Final Fantasy XIII-2: The First Three Hours - Gameplay Preview

We've previewed Final Fantasy XIII-2 quite a number of times here on RPG Site and even interviewed the staff behind the game a couple of times, but our most comprehensive hands-on came last month when Square Enix invited us to come and preview as much of the game as we could see in three hours.

We took up the challenge, and this comprehensive story preview covers what we saw happen - but what about how it played? If that's your primary concern, you clicked the right link. The good news is that my gameplay experience was quite tremendous and enlightening; this truly looks like it is the title FINAL FANTASY XIII was meant to be.

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FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 introduces a lot of gameplay elements in those first three hours, and what's on offer is a mixture of both old and new. It's a testament to lessons learned from FINAL FANTASY XIII that in that game the first three hours would've barely meant touching 'proper' battle controls, while here what feels to be most of the core mechanics are introduced within three hours.

Returning is the largely praised Active Time Battle system from FINAL FANTASY XIII. In addition to making use of Paradigm Shifts, battles will now include elements such as monster allies, cinematic actions, leader switch, and more.

Most of these mechanics have been covered in detail in past previews, but Monster Allies can be called into the third character slot whilst Cinematic Actions are QTE-style events which require you to press a button combination within battle sequences to complete certain sections or do more damage. Some people will wonder if this is very suitable for this series, but the Cinematic Actions are actually reminiscent of many of the Limit Breaks in FINAL FANTASY VIII and FINAL FANTASY X, which often required button input, in their execution. Leader Switch is pretty obvious, allowing you to switch party leader - and thus the character you control - mid-battle.

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Battle screens get just as busy as they did in XIII.

Noel and Serah are the two main playable characters, although as our story preview reveals Lightning is playable in the beginning of the game. That's a brief section that is on-rails, and most of the game is spent instead playing as Noel and Serah.

As mentioned earlier, the third party member slot is taken up by a monster ally, and guest characters such as Snow will fight alongside you later on, as has been shown in Japanese magazines and at Preview events. Guest characters, however, cannot be controlled, nor have their stats upgraded; they're almost entirely cosmetic in nature.

Battles can become more difficult by the use of blood damage. Blood damage reduces a character’s max HP for the entire duration of a battle, meaning any blood damage cannot be healed until that battle is over and the characters are returned to the field. Blood damage appears to be able to be inflicted upon your party members without notice by some enemies, but can also occur when characters are knocked down and then revived; meaning characters that get repeatedly knocked down will be weakened.

While in the exploration fields use of the Mog Clock device will allow you to steal a pre-emptive strike, which awards various bonuses or penalties at the start of a battle including major buffs that would otherwise have to be cast by a member of your party.

A new feature called Live Trigger has been added to the game's cutscenes to keep the action flowing as well, even during story pieces. Live Triggers also give the player choice which will ultimately lead to different situations and interactions by selecting one of four outcomes. These dialogue choices appear frequently, and we're told will eventually be important for encouraging multiple playthroughs, with consequences of choices differing.

Unlike its predecessor, XIII-2 gives you the ability to talk to NPC characters and even characters in your party to learn more about the world. For example, Serah will speak to Noel at several points while you're in control outside of battle in order to discover more about him. In these situations, you’ll sometimes have more than one dialogue option to choose from. For those who just prefer hardcore reading, they'll be pleased to know that the Datalog feature from XIII is completely intact.

Another unique ability to this sequel is the option to jump freely without it being an automatic, pre-set jump - a first for the core Final Fantasy series. Noel, Serah, and even Chocobos can jump across the terrain in order to explore far away areas and reach hidden treasures that would've been previously out of reach.

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Crystarium is simultaneously simplified and more open than ever.

The Crystarium system is opened up fairly early on in the game. Unlike XIII, there are no level caps blocking progression through the Crystarium until you hit a certain story point. This means you can earn CP and gain skills to your heart’s content. Party Paradigms are also in place, so switching out roles won’t lead to a loss in your set up if you want to alter back and forth.

When the Crystarium expands out it allows for level bonuses. For example, abilities such as COM/RAV (ATK/BLA) boost, unlocking various roles, increase ATB, and increase accessory capacity can be selected once you level up enough. Long gone are the tiers - each character’s Crystarium is in the shape of their weapon and spending CP has been simplified.

Monster allies captured by obtaining crystals have their own Crystarium, although slightly different. Known as the “power of the untamed,” monster allies will form your third party member and can be aligned to various Paradigm roles. Monsters can gain their own abilities, and even equip accessories to gain certain bonuses.

Quests play an important role in FINAL FANTASY XIII-2. By completing various missions from NPCs and story characters, Serah and Noel can uncover more about the world, and in addition discover important items such as artefacts. Artefacts are the keys to time travel—the pass through the gate into the Historia Crux system. One of the main goals to alter the future will inevitably rely on your success in locating these items.

Historia Crux is what makes time travel possible. It’s a compass for navigating time, and can be compared at a very rough level to 'The End of Time' from the much-loved Chrono Trigger. When new gates are opened, more areas in more time periods will become unlocked. You have the ability to return to the Historia Crux menu at any time by entering the Pause menu. As such, you’ll also auto-save each time you pause, just in case.

Various puzzles will also net you items. Early on, Temporal Rifts areas appear, requiring you collect a number of crystals on a grid in order to escape and obtain fragment items. Those who feel frustrated have the option of giving up, which allows you to return to the previous area.

The game’s equipment system has been completely overhauled from FINAL FANTASY XIII. A travelling shop keeper known as Chocolina - dressed in a ridiculous-looking, skimpy Chocobo costume - gives you somebody 'real' to interact with rather then digital shop-fronts accessed through save points and appears in multiple locations throughout the world. She offers a variety of weapons and accessories to the player for a price.

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In-engine cutscenes mean whatever you have equipped shows up in story sequences, too.

On the technical side there’s a lot going on with FINAL FANTASY XIII-2. The pre-rendered in-engine videos have been ditched in favour of real-time cutscenes. Changes to character weapons and costumes, which will also be showing up as Downloadable Content, are reflected in the in-game cutscenes, thanks to this. Pre-rendered CGI sequences still exist, but appear to not be in the same abundance as they were in FFXIII. Less video files also means the Xbox 360 version won't suffer from a ton of disc changes.

There's an upside and a downside to this - in-engine cutscenes won't always look as impressive as the pre-rendered stuff, as that makes use of technology that would make the consoles chug in real-time. Seeing costumes is a nice bonus, but things like dithering in character hair and occasional texture issues were definitely visible in real-time cutscenes in this non-final version of FFXIII-2.

Speaking to producer Yoshinori Kitase, we learned that similar to its predecessor, the PlayStation 3 version of the game will feature “the same specs as FFXIII” or rather clean video, as well as 7.1 LPCM audio. In this respect, the team has managed to maintain a similar level of quality despite development time being much shorter.

The important thing to take away here is from the gameplay, though, and that feels to be much-improved from FINAL FANTASY XIII. Lessons have clearly been learned from the issues fans took with the previous game, from how much better paced the game dishes out new gameplay systems to how the previously strangely restrictive Crystarium system has been blown out into something better and more open.

There’s no doubt that FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 will be loved by some and disliked by others by its very nature. A seemingly more whimsical and so-far confusing story starring Serah, its nature as a sequel, a time travel mechanic whose quality is still up in the air and so many other variables almost guarantee that. After all, it isn’t FINAL FANTASY without some kind of fan base divide. Regardless, I think the most important question has been answered at last for me during my brief time with the game: Is the game part worth playing?

The answer is yes. I'm looking forward to December 15th, when I'll get my hands on the game for our Import Coverage.

If you want to read more about FFXIII-2, be sure to head to the game page for interviews, previews, news and more and the Media Vault for Screenshots, Videos and Artwork from the game.

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