After years of waiting, Final Fantasy XIII ended in disappointment for most; a massive build-up leading to an even greater let down. As such, I felt it was only appropriate that I get as much hands-on time with its sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, as I could.
And by hands-on time, I mean I probably played the demo about 5 or 6 times across both platforms, in addition to being shown a private demo with an extended sequence attached to it.
If you haven’t, I highly recommend checking out my verbal impressions through our original E3 podcast. It was interesting because Final Fantasy XIII-2 was playable at the Sony after-conference event, despite being absent from the actual presentation. This really gave us a chance to play what was likely the first public showing of the demo.
The demo starts off with a brief recap of the story so far—five years after the ending of Final Fantasy XIII. We know Lightning is missing and her sister, Serah is now searching for her. At some point she encounters our new main character, Noel Kreiss, who happens to be from Pulse. The demo begins with what looks like a real time cutscene, one of the improvements that the XIII-2 developers had mentioned would be more prevalent throughout the sequel. At first glance, they seem more detailed than the real time events we saw in Final Fantasy XIII—better modeling at least.
If you’ve seen any of the direct feed footage, you’ll notice that moogles are back; one of the classic Final Fantasy creatures that was sorely lacking in the previous game. Serah, now 23 years old, finds herself transported to the Cocoon ruins, along with Noel. As the camera takes us through a sweeping view of the city, Serah comments on how Pulse is visible from above. Noel seems taken aback, since it is his first time visiting the once floating world.
The giant hand seen earlier in the demo begins to glow and seemingly attempts to grab our main characters. PSI-COM soldiers retaliate in vain as Noel steps up to take charge of the situation. The glowing arm knocks Noel against a wall, and we see Serah rush in, the moogle transforming instantly into a bow-like weapon for her use. Just like in Final Fantasy XIII, the scene seamlessly transitions into battle, displaying a menu that should seem very familiar.
At a glance, the battle system seems largely unchanged from Final Fantasy XIII. The Paradigm Shift system remains intact, and players will select abilities either individually, or by auto-battle, just like they did in the original Active Time Battle system. In fact, they seem relatively unchanged at all, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
In the demo, the only character you can control is Noel, so in this first battle against the enemy known as Paradox Alpha, you can see him using a variety of abilities such as Ruin and Attack, while Serah casts magic controlled by the game’s AI. As the battle progresses, we see small segments known as Cinematic Actions take place. This is one of the new elements added to the battle system. Similar to something common in action games, a Cinematic Action calls for specific button prompts to be completed, resulting in a Success or Failure, thus allowing the small cutscene to play out. After a couple minutes, the battle comes to a close and Paradox Alpha is “defeated.” We see several airships flying overhead as rap music… plays in the background. It’s revealed that the enemy is called Atlas, and it is under some sort of Paradox effect—meaning it’s between worlds. Cinematic Action comes into play again here, where the player is allowed to effectively control the actions of the airship attacking the monster. Atlas is successfully damaged, and the fight finally concludes as it disappears.
The demo skips ahead slightly for the sake of time. Atlas has moved to a different part of the map, and it’s up to both Noel and Serah to find it. At this point, you’re now in a familiar area known as Bresha, which is in ruins since the fall of Cocoon. Playing as Noel, you can run around through the area and do some exploration. Unfortunately, the menu systems were inaccessible, so features such as the leveling system, and what Crystarium does in XIII-2, are still largely unknown, and something the developers will not talk about yet. Within Bresha, it was raining, and in the Map menu there was a text that read “Climate type” which might indicate that a dynamic weather system has been introduced. Again, no real details on such a system, if it exists, were explained.
Some of the new additions to location interactions can be seen almost immediately within the “town” area that the characters are in. As in Final Fantasy XIII, characters will randomly talk to you in a dialogue box located on the bottom left of the screen, however, specific NPCs are now available for you to go up, hit X, and speak with them directly. These characters usually have dialogue that tends to be more relevant to the plot, so it’s worthwhile to see what each one has to say. By pulling up the map with Select, you’ll notice that the Bresha area is larger than most of the linear areas that plagued Final Fantasy XIII. Various paths branch out, so exploring the area is encouraged here. As Noel moves around, both Serah and the moogle will follow him. The player character can now jump at any given time in XIII-2, a first for the mainline series.
The Datalog also returns to XIII-2. This time we learn about another one of the game’s new systems, the Mog Clock. The Mog Clock is basically a system that comes in to play in place of the normal preemptive strike tactics that were in Final Fantasy XIII. In the original game, all you had to do was sneak up on an enemy present on the field, and strike from behind to be rewarded the preemptive attack. Now, things are completely different. Enemies are no longer visible on the map—instead they randomly appear in certain areas, and the Mog Clock appears on the bottom of the screen. When the indicator is on green, it means the enemy will not move and is vulnerable to attack. Yellow means that the enemy can now move, and is ready to attack. Red shows that your time is up and the battle will now begin. Certain things will happen if you approach the enemy and hit X within each of the three colored tiers. Green, obviously being the best, will grant you status bonuses—in the case of the demo, Noel and Serah gained Haste. Yellow has no effect, and a normal battle will start upon striking the enemy. Red is the color you want to avoid; status penalties will be inflicted on the party, which includes things like Slow and ATB reset to 0.
Those who played Final Fantasy XIII will be most familiar with the battles. It’s nearly identical on field. The biggest changes come from a slight addition to the HUD, and the ability to now defeat and recruit monsters into your party as AI controlled characters. Each monster captured can be set to specific roles in the Paradigm System. For example, if you capture a behemoth, it can be attached to the Attacker/Commando role, and can perform its own Cinematic Actions if certain conditions are met as well. For those curious, the victory theme remains unchanged.
Another new feature to Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the Live sequences. A Live sequence is basically a cutscene that occurs to move the story along, or show you what is going on elsewhere on the map in certain situations. These scenes are real time, and as such, you’re free to keep moving even when the camera is focused elsewhere on them. In the demo, they occur several times, letting you know where Atlas is heading to.
As the demo took us through Bresha, more rap-like Persona-ish music can be heard in the background. Several gates are scattered about the landscape, and you hear Serah mention that an Artefact is needed to open them. Tying in with the game’s theme of Time Paradox, Noel reveals that such keys shouldn’t even exist in this world. Utilizing Mog, he commands it to help search for these Artefacts, revealing hidden chests that contain them.
After a few more monster battles, another Live event occurs. Atlas has fully materialized close by in one of the branching paths. One of the new characters to XIII-2, Alyssa, tells you that an unknown energy source has been detected in the ruins. Serah reveals that Atlas must have been created by humans, and so there has to be some way for them to control it. Noel suggests you have two choices: fight Atlas head on, or find the device that controls him. A Live Trigger has just been… well, triggered. What this means is that you now have a choice on what course of action you will take in regards to the situation at hand. Supposedly this is what has come from the “BioWare story-telling” influence. Essentially, you get four options, all mapped to the face buttons. They include things such as “What does Mog think?” “What does Alyssa think?” and “I live in the moment!”
If you select Mog or Alyssa, they suggest that you don’t fight Atlas head-on, because your chances of winning are probably zero, unless you’re properly over-leveled at this point in the game. We did attempt it just to see what would happen, and it just wouldn’t work. Like Final Fantasy XIII, though, if your party leader dies, you’ll Game Over. Once that happens, you’ll be allowed to retry the battle again. In the case of Atlas, it allows you to search for the item that might control him. By pulling up the map again, yellow indicators will let you know where you need to go.
More Persona music.
To pursue Atlas, Noel and Serah enter a series of tunnels. Again, enemies will appear but you can always run away from them to avoid battle as long as the encounter circle remains gray in color. Going through the tunnels is straight forward enough, and thankfully aren’t completely linear. When you arrive at the yellow destination point, Atlas shows up again pulling the party into a Temporal Rift, which is known as the Void Beyond. It is here that we are introduced to one of the many new puzzles, or mini-game features.
Mog can talk... Noel informs you that they must have been thrown inside of a paradox. To escape, all you must do is simply solve the puzzle at hand. Resolving the anomaly here is pretty easy… all you have to do is travel along blocks in a specific order to capture every crystal before said blocks vanish underneath you. If you back yourself into a corner, you can always reset the level at any time by pressing Square. Noel must go through several of these before returning to the present. It is unknown if future anomalies will be different or more complex.
Once the device is activated back in the present, we are able to see that it has indeed affected Atlas, and choosing this path was easier than fighting it from the beginning. Now to return to battle him for real this time. Atlas’ health has been halved from what it was when we fought him initially, making it easier to stay alive through switching roles. To defeat him, all it really took was attacking, followed by healing, and defending whenever he would strike down at the party. Once Atlas is finished, the demo ends, and the game thanks you for playing.
For the private showing of the demo, this section was followed up by a segment that takes place near the beginning of the game.
We are now Lightning, who has apparently been trapped in the past, or some type of time paradox. This section begins with her atop Odin, riding through a darkened, almost war-torn world. It seems that she’s being chased by an enemy known as Chaos Bahamut. It’s quite obvious from the damage being dealt, that she’s much more powerful than both Serah and Noel were in the previous demo. Lightning is able to use a variety of attacks against Bahamut including Lightning Strike and Snipe. Eventually, a live event is triggered and she chases Bahamut up a large building, and again Cinematic Actions take place, requiring the player to hit timed command buttons. The beautiful, but short demo then comes to an end almost quicker than it began.
Now that I’ve probably bored you with my lengthy description of the actual demonstrations, I’ll share my real thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII-2.
It’s no secret that I find such a sequel highly unnecessary, despite “the fans wanting it” line we’ve heard time and time again from the developers. Add to that, the fact that XIII-2 has essentially pushed any chance for Final Fantasy Versus XIII coverage into sometime next year—there’s definitely a reason to be irritated about the whole thing, especially if you consider that game was announced in 2006, and since then we have exactly three trailers total.
Despite all that, though, I was generally interested in seeing if Square-Enix had indeed lived up to their promise of listening to fans this time around. I’m happy to say that they did—to an extent.
Many new elements have been added to XIII-2 that involve the player’s interaction directly. This means we’ll be seeing a lot more mini-games, more QTEs, and of course, a somewhat simplified choice system. Because of these things, multiple endings will be made available, along with features carried over to New Game+. This is great news since the original game was lacking in mission variety, and offered absolutely nothing once the main story was completed in terms of doing anything with your characters. What's been shown so far also indicates much larger environments, which, again is a step in the right direction.
I was surprised to see that the battle system itself had remained relatively unchanged. It seems, at least in the demo, that the only new additions are the QTEs and the monster capturing elements. That’s nice and all, but I had really hoped we’d see a bigger change than that. Unfortunately, if the party leader dies, it means Game Over… and you can only control one character at a time as well. The only two gripes I had with XIII’s system were not touched upon at all. Perhaps they decided to play it safe, because if it were too different, it wouldn’t feel much like a proper sequel entry. I do feel, however, that it would be nice to have some more advanced party control similar to that in Final Fantasy X and XII. Hopefully they’ve improved the AI some, so that won’t be much of an issue.
As Toriyama promised, the story seems to be very mature and mysterious, despite characters like Serah wearing magical girl-like costumes. I’m definitely interested in this whole time paradox plot that’s going on, as long as we’re not made to suffer through lines and lines of cringe-worthy dialogue that was present throughout the entirety of Final Fantasy XIII. The developers neglected to comment on how story progression will play out, so I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out on that in the future. The addition of the Live Trigger choices is an interesting element they did add, although right now it does seem somewhat limited in scope.
Along with the story’s tone change, I found it very interesting that the music had taken a huge turn in direction as well. Masashi Hamauzu is back, supposedly along with some other unnamed composers. The orchestral style of Final Fantasy XIII is altered, and now we’re presented with an odd selection of tracks that sometimes just don’t fit the scene. Initially when I had played the demo, it was too loud around me, so I couldn’t hear the music properly. Only later did I find out that they’ve sort of copied Shouji Meguro, known for his music in Persona, and his style. During some of the battles and on field, it’s there… this rap music that doesn’t really belong. I don’t really think it goes with the game’s style at all. Final Fantasy XIII-2 just isn’t as stylish as Persona 4 was. It’s good on them to have a wide variety… but bad English-filled hip-hop/rap music is not the answer. What I assume is the normal battle music is not too bad, however. My big hope for XIII-2’s soundtrack is ultimately more piano and string-based themes. As with X-2, which took on a popular form of music and integrated it into the OST, XIII-2 seems to be following the same path, although I have a feeling it might be more prevalent this time around. I hope the music stays true to what one would expect out of a Final Fantasy soundtrack, and not become too bloated.
Regarding the game’s visuals; I think this is a really interesting topic, and I haven’t seen many other outlets touch on this subject. To be quite honest, XIII-2 is not nearly as detailed as its predecessor. The models are less detailed in parts, better in others, and the environments are filled with muddy textures that likely will not be fixed before release. For example, when you come upon Atlas near the end of the demo, his foot, or whatever it is, is just one big blocky texture staring you in the face. It’s not very nice to look at, and it’s unfortunate that the screens released by Square-Enix so far are definitely touched up. History seems to be repeating itself, because the same exact thing happened with Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2. With less than six months before the Japanese release, I don’t see them making many improvements.
Inevitably, people will be curious as to how both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions perform. After having played both several times through, I can say this: The PS3 version definitely does look the better of the two. The 360 version looked a lot more washed out, with rougher edges, and of course, visibly compressed FMV (CG will be 1080p on PS3). I suppose that is to be expected though, since there was quite a difference between the two platforms in regards to Final Fantasy XIII, and PlayStation 3 is still the lead platform in this case as well. With news that Final Fantasy XIII-2 will ship on up to 4 discs on the Xbox 360 (despite the focus on more real time cutscenes), the choice should once again be easy for those who own multiple platforms.
All in all, I am definitely interested in seeing more of Final Fantasy XIII-2. So much so, that I will personally be playing the Japanese version at release. I can only hope that, if only one thing, that the story proves much better this time around.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 will release this December in Japan and early 2012 for North America and Europe. You can find all of the Screens, Artwork and Videos of FF13-2 over in the Media Vault!