JRPGs ain't what they used to be. In some ways that's a good thing- you can't make the same fantasy game with turn based uninvolving combat forever, no matter how good your visuals and soundtrack are. However I must note that as far as I can tell they've gone in three directions.
The first is that they have become absurdly complicated, and all manner of abstract and contrived systems are involved in combat and character development. This is what strikes me when I look into games such as The Last Remnant or Infinite Undiscovery. This excessive abstraction is intended to obfuscate the uninvolving nature of such games and try and give the illusion of player agency in a world without any.
The second is to eliminate the turn based menu combat and interaction, and use more real time or tactical features, making it not really a JRPG at all and something more gameplay driven entirely. Check out Kingdom Hearts or Nier maybe. Very Japanese RPG in style, but not turn based at all.
The third, which I have only noted in the case of FF13 is to take note of all the problems posed by JRPGs, and rather than fix them with new systems, create ways of working around them that solve nothing whatsoever and just kind of pretend that's okay. This is the worst kind by far.
So here we have Final Fantasy 13, in no way the thirteenth final fantasy game ever made, which takes the design approach of spotting something broken and throwing a gigantic noncommittal rug over it. I'll get straight to the point - there is almost no gameplay in this game.
Sure, there's the idea of gameplay, just like there's the idea of good or evil or the perfect summer's day or Patrick Bateman, but it's no deeper than a shadow and far less interactive. The game gives you plenty of options but they're almost entirely meaningless and player agency is but a distant memory.
Let's start over. FF13 is a story about some people who live in a floating country called Cocoon, who are accidentally embroiled in a terrible conflict when creatures from the surface world below (called Pulse for some reason) whom they are all terrified of (for a fairly decent reason.) There's a lot of conflict regarding how the government deals with this incident (i.e.. really badly) and then they all get infected with some sort of curse by the creature from Pulse which basically removes any agency they have in their own lives and either turns them into monsters for not doing what it wants or turns them into statues (who may or may not have done terrible things) if they obey their orders.
In a way it is almost logical for a game about how you deal with having any choice taken away from you and being forced to soldier on hoping desperately for a positive conclusion to take away almost all choice from the player and force them to soldier on whilst hoping desperately for things to improve. However that does not make for an at all interesting, involving, or especially playable game, and regardless of clever allegory and direct narrative allusion through gameplay mechanics, it just plain sucks.
I'll admit that the story does seem to be one of the better ones, and though I only spent 13 hours with the game I should be qualified to determine the story quality as probably 6 hours of that was spent watching non interactive scenes and reading through the back story. Yep, for a game that forces almost no involvement upon you in favour of story it does an appalling job of grounding you in the basic facts of the game world. Reading the rather lengthly Datalog is literally the only way of understanding what Cocoon and Pulse are, what the Fal'cie and L'cie are, who PSICOM or the Guardian Corps are, what some war that's casually mentioned was, what any of this shit even means in context- basically anything that isn't happening right now or recently is skimmed over in favour of direct action in the moment.
I hardly have to say these days that the visuals are pretty splendid as this is a Final Fantasy game. Everything looks pretty fancy and flashy although I must say the character design is a little uninteresting- with the exception of Lightning and Sazh everybody looks a bit generic. Monsters are likewise mostly fairly formulaic- similar to how Pokemon have devolved into random shapes with faces, many of the enemies are just animals or weird robots with patterns on them- but there are a few exceptions that make up for that mainly in the form of boss battles.
The sound is all round pretty awful and does an appalling job of complementing what little gameplay there is. Music is bland and entirely forgettable, and doesn't really fit the mood at any point in the game. Surprisingly the sound design itself is also really poor,for a game with so little interaction the least you could expect would be a decent report from the menu or when performing magic but everything is pretty weedy and overly synthesised. There's just no life to it, no heart, no soul. It is purely functional.
Outside of the aforementioned cut scenes and reading there are three things: walking forwards, fighting a bit, and managing your character development. Walking forwards is pretty straightforwards as you can imagine, the game layout is hyper linear and there is almost nothing to be gained from exploration, although it does try and make this a little more challenging by swinging the camera all around your arse all the time and having Lightning run like a complete dickhead.
Managing character development is deceptively linear. At any point you have access to a range of character classes dependent on character and story progression. You can spend exp upgrading your stats and skills in one of these character classes in the pointlessly convoluted crystarium, which is basically a big windy path of subsequent upgrades. You get up to six different character classes which you can switch during battle and affect what skills you have at your disposal and how effective you are in certain situations, but more importantly they affect how your team AI works. Upgrading these is super basic and you don't really need to think that much about which to develop because there are only six and you keep having your party changed all the damn time anyway.
Now for my primary issue with the game. The story was fine, I was even okay with having to read some of it myself. I don't care about the music and the sound design would have simply been a nice bonus. The upgrade system is pointless, yes, but at least it's slightly more involving than fixed character classes. Even the absence of anything to do other than move forward, watch things happen, and get into fights would have been acceptable if those fights had been anything other than a completely pointless, uninvolving, almost deliberately and unashamedly anachronistic waste of my time.
It's pretty simple really. You get Lightning (or maybe somebody else depending on your point in the game) to do actions like the classic ATB. Wait for your turn, navigate menu, select target, off you go. However that's about as far as it goes. Your team mates are 100% AI controlled. The enemies are generally incredibly simplistic. There's even an auto battle function which you will use a whole lot more than you expect, because most fights are so utterly devoid of intellectual substance that you can just get the computer to guess its way to the cake. The game even tells you that the Auto Battle will always choose the most appropriate commands for any given situation. All it can't do is use an item or special command (of which I only ever got 1, Libra, which tells you enemy weaknesses and basically enhances the player side AI even further), or change the current paradigm (class loadout for the team.
Essentially, combat boils down to hitting auto-battle over and over and waiting for the correct time to change your class configuration to either heal, debuff, or build up a combo attack. The only decent addition to the combat is this combo system which will eventually 'stagger' an enemy and cause you to inflict tonnes of damage on them with subsequent attacks for a period of time. You're specifically told to do this as much as you can so there goes another tactical decision straight into the FF13 one button attract mode gameplay model.
In the past people have complained that JRPG combat is uninvolving, and doesn't require much player interaction than choosing some stuff from a menu and hitting A repeatedly. Rather than involve the player further Square have chosen to run with this and get a computer to do these menus and mashing A for you. It has removed you from the equation. I'm sure that if they'd have wanted they could have made your paradigms switch according to context and you'd never have to do anything other than hold forwards on the left stick and occasionally hit A to advance text. Maybe that's what Final Fantasy 15 will be- a sixty hour movie where you have to hit a button every time you want the next scene.
People complained that towns are only there for you to buy stuff for your guys and generally ignore before continuing with the story. (These people were wrong, and NPCs and setting are vital in building a living, breathing, believable game universe.) Thus we have no shops, no NPCs you can actually talk to, no chance to explore or experience the world of Cocoon (and presumably Pulse) other than what we are explicitly shown.
People complained about random encounters being incredibly annoying. They were right in many ways, and to fix this now enemies are shown in the environment, and you simply can't avoid fighting them 95% of the time. Now rather than random battles, you have fixed, linear, preplanned battles. This also deals with the complains about grinding, as there's no scope for that because there's no random battles and enemies don't respawn. This does however leave no scope for self driven character development (lets be honest, a little bit of time spent just fighting can be fun for the level rewards) and once again the player is given no choice in the matter.
In software development seeing a problem and developing a workaround is a way of handling bugs in a game when you don't have the time to fix straight away. As far as I can tell it was Square's entire strategy in designing the interactive portion of this game. The appallingly pointless gameplay is there only to remind you that this is in fact a game you're playing, and not simply an absurdly long movie (with crap sound and character design (this story would have been better told as a novel.)) I should note though that they've finally included an option to skip cut scenes, so if pointless detached combat is really your thing, you have the choice to remove the only thing that might make this title worthwhile.
I've been told that the game gets better after twenty five hours. If you're somebody who can trudge through twenty five hours of mind numbing shit in order to get to the 'good bit', feel free to play Final Fantasy 13. I, on the other hand, actually have things to do other than put up with another 12 hours of this game, and it's kind of sad if you can devote twenty five hours of your life to dealing with poorly designed rubbish just to enjoy a payoff that literally can not possibly be worth it.
Just go read a book instead.