The thirteenth Final Fantasy got quite a bit of bashing. Soonish Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be out, and I had a strange desire to play FFXIII again. I played it two years ago for the first time and I found it less deserving of bashing than most people. The game has its problems, but they were not as severe on my second playthrough, and there are some things that really shine.
1. Linear structure, narrow vs wide
This got bashed a lot. The game only goes forward most of the time which seems to annoy a lot people. Not me though. The same thing was discussed a lot when Final Fantasy X came out. Unlike its predecessors, the game didn't have a large world map but was just a series of, well, basically, straight corridors. People complained but I didn't really see a problem there. The world map was just an illusion of freedom anyway because these games have always been extremely linear. The only problem I saw in the structure FFXIII was that the areas were too freakin' long. For the first time around anyway. On my second playthrough I had the sense to run past most enemies which actually made the areas pretty manageable.
I also do not see the point of having huge areas if there's nothing in them. This was what they did in Final Fantasy XII. Many people praise the game for its large areas, but there's nothing there. Large areas should have something that makes them worth exploring. If there's not, then why not just use narrow areas. FFXIII has only one really large area, and surprise surprise, there's actually content in that area. FFXIII-2 is going to have a less rigid structure and is themed around time travel. At least on paper that sounds interesting.
One problem the game does have with structure is that the storytelling arc seems really... arcless. Somehow the writers have failed to introduce important turning points in the story, and it kind of seems like it's missing the middle of the story while taking far too long to get through the beginning.
2. Active time battle, finally worth it
The Active-Time Battle system which has been present in most games in the series since FFIV has for a long time been a bastard child of turn-based and realtime systems. A poor one at that I might add. On paper it sounds okay. Each combatant has a wait time between their turns. When the time gauge fills, they get to act again. The problem is that timing of actions is hindered a lot by not allowing simultaneous actions so combatants will still act as though they were on turns. It doesn't really work as intended and feels frustrating compared to pure turn-based systems that often have more depth anyway. Final Fantasy X is case in point because it's the only FF game after the ATB was introduced that actually uses turns instead. Lo and behold, combat in FFX is much better than any of the ATB games.
The basic problem with the system is that it is frustratingly hard to predict in what order actions will take place. Especially since by default the timer runs during animations. FFXIII solves the basic problem of ATB quite easily: it allows simultaneous actions. Everything happens as soon as either the command is selected or the ATB gauge fills. Suddenly the system is actually interesting instead of frustrating because now the grand idea that timing of actions should matter actually works in practice. It only took them what, 9 games (the sequel of FFX used ATB) to make the system work properly.
3. Paradigm system or the art of doing AI allies right
Unlike previous games in the series, FFXIII only gives the player direct control over the party leader. The remaining up to two characters are left in AI control. I'm not intimately familiar with the AI behavior, but it seems to work with rather simple rules. The clever innovation that makes this system tick is called Paradigm. Demystified it means allowing the player to change the roles of the entire party quickly from a simple menu. The game has six roles, more or less equivalent of classes. Each role has a very specific purpose and skillset. When a character is active in one role, the skills of other roles do not apply. A paradigm is a role configuration. In a paradigm each character has an assigned role. The player can set up to six paradigms for their active party.
Being limited to six paradigms forces the player to think about their strategy and what roles would work together well. Not only does each role have a skillset of their own, they also boost the entire party. Therefore a paradigm with all characters in the same role has everyone more effective in that role than a paradigm where everyone has a different role. The reason the AI can work so efficiently is in the limited nature of roles in the game. When in the Synergist role, the only thing a character can do is cast buffs on the party. When in Commando role, they can only attack the enemy. After this it's a simple matter of checking what is known about the enemy and making a decision based on that. Enemy casts fire spells? Protection from fire gains priority. Enemy is weak to water? Cast water spells, if available.
Paradigms are changed mid battle by bringing up the menu (one button press) and selecting a paradigm from the list. This is really quick, and much better to use than any command systems I've seen in other games. I would really like to make it a standard for all games involving independent AI companions. Put simply, I would like to see this: "when I select this, you will only use these skills". Of course FFXIII builds heavily around the system, which means that the player is rather busy changing paradigms. Timing of paradigm changes is one of the most important tactical skills in FFXIII. Since the system runs in basically real time, it really keeps the player involved in battles while controlling only one character and still never having to pause to order their allies. The game can afford to get hectic because the player has really effective controls. It makes the player feel busy enough but never too busy.
I really liked the battle system in FFXIII, and I'm expecting a lot from FFXIII-2 as the developers are going to keep the system mostly intact and make improvements where the original was lacking. The game's going to be out in February, so I'll know soon enough.