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Hot Sequels Deliver Fantasy Action

Talk about March Madness: Two high-profile video game sequels have launched within a week of one another, in a month that's typically quiet for new releases.

"Final Fantasy XIII" and "God of War III" are now available, both of which deliver an epic story, huge fantasy worlds and enough action to last you well into the spring. And yes, they both have roman numerals in their name, too, oddly enough.

Which one to buy if you're on a budget? Tough call, though role-playing game (RPG) fans might gravitate to the latest in the 20-year "Final Fantasy" franchise, while those who prefer over-the-top combat against enormous mythological creatures should opt for the third official game in the Mature-rated "God of War" series.

Here's a closer look at each recommended title.

"Final Fantasy XIII" (Square Enix; for Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3; rated "Teen"; $59.99; finalfantasy13game.com; 4 stars out of 5)

If you can get past the irony of a 13th "Final Fantasy" game, Square Enix's latest adventure delivers a deep single-player experience for RPG fans. The story mostly revolves around Cocoon, once a utopian moon but now the target of hostile fal'Cie from the Pulse underworld. You'll play as a party of young rebels, each with their own personality, skills and unique tie to the story.

As with past games in the series, the battle system is mostly turn-based - therefore you'll queue combat decisions, such as sword slashing or spell casting, and then watch as they play out against the enemies - but now you have the option to make adjustments in real time during battles, be it adding new attacks or changing party member roles between medic, commando and saboteur, for instance. You can also summon creatures called Eidolons (first introduced in "Final Fantasy IX"), which appear with dramatic fanfare and ready to do your bidding.

As with most RPGs, characters progress over experience, therefore you can spend your earned points toward learning new attacks and spells - required for taking down the bigger baddies.

The game's production values are extraordinary - from the high-definition graphics and cinematic cut-scene sequences (a "Final Fantasy" hallmark) to the musical score comprised of an orchestrated soundtrack and theme song, "My Hands," performed by pop star Leona Lewis.

Despite the fact the game is quite linear, especially during the first half of the adventure, "Final Fantasy XIII" is an engaging tale that plays out like an interactive movie.

"God of War III" (Sony Computer Entertainment; for Sony PlayStation 3; rated "Mature"; $59.99; godofwar.com; 4.5 stars out of 5)

If visceral action is more your thing, Sony's "God of War III" is bigger and badder than its predecessors, set once again in the realm of brutal Greek mythology and starring the ex-Spartan warrior, Kratos.

With his wrist-mounted blades and new weapons - a fiery bow, magic and combo attacks - this fallen god and son of Zeus must avenge those who have betrayed him in a 3D world four times larger than the last game. You'll face off against mythological creatures such as Cyclops, Minotaurs, Centuars and Cerberus.

In fact, the sense of scale is absolutely incredible, beginning with Kratos running down the arm of Gaia, an enormous earthlike Titan god, as she climbs up Mount Olympus; you'll battle a horned beast with gigantic claws while hanging onto Gaia, even upside-down. Major boss battles are back, too, and become increasingly tough to take down as you inch toward the epic confrontation at the end of the game.

Take heed to the game's "Mature" rating, though, as Kratos has a penchant for beheading and disembowelment, plus the game features some nudity and sexual inferences, as well.

As with the other "God of War" games, the controls are tight and responsive, graphics are outstanding, and you can unlock behind-the-scenes content on the disc.

Whether you're new to the franchise or a longtime fan, "God of War III" is an extraordinarily fun and gratifying (but gory) sequel.

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