Honestly, I've only played through Final Fantasy XIII twice but I'd still consider it one of the better Final Fantasy games... loved the story, the characters, the flashy battle system, and the music is top notch.
Never really did understand all the hate, although I remember back in the day people going from being 100% all for it, to absolutely despising it once it was announced for the X360 too, not sure if that had anything to do with it in the grand scheme of things but definitely in the communities I was part of, it did.
Also yes, it's pretty fucking linear for the first half of the game, and it does hold your hand and limit you in a lot of ways, for example what you can do with your party... and I guess people were/are still sour about that too, but it never bothered me one bit since I was riding the story wave and loved every second of it! Besides, the game does eventually open up and let you do everything, so... meh.
TL;DR Loved the game when I first played it, played it for a second time when it came out on PC too, still loved it then, the gameplay still held up and still will today, the story was interesting and great, music is top tier... I 100% recommend you giving it a go, fuck the haters and go for it!
How does it compare to other FF games to you?
I mean, whenever I make a list of my top five games in the series, it's usually considered for fourth or fifth place, my top three will probably remain untouched for a long time, as it stands it's sort of like this;
- Final Fantasy X
- Final Fantasy IX
- Final Fantasy IV
- Final Fantasy VI, XIII, XV... all fighting for fourth and fifth place respectively since I sort of change my mind over time, lol.
If I had to compare it to any other game in the series, for some reason I'd say it's closest to Final Fantasy X, not sure why but I could definitely feel some similar vibes, despite them looking and even playing very differently.
I also miss the battle system and hope they'll go back to it at a later date, the Paradigm Shift system was actually really cool in my opinion.
As you'll see from this thread alone, the fanbase is still VERY divided on it, even to this day!