player stacking up to 5 actions, which will be unleashed when the ATB gauge fills. However, this can be bypassed by pressing Y or Triangle, using the attacks you have up to that point on the ATB bar. The "Stagger" meter is another new edition in combat and an ingenious one at that. As you attack an enemy, their "Stagger" bar fills and when it reaches its peak, a 100% damage increase in put into effect, which will keep going up as you continue to attack, all the way to 999.9%, if you have the chance. It gives you a great advantage in fights, and when bosses start to have over a million hit points, it's invaluable.
In combat, you only control one character, which many see as a bad point, but with only one character's actions for focus on in, it makes every action you take all the more important. Should you play the Commando class and brutalize the enemy, or play it safe with Sentinel, in case the enemy busts a killer attack? It's all a matter of preference. The A.I does a fantastic job of supporting you and 9 times out of 10, it will do whatever you're willing it to, it's superb.
Speaking of the class system, FFXIII, Square Enix have clearly put a lot of thought into how they are to be laid out. There are 6 classes in the game:
Commando: Powerhouse attackers who prevent the stagger bar from decreasing so rapidly. Ravager: They build the stagger bar with magical attacks and are the classic "Black Mage". Sentinel: Defenders, who use Provoke and Steelguard to lower their damage intake and prevent the other party members from being attacked Synergist: The buffing class, casting Haste, Shell, Protect etc. Saboteur: Debuffing class, casting Dehsell, Deprotect, Imperil etc. Medic: Healers and revivers, shocker, I know.
Summons, or Eidolons, a Final Fantasy standard, are of course present here and they look as cool as ever. This time, you have to best them in a fight of sorts to obtain them and you can, unfortunately, only have one character (your party leader) use them ONCE in a fight, so they must be used wisely. The Eidolons have been given the new, vehicular based "Gestalt" mode, in which they transform into many forms, Odin into a horse, Bahamut into a plane, the Shiva twins into a motorcycle etc. The ultimate attacks of the Eidolons are amazing, with higher powered characters being able to break the 100,000 damage barrier as early as disk 3's opening map.
Linearity is perhaps the biggest complaint in FFXIII, but I don't really see how it's that different to one of the most popular games in the series: FFX. Think about it, in FFX, you were given the illusion of an open world, but really, you were just being forced down what was essentially a one way path with different ways of getting to the continuation point. In FFXIII, until you get to disk 3, you are limited to essentially this, but if you can forgive it, when you get to the open world, you will not be disappointed: it's HUGE.
Now for the big 2: Story and Characters. In a word: impressive. The story takes place over 2 worlds, Cocoon and Gran Pulse, the former is a technological haven and the latter having fallen to ruin, being overcome with monsters, just begging to be fought. I won't give too much away about the story, but it starts off extremely confusing, but over time, you learn the lingo, the past becomes clear, meaning that the present states to make sense and you really begin to wonder where the story is going and believe me, there are twists and turns aplenty.
The characters are very well developed, with the one character that I take it as read that everyone hates actually becoming less of a complete drip as the game progresses and everyone else being extremely badass, hilarious or stoic, without it feeling too generic. I can't help but love all three of the female characters are some of the best in the series, especially Fang, who just bloody loves fighting.
Final Fantasy XIII is an obviously beautiful game with its flaws being greatly outweighed by its amazing successes. I'm 40 hours in and I'm nowhere near bored or done with the game. I completely recommend it to anyone who's taken the time to read this wall of text review. In fact, even to anyone who hasn't. If you have though, thanks for taking the time. =)