Next to warm toilet seats and plentiful cheap tempura, early video game releases are the best thing about living in Japan. April 16th saw the release of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete, which included a playable demo of Final Fantasy XIII.
FFXIII had been off my radar for the last year partly because I find the series to be vastly overrated (except for XII) and partly because I began to question whether the game would actually come out.
But now I've played it, and holy catfish Batman, it's actually a lot better than I expected. Lemme give y'all the rundown in a sort of a review format.
The only real criticism is that oodles of features intended for the final version are not included in the demo. There is no camp menu, only two playable characters, and only a handful of commands. You control Lightning and Snow in separate scenarios where you'll go through a set path, kill some baddies, open a few treasures, and watch more than a few cutscenes. You will have support characters controlled by AI, including Sahz, the afro Samurai.
Field actions are simple and automatic. You can interact with obstacles at set points and open treasure chests like any Final Fantasy game. Conversation with NPCs is now done automatically by approaching them. Everything is voiced. This is a bit annoying actually since you sometimes can't tell who said what, though the sheer volume of voicework it implies on is ambitious. The field camera is intuitive and set a bit closer to the character, somewhat like Resident Evil 4.
Two words to describe the combat: Potentially epic. Given that the demo offers no flashy skills and only a handful of simple spells, I was surprised at just how much fun I had. The fundamentals are just so good. Battle takes place in a separate screen and is menu-based, yet the pace is faster than XII and just as action packed as Star Ocean. You can chain up to three commands at a time, combining attack spells, launch attacks, and regular strikes. Higher level spells eat up all three slots in the queue, thus require more time and better planning.
Knock off enough successive attacks in a row and you'll get increase your chain combo meter. A high chain will increase your attack power by a set percentage, thus if you're good at timing attacks and getting combos, the game will be a cakewalk. The real game will likely be harder than the demo though, and hopefully longer. I finished the whole dang thing in 50 minutes.
FFXIII comes extremely close to fulfilling a dream held by Square Enix since FFVII: the creation of a Final Fantasy game where the in-game graphics are just as good as the cutscenes. The line was considerably blurred by FFX and FFXII, but with FFXIII, you really can't even tell at times. The difference really is in the fluidity of the animations. The cutscenes beat anything you've ever seen on a seventh generation console. They are just as good as the Advent Children movie. The regular game graphics are not as detailed, but certainly give MGS4 and Killzone 2 a run for their money. FFXIII is vivid, rich, colorful, and extremely diverse and audacious in its range of designs. There's bound to be a character or an outfit or two you don't like, but the sheer amount of creativity that has gone into this game is staggering. It is eye-catching enough that even my fiancee (who hates video games) parked her butt and watched me beat the whole thing.
The music is quite good from what the demo shows, which isn't a whole lot. The battle theme will be familiar to anyone who has seen trailers. It is off the chain, though I hope there are a few others to go with it. The spacy overworld music during exploration is also cool but not earth shattering. What stands out more than the music is the excellent voice work. The dialogue is well written and acted, particularly Lightning's. She is shaping up to be a fantastic protagonist in a series with some truly underwhelming main characters.
The demo does not reveal much more than what I had already read in Famitsu. We see Sazh and Lightning working together at first. She is working against the Cocoon military to complete a mission about which we know little. Sazh seems to just be tagging along and is unfortunately, not quite the pimp god that Barret was. Snow, a resistance leader battling Cocoon's military, is a typical tough guy / cool guy leader. His troops offer some comic relief and we see his bravery toward the end of the demo. Really, the story could go anywhere. It certainly looks to have a lot more gravity and suspense than any JRPG in recent history. It also looks to be very heavy on the cutscenes, all of which are pauseable and skipable, but gosh, they're so dang pretty why would you?
Very easy though when more features are added, it could get tricky. FFXIII demands fast decision making. The dynamic active time battle forces you to pay attention to a lot of things at once. The camera is also controllable using the right analog stick, which is ridiculously cool in battle; characters move around freely, and being able to rotate around the field as your boys tear enemies up is super sweet.
Sign me up! I am officially really looking forward to this game now. It could potentially be just the right combination of gameplay depth and stylistic flair. The aesthetics are definitely there. My only concern is challenge and replay value, two things which Final Fantasy games historically don't do well in my view. I guess we'll see. Though I'll see sooner than most of you, since in Japan it will be out in 2009.
Until then, I'll continue enjoying the warm toilet seats and the tempura, though perhaps not in that order.