RPG fans are going to buy Final Fantasy XIII. No surprise there. But what is surprising is that under that stat-ridden RPG skin is the core of a fast-paced, hard-hitting action game that could even turn the heads of button-mashing face-stomping Killzone and God of War lovers.
Most RPGs, including many of the past FF games, bog players down with mundane number crunching, finicky and repetitive levelling-up, dull-looking dungeon crawling and slow-paced, complex turn-based battle systems. All that comes part and parcel with the genre. FFXIII pushes all that to one side and shoves you through an explosive eventful quest at an alarmingly action game-like pace.
It's not a shallow RPG by any means. It has all the elemental attacks, status-changing spells, stat-boosting items and summons commands of the previous games. But, not to seem like we're contradicting ourselves, its the streamlined delivery of all of this that's genius.
Everything from the intricacies of the FFXII-inspired Action Time Bar (ATB) battles to the truly epic story, the characters and even the universe in which everything takes place unfolds in such a clever way as to never once feel daunting or overwhelming. It feeds you information in small bitesize doses, giving you enough time to digest before serving up the next portion.
The battle system is the key to every RPG and FFXIII's is one of the best. Hardcore FF fans will have already analysed trailers and dissected how it all works, but essentially the whole system centres around the ATB, a self regenerating bar that's divided into segments. You queue up a number of commands, each taking up a specific number of ATB segments, and choose your target.
The ATB takes just a few seconds to charge fully at which point your character launches into action, executing your chosen moves in the order you queued them with hard-hitting brutality and eye-pleasing flair.
It's fast. Really fast. Before you have a moment to pick your next move, the ATB is charged and your fighters ready to go mental again. So your brain and fingers are verging on meltdown as you choose from standard or elemental attacks, magic spells, items and summons moves.
The game boots your ass along even faster with other speed-driven elements. Each blow to an enemy builds up that foe's attack Chain bar. When full the enemy becomes 'staggered' making them weaker to attack - an essential factor in beating many of the game's tougher foes. The catch is that Attack Chain gauge rapidly depletes when the enemy's not being hit, so an almost constant barrage is required to charge it fully and achieve that essential 'staggered' state.
End-of-battle status screens also rate you based on the battle time with better ratings awarding you better dropped items and more Crystarium points (FFXIII's experience points).
And so you see that battles, while plentifully sophisticated, are all about going batshit mental on your foes and slaughtering everything as fast as you can. It's brilliant.
Seriously - this editor is one of those action game-types mentioned earlier, and usually not one for turn-based strategy, yet I find every battle in FFXIII truly thrilling. Even though you're not actually pushing the 'slice' button, the fast ATB system gives fights a sense of immediacy. It's a far cry from those dull turn-based battles of old RPGs where the fighting on screen felt completely detached from your hugely pre-emptive menu management.
What's really clever about it is how, as deep as the system is, it's all completely manageable even to action-game brains. A clever Auto-Battle command helps you along by automatically queuing up a list of moves and suggesting a target, keeping battles moving along without completely playing the game for you.