The Final Fantasy games have had a long and varied progression to how they are played. For the early games, you had a turn-based system where you could toss attacks or magic spells around like candy, always wanting to use the specific arsenal that could cause the most damage to each unique monster. You had a set amount of damage you could take before you perished and that could be staved off or relieved with a combination of preventive and restorative magic or alchemical potions.
As the series progressed, the developers chose to tinker with a number of possible changes while retaining the core of the familiar gameplay. What if your magic could be invested in to become stronger or split off into new branches of power? What if the use of magic decreased your physical ability? What if you could perform actions to affect the order of turns? What if you could avoid random battles through a seamless combination of travel and battle modes? What if your characters could perform special powerful attacks if they reach a critical near-death condition? How can we allow the player more ways to develop their characters to become uniquely powerful in a diverse selection of ways?
These questions and more are specific references to changes made by the developers in different moments throughout Final Fantasy history. For each separate game, the designers created an entirely new combat system, holding only to a core rule of, "It must feel like Final Fantasy," which usually meant having the player characters face off against monsters in a turn-based or loosely real-time field of battle.
FFXIII attempts to integrate all of the best of what has come before in a system that gives the players a host of options in a way that isn't overwhelming. There are dozens of possible attacks, but you can permit the A.I. to cover for you more than competently through the use of the "Auto Battle" function. This addition is really handy; you aren't able to fight terribly well through an overuse of the "Auto-Battle", but it is perfect for allowing the battle to continue to flow while you deliberate strategically.
This is important as one of the goals of the new combat system is to make battle fast, intense, and epic. More than any other Final Fantasy before it, FFXIII keeps you on the edge of your seat as your characters hurl themselves into battle at a speed that rewards reflexive tactical decisions more than long-term deliberations. The window for attacking shifts fast, and time is of essential importance, particularly since the only way to manageably defeat most monsters is to "Stagger" them: overwhelming them with so many special attacks that they lose control and drop their guard, allowing you to really lay the smackdown.
What makes things really crazy awesome is that you can shuffle the roles and create customized combinations for different scenarios, all right in the middle of battle. You can control three characters at one time. A Medic, Ravager, and a Commando are ideal for an measured offense. A Synergist, Saboteur, and Medic heals and buffs everyone while weakening the monsters. But these are just logical balanced examples. What if you put three Ravagers together? The amount of magic whizzing around would light up your TV screen! A handful of Saboteurs backed up by a Sentinel would allow a swift crippling of the enemy force while they hopelessly hack away at the prepared defense of the Sentinel. You also have to keep in mind that some characters are uniquely better at some specific roles available to them, which adds another strategic element to ponder. The possibilities are near endless!
Does it all work? My answer is a certifiable yes, with some caveats. The combat system is probably my favorite of all the Final Fantasy games I have played; the action is intense, fast and still allows for strategic thought. It is a challenging and complicated system, but it is spoon-fed to you very slowly to make sure you understand each element before moving on. I liked this but I also hated it. I felt coddled and often found myself in a rush to get on with it. But that is also my own failing for being so well-versed in Final Fantasy combat systems that I caught on to the vagaries of this one so fast. So that's my own fault.
I enjoyed the development system (simplistically put, you can invest your combat experience into the upgrading of your characters' separate roles and weapons), but it would have benefited from a combination of more player choice and somehow keeping the player more informed. By 'more player choice' I mean that, though different characters can choose from a plethora of different roles, it is immediately clear that your big boisterous boxer man is going to suck at healing. Similarly, your diminutive airy dream girl is going to suck at the combat roles. Thus, though you appear to be presented with a huge amount of Paradigm options, it is only the illusion of choice.
In the end though, nitpicks aside, the Paradigm system is a brilliant culmination of all the effort put into every combat system prior. Usually, Final Fantasy games take one new idea and base an entire combat system around it. Instead, in FFXIII, they introduced the concept of speedier gameplay and wrapped that around a core of the best gameplay elements of every Final Fantasy before. The results are spectacular and make me look forward to the prospect of spending more time with the game.
Assuming I find time to finish this monstrosity of a game, I will follow this with a review of the game's story and characters upon completion.