[Note: Kotaku columnist Tim Rogers bought Final Fantasy XIII in Japan just hours ago. We asked him for launch coverage. He has delivered, with panache and hands-on impressions.]
Five months and seven days ago, Square-Enix unleashed Dragon Quest IX unto the Japanese people, and it was a lukewarm kind of good. Five months and seven days after that day, it is today, and Square-Enix is set to release Final Fantasy XIII unto the public.
Japan lacks what the rest of the civilized world would call institutionalized criticism. The companies responsible for distributing, say, films, are also in charge of the magazines that, in other countries, would print critical reviews of films. No one ever says anything bad, or even constructive, about a film in Japan. They hardly ever do it about games. You get Weekly Famitsu giving out numbers. They plop in a couple of template sentences with the numbers. Everyone knows, by now, that you can pay a whole bunch of money to Famitsu, and they'll make up a big spread, spewing whatever marketing copy you want them to. The impression to the general public is that these guys are really excited about your game.
Recently, there's been bad juju afoot in most corners of the Japanese entertainment industry. Two minutes staring at the labyrinthine public bulletin board websites, and you get a thick taste of unrest. Earlier this year, user "reviews" of Dragon Quest IX started disappearing from Amazon.co.jp. The people smelled conspiracy. Of course, on the anonymous internet, nothing is certain, though more than enough people possess the theory that game publishers have started kindly asking Amazon.co.jp to delete certain comments that might otherwise keep a consumer from purchasing an item. Eventually, Amazon Japan ditched the concept of the pre-release "hype" review. They opened up message boards linked to specific product pages. In these message boards, people expressed discontent for things like the outrageous prices of DVDs (they charge around $100 for two episodes of some $#@!ty animated TV series), or the outrageous prices of games, or their outrage that they dare to put a number in the title of Dragon Quest IX, when it's obviously some kind of side-story, like, it's on a portable system, for god's sake. Amazon Japan has now taken to fiercely moderating the message boards.
In the face of this, the rabble on 2ch.net, Japan's largest public web-place, have only grown fiercer in their contempt re: the slightest misgivings in any facet of entertainment media. In other words, I have been lolling like a leprechaun with a jagged dagger in his back, all week, while reading this Final Fantasy XIII pre-release hatred threads.
One user posts his homemade list of the reasons Final Fantasy XIII definitely won't sell a million copies:
The TV commercial is boring; it has no impact
FF12 sucked
The staff are the team who made FF10-2
Sakaguchi, Amano, and Uematsu, the three pillars of the Final Fantasy franchise, are not involved at all
The status screen shows only "attack" and "magic attack"
You can only use one character in battle
Bahamut looks stupid
The hero is a girl
Not enough people have PS3s
Why are all the summon monsters transformers?
Now, even Cid is a metrosexual
I lol at these reasons not because I agree: I lol because this is the way things are.
It's not impossible to find people who are genuinely excited about Final Fantasy XIII: just look at some blogs or the user communities on Mixi, Japan's biggest social network site. Out in the open, the typical computer-using obsessive-compulsive's opinion would seem to be that the game is going to bomb: the game is going to blow: the game is going to suck: and so on.
I was there, at the Final Fantasy XII launch. I've been over this before! A hundred-some people lined up in the decent weather. This was years ago. It was at the Tsutaya in Shibuya, which contains the busiest Starbucks in the world. There, the only size is tall, and it's the price of a grande. They do not have time to listen to your insipid little special order requests! Square-Enix has been holding their launch events there since Final Fantasy X. They're holding one again today. I'm not there. I'll get into that in a minute.
A minute later: The Final Fantasy XII launch was a nightmare. And I don't mean it was terrible, or some people died; I mean it was like one of those medium-hot nightmares, where you've lost something and you don't know what it is, just that you have to find it, or you're going to wet the bed.
I tried to talk to the first guy in line. He would not speak to me. He was shivering like with electrocution. An hour later, he was up at the podium with pre-Imperial Hot Yoichi Wada, president of Square-Enix. They call this a "photo op." Japanese marketing is so stuck in the 1950s. Seriously, they still drive trucks around your neighborhood telling you that a new furniture store's opened up five hundred meters away. So there's the president of a big corporation, shaking hands with some kid. Reporters lean in to get a quip. Wada says, "We humbly thank you for your many long years of devout customertude," and so on and so on. Then they lean the microphone in over at the kid, and he says, eyes on his shoes: "Please remake Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation 3 Thank You" and quickly shuffles off. I literally shuddered — figuratively. The kid knew nothing about Final Fantasy XII, because he hadn't played it yet (and Square-Enix had been tight-lipped about details for months before the release. He knew nothing about XII, and
1. He was buying it anyway
2. He was dead convinced it couldn't be as good as Final Fantasy VII.
So this is Christmas, and what have we—Final Fantasy XIII?
Final Fantasy XIII, I am sure, is a fan-fearing attempt by Square-Enix to squeeze out every bit of hyper-love possible. It's a real bottoms-up adventure. Each character is designed to be someone you'd want to write a fanfic about, or dress up as at your weekly Halloween party. What the hell is it about? I'm a massive fan-jerk myself; I've read all the marketing literature, and I can't tell what in the flaming hellfire the game is supposed to be about. Guys with hats? Girls with hair? Dragons that turn into battletanks? Ice fairies that turn into motorcycles? It certainly has: a cute girl, a tough girl, a cute and tough girl, a bunch of hot guys, a little kid with a voice that seems six years too old for his height, convoluted and half-hideous, half-gorgeous flying machines, and lots of CG cut-scenes. The "final trailer" for the game cuts immediately from a turgid montage of stilted one-liners like "I fight for revenge" "Let's do this!" "Oh no, we're in danger!" and "I will never forget you" to battle scenes wherein three characters stand a three-pointer's distance from a monster as tall as an HDTV screen; a flash and blur stains the screen, and yes: everyone and everything is flying. These three characters gang-bang the $#@! out of this jalopy of a monster. Numbers just flying out of all sides of this reluctantly airborne, lopsided, unthinkably twirling beast.
Do I want to play this game? I don't know. I think I do. I tell myself that I can enjoy it as a piece of schlock-art. I will slowly and deeply familiarize myself with the copious plot holes big enough to fly a T-rex through, so that I can craft conversation-topical memes about them, generating future lols with my Gamer Buddies (who, come to think of it, don't exist).
I don't dare deny the distinct possibility that haircuts and flying motorcycles are the only things that Square thinks we want to see, that the game has an affecting story beneath all the glitz. A Famitsu reviewer recently gave the game a nine out of ten and mentioned that the story is "linear until about halfway through." Maybe "linear" means "derivative"? Who the hell knows.
What I'm doing, here — at six in the morning, twelve hours before my flight to America to enjoy my first American Christmas in many years — is lowering my expectations, so that I can hopefully be pleasantly surprised. I am sure I am not alone.
Well, maybe.
However, one thing is for sure. I realized this while covering the Dragon Quest IX launch: I am legally an adult. No one tells me when to go to bed, and no one tells me when to wake up! I can eat ice cream whenever I want! And I can decide that I am not boarding a packed rush-hour train to film pornographic videos of people lined up in the frozen cold. I am curious, I will admit, to see if the first person lined up to buy Final Fantasy XIII at the Tsutaya in Shibuya will harness the opportunity to ask Yoichi Wada to remake Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation 3, because that would be philosophically hilarious. (Here, I postulate that Final Fantasy XIII is also made from the ground up in the interest of at least preventing the first buyer from mentioning Final Fantasy VII remake possibilities.)
So, in short, I say no! No, I will not go snap pictures of people waiting in line! This is the future! Microsoft are cutting triangular slivers out of the insides of our DVD cases in the name of saving money on packaging. They are acclimating us to The Future: they'll keep taking plastic out of the package until the package disappears, until Everything is Digital. I welcome our digital future! I say, no more lining up in the cold! We have Amazon! We have 7-Eleven's reserve system!
I have reserved Final Fantasy XIII at my local 7-Eleven, located just 30-some seconds' walking distance from my front door. What I am going to do is — well, I am going to (I wouldn't be caught with zero HP buying a Final Fantasy game with a tangled rat's nest perched atop my head), and then I am going to walk to the 7-Eleven, and see what Square's 1 million preorders looks like from the comfort of my own neighborhood. I hope to catch a glimpse of the first person purchasing the game from my local 7-eleven. This is going to be some Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault-type $#@!.

For those who didn't watch the videos: I safely obtained the game.
Now that I have the game home, it is time for a video which fetishistically details the unboxing and first insertion into my PlayStation 3. I will also let you experience the first five minutes of Final Fantasy XIII as I myself experience them. It's like a liveblog, only with videos, and delayed by maybe an hour or two! Let's-a-go!

Immediately after my digital camera died on that last video, I got into a fight with a single lonely soldier. My hero whacked him over the head with her sword just as my other dude slammed him with his whatever. A cloud of numbers obscured his body for an instant. The soldier was dead before he could even look at us cross-eyed. A ranking screen flashes up. Numbers ticked, the sound of a pachinko machine on a good day: one by one, five stars filled up and glowed gold on my nice-sized HDTV. Five stars. Gold stars. "PERFECT," the game said, in not nearly so many words. I pressed the circle button once, and I'm perfect. Don't that just say it all. And then a screen comes up informing me of the items obtained: nothing. Down in the bottom-right corner, a circle button icon, and two letters: "OK." My entire HDTV is rented out in the name of telling me, via a giant vacant spreadsheet, that I didn't get any items. Reminds me of my first job (it didn't end well).

So, impressions based on the first twenty minutes: The cut-scenes are well-directed. The camera floats in a way that feels organic. The sound is of excellent mix pedigree. The music is delicious, layered, complex, and yet crisp. The atmosphere, at this shallow depth, exudes a sense of a game that might actually have a destination. Though yeah, it starts with trains and resistance operatives with guns, raging against a city of machines. We've got an aloof cool-person with a sword and a comic relief sidekick. We've seen a baby chocobo pop out of an afro maybe six times already. He's called the little bird "Dad" precisely once.
I am going to play this game, hopefully getting to the point of lost interest. I will be pleasantly surprised if I get on my airplane in eight hours literally burning to know what happens next in the story. Either way, I have Zelda on my DS.
Hey, look, you and me both are going to have to wait to play more Final Fantasy XIII. Maybe you have Zelda, too. You know, March isn't very far away! You guys can do it!
Thanks for reading this. I hope to blow through this game in a couple of days when back in the States and come back at you guys with a larger-than-life review-like not-exactly-a-review article kind of thing. It's the least I can do for you, the good people of the world!

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