Quite a bit of our time at this year's E3 was spent over at the Square Enix booth. Aside from the sprawling TV, huge display of figurines and open booths for the eager press to try out their games, Square Enix were also showing some exclusive demonstrations behind closed doors. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was no exception. Having seen and played what Square Enix had on display, here are our impressions of FFXIII's upcoming sequel.
Here's the gist of the story: Serah Farron returns as a key character, Lightning is gone, most presume her to be dead. Team NORA's back. Snow's nowhere to be found. The village of New Bodhum, located on Gran Pulse and home to many Cocoon survivors, is suddenly attacked by monsters. Serah's joined by newcomer Noel Kreiss, who comes to her rescue. While Lightning isn't the main character, she will be a key figure in the story "“ which, by the way, involves time paradoxes.
The demo showcased one in particular where Serah, Noel and a group of PSICOM soldiers exploring Cocoon are attacked by a giant hand attached to the invisible body of Atlas. It's a strange premise, but then again it's not the first time Square Enix have dabbled in time related anomalies. Apparently Atlas is attempting to invade Cocoon through a tear in the space time continuum. Sounds like Star Trek? It really does.
The core of the battle system is back and nothing about it has changed. Unlike FFX-2 where just about every aspect was turned upside down, Square Enix are intent on maintaining quite a lot of Final Fantasy XIII in this sequel. Paradigm Shifts, the insanely quick ATB system, it's all there and it works exactly how you think it does.
What they have done is added bits and bobs on top of the core functions. Monsters no longer roam the area. Instead, they pop out at random. When one of these random encounters occur, a huge ring appears around Noel, indicating that he is within a monster's range. However, the battle doesn't start immediately. Noel has a chance to strike first. There is a pre-emptive gauge and if he strikes the enemy before the gauge drops out of the green zone, the party will get a pre-emptive attack. Noel can also flee from battle by running out of the ring.
Another new feature, or lack thereof depending on how you perceive it, is the removal of a third party member. Instead, Noel and Serah can recruit monsters by defeating them in battle. Equipping the respective crystals that they drop will summon them to battle as though they were a third party member. There are apparently over a hundred monsters to recruit, each with their own unique abilities. Monsters will change according to paradigms, so depending on what paradigm is being used, Noel and Serah can be fighting alongside a Flan at one point and a Behemoth at another.
Adding to that is Feral Link, a gauge that builds up during battle. Once full, it allows any allied monster to unleash a series of powerful attacks together with Noel through, you guessed it, button mashing not unlike that seen in Kingdom Hearts II. Square Enix have told us that it's a feature they hope fans will use often. It's not meant to be a super all-out attack, but it does enough damage to hopefully turn the tide of an ill-fated battle.
Battles are also made quite a bit more interesting with what Square Enix has dubbed Cinematic Action Sequences, which are essentially quick-time-events that occur at the climax of a boss fight. Button prompts will appear and hitting them in succession will result in some action-packed scenes. These were showcased during the battles with Atlas as well as the battle between Lightning and Chaos Bahamut, which in itself was a rather cinematic sequence. The battle takes place as Lightning rides atop Odin, all the while battle commands can be selected like in a regular battle. It's tough to say just how much these sequences will add to the experience based on the short demo, but so far it seems mostly aesthetic.
In any case, it's clear that Square Enix have also taken into consideration some of the more cutting complaints about Final Fantasy XIII. Linearity is being addressed with more open areas, branching paths and even optional objectives. Where FFXIII had mostly straight lines for maps, XIII-2 has bigger courtyards that branch out into various other areas for Serah and Noel to explore. The short demo didn't do a very convincing job of showcasing it, but hopefully it'll be a lot more open than XIII was.
One other aspect Square Enix have added to the mix in order to make the game more open is dialogue options. Throughout the game, Noel and Serah will have to make decisions that supposedly affect the outcome of their quest. At one point in the demo, Noel and Serah had to choose between fighting Atlas head-on, or taking a roundabout way to weaken the giant first "“ they could also ask a third character, Alyssa, for advice. Fighting head-on is entirely possible, but only if the two protagonists were of a high enough level as they were easily felled in two strikes otherwise. Again, the demo didn't do the greatest job of showing it off, but it'll be interesting to see just how far Square Enix will take it.
Taking the roundabout way, the two are tasked with locating a device that slipped into their dimension alongside Atlas. Apparently, it'll weaken the giant. However, the two are caught up in an attack which sends them flying into a Time Anomaly. Here, Square Enix showed off what looked like a puzzle mini-game. Noel has to reach the end of each puzzle all the while collecting crystals as the tiles he passes disappears beneath him. Hopefully, this isn't the only puzzle type. The in-game tutorial noted that there will be new puzzles as the game goes on, suggesting some variation, which will be more than welcomed.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn't too different from Final Fantasy XIII. In fact, it's pretty much the same mechanics-wise. They have added quite a bit of new ones, but, based on the short demo, nothing that will win the hearts of naysayers. The battle system works exactly the way it did in the first game and are topped off with monster hunting and QTEs. Puzzles are a neat addition and hopefully there'll be more than just one type. While areas are more open, there are still invisible walls that block Noel's path. Why they put in a jump button is also beyond me seeing as there is nothing to jump over. Branching paths are just that, corridors that branch out from a central area. Hopefully, Square Enix will continue to expand on these additions before the game hits store shelves later this year.