It's late on the second day of E3 2009. A hot and bothered collection of half a dozen game journalists from the US and Europe is crammed awkwardly around one side of a table in an interview room at the back of the Square Enix booth, straining to hear against the muffled boom of the show floor. They're bristling with cameras, microphones and grumpy, it's-been-a-long-day attitude. It has. It's been a long week.
On the other side of the table sit an interpreter, Yoshinori Kitase and Motomu Toriyama. Kitase is the producer of Final Fantasy XIII and head of Square Enix's elite development team. He's also a quiet legend, director of no lesser games than Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII in his day. Placid, sleepy-eyed and wearing a permanent, wry half-smile, he mostly defers to his slick younger colleague Toriyama, director of Final Fantasy X-2 and now this next full-blown instalment in the series.
Kitase's playing the humble mentor, but his presence immediately stamps FFXIII with a sense of history and authenticity its predecessor arguably lacked. Final Fantasy XII was a departure for the series, a brave game with an immensely long and difficult development. Like its original helmsman Yasumi Matsuno - who had to leave halfway through its creation due to "health concerns" - it was a brilliant, troubled renegade. FFXIII, Kitase doesn't say as he innocently studies his hands, will be no such thing. It will be classic, by-the-book Final Fantasy. Or will it?
Toriyama's toying with a PlayStation 3 controller, giving us a heart-breakingly brief glimpse of the game beyond the dark high-tech and cool tones of the walkway battles we've seen in the trailers and Japanese demo. Snow Villiers - the roguish brawler with the bandana, boots, raincoat and surfer hair who's one of the game's resistance heroes - is exploring a ruined temple, site of a disaster, located on Pulse. Pulse is the cursed surface of the world beneath the lofty flying city of Coccoon, and Toriyama says it will be "a very large and open area, a really large-scale area that will have the feel of a world map".
The ruined temple is utterly gorgeous. Gigantic sandstone pillars disappear into airy, sun-washed vaults, bright crystals stud the view, and there's a sense of warmth, space and expanse that's been completely missing from what we've seen of the game before. Villiers encounters enemies in the landscape - FFXIII may have a more traditional battle system than XII's faux-MMO automation, but random battles are gone for good, it seems. PSICOM Rangers and Marauders, agents of Coccoon's army, can only be described as Aztec ninja cyborgs, like something out of an alternate-universe Metal Gear Solid. Toriyama has Villiers battle some filigree butterfly monsters while he explains that, when performed aerially, attacks will have different effects than on the ground.
"Now we'd like to show you a summon," he says. "The summon system for this game actually has a Normal mode and a Gestalt mode. What happens when you first summon them, it goes into Normal mode, the summons actually replace your party members in battle and they support you there." We saw this at the Microsoft conference the day before, when poster girl Lightning was shown summoning the giant Odin and deploying him in battle in the standard, menu-based manner.
"Up till now everything was a command-based battle system, but once we go into the Gestalt mode which we'll show you right here, the battles become action-based," says Toriyama casually. In a customarily dramatic animation, Villiers summons twin sisters goddesses Shiva, who dance together in the air before locking limbs, combining and falling to earth as... well... an ornate, art-nouveau science-fiction motorbike.
"Shiva turns into a bike in her Gestalt mode, so you get the sense of controlling the bike directly to attack your enemies." Villiers mounts his improbable steed, and the menu system is replaced by a gauge and what look like button prompts for attack combos. Toriyama smashes through the remaining enemies in a fashion that looks like a showy hybrid of Devil May Cry and RPG on wheels. "And that's all for the demo."
As E3 reveals go, it's very slight - but still significant. Square has been stressing that it wants FFXIII's battle system to be more pacey and dynamic for some time, and that's been evident in the punchy, acrobatic moves, and the new Active Time Battle system with its queue-up action slots and recharging health. Still, direct control, even if it's just for the occasional summon, is a major breach in the age-old walls of Japanese RPG tradition. Maybe Final Fantasy XIII isn't so conservative after all.
The action-game mood extends to only giving you control of one character at a time, with any party members seemingly completely autonomous. Well - for now. Toriyama has something in the works for wider party control, but isn't talking about it yet.
"Basically, you only get to control one character at a time, the leader of the party," he says. "In the initial stages of the game, the story will dictate which character will be the lead, but as you progress, you'll be able to make the decision on which character you want to chose in battle.
"As for giving the party members commands, there's going to be a system where you'll be able to give them commands during battle on how they should act, but the details on that will be coming out around fall." Could this be a return for FFXII's system of programmable party Gambits by the back door? It might be too much to hope for (or dread, depending on your view). Only time will tell.
Does Toriyama have any more departures he'd like to slip past us? Well, there's Lightning, the series' first ever female lead, for one, unless you count the director's girl-group excursion with FFX-2. "We wanted to go a different route there. Also, there's Final Fantasy Versus XIII that's in the works as well, and we wanted to keep a male lead for that. We were very interested in creating a strong female character, that would be something new to the series."
As popular as Final Fantasy is outside Japan, there's always a large and vocal part of the Western gaming audience that finds its adherence to mainstream JRPG convention outmoded, long-winded and inflexible. Clever as they were, the formal innovations of XII didn't do much to convince the doubters. As FFXIII nears release, even devotees of the Japanese RPG are admitting that the genre seems stuck in a rut after a long string of underwhelming releases, like recent Square Enix efforts Star Ocean: The Last Hope and The Last Remnant.
I ask the two developers what they're doing to modernise things, and Kitase stirs himself to answer. "The battle system is a good example of how we're trying to bring Final Fantasy XIII up to speed with the demands of the current generation," he argues. "Instead of the really traditional, kind of stand-still turn-based command style, there are a lot more action elements that we've put in, like the Gestalt mode that you just saw, and also the way that the AI interacts with the lead character as well. The current generation of gamers are a lot more action-oriented, and they like to directly control the character. We definitely wanted to create something that would be enjoyed by everyone."
But, as we initially guessed, the veteran producer is also here to remind us that at Square Enix, when it comes to Final Fantasy, things are done a certain way. Above all else, that means careful craftsmanship and honest, old-fashioned attention to detail.
"We can't necessarily differentiate ourselves just by using the hardware specs [of the current machines] to the fullest," he says. "So the challenge has been, how do we bring in traditional means of development into the current-generation consoles in order to really polish the look and the experience of the game? Some specific examples are... there's a character, Sazh, with an afro. We actually went into the really old-school way of creating each hair by itself, almost like putting grass on a field, to create a realistic afro." He nods, satisfied with the dedication.
It's Final Fantasy, alright. Painstakingly modelled hairstyles, strangely-applied Germanic terminology, wildly over-the-top summons, inappropriate motorbikes, butterfly monsters and ravishing beauty; a clash of hide-bound tradition and bold futurism that ought to be uncomfortable, but just works, somehow. FFXIII will be sumptuous and it will please millions, but can it really save the JRPG by bridging the gap to the action game? Can it convert any of XII's pioneer spirit for the masses without dumbing it down, or losing the hardcore for good? It's a tall order, but in this crowded, noisy back room at E3, Kitase's quiet smile is a confident one.
Final Fantasy XIII is released for PS3 in Japan this winter, and Square Enix is targeting a spring 2010 release on Xbox 360 and PS3 in the West.