Final Fantasy XIII-2 continues Square Enix's latest trend of making sequels to past Final Fantasy games - perhaps to expand their worlds a little more, or perhaps to squeeze a few extra bucks from fans of each individual game. Whatever the reasoning, XIII-2 is coming, and probably going to arrive before that other Fabula Nova Crystallis game, the so-long-in-development-it's-delaying-Kingdom-Hearts-3 psuedo-remake/sequel thing Final Fantasy Versus XIII. So what can we expect from yet another foray into this world of crystals and gunswords?
We were shown a behind closed doors demo of XIII-2 at E3, which was set 'a little further into the game than the beginning.' We were told the demo took place on Cocoon, the technologically advanced world which is now suspended above the larger world of Pulse by a crystal pillar, although the structures seemed a little more primitive than we'd seen before, so maybe it was Pulse. Whatever it was, there was a planet in the sky, a clear reminder of the finale of the last game. We also noticed a few re-used assets from the last game, such as the Pulsework Soldiers and Cocoon armed guards. The demo followed the game's main characters, Serah and Noel, who's a new character - a melee fighter with two swords. They're also joined by a new flying moogle companion, who followes the party around and can turn into weaponry to be used. He also has an incredibly annoying voice, although he does also help you find hidden treasure balls.
As the demo began, a stone robot that was dormant in the town Serah and Noel were exploring came to life, initiating a fight. It was clear from the battle that the paradigm has returned in full force, although now there are new quicktime events called 'cinematic action'. At various times in battles, you'll have to complete these timed button presses quickly to earn a reward - such as brave and faith status bonuses - while the camera swoops around and gives an even more cinematic angle on the action. It looked nice, and at least it's a bit more active than the auto battle feature in XIII as you actually have to press buttons, hey-oh! The robot's name in this fight was 'Paradox Alpha', although apparently his real name is 'Atlas'.
The story them jumped ahead, as rain began to set in on the town and Serah and Noel could run around the location a little more. Some NPCs now have speech bubbles above their heads, allowing you to actually talk to them with multiple dialogue options, which believe it or not is an addition that XIII did not have. The developers have tried to incorporate more exploration into XIII-2, so there are now secret areas to find which have treasure spheres, and the map displayed several segments to the town, with the unexplored parts coloured in grey.
Random battles are back - kind of. Enemies now warp into view at random times, in a group, at which point you can try and avoid them by escaping their 'radius' or fight them. When you touch an enemy, a gauge appears called a 'Mog Clock', with a dial that moves from green to yellow and red. If you stop it on green, you'll get a bonus in the battle like haste, yellow produces no result, while red means the enemy could strike first, and make it unlikely for you to five-star the battle. Monsters can now join your party as well and fight alongside you, as one slot in your party is reserved for them. They have their own classes like Ravager or Commando, and you can switch them out as you would paradigms.
In the field, there are also plenty more additions to the gameplay. 'Live events' are cutscenes where you retain control - not quite quicktime events, but they allow you to move your character around while the action is happening. Also, get ready for this, you can now... jump. We know, it's a revolution, but when running around your characters can bounce, skip and hop to their heart's content.
At certain points in the story, 'live triggers' will occur, allowing you to choose the direction of the story. In the demo, the choice was whether to find the newly completed Atlas directly, or find a console that may control him, which could be classified as a secondary objective. After choosing the latter, the characters were eventually drawn into a 'paradox' - a rift in space-time where they had to complete puzzles. The puzzles we saw involved stepping on panels to reach a goal, the catch being that each panel you used would disappear after stepping on it. Eventually, after completing the secondary objective, the control panel had an effect on Atlas - making him weaker and more 'solid'. This was apparent when he was engaged in battle, and his health was halved.
The final segment we saw, that was exclusive to behind closed doors, showed Lightning in a new, unnamed location. We speculate it might be another dimension where these monsters are coming from, but really what does it matter - Lightning was riding on her shiny Odin horse fighting the monstrous Chaos Bahamut in a very cinematic sequence with a dynamic camera. It looked great, even if it seemed to fit more with the quicktime-event style of gameplay.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 does appear to be attempting to improve on its predecessor, with a greater emphasis on choice and exploration and giving the player a bit more breathing room rather than being shuttled down narrow corridors with automatic battles. It's still heavily focused on providing a cinematic experience, with quicktime events and live events trying to replicate an epic experience with some input from the player, but we hope Square-Enix has taken the fans' complaints to heart and is making a game to be played, rather than watched. Besides, you can JUMP now too. Epic.