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.
In this demo, Snow is wading in knocking lumps out of PSICOM Marauders - curious staff-wielding troops from Cocoon's brutish army, and Garuda Interceptors. We catch a glance of his available commands - Ruinga sounds like a spell of some kind. There's an "Overwhelm" option, too, something Toriyama describes as "top secret". The word "Paradigm" displays next to it though, so our guess is that it changes the character's play style in some way. At the top of the screen a percentage is displayed - as you perform chained attacks this gauge fills. At a certain point it will "Break", and your character will enter into a state that facilitates more powerful attacks. This isn't a "Limit Break", however. When asked whether XIII will have something similar to VII's iconic system, Kitase replied: "It will definitely have something similar, like the Limit Breaks, each character will have something like that, but we can't disclose too much detail". What a tease.
What was disclosed was Shiva, revealed during E309 as Snow's summon. Shiva, as any FF fan will know, is a sexy ice queen. In XIII however, Shiva is very different. In XIII, Shiva is, in fact, two sisters. When summoned, monsters replace your party members and assist you in a back-up, albeit powerful, fashion. We see the Shiva sisters dishing out icy pain with melee and ranged attacks, selected from a standard command menu. However, there's more to summons than meets the eye. By pressing the Square button (on the PS3 version) you can tell your summon to enter what's called "Gestalt Mode". In this case, the Shiva sisters combine to form a motorcycle, perhaps the most titillating motorcycle ever conceived. Snow literally rides them, with one sister gazing longingly into Snow's eyes as the handlebars, the other facing his arse as the saddle. The game then allows you to directly control the bike with commands selected from a brand new menu, inflicting damage on groups of enemies willy nilly. We see Snow drive Shiva up an ice wave, for example. We could say something about a threesome, but we're probably better off leaving it to your imaginations.
Gestalt mode obviously raises a number of questions about the game. You won't simply be able to spam Gestalt attacks, for example - in order to summon you need to fill the Tactical Points (TP) gauge. Kitase is keeping schtum on how you'll build up TP - all he says is a "well-played out battle" will have an effect on it. By well played we assume he means defeating enemies quickly with big chains of unbroken attacks.
Gestalt mode won't always be mechanistic, either. Again, Kitase keeps his cards close to his chest, but he does say "it's not always going to be mecha, like Shiva turning into a bike". "We've just introduced Odin, who is a lightning summon (for Lightning, funnily enough). If you know Odin you kind of know what Odin usually comes with, so you can imagine from there what Gestalt mode is going to be like." Make of that what you will FF fans.
At the end of each battle a ranking screen pops up detailing your efforts. It's out of five stars and determined by "how well you played the battle" - time and chain attacks, but what's the motivation to get five stars? "It'll have a positive effect on your character stance. It might give you more TP, or something that'll benefit you in battle. Right now we're still trying to balance that system out, since it just means that people who are better at playing the game will just keep getting more advantages." Online leaderboads? "That's TBD right now." Bah.
What's clear is that XIII's combat is incredibly free-flowing, and feels, in a word, faster. The team is trying to simulate the combat from animated flick Advent Children, with flurries of attacks rather than slow charged abilities the order of the day. From what we've seen it looks like Square Enix has spectacularly achieved this goal. For many, it's the slow, pondering and clunky combat system that's put them off the series in the past. Those are adjectives you simply can't accuse XIII of. We're not saying we didn't love FF games gone by, but we know it's time for a change. From what we've seen, the change Square Enix has gone for is one for the better.
Finally, then, we're getting a sense of what Final Fantasy XIII will feel like to play. It seems pointless telling you that the game looks incredible, since main Final Fantasy games always do, but the game's graphical quality really can't be understated. It's not photorealistic, but stylised in that unique Final Fantasy way, with the graphical fidelity set to stratospheric levels. It's Final Fantasy "evolved", not only in terms of its battle system (which looks adrenaline-pumping, by the way), but in terms of setting - this is a science fiction universe darker than any in the series, with a lead character stripped of the annoying characteristics of Tidus and co. But it's still a Final Fantasy game at heart. It's still a JRPG, with fantastical designs, a bonkers storyline and an obsession with crystals. Console fanboys will continue to argue the toss, of course. Us? We just can't wait to play what has the potential to be the greatest RPG ever to come out of Japan.
Final Fantasy XIII is due out in North America for PS3 and Xbox 360 in spring 2010. A European release will follow.