Final Fantasy XIII is a game at a crossroads. It's stranded at the intersection between the desires of an existing fanbase, the fading popularity of a genre, a legacy of cutting-edge visuals, and the rising cost of game development. It's a creation that displays the compromises of its development process at every turn, yet to its credit, it doesn't feel compromised. It's defined by creative tradeoffs, yet it embraces those potential shortcomings and transforms them into integral components of its design. FFXIII is ambitious and daring, not to mention gorgeous and energetic. It approaches the concept of "role-playing games" with ruthless pragmatism, lopping off hunks of RPG tradition like a doctor operating on a terminally gangrenous patient. Traditional towns are too difficult to manage in light of the demands of current technology and art design? Whack -- they're gone. Free-roaming exploration too difficult to implement properly? Chop -- there goes the nonlinearity. Micromanaging turn-based combat bogs down the pacing of battles? Snip -- let the AI handle it.

On paper, these cuts make FFXIII sound awful: The total abandonment of everything that fans enjoy about the series. And in some ways, it does turn its back on fans, or at least the ones who see Final Fantasy as the standard-bearer for console role-playing games. If the quality of a sequel is defined by how effectively it iterates on its predecessor, this surely stands as one of the worst sequels ever. Outside of a few areas late in the game, FFXIII is the complete opposite of Final Fantasy XII. It does display traces of Final Fantasy X and X-2 -- the former in its corridor-like world design, the latter in its fast-paced, hyperactive combat system -- but even there it cuts loose most of the familiar elements present in the older games in favor of something much trimmer.

Click the image above to check out all Final Fantasy XIII screens.

In practice, however, FFXIII is far from awful. It's unquestionably a huge departure for the series, but taken on its own merits, it works. If the quality of a game is defined by how well it lays down a series of objectives and proceeds to fulfill them (traditions be damned), FFXIII is an unqualified success. Yes, it abandons a great many RPG traditions, but it does so in the name of creating a highly focused experience. The elements it abandons are features Final Fantasy has rarely done as well as the competition, while the components it retains are the ones Final Fantasy does best.

Despite its deviations from tradition, FFXIII really does play to the series' core strengths. In many ways, it improves on them. Think of FFXIII as the essence of modern Final Fantasy: The series stripped down to little more than story and combat. As such, the quality of the game is entirely contingent on the quality of those two elements. To its credit, they're among the best the series has ever seen.

Click the image above to check out all Final Fantasy XIII screens.

The battle system, admittedly, starts slow; in fact, you have slog through about 25 hours of hand-holding warm-up before the game finally lets you have full access to party and skill selections. This is by far FFXIII's most significant shortcoming; the first ten chapters of the game feel incredibly limiting, and the utterly superficial opening hours are likely to be a huge turnoff to many. Stick with it long enough to take the reins for yourself, though, and you'll find FFXIII's combat is dizzying, tactical, and challenging. Fights revolve around "paradigms," which basically boil down to combinations of character classes. Each party member can train in six different classes and are strictly limited to performing a single class' role at any given time. For example, a Ravager can only use elemental magic attacks, while a Medic can only heal. To change your available options, you shift paradigms in the middle of battle, moving each character into a new role and locking them into a different set of skills.

While restricting each party member to a single role (attacking, defending, healing, etc.) could have made for a brain-dead game, it's actually tactical and involving. Each battle is entirely self-contained, and the only penalty for losing is being forced to try the current encounter again from scratch. There are no magic points, and health recharges after each battle. It's far less toothless than it sounds, though, because FFXIII's creators capitalized on these play mechanics to populate the game with impressively challenging battles. There are no random encounters, and beyond the game's opening hours you'll rarely find battle scenarios that can be breezed through by mashing the circle button. Despite the fact that two-thirds of your party is AI-controlled, FFXIII's battles may be the most involving the series has ever seen.

More...