Square-Enix graced New York Comic Con with its presence this year, with Final Fantasy XIII-2 in tow. I got to spend some time with the amazing crew and the game’s demo, and I left the booth with nothing but warm fuzzy feelings and anticipation.
The demo features the battle against Atlus, a scene featured prominently in trailers and current available gameplay footage. Players control new protagonist Noel as he leads Serah and Mog the moogle through the Bresha Ruins, searching for the apparatus that will weaken their foe.
I immediately noticed that the rain pouring down on the ruins was splattering delicately against the screen – it felt as though I were watching the events live through a camera lens. The ruins were a sea of stone, the crumbling structures decaying beautifully. The undercurrent of determination and impossible hope in the face of sorrow that permeated XIII is present in XIII-2 as well; the deep gray wash over the area is punctuated by the bright clothing of the NPCs, all researchers examining the ruins.
The game’s battle system is similar to its predecessors – paradigms and the option to auto-battle are present, and the process itself runs quickly and smoothly (the camera no longer takes time out of the fight to zoom in on each character as they change paradigms — it just happens). What’s new is the inclusion of recruitable monsters in your party. Players can recruit the monsters they fight in the field, name them, and assign each a different paradigm role. Remember those King Behemoth’s? Remember how hard they were to kill initially? It was with immense relief that I found one not on my opposition, but in my party, ripping up my enemies like they used to rip up my party.
What’s especially useful about having these monsters as allies is the Feral Link, a move sort of like an overdrive or finishing Gestalt attack that deals heavy damage to your enemies. As you battle the Feral Link gauge below your monster buddy’s HP line fills up (rather quickly I might add – the chance of getting two Feral Links in a battle lasting around a minute is pretty high), and once it’s full pressing X will drain the gauge for one intense attack. This is extremely helpful for staggering; the battle mechanic that debuted in XIII is also present in its sequel. In my time with the demo I found a number of Pulseworks robots with staggering points of around 200%, and I would have bit it hard had it not been for Feral Link.
Random encounters are also set up a bit differently. The free-roaming beasties from the game’s prequel have been replaced with ones that appear randomly. When they do, the Mog Clock starts up; players have until the Mog Clock runs out to hit the monster. Depending on how far along on the Mog Clock you attack, the battle will begin under different circumstance. For example, while I was still getting a handle on navigating Noel, I had a monster appear . Monsters will appear with a large circle around them indicating the monster’s field of vision and who can see it. I was able to hit the monster right away, and the battle started with my party leading the first attack. The farther along in the clock, the higher the chance the enemy will get the first strike.
Another nifty thing about the random encounters is that if an NPC is in the range of the monster’s vision, they will chase them away for you. Then you can either fight it or let the NPCs bat it away. In the Bresha Ruins, apparating monsters were shot at by the guards in the area. I let Noel and Serah stand idle for a while and watched these helmeted dudes shoot at the monster until it disappeared again. It’s a pretty nifty feature, and it lends realism to the gameplay – I mean, how many times has a monster battle occurred and the NPCs are just standing there, chilling like nothing’s going on? It’s a refreshing addition.
I was also impressed by the cinematic events, or active time events. They’re like cutscenes in the middle of the battle, but the player is still involved in what happens on screen. While battling Atlus’ hand, the typical battle screen suddenly switched over to cutscene. I relaxed my hands on the controller only to be completely unprepared when I was asked to jiggle the left joystick so Serah and Noel could dodge the… Whoops.
Being involved in the “cutscenes,” so to say, gave me more control over the game. Not for a minute could I let my guard down – I got excited, a little trigger happy, and I was able to help Noel scuttle like Spiderman up to Atlus’ head for a devastating blow. The tension never left my hands, and that feeling you get in your chest when you’re in a fast-paced ATB never went away. It was thrilling, it was exhilarating. The days of putting down a controller to watch a cutscene are slowly coming to an end. It truly is a great battle mechanic.
For those of you interested in the plotline and character development (and I don’t care what you say, I feel that XIII had a beautifully written story), bright-eyed-bushy-tailed Serah isn’t the little girl you knew in the prequel. She has grown up – it’s visible in her face, the way she carries herself, the way she talks. She is very much not a little girl anymore, and watching her fight you can see the echoes of her sister in her movements. While not as graceful and beautifully deadly as the elusive older Farron sister, Serah wields her bow and sword like a pro.
Sorry Snow, we’ve got a new hero and he’s… from Pulse? Newcomer Noel is sweet – protective, inquisitive, determined, a dude the series needs. The beginning of the demo offers some hints at Noel’s origin. As Serah, Noel, and Mog emerge from the Historia Crux (the game’s time-travelling system), Serah remarks that they are on Cocoon and that Pulse can be seen in the sky above them. She remarks, “I forgot, this is your first time here.” Noel has never been to Cocoon, so that leaves only one other option as to where he could be from. We also know at this point that he is from the future, and that he has some connection to long-lost big sis Lightning.
I left the booth with good vibes running up and down my spine. As a long time Final Fantasy fan, I find the Historia Crux, cinematic events, and Feral Link additions refreshing, a turn in a new direction. I am not in the camp that disliked XIII, and I am invested in these characters’’ stories. I look forward to all-grown-up Hope (I was promised that he’s a cool dude), Valkyrie Lightning, and learning more about Caius and Yuru. Fans of the series and of the Fabula Nova Crystallis compendium will surely not be disappointed.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be available on January 31, 2012 for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.