No surprise then, the fully unlocked battle engine's a beast to master, so you're eased in, a chapter at a time, grappling with concepts like: Queuing costly commands in real-time. Staggering enemies to ratchet up damage. Switching "paradigm" party roles (tank, nuke, healer, etc.). Summoning Eidolons to fight by your side in "gestalt" mode. Using pheromone-like "shrouds" to startle enemies. Upgrading weapons from weird-sounding bric-a-brac. Scanning enemies for performance intel, so that the rest of you party can auto-engage optimally. And so on.
Battles are meant to function like puzzles, thus the battle ratings post-op that rate your performance and award better or worse (or no) items accordingly.
Even the character-leveling system--the "crystarium"--dovetails with the startup focus-approach to progression. You can tinker a bit with each character's forte, but at least initially, each party member's leveling along a fixed path with stop points dictated by the number of battles you're (again, initially) able to fight.
The upsides are huge. By restricting your freedom early on, the design team can predict what sort of party you'll be packing when you stumble into Area X to throw down with Mob Z. They're thus able to craft encounters that depend less on brute force and more on coming up with clever tactical solutions to battle puzzles. How you perform during battles matters more than all the item enhancements and ability buffs you've clapped together going in. All Final Fantasy games require this to some extent, but never like this--a highly sophisticated permuting combat system that works hand-in-glove to help you puzzle out hundreds (or is it thousands?) of thrilling encounters. All the while, you're chewing up story by the yard, forming a kind of relentless dual-channel info feed--battle to story, story to battle--competing to keep you riveted.
Once I stopped expecting the game to be Final Fantasy XII (that's '12', the last in series) with prettier graphics, I relaxed into the focused-progress approach and found it almost liberating. Instead of killing time poking around lifeless villages with zombie-dumb citizens and generic shops, I was hurtling along at warp speed, grappling with increasingly elaborate battle tactics, no two enemy encounters alike.
Linear? Yes. But linear with purpose, and I'd argue 'elegance' as well.
Follow us on Twitter (@game_on)