Final Fantasy XIII Demo – Hands on Impression

I remember being at E3 2006 when Final Fantasy XIII was finally announced to the public. We didn’t know much back then, but thanks to the way information has trickled out, we almost know a few things about this game over three years later. When Square Enix announced that a playable demo would ship with Advent Children Complete (in Japan only, of course) I hastily put down my pre-order and waited the weeks for it to ship and then another three weeks for it to arrive. Was it worth the wait to get just a taste of what is to come?

This is the in-game graphics engine. Yes really.
This is the in-game graphics engine. Yes really.

Yes. Yes it was. Before you even get to the title screen, you are treated to an impressive trailer that shows off some of the graphics that Square Enix is so known for. Make no mistake about it. This is by far the best looking game I have ever played. Square Enix has been working for years to make sure this game blows everything up to this point completely out of the water. It’s a lot like playing Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children instead of merely watching it.

When you finally start up the demo, things start off with the train scene from the first trailer. Lightning, the series’ first female truly main character (though some argue that goes to Terra of Final Fantasy VI) is in some sort of resistance group fighting against an impressive army that wears armor that bears a resemblance to Fallout‘s Brotherhood of Steel’s power armor. With the snap of her finger, she is immediately enveloped in some sort of electrical anti-gravity field, and she quickly dispatches several enemy soldiers.

This scene also introduces us to another character, Sazh Katzroy, the first black main-cast character since Barret, though the two share virtually nothing in common. In the demo, Sazh is more for comedic relief than anything else. He’s nowhere nearly as powerful as Lightning in battle, and he frequently seems overwhelmed at what’s going on. Moreover, he has a tendency to whine, and Lightning is quick to tell him to be quiet while she takes care of things. Sazh also has a baby chocobo named Tou-chan (Daddy) that lives in his afro. It is incredibly cute as it flutters around him in the various scenes.

After the opening, things actually kick off with a boss fight after some basic explanations of the battle system. Battles use variant of ATB that is incredibly fast paced. In the demo, up to three actions can be selected. Regular attacks and spells cost one point, and bigger actions like casting Firaga require three. Though you can input up to three attacks, you can execute only one or two if you need a quicker attack. More attacks leads to chain combos and more damage per hit, so the choice is up to you. It is also worth noting that you can waste attacks; if you target an enemy three times, you will hit that enemy three times, even if it dies before you finish your attack.

Another new entry to the battle system is the ability to launch opponents into the air. When attacking enemies, there is a gauge that fills up as they take damage in rapid succession. If that gauge fills, the enemy goes into a break status, similar to Xenosaga games. While broken, enemies can be launched into the air for air juggle combos, assuming the character can strike from a distance. This is an excellent strategy for Lightning, but it’s actually counterproductive for the demo’s other playable character, Snow. Lightning has no trouble jumping up in the air to do anywhere from two to three times more damage, but Snow can only hit airborne foes with magic, which isn’t really his forte.

The first fight's a doozy.
The first fight’s a doozy

This brings up an interesting tangent. Far too many games show characters doing amazing attacks, felling dozens of enemies with a single strike, only to have the scene end. And when it does, you’re back to fighting battles like you always were, with those special moves seemingly forgotten. This does not appear to be the case in Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning can’t do EVERYTHING she does in pre-rendered movies, but she can do a lot of it from the get-go.

It is also worth mentioning that in battle, you only control one character. Any supporting characters move on their own, and for the most part, the AI is exactly what you’d want. When enemies are weak, they target them. When you’re low on HP, you can rest assured that a healing spell will be coming your way. As of yet, there’s no way to change the AI patterns, but it seems to be pretty good right now.

Midway through the demo, things change a bit, and you get to control Snow, also known as Mr 33 cm, for a while. He’s leading a ragtag group of resistance fighters and civilians against terrible odds. In battle, he plays very differently from Lightning. Rather than use weapons, he prefers to get up close and personal. He’s not able to do air juggles, but he’s much stronger on the ground than his counterpart. The demo ends when he fights his boss, a behemoth that shares his sentiments about fighting up close.

One last thing about battle is that you are healed after each one, so it’s ok to go for the gusto and barely survive. Also, at the end, each battle is rated on a scale of one to five stars for speed, max combos, and number of broken enemies.

Outside of battle, the field resembles a mixture of Final Fantasy XII and Metal Gear Solid. You can rotate the camera 360 degrees including tilting up and down for a full view of your environment. Enemies appear on screen, but you don’t fight them like you did in the previous game. Combat begins when you make contact with an enemy, and if you’re careful, you can actually sneak past a foe. It’s not easy, but it’s doable if you work at it. It helps if you sneak a bit, since enemies can be alerted by the sound of your footsteps if you run. When you’re spotted, a warning sign appears over the heads of nearby enemies, and it’s a little harder to get past them without a fight. Get too close, and a fight starts nearly seamlessly. Loading is not really an issue in this game.

This is Lightning’s boss. He goes down easier than he looks

Speaking of loading, there were really only two times where loading was obvious. When the demo starts, there were about five seconds of loading, and then when you actually start playing, there was another fourteen. After that, it ran smooth.

Another nice feature is actually the minimap. These aren’t exactly new, but the map shows your last few footsteps, so it helps prevent you from getting turned around if you like to take in the scenery every once in a while. It’s minor for sure, but it’s an appreciated touch.

The demo is as much a treat for the ears as it is the eyes. The music is really catchy, and it includes a nice selection of instruments. The first battle has a piano battle theme that was particularly nice. There is also a fair bit of voice work, and though it’s not indicative of the English voice acting, the Japanese sounded pretty good. Lightning played her tough-as-nails part to a tee, and Sazh nearly steals the show with his griping. Even NPCs voice their lines well, and it all seems to fit the mood. Hopefully, the English voice cast will meet the high standards set by the Japanese recording.

If you watch all of the movies, the demo runs about two hours long. If you skip them, it could be done in as little as an hour. It’s not quite like Xenosaga where you get twenty minutes of gameplay and then an hour of movie; it’s broken up a lot more this time. The movies in between are short, usually no longer than a minute or so, and I was able to skip several fights by being elusive the second time through.

The title screen also has a trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy XIII: Agito for PSP. Both are filled with impressive scenes but very little gameplay.

In the end, you get a pretty impressive two hour look at things to come. My excitement for the full game has risen a lot since getting to play it. Screenshots don’t really give it justice. It feels very smooth and polished, as if this is pretty close to final code. The game is due out at the end of this year in Japan, and no date for North America has been set. It’s going to be a long wait, but it’s going to be worth it.

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