Our last meeting with Final Fantasy XIII - playing the half-hour demo on the bonus disc nestled in the Advent Children special-edition Blu-ray in a tiny Japanese living room, back in April - was rather more intimate than this month's gamescom demonstration. It was possible to gain a real feel for the colourful, sleek science-fiction setting and revamped Active Time battle system, and both impressed us with their innovative spark as much as their predictably professional implementation. FFXIII is, in keeping with series tradition, a bright departure into a brave new universe rather than an incremental update.
This time, design director Motomu Toriyama took us through a five-minute slice of gameplay, offering a tiny amount of new information about the game and a few generous insights into its design process. He was fighting in a party with main characters Lightning and Snow, sidekick Sazh and Vanille across a snowy plane, showcasing the battles, summoning system and party AI.
Although you only directly control one character at a time in FFXIII, all party members can be directed via the Paradigm Shift system. It's an addition that was made fairly late in the design process, according to Toriyama, in order to endow the game with additional strategic depth; based on the number, nature and level of your foes, directing party members to adopt a defensive or aggressive stance is going to be a necessary consideration rather than an arbitrary option.
"Of course, Final Fantasy has traditionally been a turn-based, command based battle system," says Toriyama on the merits of the revamped Active Time battles, "and FFXIII is the ultimate evolution of that turn-based system. It's very close to an action game feel, but strategising is still an absolutely key component - there's still that classic RPG feel to things as well, and that has to be one of FFXIII's greatest draws."
The seamlessness of the action is still immediately noticeable, the battle results screen being the only break in the action. Otherwise the transition from exploration to battling to cut-scenes is barely perceptible; the character models, explains Toriyama, are almost exactly the same for cut-scenes and in-game action, and the standard of facial animation is as high for in-game scenes as it is for pre-rendered ones.
Toriyama takes us into a battle with masked soldiers, and we get to see Lightning's summon - it's Odin, depicted with a black-and-green cyborg feel. Summoned gods take on two forms - in his humanoid shape, Odin simply joins the fight as another party member, but in his Gestalt form he turns into a cybernetic horse for Lightning to ride around on, transforming the game into a Final Fantasy version of polo where your button-presses translate directly into attacks. Each character has only one summon - as we saw at E3, Snow can summon Shiva and turn her into a bitchin' motorcycle to ride around on.