Playing the Japanese demo of Final Fantasy XIII - released in Japan today as part of Advent Children Complete - you're struck by something: this is the first Final Fantasy universe to be created with years' worth of titles in mind rather than just one or two. It shows in the scope and detail of the world. It's a gorgeous, colourful and imaginative science-fiction fantasy; what Star Wars might have looked like if it had been designed by the Japanese, seeping polish and style from every pore. The character design might be vaguely familiar from previous entries in the series, but the world, with its enormous, shining biomechs and fighter spacecraft, emphatically is not.
FFXIII sets up an oppressive holy regime, Cocoon, a self-contained city of crushing metal and green crystal floating high above the mountains and streams of the rest of the world, which is known as Pulse. Anyone who's come into contact with the outside is a danger, and must be captured and isolated. The playable demo begins on a futuristic monorail train winding through gorgeous mountain scenery on its way into Cocoon, full of citizens that have come into contact with Pulse and are heading for quarantine. A guard who looks like a cross between a stormtrooper and a Killzone soldier patrols the lines of cuffed, cloak-clad inmates. In a scene familiar from the trailer, the train hits some sort of forcefield on the track, which throws the guards off-balance and gives two of the captives the chance to break free and kick arse.
The game's main character, Lightning, and accompanying comic relief Sazh then proceed to liberate the train in a flurry of bullets, flying kicks and slow-motion gun-fu as it careers into the Cocoon, a gently glowing swarm of floating, green structures. Fighter planes move in to attack it as it winds through the city at incredible speed - this is like a green-tinted Blade Runner - and Lightning takes them out with a rocket launcher before robotic flying electric stingray things destroy the track and send the train crashing down below, under attack from more soldiers and sleek robotic animals that materialise gorgeously from floating crystals.
As Lightning and Sazh fight their way out of the wreckage, they have their first encounter with one of the aforementioned flying stingray robots, which has morphed into a scorpion-like thing with legs and buzzsaws for hands - and with FFXIII's new battle system, a modified version of the familiar Active Time Battles. It mixes real-time and command-based fighting, allowing you to queue up commands by selecting from the menu, and then execute them in a combo by pressing triangle - so you can queue up a physical attack followed by a spell, then cure yourself in one combo. Lightning has three action slots in the demo, but more will apparently open up as characters become stronger.
The time gauge limits your combos. You have to let it fill up again before being able to execute a new move, but you can queue commands up in preparation, or quickly unleash a single move or two-chain combo instead of waiting for it to fill up all the way. Stringing commands together at speed is key to the battle system - a three-attack combo sends Lightning rushing nimbly towards the enemy, swiping twice with a blade before jumping back and shooting for the final hit. There's also a ranged option, a launch move designed to send smaller enemies flying skywards before smashing them in the air for more damage, and a fire spell that takes up all three of her action slots.
Fighting is nimble, visually and mentally engaging and easy to understand and experiment with, as HP recharges automatically after each battle. The game encourages - though doesn't quite yet necessitate - keeping a careful eye on the enemy and its attack patterns, as getting hit in the middle of a combo breaks it, leaving you to wait for the time gauge to fill again before being able to retaliate. At the end of a battle you're rated on speed, style and technique on a scale from one to five stars - pleasingly satisfying when you've taken out a boss with one dizzying combo streak - and Lightning and Sazh are free to run along the broken track, with flying things screeching overhead and giant robots smacking soldiers aside on the paths beneath
The way that the game segues almost seamlessly from cut-scene to battle to exploration is extremely impressive; one second you're watching, then there's a subtle change of camera angle and you're back in the game. Run into an enemy and there's nothing more than a brief pause before the battle commands blink onto the display and you're into the fight. It's incredibly sleekly designed, beautiful to watch as well as play, and unexpectedly immersive. There's a fast-paced, action-game feel thanks to all the explosions and firepower and unnecessary air-launching of enemies.
After a lot more battles, there's a mini-boss and a dead-end: Lightning, curt and imperious, ignores Sazh's humorous complaints, and the two of them fly off into the city on a slow-moving transit ship. She's clearly a woman on a mission. Sadly the demo's not exactly heavy on details about what that mission might be - only that she's aiming to take down the Cocoon from the inside and expose the fallacy of the holy government.
From here, you take control of Team NORA, a Cocoon resistance group fighting on the tracks below. There's Snow, the bandana-clad, confident blonde with the interesting facial hair from the trailers, token sassy female Lebreau, Gadot the orange-haired tank and bumbling, skittish young Maqui, clad fetchingly in neon pink. Playing Snow is a big change from Lightning; his attacks are slow and physical and he doesn't manoeuvre out of the way with the same agility, so fights are more considered.
Announcements about dangerous intruders and resistance fighters boom out from a mysterious PA system in the sky as these four fight their way to the other end of another ruined track, towards a group of what appear to be refugees - a group of scared children and panicking adults. Enlisting some of their help, they fight towards the final battle of the demo, a close-quarters confrontation with another of the huge robotic animals we've seen in the trailers. What happens thereafter is probably a massive spoiler - suffice to say that not everyone survives, and we get a glimpse of the potential depth of FFXIII's storytelling cut-scenes beyond the impressive action bombast that we've seen so far.
Things are looking overwhelmingly positive. The characters are likeable - Lightning for her mysteriousness, the members of NORA for their banter and camaraderie - the setting is compelling, and the whole thing is as sumptuous visually as you'd expect of a next-generation Square-Enix title. The plot's the only thing that I couldn't get a definite feel for from the demo, beyond the basic set-up of an oppressive regime, a resistance fighting against it and a character with mysterious powers brought to aid them in a twist of fate. But forty minutes with Final Fantasy XIII have left me with nothing but anticipation for what else it has in store.
Final Fantasy XIII is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 this winter.