Don't let the easygoing nature of the early combat fool you: Maintaining these roles is crucial to winning battles in the second half of the game. You put together different combinations of roles called paradigms and can switch to any of them whenever you like during battle, though doing so interrupts any action currently in progress. Final Fantasy XIII assigns clever names to these paradigms, such as combat clinic and perpetual magic, though it would have been nice to customize your own titles--if only to help keep better track of which one does what in the heat of battle. Nevertheless, if you have a particular need, you can slot in a paradigm to help you. For a hefty dose of buffing and debuffing, activate superiority; if you want to ravage a great beast with magic, give tri-disaster a go. Eventually, different combinations of monsters with different strengths and weaknesses will have you furiously switching back and forth between paradigms as you react to events on the battlefield and discover your enemies' weak points.
Always count on Fang to take the no-nonsense approach.
It's all quite fun and engaging, particularly during boss fights. Several of these fights are difficult and will require a few tries, a few different party member combinations, and a few different paradigm layouts before you triumph. Much of the joy of combat comes from the way characters like Fang and Snow speed about, beating up on imps and wyverns. It also comes from the way the camera moves around, framing the flashy moves while letting you take in important visual feedback like the name of a boss's spell or the countdown timer that appears over your head when doom is cast. Although controlling only a single character at a time sounds limiting, don't assume battles are hands-off affairs. While you can let the game choose a default set of actions on your behalf, some late-game battles benefit from a bit of skill micromanagement on top of the usual paradigm fiddling. There will be smart challenges waiting for you once you overcome the ease of the early hours.
And you'll be up to the challenge with the help of your summons, which are also called Eidolons (just as they were in Final Fantasy IX). You've heard some of these names before: Bahamut, Odin, Alexander, and so on. Using a summon is an unsurprisingly dramatic affair, initiating an ostentatious cinematic that has all of the visual spectacle and swooping orchestral fanfare you expect in such a scene. But as is appropriate given Cocoon's organic-meets-industrial art style, summons are sort of like transforming robots. Snow's summon, the Shiva sisters, combines to become a motorcycle; Sazh's summon, Brynhildr, morphs into a sports car. The transformer aspect sounds a bit cheesy, but the scenes are over the top in mostly the right ways. Thankfully, if you're not in the mood to watch lengthy summoning mini-movies, you can skip over them. In fact, Final Fantasy XIII makes several improvements to general usability, letting you skip and pause cutscenes, and should you lose a battle, you'll be returned to the spot you were in just before the fight started.
Of course, it takes time to earn the spells and attacks you need to fight the big baddies. As you defeat your foes, you earn crystogen points that you then spend to progress. To advance, you visit the Crystarium, which is a slick-looking net of skills and attribute enhancements that might at first remind you of Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. The appearance, however, is only skin deep. Each character has his or her own Crystarium, and at first, he or she starts off with access to only a few combat roles. The small branches off the main path are ostensibly optional, but there's no reason to skip them, given that you can almost always hit every point on the grid before you gain access to the next level of skills--at least during the period when you're limited to just three combat roles per character. Like the exploration, character progression is linear; any sense of freedom the Crystarium may provide is simple trickery.
Don't let the pretty colors and glowing lights distract you: The Crystarium is incredibly simple.
Eventually, you can spend crystogen points on each character in any of the six roles, but by that point, squandering points on lesser enhancements and skills doesn't make much sense. It's more effective to spend them on major improvements in roles you already possess (100 hit points or a high-level fire spell, for example) than to waste them on low-level improvements (15 hit points or a low-level buff) in roles you'll never use. The most freedom you get to develop your characters comes from the weapons and accessories you equip. You can improve your possessions using the monster tidbits and other morsels you'll earn as spoils or purchase from the scattered save nodes that double as shopping centers. It's rewarding to watch your stuff gain levels by adding fangs and particle accelerators to them, and you can even drastically change an item's attributes if you apply the right components.
There are some elements that keep Final Fantasy XIII from being everything it could have been. Even so, it is still a legitimately great game for its stunning beauty, fantastic story, and enjoyable battles, which means it has a lot in common with the Final Fantasy games that came before it. The stubborn gal in the blue sari, the steely blue-eyed star, and even the apprehensive, spiky-haired adolescent are easy to root for, and their journey is as memorable as any other in the series. Even if the gameplay doesn't reach those same heights, almost any RPG lover can still get lost in Final Fantasy XIII.