There were plenty of things about the Xbox 360 E3 press conference that were surprising - not least, what wasn't in it - but none more so than the announcement that Final Fantasy XIII would be coming to Microsoft's console, at launch, in the US and Europe.
Other than the belated release of Final Fantasy XI, this will make it the first Final Fantasy game to be released on an Xbox; the first in the main series to be released on anything other than a Sony PlayStation since 1994; and the first simultaneous multi-format release in the series' entire history.
Although publisher and developer Square Enix has recently made a show of support for the 360 - offering it the exclusive Infinite Undiscovery and Star Ocean: The Last Hope, as well as a head start on Last Remnant - this is still a sensational departure from the Japanese RPG giant. It held its own press conference, immediately after Microsoft's, to explain the decision and answer the questions of the press. The first of which naturally was: why?
Corporate executive Shinji Hashimoto said the decision was simply about reaching as broad an audience as possible in those Western markets that are split between Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. "We considered the hardware situation, and would like to provide Final Fantasy XIII to as many fans as possible throughout the world. It was because of the spread of the hardware," Hashimoto said.
However, Final Fantasy XIII remains a PS3-exclusive in Japan, where it will be released first. Hashimoto explained that the team was concentrating on finishing the PS3 version for the Japanese market for now; the game would then be ported to 360 and localised for Western markets. Plans for other Asian markets hadn't been finalised.
The PS3 and 360 versions will launch alongside each other in the US and Europe, although the European release will most likely arrive some time after the American one. Producer Yoshinori Kitase, a veteran of fan-favourite Final Fantasy VII, promised that Square Enix would pull out all the stops for a speedy localisation. "We will try to make it as close as possible, expedite is as fast as possible, make it much faster than previously," he claimed.
There are no plans for exclusive content or, indeed, any difference at all between the two versions. As to whether the 360 version would have to ship on multiple DVD discs, the Square execs said it was too early to say. It is also "to be decided" if the game would make any use of Xbox Live's features.
Companion game Final Fantasy Versus XIII - an action-RPG set in the same universe as the headlining new Final Fantasy - remains a PS3 exclusive. "We haven't changed anything," said Hashimoto. On the possibility of a PC version of Final Fantasy XIII itself, however, Kitase was more equivocal. Asked if it would follow multi-format stable-mate Last Remnant onto Games for Windows, he said, "For now, it's to be decided." Indeed, the game is being developed on PCs.
Kitase revealed that the decision to bring Final Fantasy XIII to 360 was a fairly recent one, and that the team was just now ready to begin development on the version for Microsoft's console. "We had to adjust so many things, including the relationship with Microsoft, and the development tools - it wasn't such a long time ago that we made the decision," he said.
Moving on to the game itself, Kitase wasn't prepared to say anything about it that hadn't already been said. Asked if it would follow the "offline MMO" style of Final Fantasy XII, he stressed that it would be a very different game. "Every time we release a new game we try to make a new, unique game design," he said.
"Overall I would say the entire atmosphere is different," he added, explaining that XIII would have a faster tempo and be "more flashy on the screen, you can feel more excitement." Although the Active Time Battle system traditional to Final Fantasies would return, it would be in a new form, "indirectly influenced" by the pace and spectacle of Square Enix's animated film, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Beyond that, Kitase refused to give any detail on the game's plot or design.
Nor was there any mention of that all-important launch date. For a game first unveiled over two years ago, there is very, very little that we know about Final Fantasy XIII. The trailer suggests an impossibly grandiose and baroque science-fantasy adventure, combo-heavy ballistic and acrobatic combat, and a noticeably solitary heroine. None of this - apart from that last, quite possibly misleading detail - should come as a surprise.
Nor, really, should Square Enix's decision that it wants its entire army of Western fans to be able to partake of this new instalment in its most globally popular franchise, no matter what console they own. Hashimoto's typically Japanese understatement makes this momentous move sound like common sense, and perhaps that's all it is.
Nevertheless, Square Enix's announcement today shifted the gaming landscape. The company has always placed Final Fantasy like vote of confidence, a seal of approval on the winning side - grating it first to Nintendo, then Sony. It was one of the last great third-party exclusives, and it was highly prized. Now, it's a game for everyone, and there are no more winners. Every new Final Fantasy portrays a brave new world - but Final Fantasy XIII really is one.
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