I have a long history with Final Fantasy games, and an even longer history with putting them off. Like any good RPG, entries in this seminal series from Square Enix tend to be very long. My problem is that I don’t like playing them in short chunks, so until I reach a few weeks-long period where I know I can devote multiple-hour-sessions every night, I often won’t pick up the controller at all.

This would explain why I have only now – four months after its release – finally completed Final Fantasy XIII. Aside from the boring MMO that was Final Fantasy XI, FF XIII is easily the most fascinating anomaly in the main series to me. It is at once the most unique and singular but also the biggest exercise in frustration that has ever carried the Final Fantasy name.

Because of its strangeness, the battle system in XIII takes some time to grow, but once it clicks, it feels amazing. For me, that moment was right around where most of the other elements of the game started feeling great as well: in Chapter 11. The problem? Chapter 11 is a good 30 hours into the game.

Much has been made of the fact that you’ll spend nearly 20 to 25 hours in FF XIII before you’ve finished every tutorial, opened up every battle system, and gained access to every party member and class. This is a serious problem with the game that dragged down my overall experience. I had to fight my own boredom and push through endless corridor after endless corridor for the first two-thirds of the game. It really cannot be stressed enough how much more entertaining things got in Chapter 11, though.

Once you hit this point, the world map opens up. No more being funneled from room to room and cutscene to cutscene. Instead, you’re free to explore a wide open, beautiful expanse and take on hunts similar to those found in Final Fantasy XII. More importantly, the battle system becomes infinitely more exciting, as you can change party members and class setups at will, and you begin to learn some of the most interesting, class-defining powers.

The more that I think about it, the more blown away I am by some of the courageous design choices Square Enix made here. MP is entirely gone. Buffs and debuffs are very necessary (to the point that there are two classes built entirely around them). Your HP is restored to full after every battle. These are major changes to the Final Fantasy formula, huge risks that they could have easily avoided for something safe, but they totally pay off.

FF XIII’s battle system revolves around a mechanic that I don’t believe I’ve seen anything similar to before: the stagger meter. You have two classes -- the commando and the ravager -- whose roles are to build an enemy’s stagger meter by dealing damage. Once the meter is full, the enemy becomes significantly weaker and easier to damage, and some foes can even be launched into the air and juggled so that they don’t even have the opportunity to attack while staggered.

It’s a clever twist on traditional RPG gameplay that, when mixed with the class system, makes for some incredibly fast-paced gameplay. Many of the boss battles become clever puzzles. Do I need to spend time buffing and debuffing in order to succeed? When do I need to switch to my medic/sentinel paradigm to recover? And can I heal up and switch back fast enough to stop the bad guy’s stagger meter from dropping? Experimentation is key, and since you resurrect right before a boss or pack of enemies when you die, annoying deaths that require backtracking are gone, leaving you free to test theories and figure out the right way to win.