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.
English voice acting and five languages' worth of subtitles have all recently been completed, explains Toriyama - localisation has been a key concern ever since the very beginning. "The development of FFXIII is on a worldwide perspective; we're not going for one market over another but developing simultaneously for all worldwide markets. The localisation process has been going on as we've been making the Japanese version.
"We've also had monitoring and testing where we have groups of testers try the game out and offer feedback that we can incorporate into the development process, and there have been some surprises there. We've been doing that for audiences in Japan and overseas, trying to look at it from a global perspective."
That international internal testing has thrown up a few surprises for the team. FFXIII's Active Time battles were designed at least partly to appeal to the more action-based sensibilities of Western gameplayers, but it's evidently hitting the mark with the Japanese market as well. "It's been a really interesting experience developing this and having people from different regions try it out, because we have certain expectations," says Toriyama with a wry smile. "We would think that the Japanese audience would have a better reaction to the characters' expressions and emotional reactions, but it's actually more the North American and European testers that are saying they really like that stuff. Similarly, we would expect the action-based battle system to appeal to overseas audiences a lot more, but Japanese testers are loving that element too, so we're having all these new discoveries during development. It's been a really fun experience."
Final Fantasy XIII's world is split into two large areas - Cocoon, the green-glowing floating city in which the last demo was set, and Pulse, everything outside of it. About 60 per cent of the game is going to take place within Cocoon, but the area in the previous demo was just one tiny part of the massive city - a unique one at that, explains Toriyama, very close to Pulse - so we shouldn't assume that we've seen everything that the setting has to offer.
Japan's been treated to a full on-disc demo of FFXIII already, but are there any plans to do the same for Europe, particularly as Xbox Live provides the ideal platform for giving hesitant Western gamers what might be their first taste of the series? There's a hurried discussion between Toriyama and his Japanese PR man before he assures us that there are no firm plans - but that they'd very much like to do a downloadable demo near the game's release in Europe and America in spring next year.
The game's 90 per cent complete, and with the localisation efforts already finished there doesn't seem to be anything endangering that tentative early-2010 release date. We'll be seeing more of it at TGS, according to producer Yoshinori Kitase, but mere months from the Japanese release we're not sure what surprises Square-Enix can still have up its sleeve. At this point, though, FFXIII doesn't need to surprise us to impress us. It's shaping up beautifully.
Final Fantasy XIII is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 in spring 2010.