IT'S BECOME A COMMON BELIEF among cynical gamers that Japanese developers are a dying breed. If Final Fantasy XIII is Square Enix's official response to this, they seem to be saying, "We're alive—we just don't really want to make games anymore."

Whoa there, fanboy! Put down that frighteningly expensive replica Buster Sword! Maybe it's a bit harsh to say that FFXIII isn't a game, but the first 20 hours are only slightly more interactive than a broken DVD player. You run forward, you win a few hundred fights—most of which devolve into pressing a single button repeatedly—and you watch 10 to 12 hours of cinematics that fill in the background story of the world, its citizens, and the tiny yellow birds who live in their hair. I hope you like exposition, because unless you dropped $60 on this game entirely for the story, I doubt you'll get past the opening section without returning it to the store.

That's a real shame, because once the game eventually starts offering you choices about what to do, it's fantastic. Square Enix has crafted some of the finest graphics ever, and the sound effects and music are so good that I've spent 20 minutes trying to come up with a gag based around the phrase "aural sex."

Of course, at least half of the characters you meet are annoying anime clichés, but that's the reality of the genre. Square Enix should be handed a gold star for taking these clichés and giving them each a level of real character growth over the game's 60-plus hour runtime that you'd never expect from a Final Fantasy game.

It's obvious that Final Fantasy XIII is a wild experiment for its creators. For the first third of the game, I wanted to decry it as utter shit and warn you all away from it, but for those devoted fans who can wade through the initial 20 hours, the reward is one of the best games since the series went 3D.