Final Fantasy XIII was a game that polarized the series' fanbase, some loved it, others loathed it, usually for the same reasons, humorously enough. The announcement of a sequel, unsurprisingly, yielded the same results. Fans are either head over heels or still waiting it out for the ever elusive Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Regardless, in lieu of the game's January launch, Square Enix were kind enough to invite the media down to Los Angeles for a preview event last month where the first hours of Final Fantasy XIII-2 were revealed.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 picks up directly from where the first game left off, with protagonist Lightning and her merry band of now-former l'Cie looking up at the crystallized Cocoon. What happens next sets the premise for the rest of the game as Lightning vanishes from the face of Pulse, ripped out of time and sent hurdling through the Historia Crux, leaving everyone, save for Serah her sister, thinking that she's dead. As far as what can be said about the story, Serah is the new main character and she's joined by newcomer Noel Kreiss, a time-traveller of sorts from the future. Together the two set out in search of her sister Lightning.
The first area has been shown at plenty of media events, including this year's E3. Lightning is thrown into battle with a one Chaos Bahamut, which includes an intense ride across a bank followed by a number of quick-time events. Unlike the E3 demo, however, context makes all the difference. Instead of a disjointed experience, this round made a lot more sense. Something that can be said for the first few hours of the game's plot in general. It instantly feels that much more focused, with both story elements and gameplay mechanics deeply integrated with one another. The second area is Neo Bodhum, Serah's new ocean-side village. Unfortunately, it's the victim of a meteor crash and the horde of monsters that follow. This is where Serah's adventure with Noel kicks off. Following that, they jump through the Historia Crux into the Bresha Ruins where they meet Alyssa and the overgrown floating-rock-hand Atlas. The bit after that? Well, that's where Snow comes in. The pacing of the story feels just right, neither rushed nor too slow.
So what's new in this sequel? Not a whole lot, actually, from what can be said of the first few hours. A good portion of the game revises and enhances the systems and mechanics seen in the first game. But wait, it's not a simple fresh coat of paint either, while it instantly feels familiar, it feels fresh at the same time. The game no longer confines players to a strict line of a corridor, instead there are hubs of activities that branch out into other districts and areas. It's still relatively linear, but just about as much as any previous Final Fantasy title. Exploration is encouraged as parts of the map remain shrouded until explored or a map is found, there are people to talk to, treasure to find and sidequests to initiate. The world feels real and inhabited. Adding to this feeling of sociality is Live Trigger, a conversational tool a la Western RPGs like Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls where players are presented with a number of choices that will affect the outcome.
Interestingly enough, it seems like most of the new features and changes that have been made to the game have been applied to the game's battle system in some form or another. Some include the way a battle is initiated. Which has been covered in our hands-on preview from E3. The ring that appears around Serah and Noel during the pre-emptive stages of a battle is called a Mog Clock and it sets the stage for first strike bonuses or penalties. Players can also choose to escape from battles by running out of the ring. While the game starts out with only Serah and Noel, it wasn't long until monsters could be captured and assigned a role within the party, increasing the number of paradigms from a measly two to a more flexible three. It's an interesting and promising system that ties in with the story and the relationship between Serah and Lightning.
There is, of course, the inclusion of guest party members as seen in Final Fantasy XII. The best part of the revised battle system is that you no longer have to endure little poses every time a Paradigm Shift is performed. It makes for a very fluid combat experience. Quick time events, in all honesty, while they remain a little tacky, does make the experience feel like an action scene from Advent Children. As a side note to the battle system, maps and levels feel a lot more dynamic and integrated as NPC characters will engage enemy monsters that appear. They don't take part in the actual battle, but they do provide the illusion of reaction and believability.
New to the battle system is something called Wounding Attacks where certain attacks will inflict a bleed effect on Serah and Noel, meaning that portion of health cannot be healed until the battle is over. Monsters occasionally turn to crystal upon defeat, these can then be added to the Paradigm Pack, the monster edition of the Paradigm management system. Feral Link, another feature covered in our E3 impressions, is a system whereby monsters can unleash powerful attacks after building up a chain or by using items on a monster ally. And yes, the gauge carries over to the next battle. Think of it as a monster limit break or trance. Monsters can also be named and even have their appearance customized with items and apparel found throughout the game.
The Crystarium makes a return as well, but in quite a different form. Rather than implement a grid for each class, there is only a single grid to upgrade for each character. It sounds restrictive, but it's a much more flexible system. Nodes can be bought with Crystarium Points earned from battle, just like the first game, and each one will increase stats based on the chosen class. For instance, upgrading Commando with a node will increase health points and the strength attribute, while upgrading Ravager will increase magic and mana. Using a larger node will yield bigger class bonuses. Each node isn't tied to a specific class, but it's up to players to decide what to use each node for. It's essentially a mix-and-match system where player choice is championed above all else. Abilities are now tied to class levels rather than specific points in the Crystarium. Completing the circuit will prompt a grid upgrade, giving players the choice to add one more ATB bar, a class boost, accessory slots and the like. Monsters get their own Crystarium grid as well and it works in largely the same manner, save for that special items are used in place of Crystarium Points.
Now for the Historia Crux. Noel and Serah will make a lot of their travels through time gates, which again is tied closely with the story and their search for Lightning. Time gates can be unlocked by clearing set objectives, be they finding the associated artifact or whatnot. By clearing these objectives, new gates will open up within the Historia Crux's Gate Matrix. This is where players can choose to go, be it past or future. Gates are obviously not all unlocked from the outset as they are relevant to the story's pacing. However, players have the choice of revisiting unlocked locations as and when they please, even when they are in the middle of a new area. The game will automatically save and toss you back into the Gate Matrix where you can choose another location or go back to when and where you last visited.
Visually, there's not much to be said about it. Graphics, while good, look about the same as the original. What's more concerning are the noticeably long load times and slow down during the Cinematic Action Sequences. Other than that, it's a lovely game to look at. The soundtrack, on the other hand, remains to impress.
Despite all skepticism, Square Enix have definitely learned a lot from the reception of Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XIII-2, while only two years in development, introduces many improvements and enhancements to the overall experience. As a testament to that, it took Final Fantasy XIII eight chapters to get myself invested in the game as a whole while its sequel only took the first few minutes. All in all, first impressions are that it's more engaging, flexible and just a lot more fun. Certainly worth checking out for fans of the first game and fans still sitting on the fence. Keep your eyes out for it when it hits stores on January 31 in North America and February 3 in Europe.