I had a chance to visit the Tokyo offices of Square Enix to play through the first several hours of Final Fantasy XIII-2, from its beginning, straight through. I spent about a full day with this follow-up to Final Fantasy XIII. As a fan of the series, I'm glad to have had the chance to get this early hands-on time with the title. I'm also happy to tell you that this sequel improves upon the original and makes for a better game overall.
Series fans have expressed concern over this sequel. Numbered Final Fantasy sequels are still pretty new territory for Square Enix, so I understand the concern. That last numbered sequel didn't go over so well, did it?. This concern and the mixed reception of Final Fantasy XIII have put XIII-2 on thin ice for some.
I'm here to tell you that it's fine so far. I had no big issues with the full day I spent with Final Fantasy XIII-2. In fact, I think it improves on the original in several ways. It's more engaging than XIII, quite a bit more lighthearted, and way less linear. There's more variety and more action, too. The story is still absolutely insane, but it somehow works here. Stories are always crazy in time travel games, though.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 [previewed])
After my time with the game, Square Enix hit me with a massive list of story points that I am not allowed reveal. They were aiming to shoot down spoilers before they became an issue, which I fully understand. Still, speaking of Final Fantasy XIII-2's opening easily spoils the end of Final Fantasy XIII, as this sequel takes up the story right where the last one left off. I'm going to assume that those reading this preview have finished Final Fantasy XIII. If you haven't, and wish to avoid spoiling the end of that game, you may want to stop reading here. For those that continue, note that I have taken special care to avoid spoiling the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2 in this preview. That said, if you want to avoid any opening story elements, please skip to the section labeled "Systems."
The Story Continues:
Lightning saved the world of Cocoon at the end of Final Fantasy XIII, and most consider her dead now. What does she get for that amazing sacrifice? A one-way trip to Valhalla, where she's now the "Warrior Goddess," stuck fighting forever. Caius, a being that wants to destroy everything, is her eternal rival. The game opens to a fantastic battle between the two, and the player is dropped right into the action, controlling a version of Lightining that is more powerful than anything you saw in XIII. She kicks off the fight by actually blocking the Meteor summon! This is the sword fight of the century, fans. I got goosebumps when Lightning was flung out to space by Caius, but was saved from her fall by Odin. Square Enix pulls out all many of their best tricks from their bag of over-the-top effects. Awesome stuff.
During this battle a person is seen falling from the sky into Vahalla. Lightning swoops in to save this person and finds out that his name is Noel. She somehow manages to chat with him while continuing to battle Caius' most powerful attacks. She's that good. I can't reveal the details of their conversation, but I can tell you that she sends him on his way with a Moogle, and that he hops through a portal of time to find Lightning's sister, Serah.
The game opens to find Serah sleeping at home. She's crying in her sleep, as she's having a dream about her sister stuck in a strange world. In this dream she gets word that someone is coming to help her. When Serah wakes up from this dream, the world continues to be dream-like. She finds herself in a fight in her village, up against monsters that have fallen from the sky. While fighting, she meets a stranger named Noel. Noel hands Serah a Moogle, and tells her it was a gift from her sister. And then it transforms into a crossbow. Yeah.
As the two fight together, they get to know each other. It turns out that Noel is from the future, and is the last of humanity. He tells her that Cocoon does not exist in his time. He also tells her that he can help her find Lightning, and that she is alive and well. While Serah and her friends do not fully trust Noel yet, she still decides to travel with him through time to find her sister. Hopefully they can also figure out what went wrong with the world so that they can save the future for Noel.
What a strange game!
Final Fantasy XIII seemed to take itself a bit too seriously. I'm happy to report that Final Fantasy XIII-2 does not have this problem. At all. In fact, this game is quite strange. I've already revealed that a Moogle transforms into a crossbow. Wait until he turns back into a Moogle and begins talking to you! That blew my mind.
There's wierd stuff everywhere in Final Fantasy XIII-2. In the game's opening, Serah's clothes magically transform on her body, just like in Cinderella, but more nightclub-y. Stranger yet, she doesn't really question it. There's warped worlds that mix future and past, crazy magical items, and music that will make you laugh out loud. The strangeness even extends to the in-game shops. You'll meet a traveling merchant named Cocolina; she cosplays as a sexy chocobo and even tries to speak like one while selling her wares.
Oh, Great: Time Travel
I'll be honest. I wasn't thrilled to find out that Final Fantasy XIII-2's story would center around time travel. The story of XIII was already confusing enough, and I felt that adding time travel to the mix would make things even worse. I feared plot holes and rehashed visual assets. While some of those fears faintly remain, I'm no longer worried about how time travel fits into the story. It's vast and crazy, but it sort of works, and it's really fun to explore.
While I won't go into specifics to avoid spoiling the story, the line of time is really messed up, and you'll work to resolve time anomalies to set things straight and possibly save the future. Time is so jumbled that you'll find spots of any one place to have sped forward by centuries, or slipped back by ages. It's like all time has blended together, and you'll have to jump into portals and other anamolies to straighten things out, all the while fighting enemies and righting wrongs.
By resolving these anomalies along the timeline you'll obtain fragments, which are memories of time solidified into shards. These are used to trigger even more time travel through entering the Historia Crux, the crossroads of the time continuum. This crossroads is a sort of compass for navigating rivers of time, and here's where the game's non-linearity comes in.
In the Hisoria Crux you'll select year and location to get into new time ages. Entering and exploring new gates opens more areas to travel along the timeline. You have option of closing a gate leading to certain space-time location, allowing the resetting of history. Through this you can relive events and explore every potential outcome of time. You can work through events to rewind time. I know it sounds confusing, but there's solid visual navigation to help. A large hexagonal map with numbered gates and percentages makes this all manageable.
The short of all of this is that you'll freely wander through time, moving through old and new worlds, encountering new people and revisiting several familiar faces. This is exactly the opposite of running down a one-way narrow corridor to one single goal in Final Fantasy XIII. It's as if the developers are saying, "You want non-linearity? Try this one on for size!"
Systems, Old and New:
Cutscenes are nothing new to the Final Fantasy franchise, but this interactive twist is. New "Cinematic Action Sequences" pop up during cutscenes to keep you entertained. Unlike other games with QTEs, these sequences actually determine how the cutscene will continue. If you miss an attack or a block, you'll see that reflected in the cutscene. There's actually hit point scores in these cutscenes. We've all worked through QTEs before, and know that mashing prompted buttons isn't particularly exciting, but these are a bit more dynamic that others, and the outcomes are always at least visually rewarding.
These cinematic action sequences actually extend into battle. Key battles will feature triggered events to mix up the action. For example, against a boss named Paradox Alpha, regular battle gave way to events where I was prompted to dodge. If successful, I was able to run up to its body to find a weak point to stagger it, making the fight much easier. Successfully executing commands in these sequences brings about bonuses and gear.
Having power over monsters is also new to the battle system. Defeated monsters can turn into crystals, which makes them equip-able, and then open to adding to your party. This compatibility mode lets you add beasts into your paradigms, letting you custom tailor your sets for specific battle types. Customizability is huge, as you're also able to level up and add abilities to these monsters via the Crystarium. In battle, through Feral Link, you can actually charge up a meter to use each beast's special attack. Before my time with the game was finished, I had fully armed my paradigms with buffed beasts, which sort of reminded me of the Shin Megami Tensei games. I had a pretty useful Cait Sith in my party that I enjoyed using. This system alone is a huge addition to the game, and will likely thrill any fellow fans of monster commanding.
Other than the action sequences and monster commanding, the battle system is much like that of Final Fantasy XIII. That's good news, as it was my favorite part of the game. I'm glad to say that there isn't a long stretch of time with the training wheels on. No mindless button mashing and corridor running here, folks. You'll have to properly use your paradigms from the get-go, using your quick reflexes and careful planning to take down even early bosses. I died five or six times in a couple of different boss battles in my day of play. That's good news to anyone concerned about having to work through another super-easy stretch of game.
There a lot of new system changes and additions outside of battle. One of the biggest is the Live Trigger element. You'll be presented with multiple choice questions and situations throughout the game. The game comes to a stop and lets you decide how to proceed. They're used to decide how to respond to people in a conversation, or decide on which path to take. Take that, linearity!
Moogle has a couple of tricks up its sleeves, too. The Mog Clock mechanic lets you decide on how to engage enemies. A clock appears near enemies and gives a color to their encounter state. A green clock means that the enemy is immobile, and that a preemptive attack is possible. Yellow means that the enemy is ready, and that you'll get into a standard battle. Red means that time's up, and you'll start the battle with penalties. There are some random encounters in Final Fantasy XIII-2, so you'll need to be ready to watch for and react to the Mog Clock at all times.
Mog's dangling head bobble actually has a purpose! It glows when you're near treasure or key items. You'll have to carefully watch his head while looking for things to see the difference, but it does help. You can also toss your Moogle to retrieve treasure that you wouldn't be able to reach alone.
Overworld travel has changed a bit. There are still chocobos for fast travel, though they seem bigger now. Serah and others can now jump on the overworld map with a dedicated jump button, replacing the silly prompted transport spots of the previous game.
The Crystarium also returns, but it looks more space-y and time warp-y now. As before, you'll use it to spend experience points to learn new skills and spells.
Eye, Ear Candy:
Final Fantasy XIII-2 manages to look even better than its predecessor, with flashier visuals and epic cinematic sequences. The game's insane opening fight and battle will have your jaw fully dropped. They've also somehow piped more pink and purple into the game. It all looks very nice. There is some revisiting of old locales, but there's something new in all of them, and there's plenty of completely new areas to explore as well. Final Fantasy XIII-2 pushes the eye candy bar up a bit further with this one.
One of Final Fantasy XIII's high points was its musical score, so I was interested to see how they'd top it with this sequel. Somehow they did. Square put together a team of three master composers: Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki. This team has created the most varied and exciting score in the franchise. They wanted to do something different with this game, so they worked in as many musical styles as possible. The majority of the songs in XIII-2 are new, and among them you'll hear remixes, singing and even rapping. Orchestral score takes a back seat to soaring voices, buzzing synthesizers and lots of emotional, morning changes. The musical score is all over the place, and I mean that in the best way.
Where I Stand:
I suppose you'll need to know where I stood on Final Fantasy XIII to get where I'm going with this sequel. I liked it. I liked it much more than Jim did. (http://www.destructoid.com/review-final-fantasy-xiii-167136.phtml) Yes, the game's story hurt my head, some of the acting hurt my ears, and I hated all the silly proper nouns and how they blurred together, but I stand firmly behind the game's sharp, fast-paced battle system. Some of the key battles were beautifully orchestrated, requiring a mastery of Paradigms. Others tested reflexes and reaction time, working to stagger enemies and then punish them as quick as possible. Once I was past the game's terribly lengthy training stretch and had learned most of the proper nouns, I thoroughly enjoyed myself with Final Fantasy XIII. That's where I'm coming from.
Almost immediately, I liked Final Fantasy XIII-2 more. The new tone, lightheartedness and look drew me in. The system improvements and additions kept me in. And the new, fresh story, vastness of time travel, and the promise of non-linearity and free exploration have me looking forward to spending more time with it.
I feel really good about Final Fantasy XIII-2 after spending some six hours with it. Of course, time travel stories can easily go wrong. Very wrong. That said, the story was still moving at a steady clip, even after hopping through several time gates. No training wheels, no obvious plot holes. Just big battles and bigger story developments. The good stuff.
I see Final Fantasy XIII-2 as an opportunity to clarify some of the first game's story points, and it seemed to be headed that way, especially with some of the encounters that involved familiar faces from the last game. Again, it feels like the developers clearly heard all the criticism of the first game, and have worked to remedy as much as possible in this sequel. Just like Noel has gone back in time to save the future, Square Enix has gone back to save the world of Final Fantasy XIII. I hope they both succeed.