Square-Enix looks to have taken fan feedback from Final Fantasy XIII to heart, because FFXIII-2 looks like it's ditching the linear tube in favor of more exploration, more interactive environments and even adds branching paths you can take depending on the choices you make. Our Moogle-filled demo felt like a promising mix of what worked well in XIII paired with more traditional JRPG sensibilities.
Our demo began with two characters, Serah and Noel. The central conflict of FFXIII revolved around Serah (or rather, Lightning's quest to save her), but we didn't actually get to know her very well during the course of the game. Now the tables have turned and Serah is searching for Lightning, who is rumored to be dead but Serah believes is just mysteriously missing. She's joined by brand-new character Noel, a man who looks like the offspring of Fang from FFXIII and Sora from Kingdom Hearts, and the two of them team up to fight the monsters that have suddenly appeared in their town.
It's all still hazy at this point, but it looks like Lightning is alive in some kind of other realm that's not easily accessible from the "real" world. As we saw in the teaser trailer, she's decked out in beautifully intricate armor, indicating her honored role in saving Cocoon and Pulse in FFXIII, so it looks like wherever she is she's doing quite well at least in some respect. Nevertheless, while the people of Pulse/Cocoon set about rebuilding their lives (XIII-2 begins three years after the end of XIII), Serah and Noel go in search of Lightning, seeking answers to the reason behind her disappearance along the way.
A focus on exploration
After a mini-boss battle where Serah and Noel fight the arm of a gigantic monster (a fal'Cie, perhaps?), they explore a nearby area that shows off a much less linear, and more interactive environment than most of the locations in FFXIII. The map layout of the area looked more like a traditional JRPG town, with various areas and alleys to explore, including tons of NPCs that will actually talk to you this time around. For fans of flavor dialogue, this detail alone is a pretty big deal.
As you wander, certain areas will trigger cinemas so that your surroundings feel more alive and dynamic, like when you turn a corner and see a giant pillar crumble and fall as you walk by. You also have an adorable Moogle (kupo!) that tags along with your party, and he indicates when certain areas contain secrets for you to find, like hidden treasure chests. And in an odd, but somehow fitting addition, you can now jump to explore ledges and the like (those circle prompts that initiate jumping sequences still exist, but there's also a jump button you can use outside of those situations).
We only really saw one explorable area in our demo, so it's hard to say if all the environments will be this detailed in XIII-2, but it definitely looks like it's taking a step in the right direction. We're also told that the majority of the locations in XIII-2 will be new, so although you will be revisiting some familiar locales, you don't have to worry about XIII-2 reusing the same old places we already saw in XIII.
After Serah and Noel explored the area a bit, the hulking monster called Atlas (the owner of the hand they fought off before) reappeared, and a woman named Alyssa radioed them to alert the duo that they had two options for dealing with the massive mechanical beast. They could just rush in and try to attack Atlas head on, or they could take their chances trying to operate a mysterious machine located within the town that may or may not be the device that controls him. After consulting Alyssa for advice (who is she, by the way? We don't know yet!), we decided to take a gamble on the machine, which ended up halving his HP for the battle that ensued.
The battle system
The battle system from XIII remains intact in XIII-2 (read this for an explanation of FFXIII's battles if you're unfamiliar), but with two major additions. Quick time events, called Cinematic Actions within the game, occur at various points during battle – Square-Enix says they're striving to integrate a cinematic feel with all aspects of the gameplay, and interspersing QTEs definitely adds visual interest. After the typical "press A repeatedly" or "waggle the analog stick" prompts, you'll either be penalized with a loss of HP or rewarded with a powerful attack on the enemy depending on whether or not you were successful.
In an interesting first for Final Fantasy, Cinematic Actions also occur within cutscenes, and depending on success or failure the scene will play out differently. It's unclear at this point whether or not this will actually affect the path of the story (let's be real – it probably won't) but we're told that the differences are significant enough that completionists will purposely want to play through both success and failure options (by intentionally failing out of the Cinematic Action) to see all possible outcomes.
The second, and possibly most significant addition to the battles is the ability to recruit defeated monsters to fight in your party. After battle, certain foes will drop a crystal that you can collect to add that monster to a roster of monsters that you can assign to various roles in battle. Each type of monster has a set role, which you'll be familiar with if you played FFXIII – for example, the Flan we recruited filled the Ravager role, meaning it's an expert in black magic. Each creature also has a Feral Link gauge, which allows you to unleash a powerful special attack when the gauge fills.
When we heard that XIII-2 contained a monster collection aspect, we were immediately skeptical and worried that it would be too tedious or gimmicky, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Choosing which monsters you want to battle with your party is easy and painless, and you set them to your party similarly to how you created Paradigm decks in FFXIII. It looks like the monster position basically functions like an extra party member slot for each Paradigm you create (again, go here for more on the Paradigm system).
Our demo ended with an intensely cinematic battle between Lightning and Chaos Bahamut, with Lightning riding horse-form Odin at a strong gallop while Bahamut attacked from the sky. So we know that wherever our former protagonist is, she's still alive and kicking. We're still left wondering about the identity of the mysterious man we saw sparring with Lightning in the first teaser trailer, as no new information was given about him. We also got a glimpse of a starry sky area called The Void Beyond – Temporal Rift, where you solve tile puzzles to progress, but we're not sure how that area fits into the story. And in the E3 trailer we see some of Snow's old crew, but where is Snow? We're looking forward to seeing more of Final Fantasy XIII-2 and answering these questions as we get closer to its early 2012 release window.
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