E3 2011: Hands-on with Final Fantasy XIII-2

The heat of combat. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Square-Enix)

Final Fantasy XIII, while acclaimed by reviewers and fans alike, also met with notable of criticism. The most noted complaint was the game’s extreme linearity and lack of freedom: despite how absolutely beautiful environments were, players were boxed into a linear pathway that prohibited any exploration for most of the game. It is clear that Square-Enix is trying to include players into the experience in the upcoming sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2. Demoed at E3 2011, Final Fantasy XIII-2 allowed attendees to experience the improvements made to the game formula. In addition to the demo available on the show floor, this writer was allowed to sit in on a special press and media “extended” demo, which offered insight into the new facets of gameplay and revealed some of bonus footage.

Battle system:

In this writer’s opinion, the battle system was the strongest aspect of the original game. Combining and streamlining the archetypal “jobs” of previous Final Fantasy games and allowing players to cycle between these combat roles during battle made for a dynamic and extremely enjoyable battles. The novel “Stagger” gauge allowed players to stun and overpower enemies with impressive acrobatic feats, and gave the combat roles an additional purpose.

That’s not to say the battle system was flawless: the auto-battle option cheapened combat by allowing the CPU to automatically select commands and skills to suit the situation in-battle. It was extremely fast and efficient, which made battles feel shallow and automated. Likewise, players were only allowed to control a single character in combat, which served no apparent purpose other than artificially increasing the difficulty (the game was over if the character under your control died).

Square-Enix opted not to change much of the core gameplay in XIII-2. Players still shift from preset paradigms to alternate between combat roles in battle. The stagger system is still present and vital to combat, and battles in general are as flashy as ever. However, the demo still restricted control to a single character (the newcomer Noel) in battle, and the auto-battle option was left unaltered. Square-Enix was deliberately vague when asked about the possibility of controlling other characters in combat.

What is new to the battle system is the “cinematic action sequences,” a fancy term Square-Enix is using for Quick Time Events, and the monster-recruiting system.

The demo begins with Noel, Serah, and the moogle Mog being spewed out from a portal device onto Cocoon (the mechanized planet where most of the original game took place). After some banter, the characters find themselves attacked by a man-made weapon known as Atlas, which has gone haywire. Atlas is mostly invisible, with its massive hand being the only discernible part of its body. Mog transforms into Serah’s weapon (a mechanical sword/bow) and the battle begins. After a certain point in combat, Atlas will launch an attack that initiates a cinematic action sequence, prompting players to input the correct command to avoid taking damage from the incoming strike. Battle resumes as normal, until the end of the fight, where another cinematic action prompt appears. This time, Noel dashes up the titan’s arm, and a properly input command will finish the battle with a heavy sword blow to the foe’s noggin. This is still not enough to fell the rogue weapon. Fortunately, Cocoon’s aerial forces arrive, and another QTE prompt will have players mash the proper button to unleash a volley of projectile fire, which finally subdues Atlas.

Fighting is still as flashy as ever. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Square-Enix)

In addition to avoiding damage or dealing extra damage, cinematic action sequences can give your character additional perks. For instance, successfully executing the first QTE (avoiding Atlas’ attack) will give Noel and Serah a buff (Bravery and Faith, respectively). Failing a sequence does not instantly end the game, but events will play out differently depending on whether or not the prompts are input correctly. Curious players, Square-Enix says, may want to fail the sequences intentionally to see how the rest of the battle plays out.

The second major addition to combat in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the monster collecting element. No explicit details have been revealed about the mechanics behind this system, or why the party even has this ability. In essence, players will acquire a special crystal at the end of an encounter with specific monsters, which will allow players to set said monsters as their third in-battle party member. In the demo, the monster in our formation varied depending on the paradigm we had set. Early on we had the grotesque, pudding-like Flanbanero as our Ravager (Final Fantasy XIII‘s version of the black mage), who would use fire-based magics and attacks. Later on, we acquired an armored lizard called a Scalebeast, which assumed the role of Sentinel (a role that draws enemy aggression and defends against attack). We also earned ourselves a Behemoth, which assumed the role of Commando (powerful physical attackers).

As part of this new system, each monster can use a special attack when the Synchronicity Gauge beneath their health bar is full. This gauge fills as the monster attacks and performs certain actions in combat. When full, the monster can execute its “Feral Strike,” a powerful attack unique to each monster. For instance, the Flanbanero uses a barrage of blows called “Hundred Fists” as its Feral Strike, a skill which fans might recognize from Final Fantasy XI.

Exploration and Freedom:

Final Fantasy XIII allowed players to avoid enemy encounters by literally walking away from or around them on the map. It also allowed players to sneak-up on enemies and attack them from behind, initiating a preemptive battle which started all enemies with near-full stagger gauges. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult and tedious to initiate preemptive battles, as enemies were absurdly hypersensitive to the player’s position. XIII-2 corrects this by giving Mog an interesting function in addition to transforming into Serah’s weapon: the Mog Clock. Enemies appear randomly on the map in XIII-2, though they can be avoided very easily. Whenever they materialize, a clock face appears on the bottom of the screen. If players engage an enemy in combat when the clock’s hand is on the green section, the battle will start with a player advantage (preemptive). If players initiate combat when the clock hand is over the yellow portion, combat starts normally. Initiating combat with the clock’s hand over the red section will start players off at a disadvantage.

Linearity and storytelling were Final Fantasy XIII‘s biggest issues. For the majority of the game, players were guided down long and virtually undeviating environments, moving from cutscene to cutscene with spurts of combat and travel stringing events together. This was compounded by the game’s peculiar storytelling methods, which relied heavily on delivering crucial details about the game’s world and events through the datalog. Sadly, Square-Enix was tight-lipped about the story details in XIII-2: how vital the datalog will be to the story and whether XIII-2 does a better job of incorporating exposition into the event scenes is unknown as of yet. The demo offers us no real clues, as the story events were deliberately disjointed and unclear for the sake of brevity.

What the demo does make clear is that Square-Enix is doing a better job of incorporating player choice and freedom than the original game did. Following the initial battle with Atlas, Serah and Noel find themselves in the Bresha Ruins, surrounded by a team of investigators and soldiers. Players can interact with many of the NPCs found throughout the ruins, a feature that was noticeably absent in the original game.

Hopefully the story is more coherent this time around. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Square-Enix)

While the Bresha Ruins were featured in the original game, they have undergone a significant redesign in Final Fantasy XIII-2. A quick look at the mini-map reveals that the ruins are quite large – corridors are spacious and there are many branching paths that intersect one another, allowing for plenty of freedom to explore and wander around. Mog lends a hand during exploration as well: as players explore the environments, they will encounter transparent treasure orbs that cannot be opened directly. Players must call Mog out, who will then illuminate the area and make the orb tangible.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 introduces a feature called the “Live Trigger,” which allows players to make a choice about how to progress through certain parts in the story. Atlas is running amok in the Bresha Ruins, and while the foe must be stopped, it is extremely powerful. Players are given a choice: rushing into battle with Atlas, or investigating a mysterious power source in the ruins. Taking Atlas head-on doesn’t work out well for the party, who get flattened in a single strike. One embarrassing restart later, and it’s clear that the more intelligent choice in this scenario is to explore the ruins and investigate the power source.

Upon doing so, the party is attacked by Atlas’ phantom hand and dragged into a dimensional rift. The player must play through a peculiar puzzle section to make progress. In this particular scenario, players must travel over tiles and collect the crystals required to proceed to the next section, without backtracking (the tiles disappear once players cross them). Square-Enix states that these sections are designed to add variety to the gameplay and break up the action, suggesting that there are more of these diversions throughout the game.

With the power anomaly resolved, Atlas is subdued enough for the party to defeat. Physically, Atlas looks like palette-swap of the Titan Fal’Cie (with stylized horns) from the original game. He attacks with his fists, dealing heavy damage when the party is not in in the Sentinel role. By switching between defensive, aggressive and healing paradigms, Atlas goes down with relative ease.

The defeat of Atlas more or less concluded the demo on the show floor. But press and media were treated to a tiny additional section.

Bonus Segment: Lightning and Bahamut:

The demo presented behind closed doors at the Square-Enix booth featured a bonus scenario that the demo on the show floor did not have: Lightning’s battle against Chaos Bahamut. You can catch a glimpse of it in the Final Fantasy XIII-2 trailer below.

Lightning, decked-out in her Valkyrie-esque garb, raced down a darkened beach mounted on her Eidolon Odin. Hot on her tail was Chaos Bahamut, who attacked relentlessly with energy attacks and vicious slashes. The entire battle takes place on horseback, with Lightning attacking her pursuer with sniping shots from her gunblade as well as her Lightning Strike Gestalt attack. She was also equipped with a healing skill called Ullr’s Shield, which requires the entire ATB gauge to use.

After sufficient damage was dealt to the boss, Lightning races up a ruined structure, with Bahamut charging it’s Mega Flare behind her. A QTE prompt allows Lightning to dodge the fiery blast, and another allows her to launch a flashy counterattack, bringing the demo to an end.

Bahamut was Fang’s Eidolon in Final Fantasy XIII. While her role in the story of XIII-2 has not been detailed, Bahamut’s inclusion makes for interesting speculation.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 images and CG art.

 

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