I've always thought that Final Fantasy XIII didn't get a fair shake. Admittedly, it was an overwhelmingly linear journey—player agency wasn't topmost among the priorities incorporated into its development. But it was an extraordinarily intentional game; nothing about it ever felt accidental or unplanned. It did a few things, but it did them exceedingly well: excellent combat, well-produced cut scenes, a surprisingly mature narrative, and quality voice-acting. But all of that deliberateness—of which I was a fan—came at the expense of a certain amount of freedom that many fans expect from the series. XIII-2 is looking to change much of that.
The Final Fantasy XIII-2 E3 demo gave the impression of a game that is a much looser experience than its predecessor. The environments were larger and more meandering, the gameplay systems more varied, and the character models and plot elements especially flamboyant (and often obscure). It's clear that the developers are prepared to emphasize gameplay this time around, even if it comes at the expense of consistent world-building and narrative plausibility. This isn't necessarily a bad thing—but those expecting a direct continuation of XIII might find the sequel jarring.
The demo was set in a sprawling complex identified as the Bresha Ruins. It was raining, and large droplets of water periodically splashed on the screen. The soundtrack was familiar, but very vocal-heavy; at one point it slipped into rap. I controlled Noel, a young man dressed in a blue garb that was very suggestive of Fang's costume in the previous title. In tow was Serah, Lightning's younger sister, and—surprise!—a moogle.
Aside from being a throw-back to the franchise's older days, this moogle appears to serve multiple functions, For one, he (or she—it's terribly hard to tell) can transform into Serah's weapon, either a bow or sword. Outside of combat, pressing the gamepad's left trigger will make him to perform a scan of the area, occasionally revealing hidden treasure orbs. He's sort of goofy; it would be hard to imagine a comparable character alongside the high-drama of the the last installment. But there's something charming about having him tag along. Like many of the new elements I saw in this demo, I struggled to see how the moogle would fit into the title's larger framework.
The Ruins were populated with non-playable-characters, something we didn't see too much of in Final Fantasy XIII. Now you can talk to many of them by using the confirmation button. No more strangers yammering-off whenever you walk in front of them. It had more in common with the way the series has handled NPCs in the past. They were still fully voiced, but their dialogue could be scrolled, and would even change depending on how many times they were engaged. The alleyways, plazas and staircases—full of people wandering and going about their business—reminded me of the cities of Final Fantasy XII. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a return to a more traditional, hub-like structure in XIII-2, with shops and side missions.
The story is quite confusing, and despite my being a seasoned (and enthusiastic) player of XIII, threw me for a loop.
Square Enix is being tight-lipped about the title's narrative. The story is quite confusing, and despite my being a seasoned (and enthusiastic) player of XIII, threw me for a loop. Apparently, the game is set in an alternate reality situated sometime after the events of the first title. Lightning is missing. Or simply doesn't exist. It was difficult to get a straight answer. At any rate, Serah is the only person who believes that Lightning is still out there somewhere, and sets off to discover her older sister's condition and whereabouts. There was a lot of dialogue about time traveling, and alternate dimensions, leading me to believe that the plot will incorporate some form of cross-dimensional adventuring.
Combat plays out much the same as did in the previous game: there are paradigms, auto-battle, and a three-character party. But this time, the action is broken up by quick-time-events called "Live Triggers", the conditions for which appeared to be random. Of major interest is the inclusion of monster-type allies in battle. In the course of the demo, I linked up with a flan, a behemoth and some sort of rock-based beast that had particular combat specialties. Switching paradigms would automatically reassign the appropriate monster ally to my party; a defensive paradigm might feature the rock monster as a sentinel, for example, or a ravager-intensive paradigm would bring in the flan. According to Square Enix, these monsters can be permanently recruited by collecting crystals at the end of battles and will experience some form of level-up as the game progresses.
Combat also received an overhaul. The demo was a lot more generous in dolling out preemptive attacks, thanks to yet another moogle-involved subsystem referred to as "Mog Clock." Whenever Noel entered within the radius of an enemy or group of enemies (who had a tendency to spawn out of the ground, rather than be visible far into the distance), a color-coded count-down timer appeared at the bottom of the UI. Engage the enemy while the timer is still green, and you'll receive a preemptive attack and all the bonuses therein. If the timer is yellow, you'll enter battle with neither any special advantages nor penalties. And a red timer, as you could probably guess, is bad news.
There's more. Puzzles, actually. Entering into a "Temporal Rift" (whatever that is) toward the end of the demo brought Noel and co. into a abstract space, with a tile floor plotted down the center. The tiles formed a puzzle: each time Noel stepped on one, it would disappear. The challenge consisted of having to collect tokens arranged at intervals along the tiles, all the while making it from point A to point Z without backtracking. The puzzle wasn't particularly difficult or riveting, but it was an inoffensive way to break up the action. It was yet another way in which the game felt like a grab-bag of ideas and systems.
My 25 minutes with Final Fantasy XIII-2 ended in an unexpected way. It gave me a choice. A big choice. Would I attempt to attack big ol' colossus head-on or take the scenic route and try lowering its defenses via some ancient machinery? The game was proud of this decision-point moment: the prompt expanded to fill the entire screen. Fun demo, but I couldn't help but worry—is this title attempting to do too much at once?