"... there's a cinematic beauty that is hard not to be wowed by."
I'm saying it right now: I didn't have high hopes for Final Fantasy XIII-2. For me, Final Fantasy XIII was a letdown. I think any time you wait several years (four to be exact) for a game, the anticipation gets you fired up, and usually it's hard for even a decent game to meet that excitement. When the game carries the Final Fantasy name, you know fans' standards are rightfully high. Thankfully, those same fans won't have too long to over-hype themselves for Final Fantasy XIII-2, which is scheduled for an early 2012 release. Even more surprising was I went into XIII-2 expecting a similar to game to XIII, but I walked away completely blown away by the title. This game is no longer off of my radar. What I see in XIII-2 is promise and hope - an experience that will go beyond anything Final Fantasy XIII offered us.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 revolves around two main characters: Noel and Serah. Noel is an energetic melee fighter who wields double swords for close-up attacks. Those who played Final Fantasy XIII will recognize Serah, Lightning's sister, although she was never playable in that title. Let's just say that judging from our demo, Serah may look like Lightning, but their personalities are quite different. Serah isn't nearly as bold and abrasive as Lightning, but we're hoping XIII-2 will provide more personality than meets the eye with Serah. The cool part about Serah? The moogle that accompanies her also acts as a secret weapon, since it transforms into a bow or sword for her once the battle begins. In our demo, we were treated to an intense boss battle against a foe that goes by the name of Atlas. Atlas is a technicolor, ethereal giant - in our first battle with him, his enormous hands were full of fury and spite. Let's face it: he doesn't want to be your friend.
As far as battles go, the paradigm shift system from XIII returns. Those unimpressed with it in XIII will be happy to know that this time it's been refined and provides the ability for more input. First off, there's a new feature called cinematic actions, where you will have to press certain buttons on your controller in real time. If you succeed at pressing the correct buttons at the right time, you'll be given a reward, whether it's extra bravery, more powerful attacks, or less damage taken. Cinematic actions definitely make your battles a lot more interactive, and can lead you to an easier victory. Also, each of these cinematic actions will play out differently depending on your success with executing them, so the scenes you view with them will definitely reflect your skill. The most promising feature I saw? That's the fact that you can recruit monsters into your party as battle combatants. These monsters will also shift between the different ones you've captured depending on the paradigm you've shifted to.
For those who missed out on the touches of having an open world full of NPCs in XIII, there's some good news in store for you. Not only will the environments be more exploratory, but NPCs fill out the cities. Not only will NPCs interact with you as you walk past them, but there are also special ones with speech bubbles that you can specifically interact with for deeper insight into the world. There's also a greater emphasis on exploration as many towns and environments will have secrets for you to uncover. There's even a map that shows all the pathways, so you can explore every nook and cranny to find new discoveries. This map also shows enemies that are nearing, so you can keep your defenses up. There's even a jump ability that was absent from XIII, adding an extra tool for exploration. Some hidden chests can be discovered that require enhanced abilities to find, and at certain points you can even send your moogle to obtain those extra hard-to-reach boxes.
The Mog Clock pops up when an enemy is nearby, displaying several colors in an arc. Depending on what color the pointer falls on when you engage an enemy - you may ambush enemies with a preemptive strike and combat bonuses. Not only do preemptive strikes give you an edge in combat, but they also play a role in your star rating and spoils/gil. But combat isn't the only aspect of gameplay, there are also puzzles you'll have to solve. These special sequences are called "Temporal Rifts" and during this time you'll use your brain to solve puzzles by collecting crystal shards to get to the end of a maze. Once you solve the anomaly, you'll net yourself a pretty hefty reward in addition to making progress through the game.
Near the end of the demo, we were provided with one last familiar face: none other than our good world-saving friend, Lightning from XIII. The difference in XIII-2? Lightning's appearance has changed to reflect her higher status since saving the world in XIII. There are key visual changes to her model, most especially being more elaborate armor for her. She's also become stronger, and she's even riding a horse that goes by the name Odin. The name should tell you everything: a god at heart, a horse at will. Lightning is doing her best to prove to people that she not only survived the end of XIII, but grew stronger from it. Lightning and Odin battle enemies together to form a greater whole, and this promises a wide variety of attacks. Her battle in the demo was with Chaos Bahamut, and it featured a dynamic camera - the action happened as Lightning galloped along with Odin.
In the end, we walked away from XIII-2 with one feeling: hope. Lightning is still feisty as ever, and there's a cinematic beauty that is hard not to be wowed by. In addition, the interactive gameplay proves to us that choices go beyond what's just on the surface; during the game, you'll constantly be asked how you want to tackle situations, and your story will adjust based on those decisions. In addition to Nomura's beautiful character designs, the composer from XIII, Hamuazu, is back - and he's not only mixing in classical Final Fantasy tunes, but also adding a hip-hop feel to the atmosphere.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is due out in early 2012, and to be honest, it's looking more promising than we ever imagined. If anything, the developers learned from their mistakes in XIII and have promised to provide the full, complete Final Fantasy experience this time around. Our time with the title only proved to us that we shouldn't count XIII-2 out as the JRPG that changes the game, and more. Lightning and Serah are hoping to show us why sisters are doing it for themselves.