Final Fantasy XIII is a conflicted RPG. On one hand it wants to be a linear action game with stat caps, fast retries, a scoring system and limited character customization. On the other hand it wants to keep RPG staples like optional grinding, farming rare item drops, and a typical angst-ridden plot. Those two factors never find balance and the result is often sub par. FFXIII is different enough from traditional RPGs to piss off some of its established fanbase, yet it doesn't provide a good enough linear action experience either.
The scoring system is a good idea and encourages more efficient play, but still falls short. There's no display of your accumulated points, nor is there a display of your average star rating. Since enemies can be killed endlessly for more points there's no reason to show the numerical score in the first place. While the star rating qualification is based on allied and enemy stats, grinding for better abilities and gear will make it easier to score, which undermines the system.
Getting 5 stars on most battles is meaningless due to the overpowered Fortisol and Aegisol shrouds, and the ability to grind for uber gear. Even if you go for a player defined challenge (no grinding, no fortisol/aegisol, blah blah, etc.) the game is still fairly easy. It doesn't seem like the game is even balanced around getting 5 stars on every fight. For example, sometimes you will encounter two enemies fighting eachother, and they have half health when you engage them in combat. This means the time requirement to get 5 stars is tighter because the game calculates the enemies as having lower health, despite the fact that they are still just as difficult to stagger.
The battle system unfolds at a glacial pace and the developers never use it to its full potential. You're unable to change party members and there's almost no character customization until 75% through the main game. This might be ok if the combat was deep, challenging, or strategic, but instead it's an easy bore for anyone with action game experience and/or half a brain. Most of the game involves hitting auto-battle over and over while switching paradigms, using the same simple buff and stagger strategy. For example, even though you are given a tank-like role, it's almost never necessary because almost no enemies do attacks powerful enough to require a tank to absorb it - just spam buffs and your entire party is tank-like.
If the game is mainly about switching paradigms while the AI handles the individual commands through auto-battle, why didn't the developers make the most out of the class roles and paradigm switching? They could have at least made auto-battle less effective for your leader, so you might have to think a little more about inputting commands. If much of the success of a battle relies on the correct pre-battle setup, why reduce the level of character customization to almost zero? The developers seemed afraid to go beyond 'switch paradigms and auto-battle', and even then it takes over half the game to reach that level of combat. I agree with the Wired review that stated "For the first half of the game, using the roles that you’ve been given to obliterate anything that comes your way requires less strategy than beating a toddler at Connect Four."
If you think this is a 'deep' battle system you are sheltered in with little experience of other RPGs, SRPGs, or other genres. If you had to spend hours trying to kill a boss, had to grind for hours, or saw a non-eidolon boss cast Doom on you, it's because your video game skills are lacking and you are probably used to traditional RPGs that are even easier than this one. A common mistake of bad gamers is to assume grinding is required, when they haven't bothered to understand the game systems, develop a strategy, and apply skill.
I did like the Paradigm shift ATB bonus, which makes the combat a little more fast paced. Switching to any Paradigm config after charging a full bar in another Paradigm config results in a free fully charged ATB bar in your newly switched Paradigm. The developers added this to encourage frequent Paradigm switching, but it just ends up making the game too easy. You will need to take advantage of this to get 5 stars on most fights. The fact that this extremely important feature remains undocumented in the game may explain why some people find the game incredibly difficult. As for 'AI control', I find it very annoying that I can't make an allied commando focus fire on one target if there are multiple enemies.
Throughout the main story your party members are constantly being reassigned which resets your Paradigm deck. It's a hassle to have to remake it every time, considering it happens multiple times per chapter. Not only that but it throws you into battles with reassigned party members without letting you set or even look at your new pre-assigned paradigms. And would it have hurt for the game to remember your party member arrangements last paradigm deck, or let you save different decks, instead of forcing you to remake it every time you swap someone out? It's not like next gen games are hurting for save data space.
Once you reach Chapter 11, the game starts to resemble a more traditional RPG or FF experience. There's exploration, a lax stat cap, side quests, and plenty of opportunities for farming/grinding. At this point any pretense of the scoring system meaning anything goes out the window. It seems like this chapter was thrown in as more of a concession to traditional FF fans than anything that fits with the other 90% of the game. After spending several minutes doing nothing but holding up on the analog stick to traverse the huge zone, you may end up wishing for the linear dungeons instead. In any case, the difficulty ramps up slightly if you choose not to grind, because the game expects you to have spent time grinding in Chapter 11s large exploratory area.
I did enjoy Chapters 11-13 more than the previous 80% of the game. The game finally throws enemies at you that don't blow away in a slight breeze (assuming you didn't spend hours slavishly grinding in the Chapter 11 area). Boss fights start to take 7-8 mins instead of 2-3. There may even be a few rare (yet avoidable) fights where you have to do more than buff, heal, and DPS. But for the most part, it's the same simple routine except with bigger numbers.
The post game is mainly about completing missions, a few lame side quests, and hours of farming for CP and weapon upgrades. Instead of increasing in strategy or complexity, the only things going up are the big numbers, which is typical of RPGs with uncreative and lazy developers. While this might appeal to MMO players, anyone hoping for strategic action oriented combat will be disappointed. Not to mention the soul crushing boredom involved in running around the Chapter 11 area. Why do I have to run around doing missions to get a mount that's only slightly faster than running speed? I have no patience for such tedium. If I wanted to grind for a mount I'd play an MMO.
As for the plot, it's your typical JRPG yarn about angsty tampon filled oppressed kids/man-children railing against an unjust world. Don't be afraid to press start-select the moment things start to get annoying, contrived, implausible, and/or overdramatic, as they very often do. Take a swig of hard liquor every time someone starts crying, shouting like a child, makes a hammy self-affirmative speech, or falls to their knees in despair and you'll be tanked in about an hour. Yes the game looks pretty, but last time I checked pretty graphics aren't high on the list of what makes a good game.
I did enjoy a few fights here and there, but overall the game is disappointing. It will disappoint anyone into action games and anyone interested in a legit challenge, who will dislike the glacial pace of the game, simplistic combat, easy difficulty, flawed scoring system, and wasted potential. S-E made a good attempt with this game, but the results leave much to be desired.