The joke, so it goes among Final Fantasy's legions of hecklers, is that aside from some new belts, buckles and hairspray nothing ever really changes in Japan's most misleadingly-titled RPG franchise. Rather, each subsequent release echoes the preceding one in both form and function, the aged, crumbly mechanics that drive each game merely obfuscated by ever more dazzling CGI.
Glance behind the curtain of technological wizardry, they say, and you're left with an experience that's only superficially changed from the one its creator laid down over 20 years ago. While the worlds and characters that inhabit them change from Final Fantasy to Final Fantasy, the rest stands resolute; everything changes, it all stays the same.
While there are kernels of truth to this scoffing, its greater falsehoods are made plain when comparing Final Fantasy XIII, Japan's great, white RPG hope for the PlayStation 3 (and, later this year, Xbox 360), to its immediate predecessor. Chalk and cheese, the two games have an almost diametrically opposed approach.
Final Fantasy XII was a bold pushing of the genre's boundaries, combining a deep and innovative MMO-esque tactical battle system with liberating freedom to explore its rich, European-influenced towns and cities. By contrast, the first five hours of Final Fantasy XIII take the form of a fiercely linear walk, one interrupted by frequent, usually unavoidable battles, even more frequent cut-scenes, and not a single town or city to explore.
There are familiar ideas and motifs, such as the Yoshitaka Amano artwork brandished across the start screen, the traditional blip sound effect as you scroll through the menus and the tiny Chocobo that lives in the hapless Satzu's afro (although curiously the fanfare that traditionally closes each successfully completed battle is gone).
These touchstones help tether the thirteenth mainline title in the series to its umbrella branding, but it's difficult to consider the wider choices the developer has made as anything but a retreat into JRPG conservatism after the bold creativity of the twelfth.
The first section of the game will be familiar to anyone who imported the Japanese Blu-ray release of CGI movie Advent Children, as, bar a few tweaks, it's identical to that bundled demo. Your experience traipsing across the narrow walkways surrounding the suspended underground city of Cocoon is entirely indicative of our experience over the first few hours of the game.
You walk in a straight line into the screen, marvelling at the environment around you that stretches off into an eerie distance. Depth-of-field trickery shifts your eye's focus from near to far objects of interest, the camera latching itself on to aircraft as they wheel and dive overhead.
Every 30 seconds or so you come to a save point, a treasure chest or a group of enemies, visible in the environment. There's rarely room to squeeze past them without being seen and as soon as you touch them or they touch you the screen dissolves into a battle, separate from the main environment and also a part of it.
Then there's a cut-scene. These narrative interludes have always broken up the Final Fantasy experience, but their frequency in FFXIII is like never before. Square-Enix uses these moments to show off the White Engine, with extreme close-ups celebrating every strand of Lightning's hair and breakaway wide-angle shots giving a sense of space and geography to the world immediately around you.
The frequency of cut-scenes might lead one to expect the drama to move quickly, but in reality the first few hours of the game are curiously devoid of spectacle. Compare the same section of game to that in Final Fantasy VII, with its train escapes, big-business terrorism and bombs, and Final Fantasy XIII's trudge along suspension bridges, implausibly futuristic hallways and ice caverns is curiously devoid of events.
The removal of towns contributes to this feeling. In most JRPGs, towns and cities gave the illusion of non-linearity, providing pools of interactivity to splash about in between the long straight lines that link the rest of the game's drama. It's here, after a big boss fight or a lengthy traversal of a hostile area, that your team could rest and recuperate, away from the threat of yet more battles, free to talk to the town's inhabitants, gather more background information (albeit much of it superfluous) and upgrade equipment in the clearly delineated shops.
By removing these safe havens, Square-Enix no doubt intends for the pace of the experience to be maintained, with no downtime away from the rollercoaster ride of the adventure. As such, equipment is now bought via a menu option at every save point, a trimming away of the JRPG metaphor that may bring with it efficiency but that nevertheless loses something of the sense of journey.
Losing such a core construction in the JRPG framework could be seen as a bold and daring move, one that frees up the developer to try new ideas and approaches. But in reality it's not been replaced by anything significant, the full emphasis on the actual business of play hoisted onto the shoulders of the battle, and character development system, known as the Crystarium.
The battle system is slow to reveal its charms. For the first few hours you'll be hammering the X button without much need for tactical consideration. You control just one member of your party, issuing standard attack moves, special moves or items, and receiving a star rating for your performance in each fight, based on the time you took to finish the enemy off.
It's not until a few hours in, when the game reveals the Optima Change system that allows you to set the AI behaviour of your team-mates (albeit in a simplified manner compared to the gambits in Final Fantasy XII), that you start to earn anything other than gil for your performance in battles, with the level-up economy frozen until this point.
After this the potential richness of the battle system (designed by Toshiro Tsuchida, the architect of the system used in Final Fantasy X) becomes apparent, with time used as currency for moves, and the Optima Change system allowing you to set jobs and roles for your team-mates, and even change them on the fly in battle.
Once you're given access to the Crystarium you are free to develop your characters by spending the points you've accrued through battles to purchase new abilities, upgrade health points and so on. There appears to be little scope for personal expression here: you simply pick one of the two or three new abilities next on offer in the character development tree until your points are gone. So while the set-up feels like an amalgam of previous Final Fantasy battle systems, it's still hard to say just how successful the hotch-potch design has been over the long haul.
After our first five hours with the Japanese version of Final Fantasy XIII, it's still hard to say how successful the game's skew-whiff approach has been in general. For players who saw Yasumi Matsuno's Final Fantasy XII as a creative and interesting exploration of how the aged JRPG format could shift into something contemporary and fresh, the thirteenth game seems sure to be a crushing disappointment. In many ways it emphasises those elements that so many Western gamers hate about the genre (viewed ungenerously, you could say that Square-Enix has spent a million dollars in clothing Sophie Houlden's 'The Linear RPG' in fancy graphics and orchestras).
But for those players who felt disorientated by the twelfth game's bold approach (and that pretty much includes all of Japan, who disliked the game's diversions from the JRPG hymn sheet), Final Fantasy XIII's withdrawal into tradition will be most welcome. Whether that makes for a good videogame or not, still remains to be seen.
Final Fantasy XIII is out now in Japan on PS3. It comes out in Europe and North America for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 9th March.