Literally the second thing you see after booting up Final Fantasy XIII, immediately following the Square-Enix logo, is a message asking you to "Press any button to continue." This is before you get to the title screen, mind you--before you have even mentally registered that the game could be asking you for input. It ambushes you, frankly. I thought it was a joke at first. It's not. The reward for pressing any button--for me that's the A button, being an XBox gamer by way of Nintendo, instead of whatever wacky "continue" button location Sony started using for the Playstation--is another OK-only dialog asking you to pick a location for your saved games. I don't have a memory card or anything in my XBox, so there's only one possible storage location.
That's three button presses, and no actual choices, in the first minute. First fifteen seconds, if you've seen this before and just hammer your way through it.
The Final Fantasy games have never been about open worlds and nonlinear choice, but they've at least maintained the illusion that the player has options. The thirteenth outing drops all those pretensions. It combines save points with shops and upgrade stations, so there's no side trips. It puts levelling up right in the pause menu. As of the ninth chapter (out of 13), every level is practically a straight-ahead corridor, with a handy automap that reminds you which way to run in case you forget. It is, in other words, lots of button presses, and no actual choices.
This extends to the new fight system as well, which features no small amount of hot A button action, usually to select "auto-battle" for a single character (the others are controlled by the AI). Eventually, Square introduces a "Paradigm" strategy layer on top of all the auto-battling, where you get to choose between different roles (tank, healer, mage, etc.) for party characters, but even granting that complication this is a game that my dog could probably play, if I could just train him to press the big green button on the fighting stick. And then he could play Tekken, too, which would be good for a laugh.
I've played a fair amount of this game while on a week's vacation, in between dance practice and dog walks, and at times it almost seems like it was satire. But it's Square, so of course it's hopelessly self-important. The writing's incoherent, the characters are shallow, the voice acting is sometimes flat, and the cosmology is vastly overcomplicated. If it were any more deadpan, we'd have to check for rigor mortis. On the other hand, I'm still playing and will probably finish this weekend, so it must be doing something right. Not that it would take much: bear in mind, I watch low-budget SciFi channel movies for fun.
I think what fascinates me about FF XIII is the ornery throwback quality of it all. In ruthlessly trimming everything about the game down to the very core of JRPG-ness, Square has made the game more streamlined--easing players gently from one barely-distinguishable fight to the next with only the occasional video clip to separate them--but also made it clear how little their conception of a "video game" has evolved. For all its sound and fury, the result is about two menus (and oh, how Square loves their menus still) away from Chrono Trigger.
There are some great games in my collection that you couldn't have done on a Super NES. Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn't work without higher-capacity media. Sands of Time really needs 3D to sell its acrobatic puzzles. And it's hard to imagine Burnout without the hyper-realistic, slow-motion car crashes. But there's very little in this Final Fantasy, apart from the admittedly-gorgeous art direction, that wouldn't play equally well in 16-bits or less.
And so ultimately, FF XIII occupies a weird space. It's clearly an incredibly expensive game in terms of production values. It's a continuation of one of the most well-respected video game franchises in existence. It's a certain amount of fun to play. And yet, if I were a complete stranger to gaming culture, I have no idea how I would react to this odd combination of lavish graphics, active time battles, and simple menu trees--a distillation of old-school RPG mechanics in a shiny new shell. I suppose I'd just have to press the A button, until it told me to stop.