I’ve seen the phenomenal opening cutscene to Square Enix’s latest Final Fantasy title plenty of times now, having imported the Japanese PlayStation 3 version released back in December. However, this time around it was an entirely different experience for me. Not only was I seeing this entire opening section with English voice-over for the first time, but I am amongst the incredibly lucky few to have been able to get an early hands-on with the Xbox 360 version of the title. Regarded as the ‘International Edition,’ it’s set to release across PAL and NTSC regions in under a months time on March 9th.
With the franchise’s history now spanning over two decades, it has been Square Enix’s ability to continually innovate and introduce new aspects within each title that has allowed it to remain so fresh. Final Fantasy XIII marks the first time that a core game from the series has been released on the current generation of consoles, and also acts as the flagship title for the new Fabula Nova Crystallis collection of titles – currently set to also include Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII. Even within such limited playtime at the event in London, it is remarkably evident that Square Enix weren’t going to take any chances and have easily produced one of their finest displays of technical prowess, especially in terms of the titles visuals, which allow them to remain to be one of the gaming industries leading developers.
With Final Fantasy XIII it would seem that their immediate aim is to engage the player within a deep, emotional storyline alongside a faster paced, slicker combat system that seems more reminiscent of the recent PSP title, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. From what I’ve played it certainly seems to be one of the more particularly strong narratives seen within the history of the series.
The plot revolves around the floating world of Cocoon, made possible by mechanical beings known as the Fal’Cie, and the world below, Pulse, that its inhabitants have deemed as hell. The Fal’Cie that inhabit Cocoon have begun to choose L’Cie, those that are chosen to do their bidding. Legends state that the L’Cie are “The enemies of Cocoon, the enemies of humanity,” and so people fear that they threaten the very existence of Cocoon itself. This therefore brings about a purge, speared by the Holy Government, as citizens are sent on trains to a place known as the “Hanged Edge,” where they are dropped into the unknown world of Pulse below and no longer become a danger.
If an L’Cie completes their task, assigned to them by the Fal’Cie, then their bodies are crystallised. However if they refuse to follow their mission, then they will turn into hideous creatures known as “Shigai.” Final Fantasy XIII therefore follows the story of a group of L’Cie seeking to escape from Cocoon, each joining the roster of six characters that you’ll fight alongside in your party throughout the title. There are regular instances where they’ll separate within the storyline to follow their own Fal’Cie missions, to then reunite at a later progression point. This allows for more diversity within the plot, rather than having the entire party uniting under an immediate single goal.
Square Enix’s work in creating their new Crystal Tools engine has really pushed the boundaries regarding the graphical capabilities within their titles – it’s remarkable. Even just swivelling the camera around the characters will leave you with your jaw-dropped, as I’m sure many of you will have seen for yourselves within the latest trailers and screenshots. However seeing it all in action for yourself whilst playing is an absolute visual treat for your eyes – every hair, item of clothing, and particularly the facial detail and expressions are the most believable I’ve seen in games within recent years. Alongside this are the luscious environments, as well as intricate detail on both the bosses and monsters. There won’t be a single moment where you won’t be able to stop gazing in astonishment. It really is a huge technical accomplishment for Square Enix’s development teams, and they should feel particularly proud on the outcome of their efforts. The lip syncing for the character models have also been refined since the release of the Japanese version to perfectly match that spoken by the English voice over cast, again adding to the overall quality of the title.
It wouldn’t be a true Final Fantasy game without incorporating summons, and this time around each character is assigned a specific Eidolon. Within a presentation we were shown both Lightning’s summon, Odin, and Snow’s too, Shiva. Each begun with an incredible summon sequence, all built using the in-game engine rather than being pre-rendered as you would’ve first thought. Whilst in their first form your summon will perform simple attacks alongside you, but the game really notches up a gear when you activate ‘Gestalt’ mode. Here, a transform sequence will occur in which your Eidolon will take the form of a vehicle – examples being Odin’s Horse, or a motorbike for Shiva – and you’ll gain direct control in performing devastatingly powerful moves within the set time limit.
As with previous Final Fantasy titles you’ll spend a lot of your time fighting monsters and bosses, and it is here that the Battle System has received an overhaul. Its basis is now centred entirely on a real time Action Time Bar (ATB) system, and in seeking to quicken the pace of combat situations it no longer revolves around turns – i.e. you can’t take your time in deciding what to do next, as you’ll continually be attacked.
The ATB itself is divided into multiple sections and progressively fills over a period of time. Once full, these can then be spent on performing certain actions, such as attacking, using magic or performing special attacks. Each action will cost you a certain quantity of sections, so as an example we could utilise our three sections by assigning an attack move (1 section) and then a special attack (2 sections). It essentially streamlines the experience in allowing you to queue up and perform actions, to then view your character perform them as your ATB refills. You’ll begin the game with a lower quantity of these, but as you level up through the Crystarium system you will be able to gain additional sections.
Alongside this, each time you deal damage to an enemy you will boost a Break gauge. Once full, their Defense power will immediately fall allowing you to cause far more damage per hit. However, you’ll have to detail continual damage to be able to get an enemy to this point, which therefore allies itself to the much faster pace seen within the combat system. Stronger characters will evidently be harder to Break, yet it is a nice touch to the gameplay that helps in all the tricky battle situations.
Another new feature within the Battle System is that of the Paradigm System, which is essentially a method of assigning job roles to your party characters. In combat you’ll only ever take control of your party leader, so this becomes necessary to ensure that the party AI behave in the way that you wish. There are numerous roles with examples being Commandos, that specialise in strong physical attacks or Medics that use Cure and Life to help keep your party alive. These are customisable into sets of three – which is your maximum party size – and can be freely alternated between outside of/ during battle.
Such changes are welcome and serve to quicken the battle encounters, but some may find issue with certain alterations that have been made. You can no longer flee from battles, and if the party leader that you control during combat is killed you’ll immediately be greeted with the Game Over screen. However, the game does provide you with the option to restart battles if they aren’t going so well, or after having failed. This will then return you to an area before the encounter and provide you with another attempt.
The levelling system has also seen somewhat of a change, returning to a format more reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid rather than the experience grinding of earlier titles. The new ‘Crystarium’ system provides you with the ability to level each Paradigm role within the game individually, and there are separate systems for each character as you would expect. Each role consists of paths that circle around a number of discs, and players can use Crystarium Points earned within battle to unlock certain aspects – to raise stats, or gain new abilities. However, even with such a system you don’t traditionally ‘level up’ and within Final Fantasy XIII you’ll be tasked with upgrading the stats of your weapon to boost your combat abilities, rather than those of your character. These can either be purchased at Shops, available from any of the games frequent save points, or upgraded through the use of parts – rather similar to that seen within Final Fantasy VIII. This is cheaper and provides better benefits to stats, which will cause hardcore fans to be hunting high and low for vital components.
At this point, I’m sure you’re more interested in how the Xbox 360 version is shaping up and how it compares to the PlayStation 3 version. With both sitting opposite each other, it was pretty easy to draw a direct comparison between them. Well, for the most part the games look near enough identical but, and I knew you were waiting for this, there is one difference between them. Whereas the Xbox 360 looks a lot crisper than its PS3 counterpart during general gameplay, it is clear to see that the cinematics on the Xbox 360 version have suffered as a result of compression – evidently to fit them onto DVD’s – and therefore don’t seem as vivid or sharp as on PS3. However I must point out that such a difference is barely noticeable and for all those looking at picking up the Xbox 360 version, you have nothing at all to fear about it being an inferior port – both are easily on par with each other. Square Enix themselves stated that they would aim to make both versions as good as each other, and have even built both on entirely different builds I’ve heard. Regardless, the end result is near enough flawless and doesn’t prevent Final Fantasy XIII oozing quality on every level – a true testament to the quality of their work.
Clearly set to be a fantastic debut for the series on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 when it releases on March 9th across North America and Europe, and is easily a title that should remain on your list as an immediate purchase.
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