The round table Q&A interview session that follows our gargantuan hands-on with the English language version of Final Fantasy XIII is strange. Normally in these things, questions centre on game mechanics, features, future plans, downloadable content and the like. But this one's different.
Most of the questions put to producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama ask, essentially, why FFXIII is so linear, why you can only control one character during combat, and why it doesn't have loads of villages to visit and NPCs to talk to. The result is that Kitase and Toriyama spend most of their time defending the game they've created, rather than explaining what it's about. But they do so with a smile - the development legends have clearly been asked these questions before.
"As you know, the battle system of this game is brand new, even though it is based loosely on the Active Time Battle - as has been the case for years - but it's like an evolved version." Kitase explains.
"Because of the newness of the system, we wanted to allow each player the time to adapt to the new system so that they can learn how the game works and what you can do, in a more natural way. That's the intention behind this criticism of it being linear.
"In the second half of the story, once you get down to Gran Pulse [chapter 11], it's more open field gameplay. So you need to be patient, really."
Patient, huh? That's not a quality you'd normally associate with gamers. Well, maybe we can be patient, if, at the end of the first half of the game, it breaks free from its shackles and evolves into the GREATEST JRPG OF ALL TIME! And by that we mean, there will be loads of villages to explore and NPCs to talk to, right? RIGHT?
This time, it's Toriyama's turn. "The world of Gran Pulse; basically there are several towns and lots of NPCs there, but not that many, so quite a small number of towns. But the main attraction of Gran Pulse is the missions; there are quite a few missions available there. And in many of them you have to take on a boss which is more powerful than the last boss of the main story, so it's quite challenging."
Challenging, huh? How can that be, when you only get to control one character during combat? Doesn't that mean the player will get bored, especially at the beginning of the game where you've only got low level characters with only a few skills available? Aren't you worried players may get bored before they reach the good bits? WELL?
Kitase takes this one. "If somebody quickly understands the basic rules of the gameplay, he or she might be rather bored because they would like to make the best of the functions; pushing the limit of what you can do at where you are.
"What we're hoping that the player would be able to acquire during the first half of the story is not just simply understanding the battle system - that actually could be achieved in quite a short space of time - but then on top of that we would like them to learn through lots and lots of battles what strategy would be the best for each situation. That takes quite a lot of time. So, considering that, we believe this is the right pace, the right amount of time it requires for them to reach the point where they can start enjoying themselves with more freedom.
"The last thing we wanted to see happening is we give them too much information to digest so they get all confused. Before they understand the options they have and what they can do, they are overloaded with all the information and don't know what to do with it. Rather than seeing that happening, it's better to see some people be a little bit bored."
Wow. Did Yoshinori Kitase just admit that some people will be bored while playing FFXIII? Maybe we're misinterpreting the translator's words. Maybe the translator is mistranslating Kitase's words. But we doubt it. We reckon he's just being honest.
We don't feel too bad about our line of questioning, because we are in the unique position of talking to a developer about a game that is already out in Japan. It doesn't happen often these days, but when it does, it provides us game hacks with ammunition to fire at creators. Ammunition that is, essentially, criticism of the game from those who have imported, played and finished it, and then posted impressions online.
That's why in this preview we aren't going into detail about how the game works. You probably already know that it's set in a floating utopia called Cocoon. You probably already know that below Cocoon lies the feared and detested lowerworld of Pulse. You probably already know that there are characters with names like Lightning, Snow, and Hope, who wield big swords and have spiky hair. You probably already know that the new Battle System (which is great, by the way), is like the love child of Final Fantasy XII's freeform system and Final Fantasy VII's ATB system. You probably already know, well... everything. There are guides to the Japanese version of the game on the internet, for pity's sake.
Here are the important facts: for much of the early part of the game, FFXIII is a straight road, with hardly any opportunity to deviate from the path Square Enix has laid before you. But, and this is a big but, eventually the game opens up, allowing freedom for exploration and control over the characters that make up your party. The question you need to answer is: am I bothered? Am I bothered that FFXIII holds my hand longer than it's done in the past? Do I have the patience to wait until it lets go?
There are two sides to every story, of course, especially one as elaborate and long-winded as your typical Final Fantasy tale. But this criticism, on a basic level, baffles us somewhat. The Final Fantasy series, and indeed the JRPG genre, has never been open world in the Fallout 3, Oblivion sense. JRPGs are linear by design, focusing more on stunning cutscenes and scripted storytelling. That's part of their appeal.
Tastes change, of course. There is a school of thought that says traditional JRPG design has become stuck in the mud. At a time when the likes of BioWare and Bethesda are pushing things forward with shooter/RPG hybrids, Square Enix has rested on its laurels, not least in graphical and structural terms. We'd subscribe to this, to an extent. But the last thing we want to see is the JRPG genre becoming little more than a poor reflection of the WRPG. What we want to see is the likes of Square Enix taking on board the best of both worlds, creating something fresh and groundbreaking while retaining what's great about the Japanese role-playing game. That is what we've been hoping Final Fantasy XIII will achieve all along.
We'll end on what we know you're dying to know: what version looks the best? Before we answer this question, a few disclaimers: One) We are not biased. Two) The preview event we attended had a bank of PS3s running the game directly opposite a bank of 360s running the game, but different television sets were used for each console type. And three) Really, we're not biased.
The PS3 version of Final Fantasy XIII looks better than the Xbox 360 version. It's crisper. This relates most to the stunning full motion videos the series is known for. On the PS3, they look razor sharp. On the 360, they are noticeably blockier, as if the resolution was lower. This effect is no doubt the result of the Blu-ray format and its gargantuan data capacity. The only conclusion we can draw is that, for the 360 version, Square Enix reduced the quality of the FMVs in order to fit the game on three DVDs.
It's harder to pass judgement on the quality of the in-game graphics, however. To our eyes the PS3 version looked crisper, but this effect might have had something to do with the televisions. But there is an upshot to all this visual fuss: if graphics are incredibly important to you, and you have both consoles, then you'll probably want the PS3 version.
This is not to say that the Xbox 360 version looks bad. On the contrary, it looks fantastic. Indeed we imagine that had the 360 version not been running right next to the PS3 version, we wouldn't have noticed the difference in quality at all. In short: if you only own the Xbox 360, you won't be getting a substandard version of FFXIII. This is not a shoddy port.
Phew. That was fun, wasn't it? We certainly feel as if a load has been lifted. Good fun, really, all this console war graphics stuff; in a playground sort of way. Reminds us of the time we punched that snotty git who said the Master System was better than the NES. Oh he deserved everything he got, he did. The question now is, what does Final Fantasy XIII deserve? Not long to find out.
Final Fantasy XIII is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 9.