While the original Final Fantasy XIII demo allowed players to choose from a number of basic attack moves -- thus creating chains depending on the selected sequence -- the Optima system adds a new layer of strategy. At first, we decided to go head-to-head with enemies using the original demo's combat options, and, much like in Final Fantasy titles of the past, the system works fine. Optima, however, allows players to decide how their team will react to the action as it unfolds.
If players want their team to hold back and protect, selecting "Healer" from the Optima menu will execute that strategy. Looking for an all-out attack? That option is available, too, along with a tight balance of the two. When in Optima Mode, players are given the simple option of "Attack," which executes moves based on the strategic options selected. It's a layer that -- when utilized correctly in conjunction with the game's other combat options -- could open the door to some exciting, especially strategic battles.
If Optima is a player's "strategic layer," Driving Mode can best be described as the game's "brute force" mode. When players summon each of the character's Eidolons, the option to "take control" of the mighty beast becomes available with a simple button press. Lightning's summon, Odin, towers over enemy combatants, defending its guardian with awesome power. In Driving Mode, the knight transforms into a mighty steed, affording players the opportunity to issue button combination commands via a timed radial menu.
Of course, if you'd prefer to try for a quick ending to the battle, the simple press of the triangle button will execute a summon's most powerful attack.
As for the setting, Final Fantasy XIII promises to deliver its usual dose of political intrigue and drama. The Lightning demo began with the vicious Sanctum army -- known as PSICOM -- invading a peaceful land. Lightning, an ex-PSICOM herself, works to infiltrate the Sanctum stronghold alongside a young ally. Leading the invasion is Yaag Rosch -- a PSICOM leuitenant and former mentor to Lightning -- who decided to go classic and brought along every bog standard Final Fantasy enemy unit you could think of. Flying warships, assault bikes, mech suits. Yeah, they're all here. Again.
Yes, Final Fantasy XIII is beautiful ... when you can actually see the action. The game's free-roaming camera was constantly getting in our way. In the demo's first area -- a sea of randomly placed enemy vehicles -- the camera constantly required attention, but became less of an issue in open areas. But less of an issue isn't really a solution.
Final Fantasy XIII is set to hit PlayStation 3 exclusively in Japan this December and the PS3 and Xbox 360 in North America in Spring 2010.