13 may be an unlucky number for some, but we’re not overly superstitious… especially when that number comes attached to the brand-spanking-new Final Fantasy title.

While Final Fantasy XIII is a next-gen game, it still manages to fulfil some old school expectations. For starters, there’s a cast of anime-perfect characters – each with some flaw or emotional baggage, and each evolving into a memorable hero throughout the course of the game.

This time around the main protagonist is a young woman by the name of Lightning, an athletic ex-soldier whose support crew includes a ‘bro with a ‘fro (and a baby chocobo), a strapping blonde himbo, a spear-wielding vixen and a couple of token kids. The eclectic collection of characters with their various accoutrements will undoubtedly inspire the cosplay fans for many moons to come. Mark our words: trench coats and afro wigs will be in short supply when Armageddon rolls around.

Once you settle into the game and decipher some of the lingo – a combination of invented names and English words (which may sound familiar but don’t necessarily adhere to their Oxford Dictionary explanations); you can begin to make some headway into the obscure, convoluted plot, which is set across the city of Cocoon and the world of Pulse, involves warring factions, mechanical creatures with godlike powers, and the aforementioned group of mismatched heroes charged with a confusing and seemingly impossible task.

Fans of open world-style RPGs may find the game’s linear, on-rails nature too restrictive for their liking; however others will probably find this aspect appealing, since the player’s focus remains firmly fixed on the unfolding story. There’s no loss of plot momentum due to exploration and superficial side quests.

Controls are deceptively simple and initially your combat options are limited; however two to three hours into the game you’ll discover the opposite is true. Characters progressively gain new abilities and action slots. These actions can be strung together in chains and unleashed as combos for optimum effectiveness during battles, with the potential for some major damage. Thankfully there’s a brief tutorial for each new aspect of combat, and these are introduced on a ‘need to know’ basis.

The improved Active Time Battle (ATB) system strikes a happy medium between turn-based and real-time combat, with characters having to wait until their ATB gauge is full before their selected actions take effect. Oh, and you only directly control one character at a time, with the AI handling the others in your party. Some might consider this an unnecessary dumbing down of the strategy element. It isn’t; there’s still plenty of strategy involved during battles and there’s no denying ATB ensures combat – and ultimately the flow of play – is faster paced and exciting, which holds wider appeal for the masses.

Characters can also be assigned various roles – or Paradigms, as they are called – depending on the situation and the type of foes you face. One attractive feature is being able to switch roles in the thick of battle – or Paradigm Shift – to suit the situation. If your party is taking a pounding you can switch the focus from offensive to defensive/healing.

Character progression unfolds at a pace designed to maintain the player’s interest, with further enticements becoming available as you advance through the game. These include the ability to summon Eidolons during battle. A new levelling system, the Crystarium, has been introduced for FF XIII. As characters defeat foes they earn points which can be spent upgrading stats and unlocking new abilities. There’s no complicated number crunching involved and it is fairly basic, but players will still feel they have some say in character development, albeit in a limited fashion.

Stunning graphics are a proud series tradition, and Final fantasy XIII is no exception. Whether you’re passively watching one of the many cut scenes or actively playing, there is no shortage of eye candy. Attention to detail is impeccable and production values are second to none. Load times are extremely brief, and switching between actual gameplay to cinematics or combat is virtually seamless. The soundtrack is simply beautiful, and the general calibre of voice talent is first rate; most of the actors are a comfortable fit for their onscreen characters... no complaints, here.

As an overall package, Final Fantasy XIII has raised the bar for next-gen RPGs, making the genre more accessible to the casual gaming audience and offering good value for money. In all honesty though, it is likely to appeal more to RPG newcomers than to aficionados who were hoping for something more than the same old FF/JRPG format.

Despite that, Final Fantasy XIII has certainly made an impression on us, and we’re keen to see whether the next instalment will build on these solid foundations.