I'm not a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series. I've played a grand total of five games in the series, XIII being the fifth. I'm not too familiar with these games, so I can't really relate to the comments about XIII being "not a true Final Fantasy game" and to be honest, the linearity didn't bother me because I don't have the perspective of a long time fan of the franchise.
However, I picked up Final Fantasy XIII recently because it was $10 and played it through until the end. While I'm not very good at RPGs, playing FFXIII was a real learning experience for me. It was a combination of education and entertainment that I like to call "edutainment". In playing this game, I got a few good ideas about what keeps me playing an RPG, and the things that make me want to put it down.
So here's what Final Fantasy XIII taught me about things I like in RPGs, and things I don't like so much.
I hate post-battle recovery. I'm pretty sure this was in every other Final Fantasy game I played. After battles, you go through the same ritual due to fear of death. Go to item menu and use Potions to heal up your wounded characters. Use Phoenix Downs to revive the downed characters. Use Ether to refill magic. It happens far too often in far too many RPGs and it's really just a pointless time sink. Final Fantasy XIII is nice enough to refill your HP after every battle, and there's no limit on MP at all. The reason why they can get away with a seemingly over-generous system leads to the next point...
I love when every battle is a challenge. There are more than a few stretches of Final Fantasy XIII where you can just mash Auto-Battle to win. In the early game especially, I was wondering why the battle system was so highly praised when I was getting through by basically letting the AI do it all.
This isn't the case for most of the game, which manages to be challenging almost all the time. The Paradigm system is fantastic, making buffing/debuffing important in normal battles and absolutely imperative in boss battles. If I'm playing through an RPG for an extended period of time just steamrolling every enemy in my way, I'm gonna get bored of it! Final Fantasy XIII's difficulty is always spot-on, and even challenges that seem insurmountable at first glance can usually be overcome if you just reconfigure your party and class setup. It's always a challenge, and that made me want to keep playing.
I hate useless equipment AND upgrading it. I think a good 75% of the equipment I picked up in Final Fantasy XIII was trash. There are TONS of accessories that raise your resistance to status effects and certain types of damage. If you use a healer in your party (which is pretty tough not to do) or spend a few Gil on items, these accessories become meaningless. There are weapons with fantastic abilities like "makes your magic weaker", "makes your physical strength weaker", and "+100 HP which you can already get from the ten +100 HP items you got earlier". They're worthless.
Even if these weapons got some kind of FANTASTIC ability when you upgrade them all the way, I can't tell. The game's upgrade system is so poorly explained in-game that I ended up looking up a guide to find out how to upgrade the few pieces of equipment that have an immediate good effect. It's not worth leveling up this "Enfeeblement" staff to see if it evolves into The Godlike Killing Staff of Pure Death if I could just upgrade the "Better Healing" staff and beat the entire game without changing it.
I love checkpoints!! Exclamation points mean I'm really serious about this. The checkpoints in Final Fantasy XIII are fantastic. Since nearly every battle includes the very real possibility of you getting your ass blasted off in seconds, they checkpoint the heck out of this game. Failed a battle against one of those Behemoth guys because he stood up halfway through and decided to kill you in one shot? You get a "retry" right on the spot which spawns you outside of the battle and gives you time to change your tactics. I've played a few RPGs where you would get kicked out to THE MAIN MENU after losing a battle and have to retry from the last save point, which means you could be losing a ton of progress. I hate that. I love checkpoints.
I hate anime. I don't hate the entire medium in general, but I hate the common themes that seem present in anime. Final Fantasy XIII is full of them throughout the story: you've got your whiny kid, stoic hero, chronic backstabber, Green Power Ranger (who seems evil at first but eventually joins your squad), and evil overlord who you will definitely have to fight multiple times and might be the final challenge. As a result, I couldn't find myself getting attached or caring about most of the characters or the story at large. I spent a lot of time reading the datalog to find out more information on the characters because the game is definitely not gonna tell you straight out. Everyone's too busy angsting to actually let me know why I should care. The whole story in general felt like something I've seen way too many times in anime before: ragtag team bands together to save the world. And they literally invoke the power of FRIENDSHIP in the end to do the impossible and win. Boring.
I love good post-game content. When I play a game, I try to get the most out of it. It's a bummer finishing a game and having nothing to do afterwards but start a new one. Final Fantasy XIII unlocks a ton of cool things after you beat it. New missions, new areas to explore, and the opportunity to raise all your characters to their maximum potential. New Game+ is cool, but I think I like post-game additions in RPGs even more.
I hate not having fast travel in a large world. Once I got to the point in Final Fantasy XIII where I could do sidequests, I set out to do ALL of them because I like sidequests. I quit about two hours later because it was taking too long. There are a few missions you can complete to unlock fast travel spots. But this world is really, REALLY big. The fastest travel option you get is a Chocobo, but this option is hidden very well and requires you to do a lot of legwork on your own to finish a few loosely-connected sidequests to unlock. And even when you get the Chocobo, you can lose it easily because there's so many wild enemies running around to knock you off. Which means you'll have to walk quite a while to get on another mount. Which you'll probably lose again. Oh well. If you're gonna put in a huge overworld, have a good fast travel system!
So thanks to Final Fantasy XIII, I know what my ideal RPG would be like. I don't know if I'll find a game that's consistently challenging yet forgiving in the battles and not too anime'd out as far as the plot goes, but I'm glad I finished the game and got a better sense of what I really appreciate as a gamer.