There's a moment in Final Fantasy XIII when everything clicks. After fumbling through a jumble of confusing terminology and a dozen-plus overly linear point-A-to-point-B dungeon maps, we found ourselves in a giant stadium flooded with hostile soldiers equipped with rocket launchers - all amid a backdrop of dizzying icy pathways.
We'd finally managed to rejoin characters who, up to this point, had been splintered into separate groups. And now it was payback time. After assembling a battle team capable of laying serious waste with damaging, meaty right hooks and lightning-quick elemental missiles, we were in it to win it.
But getting to that point had been more like slowly stumbling through a tunnel of overwhelming tutorials and convoluted plot foreshadowing than freely exploring a brave new world. L'Cie what? Fal'Cie who? Wait, what's Gran Pulse, and how does that differ from this place called Cocoon? And how do we work this nutty-paced battle system with all of its new-fangled Paradigms and Crystogen Points?
We'll say this: Final Fantasy XIII is one crazy-harsh mistress in its opening ten or so hours. It's like being dropped into the final season of Lost without having seen a single prior episode.
But there's a method behind all the madness. There's a real reason the epic story feels like a series of flashbacks and why the game grills you on learning all the nuances of its incredible battle system. And while your mileage will vary as to when you'll get hooked, once you do, it all comes together like a fantastic puzzle.
Let's get something else out of the way: if you think you know what to expect in a Final Fantasy game, you don't. Square has scrapped nearly every convention in the series' usual bag of tricks. Final Fantasy XIII has no towns: all shopping for weapons and healing items is done at Save Points. You won't find an airship, so there's no backtracking through previous locations until much, much later in the story. This game is built for speed. It's made for you to move from one plot point to the next, with no looking back.
Between story breaks, you'll be doing a whole lot of fighting, and the battle system is fast - really fast. You're responsible for assigning 'roles' to each of three party members in battle, dictating what their abilities are in combat, in something called Paradigms.
For example, making the deliciously coiffed Lightning a commando means she gift-wraps enemies with some devastating attacks. But while she's a commando, Lightning isn't able to heal or spam the enemy with debuffing spells to lower their abilities, so you'll want to assign someone else as Medic and a third person as a Synergist.
You can also stack your Paradigms with up to six different combos (two healers and a defender, or a Synergist, an elemental blaster, and an attacker) that you can swap on the fly during battle. How you pick your team also affects how fast or effectively you'll 'Stagger' different enemies. Staggering bad guys leaves them open and more vulnerable to attack, but you'll need to chain attacks between fighters to reach the varying Stagger points.
All this may sound like algebra, but trust us - once you get the hang of FFXIII's tough-love combat, it's intoxicating. It gives fights a level of strategy and white-knuckle tension that's missing in most other RPGs. A brand-new scoring system adds yet another layer of complexity to the mix, but really it's all about how ridiculously smart the battle system makes you feel the minute you manage to ground a 30-story-tall monster with a well-timed stagger, or by swapping between the right Paradigms.