I'm 14 hours into Final Fantasy XIII, which curiously enough means I haven't even left the "tutorial" part yet, which lasts for about 20 hours before you are given basic functionalities like choosing your group members or choosing where to go. So I'm not calling this a review. But as I'll be away from my PS3 for the coming two weeks, that means I won't write a review anytime soon. So I write this first impression piece.
I personally believe that Square Enix beats every other game company in the field of storytelling. Even Bioware, while good at storytelling, still produces games like Dragon Age Origins, where the plot is rather generic, and the world is a generic fantasy world with elves and wizards. The Final Fantasy games on the other hand each have a completely unique world, with unique laws of magic, and unique strange creatures. Only a handful of fixtures (chocobos, spell names) connect the different Final Fantasy games. Thus Final Fantasy XIII is a great experience from the story point of view, enhanced by very pretty graphics, with an interesting plot, believable characters, and a fantastic and unique world.
Unfortunately the gameplay of FF13 isn't quite as good as that of previous Final Fantasy games, at least not in the first 14 hours. My main gripe is how extremely linear the first hours are. You work your way through chapters, with each chapter having a tubular map, where you start at one end and the other end is helpfully marked with a big arrow as being the endpoint. The only options you have is either march forward, or if you want to farm a specific monster for loot or xp (called cp) march back and forth. For 20+ hours at least, and as far as I've seen maps from the later part of the game, they aren't any better. The tubular levels have little side arms in which treasure is "hidden", but that is the extent of it. All very pretty, but as somebody said I was chatting with, it's like walking through a movie. You move forward and fight monsters, to get to the next checkpoint, at which you get some cutscene which advances the story. Your influence on the story in FF13 is nonexistant. Thus, to come back to the comparison, while in Dragon Age the story might be more generic and less fantastic, at least you play a role in it, and have some influence on the outcome.
The second problem of Final Fantasy XIII is that combat is less interesting. Square Enix obviously tried to make turn-based combat as fast as humanly possible, and succeeded. But in the process they eliminated most decision-making from the process, thus making combat a lot less interesting. You only control one character in your group of up to 3 characters, the other two characters are on automatic. And even your main character you can just hit X repeatedly to let him choose his spells and abilities on automatic. As there aren't all that many abilities, and the automatic function already chooses the clever ones, like fire spells against mobs weak against fire, the first few hours you can play with spamming just a single button repeatedly. You can choose to select your spells and abilities manually, but that just gives you the same outcome somewhat slower.
Once you get "paradigms" combat becomes slightly more tactical, because you can now assign roles to your characters: For example you start combat with a paradigm that has one character debuff the enemies, then switch to a tank-heal-dps paradigm, and finally switch to an all out attack paradigm. Unfortunately every combat is timed, that is the time you took to kill the mobs is compared to the time a group of your level is supposed to take to kill the mobs, and the loot is adjusted in function of that. Thus choosing any defensive paradigm is shooting yourself in the foot, and you end up doing most fights in all out attack mode, with an occasional switch to healing mode if necessary.
Character development is rather linear at the start of the game too. You gain points called cp, with which you can buy your way through something which looks like a 3D talent tree. Only most "talents" aren't new abilities but stat increases like "+10 hit points" or "+5 strength". And at least in the part of the game I'm in the talent trees are capped as a function of the story, and you get enough cp to buy ALL talents up to the cap before the cap is lifted at the next story point. Thus what looks like a talent tree is in reality just checking boxes, without any decisions to make. Just take everything, it doesn't even matter much in which order.
Besides character development, you can also upgrade your gear. *SPOILER ALERT* There are two sorts of mob drops, animal parts and machine parts. Using animal parts on your gear on the upgrade screen adds a small amount of xp to the item plus increases the xp multiplier for future additions. Using machine parts adds a large amount of xp, but diminishes the xp multiplier. Thus the most effective upgrade method is to first feed animal parts to your gear until the xp modifier is at its cap of 3x, and then use one BIG stack of machine parts, which will kill your modifier, but you get the triple xp bonus on all the xp from big machine part stack. Thus loading up your gear with xp increases the level of the gear, and thus its stats. Unfortunately you also find new gear throughout the game. So given a system in which using big stacks of upgrades is the most efficient, and using a newly found piece of gear means you wasted all the materials used to upgrade your previous gear, the obvious strategy is to not use gear upgrading at all in the first half of the game, collect lots of animal and machine parts, and then use those once you found the gear you want to use for the rest of the game. That is not a very interesting system. And if you don't read the spoiler, you are likely to get frustrated, because you wasted the animal and machine parts you found on upgrading gear which you then have to replace because the old gear got stuck at the gear level cap. Furthermore upgrading is strictly linear too, there are no decisions to take which would influence what kind of stats your gear gets better in.
So right now I'm struggling a bit with my motivation to continue playing Final Fantasy XIII, and don't mind it at all that I can't play for the next two weeks. I still hope it gets better, less linear, and offering more choices later. But right now FF13 looks suspiciously much like a very dumbed down incarnation of a game, compared with previous games in the series. Do I really want to spam X for 100 hours to get to the end of the story, even if that story is a good one? Good gameplay consists of having to make interesting decisions, and at least in the first 20 hours those are seriously missing in Final Fantasy 13.