Final Fantasy XIII has been a long time coming. And unfortunately for us all, this review is for the recently-released Japanese Demo Version, not the finished game. Still, this little taste while waiting for the real thing is appreciated, and if nothing else, gives an indication of what the battles in Final Fantasy XIII will feel like. And, believe it or not, the verdict is this: it doesn’t feel that much different from what we’ve seen before.
The demo begins with a lengthy opening cutscene that introduces the main character, Lighting, and her sidekick Sazh Katzroy. Lightning does, indeed, appear to be a female rendition of everyone’s favorite Cloud Strife. Calm, collected, short on words, and possessing the ability to kick copious amounts of ass, Lightning is already shaping up to be quite an interesting lead. Sazh is there to back her up with some dual-pistols and some comic relief. (He has a damned Chocobo living in his afro.) After a short boss battle that acts as a tutorial, the two set out onto the rubbled streets of Hanged Edge.
The primary focus of this demo is, unsurprisingly, the combat system. Someone familiar with Japanese might be able to glean some story elements out of it, but the rest of us will have to settle for what we get. Luckily, the combat is fast, fun, and somehow, manages to feel familiar. To be frank, it feels a lot like a mix of Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XII.
So here’s a breakdown of how it works: while traversing the field map, groups of enemies are visible on-screen. Coming into contact with them prompts a transition to the battle screen. (Yes, there IS a transition; battles don’t take place the field map as they did in FFXII). Once in battle the player has control over Lighting, and only Lightning. Any and all actions are dictated by a rather large and prominent ATB bar visible in the lower-left corner of the screen. The difference between this and prior ATB systems is that the bar fills up rather quickly, and is divided into 3 segments. Now, the reason for the division is this: each action available to Lightning has a number assigned to it. (The demo only has actions with values of 1 and 3, but it can be assumed that the final game may have actions worth 2 slots.) Three actions can be selected in a turn, as long as these three actions have a value of 1. Alternatively, a single action with a value of 3 can be selected. Of course, the player isn’t forced to take up all three slots. One, quick action can be selected and executed if desired. In any case, once the desired actions have been stocked, a tap of the Triangle button executes them. Different combinations of actions may have different effects, such as Air Juggling, which seems to deal increased damage.
Movement around the battlefield is automated – Lightning will move about, but not by the player’s command. Also, space and time come into play here – for example, certain combinations of attacks will cause Lightning to fade back after attacking. If an enemy attacks during said fade-back, the attack will miss. Also, if the player selects physical attacks on an enemy too far away, Lightning will improvise by throwing fireballs instead. In a parallel to FFX-2, enemy actions can be interrupted by player attacks – and vice versa. The “Chain” system from X-2 returns as well, with consecutive hits dealing increased damage. A bar in the top-right corner of the screen indicates how long the current chain is, and how much of a damage bonus is currently in effect. These aspects of the combat system didn’t seem to play a huge role in the demo, but it’s likely that such things as interrupting enemy attacks and evading damage will be more prominent in the finished game.
While it’s impossible to issue any commands to party members in the demo, this will change in the final version of the game. It’s unclear if a FFXII-style gambit system will be implemented or not, but in any case, some method of giving directives will be available. For a full list of the changes that will be made from the demo to the final product, check out this article on 1UP.
The second half of the demo stars a man by the name of Snow Villiers, who appears to be the leader of a ragtag resistance group. Snow is a bit slower and stronger than Lightning, utilizing up-close fist attacks, but controlling him is effectively identical to controlling Lightning. The whole demo lasts a good 45 minutes to an hour, which is plenty long enough. Reports of it lasting two full hours are greatly exaggerated, but frankly this is a good thing. Thanks to the rather limited combat options, you can easily see all there is to see in about 20 minutes. And unless you’re fluent in Japanese, the numerous cutscenes won’t be much more than pretty pictures. To be clear, though, this demo is a blast. The combat system is a great blend of old and new, highly intuitive, and a hell of a lot of fun to play around with. I can’t wait to see how it plays out in the finished product.
Other than the combat system, no other aspects of the gameplay are shown off in the demo. There are no menus to access, no towns to explore, and no level up system present. (Although again, this will be changed in the final game.) However, the demo does show off some pretty cutscenes and some catchy music. Interestingly, I received a rather distinct Final Fantasy X vibe from the visuals and music. The character designs, in particular, draw some major parallels to FFX. The music is composed by Masashi Hamauzu, who co-scored FFX, so the parallels there are hardly surprising. The limited selection of music, particularly the battle theme, is excellent. The art direction also seems to be showing promise; the rubbled, futuristic appearance of Hanged Edge, all bathed in an eerie green, is fantastic to behold.
While my description of the game, (particularly the combat system) may make it sound like a strange and foreign beast, it really isn’t. This is effectively a much faster, more streamlined version of the ATB system we’ve seen many times before. In other words, Final Fantasy XIII is not an Action-RPG by any means. It’s fast and flashy, but still an entirely menu-driven experience. This isn’t Kingdom Hearts, Crisis Core, or the like; it’s still very much Final Fantasy, and fans of the series should feel right at home with this new system. The demo ends with a promise of “Winter 2009” in Japan, and we can only hope that Square Enix delivers. After playing this demo, my excitement for the game has only intensified.