Square Enix is trying really hard to backpedal right now. The complaint scars from Final Fantasy XIII are readily apparent in this half-sequel; called so because much of Final Fantasy XIII-2 was axed from its predecessor when production went multi-platform late in the dev cycle. Most of our E3 demo was a series of less than subtle apologies for XIII’s linearity, lack of player input in the story, and nearly optional battle system. Thankfully, everything shown and played in conjunction to these adamant apologies seemed to take the hate to heart.
For one, towns are back. Not menus disguised as trade outposts, but towns full of NPCs with multiple dialogue options. There’s also branching paths, they evangelize, O the branching paths there will be! Write it in the sky in neon jet fumes and cue the celebrations: the folks at Square Enix want you to know that Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes to linearity like Joseph McCarthy took to what he considered communists. Our presenter could not open his mouth to cough without extolling the virtues of multiple roads and mission objectives. Treasure cubes hide outside the more storied pathways, some even unattainable until the area is re-explored with a Metroid-esque inventory expansion.
Exploring these multi-tiered hubs also present separate mission goals, such as going below ground to find a mysterious device that will half a massive boss’ HP for an upcoming battle. These branching paths are often presented with Mass Effect-style dialogue blurbs, where your characters can ask different people for their assessments of various situations and then take their advice. You can also jump now, as apparently these Final Fantasy characters don’t (or no longer) suffer from acute, chronic arthritis in the knees.
Sometimes, these alternative pathways lead into these computerized looking realms of puzzle-solving, whose completion is required to activate doors or objects in the narrative plane of existence. This was realized in our demo as three floor puzzles that had baubles to collect, and each floor panel could only be stepped on once. It was odd, felt out of place, and no one seemed speak of it all. It was the video game equivalent of a Big Lipped Alligator Moment.
Battle fatigue has been addressed – oddly enough – with quick-time events. Oh wait, wait, sorry, “Cinematic Actions”, my apologies. Completing these mini-sequences will boost attack powers, grant additional offensive or defensive benefits, or open up a different battlefield to continue the struggle on. More God of War than Heavy Rain, these segments repeat enough to become muscle memory, but don’t succeed at making the battles more engaging in gameplay terms. They are pretty though.
XIII-2 takes a more interesting leaf from Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner, as defeated enemies can be recruited into the party as a third quasi-playable team member, each creature variety boasting different special attacks and swapping out when battle paradigms are shifted. We definitely have high hopes for this being a positive addition to the battle experience, although our hands-on time with this functionality was very limited. They also tried to be like Persona, with a urban fusion soundtrack sung in Japanese. Persona 3‘s was good, this one was not.
But Square Enix couldn’t let all these new additions be universally positive: enter the Moogle. A supplementary character to story ingenue Serah, sister to XIII protagonist Lightning, the Moogle acts as a hybrid of Fable II’s dog and Legend of Zelda’s Navi. The little cotton-ball creature will be attracted to treasures around the environment, and comes equipped with something called the Moogle ring, a faint line around enemies that appear in real-time.
Within this circle, players can strike enemies within a certain amount of time (represented by a needle gauge) for a bonus in battle – most frequently preemptive attacks. If the player can put enough distance within the ring between them and the enemies, or escape the ring entirely, battles can be avoided outright. These active enemy encounters are also (supposedly) affected by the surrounding weather, although little proof of that claim was offered on the show floor.
From whatever angle you look at it, Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s E3 demo was a very structured fifteen minutes that was the same across all dozen or so gameplay kiosks and closed-off press rooms. What is contained in this guided quarter-hour is a decided improvement over XIII‘s infamous flaws, if nothing close to the kick in the ass this franchise needs to compete with likes of The Witcher or Mass Effect. We are also used to these games running approximately 62 and 3/4 hours longer than that, so there is currently no accounting for the game as a whole. But like that one flirtatious girl in Chocobo cosplay at the Masquerade during Happy Hour, its hard not to appreciate how good, if odd, this feels so far.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be out this Winter for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.