It's tempting to portray Final Fantasy at a crossroads: stumbling, after three unusually long years, into an unfamiliar landscape of multi-platform releases and a weak Japanese gaming industry, and onto a generation of console hardware that was already middle-aged by the time the great series showed up. Role-playing games have been scattered to the four winds of American sci-fi, pocket monster hunting, genre crossover and MMOs, and you might assume that Final Fantasy needed to do something to redefine itself.
But the truth is, it was ever thus. The first Final Fantasy, made as the young Square faced bankruptcy, was born and named in a desperation that was only ironic after the fact. Since then, despite its gargantuan success, the series has treated every moment like it was its last. Every Final Fantasy - especially since its arrival on disc and in 3D with the seventh game in 1997 - has been a reinvention, telling the same old story with new characters, new worlds, new tools, new systems, and ever-greater helpings of spectacle and sentimentality. They've always been a contradiction.
In that sense, Final Fantasy XIII is no different. On one hand, it sticks closer to the strict formal rhythms and linear underpinnings of the Japanese RPG than not just the divisive Final Fantasy XII, but even many of its predecessors. But the thirteenth game is also far more innovative and forward-thinking than it's been given credit for. It's as bold and intractable, as rebellious and respectful as one of the series' angsty teen heroes.
But that's not quite the whole story. Final Fantasy XIII is different in one respect; it does have a manifesto for the strange new world it finds itself in. And it's one a lot of fans of the series might not like.
It is absolutely, ruthlessly, single-mindedly populist. It's stripped down, streamlined and simplified to the extreme. Its features are spoon-fed so slowly it's excruciating, even as the pace of the battles is amped up to be as fast and flashy as possible. It is a My First Final Fantasy, promoted with power ballads, and all that implies.
This agenda results in both awkward weaknesses and stunning strengths, but you have to respect the intention: to toss out all the decades-old clutter of the JRPG form, distil the Final Fantasy experience to its very core, and then make that as relevant, approachable and slickly modern as possible.
So, you don't get an overall character level and you don't have to wait for new skills; you just buy advancement from the menu when you see fit. Health is instantly replenished after every battle and there's no mana or other resource to worry about. Equipment slots are few, options limited, depth sparing and mostly optional.
You don't get direct control of more than one character at a time and input, if you want to, can be automated to the extent that it's more like tapping out morse code on the action button than selecting from menus. There's no downtime in towns for trading and tinkering, with functional services - shopping and a rather undernourished system of equipment upgrades - available from the very frequent save points.
Until halfway through the story - and that's some 20 or 25 hours in, treble the length of many of the action blockbusters Final Fantasy XIII has modelled itself on - you don't even get to choose the composition of your party, or where you go and what you do next. There's no world map, and for the first half there's no element of choice or exploration at all. There is absolutely nothing to distract you from whatever the game wants to throw at you next - the next lush, twinkling vista, melodramatic cut-scene or punchy scrap. It's the RPG equivalent of a corridor shooter.
Does that sound like a nightmare to you? It's worth pointing out that this one-way crawl punctuated with battles has always been the meat of Final Fantasy, with the world map acting as an elaborate but limited graphical menu in most games - Final Fantasy XII was the closest to being open-world, and even then just barely. It's the illusion of choice and exploration that's been removed - although that is an important illusion, and XIII has lost a measure of excitement and romance as a result.