Final Fantasy XIII-2: Has Square Enix finally cracked it?
13th Jul 2011 | 11:01
"We've added a jump button", we're told during our hands-on demo with Final Fantasy XIII-2. A jump button? Automated jumping was the least of the last game's problems.
Beyond the nomenclature, jingles, visual design sensibilities and the Final Fantasy moniker, FFXIII was a game with only the most tenuous links to the series. Even Square Enix admitted its failings, tarnishing the franchise's status as gaming royalty by conceding to critics and humbly promising to get its act together in this sequel.
Although there's undoubtedly an air of desperation in these promises, it's an unusual response from a normally well-armoured and proud Japanese company. If anything it gives us some confidence that the development team were able to identify the original game's failings - other than the lack of jumping - and are working hard to address them.
A short play session later and we came away far more optimistic than when we entered...
SINS OF OUR FATHERS
Our hands-on demo picks up some way into the game: Serah, the pink haired sister of Lightning, and newcomer Noel stumble through a magic-powered warp gate and find themselves in the ruins of a town called Bresha.
Serah instinctively recognises her surroundings and proclaims it as Cocoon, however Noel's slightly bewildered response reveals the young, spunky hero has never ventured outside his home world of Pulse. A handy character wrinkle for those who might not have played the previous game or - like many - stopped caring very quickly
Since our hands-on picked up in the middle of the game, we didn't get to see what fortuitous circumstances brought the tween duo together, but we're told that somewhere along the way they held palaver and now have the shared quest of tracking down Lightning, who's been missing for some time now following the events of the previous game.
In typical Final Fantasy fashion we quickly find ourselves blindsided by a large floating hand belonging to a weapon known as Atlas. Built by humans for some undisclosed reason, it's now laying waste to the already decrepit ruins of the city. Although an outline of Atlas' monolithic frame can be seen, its body is cloaked with some sort of stealth camouflage leaving the rampaging hand as our primary concern.
Leaping into battle Noel arms himself with dual-blades while a Moogle (yes, Moogles are back) accompanying the duo transforms into a bow for Serah.
The battle mechanics in Final Fantasy XIII-2 are largely unchanged from the previous game with the paradigm system - one of its few strong points - making a welcome return. One addition however comes in the form of cinematic flourishes within the battles. In our demo Atlas thrusts his hands towards our heroes, but before it can reduce them to stains on the pavement a couple of on-screen prompts propel Noel onto the goliath's arm and he sprints up it to deliver a damaging blow to the beastie's head.
While Final Fantasy XIII's battle system certainly had depth to it and allowed room for players to develop their own style, the moment-to-moment execution usually ended up being detached button spamming with the occasional strategic paradigm shift or item usage thrown in for good measure.
These quick-time events aren't anything revolutionary, but they certainly help in making the battles more engaging. If proper execution is rewarded with huge damage boosts they could become important to surviving tougher battles.
During a short cinematic battleships advance on the towering behemoth, and another QTE places us in control of a turret, with on-screen prompts asking us to mash a button to fire off an artillery strike. The salvo is enough to deter Atlas and it decides to retreat.
The bulk of the previous game's playing experience involved battling from A to B through corridors accompanied by a party of team members whose personalities varied from clinically depressed to drug-use cheery. Response to this was uniformly negatively and likely informed XIII-2's return to the traditional open, town based structure.
Taking control of Noel we're able to walk around the ruins of Bresha and it instantly feels like a Final Fantasy game again. The muddy, rain-soaked streets are littered with people, many of which give us a short soundbite as we pass, while other NPCs have floating speech bubbles next to them and can be talked to for information.
Bresha itself didn't have much to offer beyond the chatty townsfolk but we revelled in our returned freedom by wandering around the town for a few moments anyway, for old times sake. Returning to the task at hand, we're tipped off by a Alyssa, a girl in the town who points us in the direction of a device she claimed could be used to weaken or even control Atlas.
Player choice is a design feature that has come become popular since Final Fantasy 12 thanks to the efforts of western RPG developers such as BioWare, Obsidian and Bethesda. Although it's still playing catch-up, Square Enix has made a conscious effort to shift its own emphasis to the player, which in XIII-2 manifests in the form of 'Live Trigger Events'.
These moments allow the player to influence the course of progression by picking which actions to take from a series of options. In our demo we're given the choice of tracking down the device and using it to potentially weaken Atlas or fighting head-on from the outset.
The gameplay pauses and offers us the ability to consult Moogle, live in the moment and take the fight to Atlas, or wallow in our indecisiveness. Although we ask Alyssa for her advice, there's nothing preventing us from ignoring it and choosing to do as we please anyway, so it's unclear what bearing - if any - this has on the gameplay beyond providing the illusion of choice, but it's good to see the player being given a little more control over proceedings. Baby steps.
FANTASY WORLD 2.0
The biggest indication that Square Enix has been listening to criticism comes from looking at the map screen. Compared to monotonous dungeons of the last game, which were from the wobbly straight line school of design, Final Fantasy XIII-2's map is a veritable labyrinth.
Although the main path is obvious, there are numerous branching paths snaking out from it with dead ends, and various nooks and crannies that no doubt hide treasures. Taking a cue from Fable treasure is sniffed out by our Moggle companion, which gleefully says "Kupo" in that annoying but endearing Pokemon kind of way when it has something of interest in sight.
We grab the hidden item and find ourselves confronted by a Flan and a Behemoth only a few paces later. The game introduces some significant changes to the way it handles random encounters; instead of the patrolling sentries of the previous game enemy monsters randomly materialize in your vicinity. A circle encases the party and denotes a kind of 'danger zone', keeping enemies out of that area keeps you from having to trade blows with it.
Along with that a 'Mog Clock' also appears. This is sectioned into green, yellow and red areas. Confronting the enemy and initiating combat while the clock's hand is in the green area means you begin the battle with an advantage, doing so in the yellow area means both sides are on equal footing at the start of battle, but do it in the red segment and you'll start off on the back foot.
The Mog Clock creates a good balance between the surprise random encounters of classic FF games and a new strategic approach to engaging in battles. This offers you the freedom to choose whether you want to battle an enemy, and the capability to escape ambushes or even turn them to your advantage without having to tiptoe around to get the jump on them.
Another interesting new feature is the ability to capture and tame wild enemies. Defeating monsters in battle can occasionally yield chrystals that allow you to use the beasts as part of your three-man squad.
Each monster can be assigned to a specific paradigm and comes with a set of normal attacks as well as a more powerful feral state that dishes out higher damage, think of it as an Overdrive or Limit Break.
According to Square Enix, barring the bosses and mini-bosses if you can kill it you can capture it. From the little we played it looks like the monsters replace the third party member, which means they can be healed when hurt and revived when knocked out of battle.
Eventually we find the "weird machine", but before we can put it to use Atlas' hand bursts through the floor and grabs hold of us. Instead of squishing us into pulp we find ourselves in 'The Void Beyond', a temporal rift where we must solve a trial to escape. The puzzle involves collecting a whole load of crystals, but since the floor tiles disappear once stepped on, snagging them requires some forward-planning.
The rifts seem like they could be a great way to break up the combat and traversal aspects of the game, and more than that we found that they tweaked the nostalgia bone by reminding us of the excellent temple trials from Final Fantasy X.
Our hours spent playing both Super Mario Galaxy games to completion make this particular puzzle a cakewalk and soon we're back in the real world. Noel's interaction with the machine seems to power down Atlas' shield and the giant finally shows his true colours.
We fight our way to him, accruing experience and racking up the levels as usual and begin our battle. Fast forward a few minutes later and Atlas basically kerb stomped us to death. It looks like we'll have to do a little more grinding before we can think about toppling this giant. Some things will never change...
From what we've played Square Enix gets it, it knows what it did wrong and is doing what it can to right wrongs. The return to the town structure, larger dungeons and emphasis on player choice have gone a long way in taking the edge off the wounds of disappointment left by previous game.
Our concern is that those who might not have warmed to the story, world or the characters of Final Fantasy XIII might find this direct-sequel a bit too familiar for their liking. They already know the milk's gone bad, and aren't likely to take another sip from the same bottle. Time will tell.