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.