Tokyo, December 17th 06:35 am JST: Square Enix president Youichi Wada and producer Yoshinori Kitase will celebrate the release of Final Fantasy XIII together with 100 fans at the Shibuya store of media chain Tsutaya. At that time, hundreds of fans will have already braved a chilly Tokyo night and hours of early morning outside major electronics stores in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara and elsewhere in the Land of the Rising Sun. As predictable as the enthusiasm of those fans is the fact that Final Fantasy XIII will become the fastest and best-selling PlayStation 3 title in Japan to date. In anticipation of another predictable effect, Sony Computer Entertainment president Kazuo "Kaz" Hirai might show up, too. After all, the PlayStation 3-exclusive release in Japan will constitute a preliminary Christmas gift for Hirai. The most anticipated game to be released for his platform in Japan yet will certainly help to push its installed hardware base closer to the five million mark. The only unknown in the weeks and months following Final Fantasy XIII's December 17th release will be its sales performance. Given the still comparatively low installed hardware base of its target platform, the triple platinum mark (based on sales in Japan) seems out of question. But what about the double platinum, i.e. two million copies? Only time will tell.
Of course, fans waiting for the game's release on both sides of the Atlantic still have more time to ponder whether or not they should spend their hard-earned money on Final Fantasy XIII. To support them in their potentially difficult decision-making process, we have decided it was about time to update our arguably slightly dated preview and sum up everything we know about the newest installment in Square Enix's flagship series in one handy preview.
Final Fantasy XIII takes place in a futuristic world. The Sanctum, a theocratic government rules, over a solitary floating world known as the Cocoon. The people living inside the Cocoon believed that with the blessing of the Fal'Cie, they could live forever in peace and happiness. Since a world without pain and sorrow wouldn't make for a great setting of a Final Fantasy game, peril is not far away. As it turns out, not all Fal'Cie are benevolent. The awakening of Fal'Cie from the Pulse, the dreaded world underneath the Cocoon, puts an abrupt end to the period of peace and prosperity the inhabitants of the Cocoon have grown to take for granted. The Fal'Cie select so-called L'Cie, humans who are destined to fulfill a particular task. Carrying the mark of the L'Cie, the chosen ones face a destiny crueler than death. Failing to successfully carry out the task will transform them into mindless monsters. However, even success doesn't guarantee salvation, but instead crystallization.
Fearing the potential of unrest, instability and war, the Sanctum takes drastic measures to combat the threat posed by the evil Fal'Cie and their chosen ones. Those who are suspected to have come in contact with anything originating from the Pulse are immediately detained and deported from the Cocoon. Needless to say, not everybody is pleased about this policy. The game's protagonist, a young lady code-named Lightning and Snow Villiers, the leader of the resistance group Nora take up arms against the Sanctum. The fate of the two characters is intertwined, not only because they are L'Cie, but also because Snow was supposed to marry Lightning's younger sister Serah. Unfortunately, Serah met the tragic fate of every L'Cie who has fulfilled his/her duty; in other words she turned into a crystal. Other party members include Oerba Dia Vanille, a young girl from the Pulse, the gun-wielding and Chocobo-loving Sazh Katzroy, the 14-year old Hope Estheim and Oerba Yun Fang, a lady who operates in cooperation with the Sanctum's armed forces. Like Lightning and Snow, they are all L'Cie. Key members of Snow's resistance movement are Snow's childhood friends, the daring Gadot and the beautiful Lebreau. Another member is Maqui, a boy whose admiration for Snow led him to join Nora. Unlike Gadot and Lebreau, he is not good at fighting.
Their opposition is formidable, though, as the Sanctum's supreme leader Galenth Dysley orders his armed forces to rid the Cocoon of the L'Cie. In addition to ordinary soldiers, Lightning and Co. will have the questionable pleasure to square off with PSICOM, an elite military unit tasked with protecting public order and peace, and a highly mobile commando unit led by general Cid Raines. Raines' right-hand man is Captain Rygdea. His loose appearance belies the fact that he is a man of integrity. Like Rygdea, PSICOM's commanding officer Yaag Rosch who has a strong sense of justice, also has his doubts about whether the radical purge policy ordered by Dysley and carried out by his unit is the right thing to do. Jihl Nabaat is the co-commander of PSICOM. Unlike Rosch, she doesn't question the morality of her mission, but instead is determined to keep damage supposedly done by the LCie to a minimum.
The Cocoon itself already seems to be a large world consisting of several areas. Nautilus is a recreational area built around a popular theme park not entirely unlike Final Fantasy VII's Golden Saucer. The maze-like Palumpolum is a large commercial city. Nearby is an area with a crystallized surface, creating a surreal atmosphere. The Sunleth Waterscape is a nature conservation area and hence a rarity inside the Cocoon. To study the specifics of its ecosystem, the weather in this area can be manipulated with a control panel. The Waterscape is off-limits to your average Joe.
Compared to the strictly supervised Cocoon, the vast plains of the Pulse may look like a palladium of freedom and liberty at first glance. Unfortunately, they also happen to be a place where the wild things are. And in Final Fantasy XIII's case, many of them are not only wild, but also huge, like the King Behemoth or Adamantaimai. At least those creatures do not only have their eyes fixed on the party, but also end up fighting each other as well. The ruins of Mount Yaschas are evidence that even in the Pulse, civilization once blossomed. Those days, however, are long over, and nowadays the dilapidated buildings only host monsters.
The aim of Final Fantasy XIII's battle system is to combine a sense of speed/action with strategic elements. To achieve this ambitious aim, the development team took the venerable Active Time Battle (ATB) system and updated it in various ways. Players are not limited to one command per turn, but instead are free to choose whether they want to hit a foe with one strong magic attack or three less powerful physical attacks. In this way, a player can chain multiple attacks.
To increase the sense of speed and action, the developers have also revamped the summoning system. While summons still can be called upon to attack opponents with regular attacks, each summon's driving mode gives the player an opportunity to do far more damage. In this mode, a summon transforms into a rideable vehicle which is controlled by the player. To balance the advantages in power offered by the driving mode, Square Enix has implemented a time limit. Fortunately, the player can influence the length of a driving mode session, as it depends on the number of chains achieved in normal mode. Each character is backed up by one summon. Below you will find a list of character-summon combos and the vehicle the respective summon transforms into:
Lightning Odin Horse
Snow Shiva Motorcycle
Sazh Byrnhildr Car
Hope Alexander Fortress
Vanille Hecatoncheir Magic Armor
Fang Bahamut Dragon
Another new, more strategic feature is the so-called Optima system. This system allows the player to assign certain roles, e.g. attacker, blaster (elemental attacks - makes it easier to unleash chain attacks), defender, to a given character. Does the progress of a battle demand a change in strategy? No problem. Utilizing the paradigm shift system, the behavioral pattern of an AI-controlled party member can be changed multiple times over the course of a battle.
Possibly in an attempt to match the game's main theme "determination", Square Enix decided to test the determination of its huge fanbase by upping the level of difficulty. To avoid one potential source of frustration from the get-go, the game doesn't require its user to start at the nearest save point after losing a battle, though. Instead, the player can immediately take on the same foe again and exact his or her revenge.
The developers also decided to break away from the traditional growth system. Gaining level-ups by collecting experience points is a thing of the past. Instead, level-ups correlate to story progress. Succeeding Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid and Final Fantasy XII's License Board is the so-called Crystallium system. The Crystallium level determines the number of crystals, abilities and status-ups each character can obtain. As a character's skill-set expands, his Crystallium will resemble a tree, a fact that resulted in the developers giving it the cute nick-name "crystal bonsai." To increase the level of customization, no branch of this "crystal bonsai" is a one-way street. This gives players the chance to backtrack, if needed.
As per genre convention and series tradition, Final Fantasy XIII does not only offer the main story line, but also numerous side quests. To take on one of those quests, for instance, the killing of a particular monster, the player has to guide the party to dark monuments. Those monuments are in fact former L'Cie who failed to complete their mission and hence were turned into monsters. At some point, those monsters were fossilized and turned into those monuments. It goes without saying that those willing and able to defeat the powerful monsters mentioned in the quests will be rewarded. Last but not least, the game's PlayStation 3 version will also support Trophies.
Final Fantasy XIII will be available in Japan on December 17th. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360-based state-side release is scheduled to follow on March 9th.
Quo vadis, Final Fantasy? Regardless of internal and external criticism ("Final Fantasy- ism") regarding the extensive milking of the Final Fantasy franchise, the success of Square Enix's flagship series has always been, and remains to be, an undeniable fact. However, after a successful venture into online gaming (Final Fantasy XI) and the belated release of a deliberately different game (Final Fantasy XII), the question that begged to be asked, was what plans Square Enix had for the next (main series) installment of its poster franchise. Since May 2005, an appearance on PlayStation 3 seemed more than likely, even though the official confirmation only came at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Along with another PlayStation 3 title, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Final Fantasy XIII made its public debut.
So, what kind of title is Final Fantasy XIII? From what little we know so far, it promises to be more of a classic Final Fantasy title than Final Fantasy XII. Instead of reinventing the series like Yasumi Matsuno did with the latter, Final Fantasy XIII seems to take a more traditional approach, comparable to Final Fantasy X.
Naturally Final Fantasy XIII should be closer to Final Fantasy X than Final Fantasy XII, as the development team behind the series' newest entry is led by producer Yoshinori Kitase (who produced Final Fantasy VIII, X and X-2) and director Matomu Toriyama. The duo is joined by two other mainstays: Character designer Tetsuya Nomura and scenario writer Kazushige Nojima. Kazumi Kobayashi (who previously worked on Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy XI) has joined the team as main programmer, while composer Masashi Hamauzu returns for his second job at a main series installment, following Final Fantasy X. Fans of Nobuo Uematsu can at least look forward to him creating Final Fantasy XIII's main theme.
Originally planned as a PlayStation 2 title, the game is now headed for PlayStation 3, powered by a propriety engine known as White Engine. Developed by an internal technology group, this game engine will not only power Final Fantasy XIII, but also Final Fantasy Versus XIII and other upcoming Square Enix PlayStation 3 titles. Similar to Final Fantasy X on PlayStation 2 in 2001, Final Fantasy XIII is sure to become a visual benchmark for PlayStation 3 titles, RPGs in particular. In an interview with a Japanese online publication, the development team went so far as to declare the aim of creating battle sequences rivaling the quality of last year's CG movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.
Just like its predecessors (with the exception of Final Fantasy XI), Final Fantasy XIII will be a traditional single-player RPG. However, producer Yoshinori Kitase has promised the implementation of some undisclosed, "interesting" online features.
Leaving aside the new platform and technology, Final Fantasy XIII will see the return of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, but with a twist. For Final Fantasy X, battle director (and Front Mission mastermind) Toshirou Tsuchida added a strategic component to the traditional ATB, creating what was dubbed CTB in the process. In case of Final Fantasy XIII, the development team plans a more speedy take on the good old ATB system, which will include a traditional input scheme for commands. The battle system will also include new effects, such as slowing down the flow of time. Prominently featured in the upper-right hand corner of the battle screen is a circle-shaped gauge. Once this gauge is filled up, players will gain access to an Overclock mode. This status effectively slows down your foes in battle, but also comes with an undisclosed risk for the protagonist. Another key aspect of the battle system will be a stat referred to as ATB cost. Apparently every command costs a certain amount of this stat.
For the first time since Final Fantasy VI's Terra, players will be in control of a female protagonist again. The virtual beauty highlighted in the E3 trailer is not only highly apt at using magic, but also advanced weaponry. In particular, we are talking about a sword that can be transformed into a firearm on the fly. Setting-wise, Final Fantasy XIII will take place in the most highly advanced world the series has seen to date. Despite the high-tech futuristic setting, crystals and magic will play a major role. In fact, the development team has hinted at a balance between technology and the power of the crystal. Square Enix has also highlighted the importance of the latter by referring to the entire project (including Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII) as Fabula Nova Crystallis.
In its current form Final Fantasy XIII has only been in development since early 2005, hence fans should not expect a playable demo before early 2007. The game will most likely make its Japanese debut at next month's Tokyo Game Show, but whether in movie or playable form remains to be seen. Though officially listed as "to be announced," a late 2007 release in Japan is definitely within the realm of possibility.