Final Fantasy XIII Preview (Xbox360)

It's kind of cruel to still only be writing previews of this game, especially when Japan has had it for over a month now. The first true Final Fantasy title on the current generation of consoles, FF 13 has been a long time coming, and is certainly creating a buzz. Making fundamental changes not seen since the last generational shift, Final Fantasy 13 is trying to take the series to dazzling new heights, with a new engine, new game mechanics, and story that they hope will tug even the coldest of heart strings.

Up on the first floor of a modern little club in the middle of London, Strategy Informer was able to get a sneak peak at Square's latest (J)RPG adventure. After a lengthy presentation that introduced us to various segments of the game, we were finally allowed to hit the floor and get our FF13 groove on. And have some lunch. Both 360 and PS3 versions were played throughout the day, but in all honestly there's little difference between them, even in graphics. Whilst it's good to see the 360 keeping pace, it does also imply that on the PS3 side, Square haven't taken full advantage of the console's potential. Regardless, the game looks beautiful, and is probably one of the 'best' titles in the series in this regard.

Between extensive previews, and what few reviews of the Japanese release, there's probably little you don't know about the game. Final Fantasy 13 makes a return to a more futuristic setting, which is a refreshing change and will help the title stand out from the rest of the series. There's been a steady stream of JRPG's in the past few years, and few have ventured far from the high fantasy format, so it's nice to see something different for once. Still, the world of 'Pulse' does have more natural elements down on the surface, so the game is not completely set in high-tech areas.

The story itself should prove to be one of the better ones to emerge in a Final Fantasy game, although things were still slightly confusing during the opening segments. However, with a reported 40-50 hours worth of content, there's plenty of time to figure out what's going on, as well as be enthralled by what looks like it could be a very gripping tale. The beginning portion of the game is very start/stop, with the action regularly shifting from one set of characters to the next. Things calm down a bit when the 'gang' are finally all together, but then with the inclusion of flashback scenes as well, be prepared for an experience slightly akin to Metal Gear Solid 4.

As you will know, this game has brought in a lot of changes to the structure and gameplay, and whilst it still 'feels' like a Final Fantasy, there's plenty of new things to get to grips with. These changes mainly focus around combat, which we will go into in a bit. You get the impression that a lot of the more inconsequential gameplay elements have been stream lined. For example, shopping and upgrades are now done through the save points. Upgrading of weapons as well is actively encouraged, with more practical benefits available that make simply getting the 'better' weapons not the only viable option.

It's in the combat however where things really get interesting. Final Fantasy 13 blends the real time combat of FF12, with the Active Battle System found in earlier titles. Enemies will appear on the game world environment, however unfortunately you still 'load' into a separate battle area, although the load time is almost negligible. Combat mainly revolves around 'jobs' and Paradigms. Each character has a certain set of 'jobs' that they can do, each with their own subtle emphasis in terms of stats and abilities. If you combine the focus of all of the characters in your team, you have a 'Paradigm', which again is a general focus for the whole team.

Different enemies will require different 'Paradigms' in order to be defeated, especially bosses and higher level mobs. Shifting paradigms during combat is actively encouraged, and as you level up and use them more, the more roles and paradigms will be unlocked. This helps keep the game play fluid, and avoids character archetypes - although everyone does have some kind of general specialisation. Combat also no longer follows the 'line' format, where the two sides would basically line up and take pot shots at each other, before retreating back into formation. Now, everyone moves around the match as they attack and defend, although all of this is controlled by the AI.

The second area of combat is to do with summons. As the game progresses, everyone is paired up with an 'Eidolon', that they have to master so that they can use them in battle. These Eidolons (read: summons) seem to be bio-mechanical in nature, as on one level they fight alongside you, but then they also transform and the two of you fight as one. (Don't think true combination, but as you may know, Snow's Eidolon turns into a bike that he can then ride - most 'Gestalt' modes are along this line.)

One of the most odd changes in the battle dynamic however, is the fact that you can only 'control' one person at a time. Just like with the movement during battle, the AI controls the actions of your team mates. This limits what you can do during battle, and in the early levels when you don't have many abilities, there is a danger that fighting can get a bit stale. I mean, not only do you not have much to do, but you have not much to do with only 1 person. Things get more interesting as levels go up, but it seems a bit of an odd move to make. Not only can you control only one person at a time, but you have no say as to who that person is either. That is dictated purely by what's happening in the story. As mentioned above, the story does jump around and switch perspectives a lot (sometimes too much), so you will get through everyone eventually, but taking away control over the group kind of removes part of the strategy to the game.

Cynics could argue that there's been some 'dumbing down' here, what with all the streamlining and altered battle system, but we like to think that they are simply trying to be more immersive, to lead you through a story without having to worry about stats, equipment and strategies. Whether or not you consider that dumbing down is up to you, but we are definitely excited about this game. The game is reported to be very linear for anywhere up to the first half of the game, before finally opening up and becoming more "interesting'. When asked about it, Director Motomu Toriyoma commented that it acts as a 'tutorial' for the rest of the game. Regardless, don't expect too much freedom till well within your first play through.

We are definitely optimistic about this game, possibly even excited. Final Fantasy is one of the series that always teeters on the edge of being stale or repetitive, especially since they are now approaching their 13th and 14th titles. Whilst FF12 wasn't amazing, FF13 is shaping up to be a fine return to form, although naturally only time will tell. It should also be noted that no details regarding the rest of the Fabula Nova Crystallis (PS3 exclusive Final Fantasy Versus XIII and the PSP game Final Fantasy Agito XIII), were mentioned during this event. It will be interesting to see how those two titles interact with the main Final Fantasy title, but that's a story for another time.

Final Fantasy 13 is due out in Europe and North America on March 9th on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.