Final Fantasy XIII-2 Demo Impressions

I have yet to finish Final Fantasy XIII.

I loved the gameplay enough, but after a while it could feel a bit repetitive (however very different and enjoyable). The story was my biggest pet peeve, with characters playing cookie cutter roles and dialogue consisting of the most vague notions of philosophy and emotion. I was this close to doing a drinking game to every time Snow uttered the word “hero“. It was a sign of the franchise: Final Fantasy had gotten so full of themselves and had put so much time to what it’s known for in graphics and gameplay that they thought they could give the least bit of time to what people have come to appreciate most about Final Fantasy: the story. I played Final Fantasy XIII for about a quarter or a third of the game, and then, completely bored out of my mind, gave it up and literally put it at the bottom of my pile of games, and thought about giving up the franchise.

Final FantasyIII-2 has made me rethink that decision.

I’ve been following the franchise for years, starting with Final Fantasy VIII, playing (and loving) the side games like FF Tactics, going forward til XII, and then recently going back to VI. I mostly love it all, and I’ve even replayed a few of the games (Tactics twice, and then one more time with the War of the Lions PSP update). And then when I got to Final Fantasy Dissidia and XIII, I started realizing how the narrative component had taken such a hit lately, to the point that I distilled most cutscenes to a small list of directions:

Step 1:

After a fight, two or three characters run until they get to a clearing, and then stop.

Step 2:

Characters argue and debate over vague philosophical idea that kinda/sorta underlies their relationship with their foe.

Step 3:

Camera focuses on one character, pans in one direction, while they passionately argue their thoughts.

Step 4:

Camera focuses on another character, pans in the opposite direction, while they emotionally argue an opposing idea.

Step 5:

Repeat above until one character turns and says something very “deep”, possibly about their unspoken of past.

Step 6:

Neither character wins debate, but both kinda/sorta feel more emphathetic towards their teammate.

Step 7:

They remember that they’re RUNNING AWAY FROM A BAD GUY and that’s it’s an incredibly stupid idea to stand in an open field and argue like they’re on the Tyra Banks Show. They keep moving until the next set of fights and the next likewise cutscene.

With Final Fantasy XIII-2, we can see that Square Enix has heard how much dissapointment fans have spewed out on the net, some polite and sincere, some undoubtedly ferocious and unrepeatable. They released video after video of how they’ve changed EVERYTHING, and now, after finishing the recently released demo, I can say I’ve seen enough to make me believe them.

The demo gives you control of Serah, the sister of Final Fantasy XIII’s protagonist, Lightning, and Noel, a time traveller from the future. You start in the second chapter, and in that chapter alone you get a taste of everything, just about.

The demo began with our heroes having recently time-travelled into an area where a giant hand had emerged to battle anyone who comes close. Turns out it’s the hand of a military creature gone out of control named Atlas, whose body is thankfully trapped in another dimension.

With a mixture of 13’s battle system (the Paradigm mechanic), which has you controlling not the individual characters (though you can, for a less effective playstyle) but their job roles (a long-used theme in the FF series) which change how they react to situations. A paradigm, for example, could use Noel as a Commando–a fighter who deals heavy physical attack damage– and Serah as a Ravager–a mage who shoots her projectiles with elemental-enhanced magical damage. Change the Paradigm match-ups (which are preset in the menu and can be customized in-between battle) and Noel could change into Sentinel–with increased resistance and the ability to provoke enemies into turning their attention to him–while Serah becomes a Medic, who can heal whoever is wounded, before switching the roles back to a more aggressive one.

Other important factors is the Stagger Point–the point at which an enemy becomes weaker after a combo’s been built against him, and the Crystarium system in the Menu, which levels up your character’s roles while unlocking new abilities to use (after collecting experience from battles).

What Final Fantasy XIII-2 brings most to the table is monster-hunting mechanic and Cinematic Action sequences (the ever-popular Quick Time Event, or QTE). Surprisingly this feels awesome, if a little simple. There’s no real challenge really. Collecting monster crystals just happens after defeating enemies, with certain monsters tameable and others not. It seems getting a high battle rating (which comes with how fast and effective you are during battle) increases the change of collecting monster crystals, but this could be just an assumption. After obtaining them, you can level them up in the Crystarium using droplets or bolts–the monster form of experience–and can even infuse (combine) them with each other to give abilities from one monster to another, adorn them with (very silly) costume pieces, and change their names. Monsters work just like job roles, and you can assign up to 3 monsters at a time to your party. When you change paradigms, your monsters swap in and out seamlessly.

Cinematic Action events are your typical QTEs, but they feel like a great way to break up the monotony of even a great system like the Paradigm mechanic, and of course doing well with that lends to your battle rating for boss events. Also, Cinematic Actions sort of blend into the Monsters roles, since they have special attacks called Feral Links (which FF fans will see parallels to in Limit Breaks and Overdrives of previous installments) where a player has to input particular commands or button mash to get a high syncronization rate (meaning higher damage). While changing roles forces you to make monsters share the same health (so if one is dead, so is the next one, until you revive them) they all get their own Feral Links, which means that in a bind you can swap them out and keep performing these huge attacks.

And this was just the beginning.

The game feels like it’s gotten a face lift. Now maps are quite more expansive, giving multiple routes to get to and fro through a level, and possibly giving secret areas that are unlocked later in the game. People around you converse as they walk past, with some dialogue that you just overhear and some people that you can actually speak to (like in any RPG). The Moogle that accompanies your party (and acts as Serah’s weapon during battle) acts as a multipurpose tool, alerting you to secret items that it can pull from other dimensions and being crucial to fighting enemies.

Enemies don’t just walk around the world (like in XII and XIII), they are now linked to Paradoces, gates that appear through the map and–I believe–can be travelled through later in the game to different time eras and dimensions, if you can find the right items. Around a Paradox monsters are more likely to appear, because the gate seems to be ripping them from other dimensions, and when they do, they literally just “pop up”. It’s the best rationalization for the whole “random battle” staple of RPGs that I’ve ever seen. When they do, the Moogle pops up a meter: if you encounter the enemy immediately (when the section of the meter is green), generally you’ll get a preemptive strike and short-term stat boosts; if you attack it late (when it’s yellow, or if green is not offered as an option) it’ll start a regular battle. If you try to run away, you can avoid it altogether, but if you fail or take too long to engage (when it’s red) you’ll be forced to fight the battle, and won’t be offered a chance to retry if you fail–instead loading up from the last save or checkpoint, or just before the battle.

The things I liked the most were the options you were given. During gameplay I encountered two small side-quests, one that was a simple “find this” mission, one that asked me to find a hidden enemy. Both were accomplished by the end of the demo, and not only helped to “pad the game” (lengthen how long you play) but made sense for the story. And then in the story itself, the Atlas hand we fought earlier finally materialized into this realm–with it’s whole body. What was great was that I could attempt to battle it head-on with some help from the army, or attempt to find a device that would control it. I went with the latter option, and when I did find it I was sucked into a temporal realm that introduced another new element involving puzzle solving through spacial reasoning. It was yet another small distraction that worked to pad the game and entertain in a slightly different way, and when I was done, I had achieved my objective.

When I went into battle the enemy then, his life was about 10% of what it should have been (maybe less). I’m unsure of exactly what would have happened had I gone with the other option, but I was sure as hell pleased with what this gave me. It took me less than two minutes to take him out–using well-timed paradigm shifts and the Feral Links that I had built up.

All in all, if Square Enix wanted to convert a doubter, they certainly won this one over. While I’d prefer to finish Final Fantasy XIII for the sake of the narrative (and because I’m stubborn about not finishing games nowadays) I really, really, reaaaaally want to get this when it comes out, and support the massive effort they took to learn from their mistakes and present fans with a true Final Fantasy game. In this one demo I had loads more fun than all the time I spent on the previous installment, and I was even able to level up my characters and monsters a good bit in just a small amount of time. If Final Fantasy XIII-2 can maintain this energy for the entirety of the game, I have no doubt that Square Enix–and the FF franchise–will have reclaimed the true balance of gameplay, narrative, and immersion that it is known so well for and deserve the praise they’ve built up for so long among fans.

Agree? Disagree? Please comment below!

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