Seems Square Enix has been lying to us. Remember the exciting battle footage from E3 2006? It's all false. In the long-awaited JPRG's final guise there are no sleek real-time menus, no mini-maps and no MP. Oh, and as a dollop of amnesia's on the cards you can forget about stylish attack-linking acrobatics too: in between their moves Lightning and her band of misfits need to stand around and wait for their Active Time Battle gauges to fill just the same as all the heroes that have gone before them.
Okay, so maybe lying is a bit of a stretch, but the fact remains that FXIII has had buckets of playtesting in the three years since it first debuted and Square has now thrown out its original battle prototype. All the complications that were threatening to make JRPGs impenetrable to all but the hardcore fans have been ditched, resulting in a battle system which is refreshingly simple...
Much like the previous large-numbered outing, Final Fantasy XIII's battles are integrated into its world. One quick camera change is the only segregation between map exploration and fighting, while at the tail end of any scrap you'll get a brief stat screen complete with a five star ranking system before it's time to roam once more.
Although the returning ATB gauge is a familiar mechanic, it comes with a small caveat this time round. Instead of monitoring your whole team and stacking moves according to who is ready first, only one character is controlled at any given time. To keep on top of fights you'll have to scroll between party members to dish out the funky attacks.
It sounds clumsy, but fights are played out at a much quicker pace as a result. In previous instalments you waited for each character's ATB gauge to fill up and then chose your moves. Here, however, you're dashing between each character, stacking attacks when you can and trying to time combos so they're not broken by a crafty enemy move.
The ATB gauge itself is split into three segments, and instead of costing MP, each attack costs either one, two or three bars of your gauge. (Rather brilliantly, they've called these numbers cost points - we imagine that was a hard day filled with meetings and brainstorming ideas.) As soon as one of the three ATB 'tabs' is full you can attack, or you can save the juice for something much more powerful a little later on.
The juggle between MP reserves, spell costs and ether stocks is now a relic of an ancient system. The graceful replacement is simplicity itself: do you fire off one standard attack, be it physical or a magic, or wait for your ATB gauge to fill to the brim, thus leaving yourself open to damage for longer, to gain access to the attacks which eat up three bars at once? Alternatively, you could fill your ATB gauge and shun the more spectacular magic to chain smaller strikes together instead.
It's this judgement which really sets Final Fantasy XIII apart from previous entries, and one which ties neatly into the new break bar. The bigger the chains you link - and the more effective your combination of moves are - the greater the damage you'll deal. Score enough of them and you'll eventually 'break' the opponent, letting you lift them off the ground and strike them into scenery for fatality-esque strikes. (The new launch spell is effective only when an enemy's battered, bruised and flashing red.)
The old school of thought that absorbing attacks to unleash limit breaks may still be tucked away somewhere (Square claims there are more battle mechanics under wraps) but the neat risk/reward of the new ATB gauge and break bar is an exciting change from the norm. Simple enough to grasp during your first battle, it'll still offer enough options to keep strategists happy, even if the name and HP displays of each enemy give you an edge when it comes to choosing between inflicting set amounts of damage.