There’s been so much talk, speculation and wild fanboy forum posting that it’s hard to see Final Fantasy XIII for what it truly is. Reading the internet, you’d think it some weapon of mass gaming destruction, tugged in opposite directions by Microsoft and Sony; the victor guaranteed success in this most bitter of console wars. Will the game be better on PS3 or 360? How many discs will the 360 version be on? Will Blu-ray enable more content? How could you shame ALL OF JAPAN and take the gaijin dollar?!1! It’s easy to forget that, at the end of the day, Final Fantasy XIII is just a video game. It’s just a hotly anticipated JRPG from the makers of that most stupendous of JRPGs: Final Fantasy VII.
So, actually getting a chance to sit down with director Motomu Toriyama and producer Yoshinori Kitase to see the game being played live in a behind-closed doors gameplay demo at E309, is about as exciting as it gets. Finally, we get to see the game in action. Finally we can cast aside fanboy concerns and focus on what really matters: the game itself.
What we see during the brief battle demo confirms what the already-released media suggested: that FFXIII is a science fiction game. Flying ships, Stormtrooper-esque enemy soldiers and laser guns – this is unquestionably a game set in a sci-fi universe. Of course the series has always had sci-fi elements, mainly retro-futuristic and steampunk, but dominating proceedings has been an organic, ye olde feel, one of magic and mysticism. More than any other game in the series, FFXIII feels like a straight up sci-fi action RPG. In many ways it’s more like Mass Effect than the divisive FFXII. That there’s no Magic Points to spend on spells is telling.
And yet, despite this, you can’t dispel how Japanese and Final Fantasy the game remains. The story is a barmy, puzzling affair (FF game endings are famous for confusing players) that plays on well-worn FF themes. The player follows the travails of a resistance group – called Team NORA - that’s unhappy at an oppressive ruling regime – called Cocoon. Cocoon is actually a lovely, expensive floating city, where Paris Hilton and Cristiano Ronaldo are partying right now, no doubt. The rest of the world, a wilderness called Pulse, isn’t so hot. Anyone who comes into contact with Pulse needs to be quarantined. Team NORA obviously isn’t happy with this, so sets about bringing an end to Cocoon once and for all. It’s a classic Final Fantasy set-up. Almost every game in the series has followed a similar “rise up against the oppressors” model.
So far only a handful of characters have been revealed. The game’s protagonist is Lightning, a pink-haired (sorry, strawberry-blonde), tough-as-nails heroine whose destiny dictates that she bring Cocoon down. Lightning is an extremely agile fighter, combining rapid gun fire with quick-fire sword attacks. Joining her is the trench coat-wearing Snow, who looks a bit like Cloud would if he was slightly older and beefed up. He’s slower than Lightning, but more powerful, and big on bare-knuckle punching. Also in the party is Vanille (pronounced like the milkshake… mmmm). While Toriyama is keeping quiet on how she relates to the story, he did reveal that she’s a “cheerful young girl and she seems very bubbly on the outside, but she also has a determination within her”. He describes her weapon as “like a fishing line”. Given the imposing mechs we see the gang go up against are just that, it had better be one hell of a fishing line. Perhaps she could get some tips from Extreme Fishing with Robson Green.
It’s an eclectic group, to be sure, but not particularly surprising as far as JRPGs go. There’s an obvious comic relief character, a big old bruising tank, a ranged Afro-wearing gunsmith and a young, inexperienced, squeaky-voiced urchin. But at least Square Enix seems to have resisted the temptation to have the gang led by an annoying, teenage-angst-ridden emo kid with spiky hair - Lightning looks like she’s got some issues, which should help lend her character a degree of depth. They’ve all got silly names, though. You can’t have everything.
Where the game gets interesting is in its “evolved” battle system. We see this in action for ourselves with Toriyama controlling Snow in the ruins of Pulse, an area you’ll encounter towards the beginning of the game following a catastrophic, crystal-related event. It’s an area made of stone, with collapsed pillars surrounding a central path that leads towards a mysterious light. Like FFXII, you’re able to see monsters on the field before you engage them in battle, so thankfully there are no random, annoying battles to suffer. And battles trigger in the blink of an eye, too, which is great for keeping the action as fast-paced as possible.
XIII employs an evolved Active Time Battle system – it’s technically turn-based but designed to make battles feel like fluid, continuous scraps rather than archaic “I’ll hit you then you can hit me” fights from yesteryear. Snow starts with four time gauge slots (the amount differs depending on the character, and changes as they level up) which fill gradually during battle. Each command you select consumes a predetermined amount of the gauge – quick but weak attacks consume less, powerful but slow attacks consume a lot. You’re able to queue a number of commands together, using up the entire time gauge, then trigger the lot in a chained combo. You’ll then send your selected character (you’ll only be able to control one party member – the game will automatically tell the rest of your party what to do depending on the status of your enemies and how they’re doing) off to open a can of whoopass on your target. The goal is to keep the combo going for as long as possible without getting hit – this breaks the chain.