The latest "Final Fantasy" title offers a new spin on an old formula, but ultimately shows that there are only so many ways to skin a Cait Sith.

The latest "Final Fantasy" title offers a new spin on an old formula, but ultimately shows that there are only so many ways to skin a Cait Sith.

"Final Fantasy XIII," the first "next-generation" title in the long-running line of Japanese role-playing games, puts the emphasis on technology rather than traditional fantasy.

Long in production, this game is a first on many levels - the first Xbox 360 entry to the core RPG series, as well as the first game in what Square Enix claims will be a new series of titles potentially stretching out for the next decade.

But it arrives with its share of first-generation bugs. While the storytelling methods are tried and true, it's obvious that all this shiny new technology prevents the game from reaching its true potential.

Players familiar with the conventions of Japanese RPGs will find much that's familiar here - a strategic battle system that allows players to control characters in turns; a misfit gathering of characters who are at first stereotypical, but evolve and become interesting in their own right.

What stands out from the usual are a few new characters and some gorgeous visuals. Unfortunately, the game suffers from an initially linear presentation that starts slowly and then turns the difficulty all the way up to 11 in the third act.

Also overdone is the melodramatic dialogue - I found two of the main characters so annoying that I cringed when they were talking for any length. Luckily, the characters develop in pairs, so likable characters often offset the annoying ones.

Standing out throughout is the female lead, Lightning, a woman conflicted in her duty and obligation to her family and people. This hardened female soldier is one of the first female protagonists in the series, and her portrayal is natural, capturing her humanity despite the excess melodrama that surrounds her.

Despite a fairly good story, "Final Fantasy XIII" takes far too long to get moving. Gamers accustomed to the frenetic pace and rapid character development found in games like "Mass Effect" or "Fallout" will grow bored and feel constricted by the straight-line storytelling here.

But those who stick around will find a surprisingly fun and tactically interesting combat system. Despite some minor annoyances, this is a good investment for fans of the JRPG genre. Oh, and did I mention it's beautiful to boot?