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Final Fantasy XIII

At last, the first concrete details of how the forthcoming monster RPG will actually handle. We find out how a step backward could push the series forward...

Slowly, ever so slowly, the shape of all things Final Fantasy XIII is coming into view. Square Enix has seen fit to grace us with a new trailer - this time featuring actual gameplay. The first playable demo is only weeks away and in order to get our RPG juices flowing, Square Enix is cranking up its mighty PR machine. As well as the usual high standard of cutscene footage, this month saw a glimpse of how the game will play.

The very fact that the company has even released gameplay footage can be seen as a milestone in Final Fantasy XIII's development. Square Enix is typically very protective of its new games' mechanics - especially battle systems - so this first glimpse signifies that development is very much in the home straight.

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Going backwards
I can't help feeling that the new battle system is a giant step backwards. Gone is the World Of Warcraft-style combat system seen in Final Fantasy XII. This saw your party encounter enemies and initiate skirmishes simply by getting within range of them. And while attacks were decided to some extent by the player, the system meant that you only interjected at certain points, lending the battles something of an automated air - they were also easily disengaged by turning tail and legging it! The real-time element worked - and it was a brilliant feature - but traditional Final Fantasy fans yearned for a more hands-on, strategic bent.

I can safely say that with this latest trailer and the gameplay it demonstrates, Square Enix has taken a back-to-its-roots approach - and this is something that has already pleased legions of fans. What some fans might not be so chuffed to hear is that FFXIII's battle system most closely resembles the set-up found in one of the least popular entries in the series: Final Fantasy X-2.

It should be remembered that Square Enix traditionally shifts and alters elements of Final Fantasy gameplay, with battle systems bearing the brunt of that. It's part of a philosophy which sees each new numbered instalment being a whole new game with new characters, plotlines and gameplay features, set in the same universe.

Although not massively popular with long-time followers of the series, X-2's battle system successfully combines strategy and action, and elements that have been incorporated into FFXIII. The positioning of characters in a party has a much greater effect on how a scrap transpires than before - not only are common-sense positions in evidence (ranged fighter towards the rear and so on), but where a character is, relative to comrades and enemies, will also influence which combos can be performed.

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That's something else we last saw in X-2 - combos. While mana and magic points seem to be missing from this latest outing, Action Points will make the combination of moves you assign to each character crucial. For once you must make the most of what you have in a single turn. There's little room for botched turns.

Gameplay will be a little more complex than FFXII's, thanks to the more advanced combat system at work here and the interweaving nature of different party members' attacks. Multiple characters launch their attacks at the same time and at speed, making it more tricky to see everything that's going on, but it's a damn sight more interesting.

Turn-based affair
Fast-paced it is, but it's still going to be a turn-based affair. This is all thanks to the return of the ATB (Active Time Battle) system. There's no battle transition screen - once you clock an enemy it's then straight on onto the scrap with no fanfare. There are five action slots to fill prior to fighting with either magic or combat moves (this is something you'll want to take time perfecting), which must then be used at the most advantageous moment in the battle and from the best position to have the maximum effect.

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