So, I was informed on Monday about the PlayFFXIII twitter account by a friend of mine from Indiana (God bless you, Ryan!). I started following immediately and thought, "Maybe I'll be able to check it out."
Well, today they posted arrival in San Francisco about the same time I got in for work. After going through a few things and wondering if I could afford the break (startups are a busy life) I decided I could either check it out, or be distracted by what I was missing all afternoon. So off I went, down 4 or 5 blocks to where the party van was parked.
I got in line, which was significantly shorter than I expected at only 10 or 11 people.
We talked to one of the Square folks (Square-Enix-Eidos is too much to write, forgive my shortness), who said the presentation was about 20 minutes, and he could take 8 people at a time, starting at 11:00. We were given tickets, and everyone in line signed up for a chance to be at the launch event in March here in San Francisco.
The first 8 people went in, and we in line chatted excitedly about the new game, FFXIV, and all sorts of topics with one of the promoters.
After a little more than ten minutes, the previous group came out with good reports. A few minutes of resetting later, and we were invited in. The promoters said no photography was allowed inside the van, much to my disappointment.
The van was a highly pimp affair, with pleather couches lining both sides and 42" plasma screens lining above the couch on one side. As we entered, the people running the event took our tickets. In the middle of the van was a cabinet hosting a computer, two devkit Xbox 360's and two PS3's (presumably also developer models). There were 5 TVs total - two hooked up to the PS3's, two for the 360's, and one for the 'puter.
We were informed that the 8 of us would be split into two groups - four people playing the game, and four people watching the new English language trailer (available at http://www.finalfantasyxiii.com/ ) - when the trailer finished, we would switch. The trailer, as you can see, is gorgeous (if a little overtly emo at the beginning) and makes a bit more sense than the TGS Japanese trailer. The characters and animation are beautiful, and the interspersed gameplay footage there looks excellent.
When it came time to play the game, I was given a 360 controller. Watching the 360 and PS3 gameplay during the trailer, I did not notice any overt differences in texture quality, speed, brightness or color depth between the two. Apart from the rumors of 5 DVD's on the 360, the two appear equal to me.
I started in the middle of a battle as one of the staff helpfully explained the Paradigm Shift mechanic, which I'll get to in a minute. The basics of it are close to a traditional active time battle system - you select a series of moves, and a time bar fills up. When the time bar fills to the point of the last move, the combo activates and the moves occur against the selected target. Alternatively, you can cancel in the middle of the bar and activate any moves charged up to that point.
Paradigm Shift is a variant on the gambits system. It controls the actions of your party. You can change paradigms at any time during a battle, even in the middle of a combo. It also changes the abilities of Lightning, the character I played during the battles (the main character of the game). So, for example, any time I wanted to heal another party member, I switched from the "Aggressive" to "Combat Clinic" paradigm, whereon the party members (Hope and Fang, I believe) started healing each other, and the "Cure" and "Esuna" abilities appeared on Lightning's action menu. Items are available in any paradigm.
So, those are the basics - what that doesn't capture is how blindingly fast this all happens. I lost party members twice before I started figuring it out, and the helpful Square staff had to show me how to use a Phoenix Down. I switched paradigms every couple seconds to account for shifts in the battle - "Aggressive," "Delta Attack," and "Combat Clinic" were my primary modes.
Enemies attack quickly, and you have to use shortcuts to attack back in kind - selecting each element of a combo is prohibitively slow. Fortunately, Square built in some pre-defined combos (which I imagine can be defined out of battle) that makes running off combos very quick and easy. The speed was similar to FFX-II, and the difficulty was up there as well - though I suspect the difficulty was due to my unfamiliarity with the combat system, and a slower learning curve would ease that out greatly.
I won, after learning a lot about how to work the system, and we were permitted a little more time to play while the trailer finished up. I walked around the map a little bit - enemies appear on the map, and you can get pre-emptive strikes on them by sneaking up.
The map was beautiful, of course. We were meandering about an aerial platform, watching around a sunset. I have no idea what the context was for this grouping and location, but it seemed like a great balance between the classic style of invisible random battles and FFXII's MMO-style always-on battles. Reminds me of the good ole' days of Chrono Trigger.
Once I met the next group of enemies, the trailer and explanation was over, so our time was up. We were thanked for our participation, and we stepped out for the next group. I was left completely excited for the game - this might be the first FF game since X that I can really get into. The characters, the drama, the designs, the setting, the music and the gameplay all look fantastic. I can't wait to get into this.
Oh, one other thing -- when I said 10 or 11 people in front of me, it was actually 12. I was person #13 in line, which means I got a pink ticket instead of a black one. After the show was over, I was asked to stay and give some contact information for being "lucky number 13." I have no idea what this entails, but I could not be more stoked! :D