Final Fantasy XIII Impressions: Looking For XII

Despite the enthusiasm among gamers for Final Fantasy XIII, I have, from afar, assumed and feared that the game represented a creative backslide. On Friday, during a demonstration of the game, I was able to test my opinion.

A pair of Square-Enix representatives was in New York to show the company's holiday lineup and tease some of 2010's. That tease included a playthrough by them — no touching, journalist — of the E3 build of Final Fantasy XIII. That's the build our Luke Plunkett would have seen more of had a PlayStation 3 firmware upgrade not ruined things.

Perhaps I could glean no new facts from a June build of a game that will be released in Japan next month. But I could at least form a more informed judgment.

Allow me to provide my Final Fantasy main-game playing resume for context: Never played I-III, started and liked IV on the Game Boy Advance, didn't play V-IX, played all but the final boss of X, none of XI and about a third of XII. You wouldn't call me a super-fan.

But I liked XII a lot. I enjoyed the switch from turn-based battles to real-time combat. Even more than that I liked the Gambit System in XII which allowed me to assign tasks to party members, so they would automatically heal or fight in certain ways at certain moments. That system, I felt, surmounted some of the tedium in turn-based role-playing games.

XIII is turn-based, using a battle system similar to IV in that attacks are made available during combat as a meter fills to enable them (translation: you can't spam attack buttons, but also don't have to wait to take a turn). But the new game has no Gambit system. Hence my concern that this game wouldn't be for me. I was concerned that some classic RPG tedium would be back.

The demo that I was shown had the male lead character, Snow, running through part of a city, encountering a few guards and culminating with a boss battle against a phoenix-type creature. I was learning a lot along the way, as the Square-Enix rep played: That I can only control one character in battles, based on whichever one the designers deems best for that moment; that the story is long and intricate, involving a band of lead characters who have branded with the task of destroying their hometown.

I watched a few of the game's turn-based battles and was impressed with their swiftness. A return to turn-based combat apparently does not mean a return to a slower pace of play. Not only are enemies visible on-screen as you run through the world, but transitions into battle sequences are snap-of-fingers quick.

The Gambit System may not be back, but I was introduced to the Paradigm System, which seems like it could be shorthand for it. The system allows the player to set basic behavior preferences for their party members. You can set one to medic, for example, though it wasn't clear to me whether that would be as useful as setting a XII character to automatically heal themselves any time their health drops below 30% of maximum. I'm optimistic about this but need to see more.

I'd read about XIII's Gestalt mode, though I had misunderstood it to believe it was a purely real-time combat system. XIII allows players to summon epic characters, as is Final Fantasy series tradition. The Gestalt mode lets the player transform the summoned character into a vehicle. Button prompts appear, letting the player manually select from vehicle-based attacks. From what the Square-Enix rep playing the game told me, you're not freely doing these completely free-form. You're executing one at a time, somewhat strategically.

Overall, the battle system didn't seem like the regression I thought it would be and presents an interesting cocktail of concepts. I'm less worried about it.

I was curious about other aspects of XIII that have frustrated me in other role-playing games I've played, but little more information was available. Take saving, for example. I was shown a save point, which looked like the standard location-based saving system. No word on whether this game will allow for on-the-fly saving. I couldn't learn anything more about the game's inventory system either. In the past I've found them a bit messy and overwhelming, but it seems that we'll have to wait until the XIII's release in Japan in December.

I didn't see a whole lot of Final Fantasy XIII, but I did see enough to think better of the game than I had before watching it played. My disappointment that it is so different from XII has all but dissipated. I'm ready to accept it on its merits, if only we can learn more about it.

There are major aspects of the game system that remain a mystery. We''ll find out more next month. The game will be out in North America and Europe on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 9, 2010.