+++ Most difficult game in the entire series
+++ Unparalleled environmental variety
+++ Great combat system
++ Most difficult main storyline boss in the entire series
+ Solid Summon system
+ Incredible graphics
+ Decent Weapon customization system
+ Linearity strengthens the mediocre plot
+ Variety of challenging sidequest bosses
+ Good music
--- Last boss sequence is nowhere near as hard as the area directly preceding it
- First area presented to you is pretty dull
- Supporting NPC cast is forgettable
- Voice Acting is hit or miss
- Only one competent villain
- Plot gets considerably weaker as the game opens up
Music: Snow's Theme
I'd like to structure this review in such a way as to refute some of the foolish arguments against the game. First, however, I'd like to restate the point that the environments in this game are ridiculously varied. The God of War and Uncharted Series are sort of renowned for tossing a new environment at you every 5 minutes, but this game manages to do that for 50 hours worth of environments. Excepting the first bland Final Fantasy VII throwback area the rest of the game is awesome looking and quite distinct from every other area in the game. As previously mentioned the main character Lightning is a hybrid between Squall and Cloud while being a woman which sounds pretty terrible but for some reason it works okay in this and you don't get the desire to cut yourself at any point. Actually the entire game is more or less a series of throwbacks constructed around a plot, VII being the first area and the spiky hairdos, VIII being the Gunblade of Squacloudbitch (that actually works as a gun!), IX being the name of the summons (Eidolons), with X and XII having smaller impacts throughout.
The first main criticism of this game is that it is too linear, but linearity in and of itself can not be a flaw unless the game is an MMO or something. The only thing non linearity does for an RPG is weaken the main storyline since things come out of the blue instead of being constructed around specific events. The actual plot of this game isn't that great but it still has plenty of good scenes and the characters feel well connected due to the linearity. Xenosaga is the stalwart example of a good linear game, and while this game's plot pales in comparison it still works. The database from Xenosaga is here and the gameplay system itself feels like a much more polished version of Xenosaga 3's combat system.
While initially (and for the first 5 hours of the game or so) the game appears to be extremely simple and almost automated eventually you realize you have to construct specific party roles and pick which character you want to control in order to execute the finer portions of those roles. This is done rather swiftly through the "Paradigm Shift" system, and the game focuses around staggering most enemies so they're easy to take down. It is a bit tough to explain but suffice to say this develops into one of the more intuitive JRPG battle systems as the game goes on with a ton of strategic thought involved as opposed to "Spam attack" which perforates most other Final Fantasies. I've heard some people complain that there is an "Auto-Battle" function but this simply speeds up the ages old process of selecting attack over and over, and you will not always use it as you need to select specific attacks for specific enemies. The only problem with this is that for some roles auto-battle is almost useless compared to simply letting the AI controlled allies take that role (such as Sentinel).
Another complaint I've heard about this game is that there are no "towns" to go around and shop and talk to people. Oh no! How horrible that I don't have to run around for 5 hours at regular intervals to "find the cutscene" and figure out how to advance the plot, why must the plot advance for me. I so desired finding a random shop only to find out all of the items were useless and navigating a bunch of menus to sell and sort my items, this on the fly shopping system is terrible! This is the same retarded argument that people use against Vagrant Story, but it comes down to this: Towns in any RPG are generally a pointless timesink and putting the backstory on a random NPC in the middle of nowhere doesn't work any better than simply having an optional database to figure out what the hell's going on.
Exposition is never good storytelling in and of itself, it does little to establish a plot or create interest in a world. Demon's Souls was almost exclusively exposition which was disinteresting at best, you know what made that game immersive? That's right, the awesome fucking dragons. This game is immersive because the sense of scale and huge number of environments shown to you are all dazzling. At one point you're on top of a hugeass airship and you wind up flying directly into a portion of it, only to find that the interior is just as utterly massive as the exterior. Also Snow is ridiculously awesome and his summon is a pair of Icy Shiva clones that combine into a badass motorcycle. Snow actually has a more badass scene where he punches a guard and takes his gun then fires it into the air and says "I am a Pulse L'Cie, I'm here to kill you all!" in order to disperse a crowd. But I am unable to find it, alas.
About 20 hours into this game the world does open up and become essentially nonlinear, you wind up in the Calm Lands from Final Fantasy X and are greeted by this scene which at 5:00 shows a gargantuan Fal'Cie named Titan who eats a giant turtle elephant thingy (Adamantortoise). Yet another criticism of this game is that you were unable to fight Titan (or the giant snake also shown in the cutscene), but to put the sense of scale in the game in words one of the Adamants that he ate is roughly 500 times the size of your character and does about 8000 damage to everyone in your party in one hit, so to fight Titan would be a tad impossible.
This games sidequests are relatively uniform, go here kill this monster, due it in a short amount of time for a special prize. All of them only become available 20 hours in and you wander through the Calm Lands, which is 6 or 7 times as large as its Final Fantasy X counterpart to find them. I have done about 70% of them and 5 starred them all but as I went to replay it for a bit yesterday I did another 5 and found the last one took around an hour and a half of attempts (doing it one of the easier ways possible to boot) and I would have to grind to have any shot at about 10 of the rest of the marks. The last monsters you fight are all tuned around your maximum stats so that they're vaguely possible at that point if you don't use a bizarre strategy, and the game does have fairly low hard stat limits, thus making it next to impossible to overlevel these optional bosses. In essence it has 10 Omega Weapon fights except they're all more difficult than that. This is the main reason I couldn't get a Platinum Trophy without playing the game another 50 hours, though I still relish the thought, if not the grinding, to get to that point in the future.
This game is sort of designed around Trial and Error, you fight a boss the first time and get slapped then figure out a general strategy to fighting him the next time around. If you die or feel the battle is going poorly you can "retry" which puts you an inch before the fight with the capacity to redo your party and paradigms to your liking. Eventually you will find out a set of paradigms that beats most of the game with relative ease but there are still plenty of fights that will give you trouble. As a result you may die 50-100 times in the course of the game (in most other Final Fantasy's I tend to die less than 5 times throughout) but it doesn't feel grinding and irritating and isn't designed in such a way as to piss you off like Demon's Souls.
Adamantortoises also have baby versions (merely 25 times the size of your party) and only one of these is a required fight in the course of the game, but this type of fight is completely unique in the game. To damage you they stomp their feet, but if you are aerial (i.e. attacking with melee strikes) you take no damage from anything except their huge spells. You can't stay aerial forever so you time it in such a way that you do a substantial amount of damage in the air and then transfer to a defensive/rebuffing paradigm on the ground until you feel you're prepared to attack in the air again. While this fight isn't that difficult with higher stats it is merely a shadow of fighting the giant ones which are among the game's tougher and most rewarding challenges.
To amend my previous point there is one part of the game which is like a huge "Hahaha fuck you" sign if you aren't appropriately leveled. If for some strange reason you rush to finish the game instead of messing around a bit in the huge open area you will find yourself faced with the hardest boss in any Final Fantasy. Let's call him "Bart part 2" for short, if you do fight him while lowleveled he will flatten your soul even if you use the "cheesy" method of aegisols and fortisols to buff yourself pre-fight. Bart Part 2 looks and acts the same as Bart Part 1 but there's a hugely important difference that takes a bit to figure out and even if you do figure it out he's still a huge pain while low level.
Zeromus from IV on fastest was the former titan of difficulty but this fight is much more difficult than that. Despite my great desire for dying repeatedly in RPGs I leveled up a bit (the game lets you assign your own stat points essentially so you have control of your own leveling speed can can store up "experience points") and did eventually beat Bart without taking 20 times, though I did get the game's massive hint that it's okay to explore and level a bit prior to getting to that portion of the game. Aside: The boss I actually had the most trouble with is the early fight with the Eidolon Odin, which was the only main storyline boss I had to use Aegisol/Fortisol to beat instead of just trying over and over for another 15 times until I got lucky or grinding.
At this point there isn't a lot of the game left and nothing is quite as hard as Bart Part 2, but there are still a ton of lengthy battles. The very last area of the game is essentially a mega boss gauntlet where even the most basic enemies take 2-3 minutes to kill and several of the fights will take you at least a few tries. Unfortunately and somewhat predictably the actual last boss is fairly trivial compared to the massive 5 hour gauntlet prior to him, but oh well. This game still managed to defy the only huge issue with Final Fantasy games and make it quite a bit more difficult while still having a fun and intuitive combat system.
Final Score: 9/10