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.