Released after four years of anticipation and marketing hype, Final Fantasy XIII was a controversial entry in Square Enix’s much-beloved RPG series. Many enjoyed its take on combat, mixing old-school design with modern action sensibilities, while others cried foul over its simplistic environments and lack of exploration. Square Enix is looking to put the series back on track with Final Fantasy XIII-2, fixing what didn’t work in the first game while hanging onto what did. I spent some time this weekend with the demo for XIII-2, and so far, the game looks like a pleasant step-up from its previous entry.
The demo starts with two characters tumbling out of a portal into a rain-soaked city: Serah, sister to XIII’s main protagonist, Lightning, and Noel, a young man from the future who bears a passing resemblance to Kingdom Hearts’ Sora. They’re greeted by a large, murderous floating hand, and a boss battle/tutorial ensues. Eventually, a small squadron of Apache helicopters* chase the hand off, leaving Serah and Noel to track it down and defeat it.
From the get-go, Square Enix’s effort to set Final Fantasy XIII-2 apart from its predecessor is palpable. After the tutorial is over, Serah and Noel are dropped into an explorable base camp, complete with shops to browse through and NPCs to chat up. “Okay, you guys want towns?” says the demo. “Fine, here’s a town! There will probably be lots of others in the game!” In truth, I did miss wandering around and conversing with different people, and its inclusion in XIII-2 is a welcome one.
After leaving the base camp, Serah and Noel begin exploring the ruins of an ancient town. The path to the ruins runs off in multiple directions, and feels more like a traditional dungeon than XIII’s overly-linear corridors. I found myself turning off the mini-map and simply exploring the area, bringing back memories of dungeon-crawling just like in the olden days.
Unfortunately, Square Enix decided to put another staple of traditional JRPGs back into XIII-2: random battles. Before, monsters were visible in the overworld, and players decided when to go into combat, if they wanted to go at all. In XIII-2, monsters teleport into the area with little warning, forcing players to stand and fight. At least Serah and Noel have the ability to perform preemptive strikes, giving players an opportunity to get the jump on foes if they’re quick enough.
One of XIII’s highest-praised aspects was its battle system, and most of the mechanics carry over to XIII-2. Players still juggle various strategic options in the form of Paradigms, roles their characters take on during combat—with a few small clicks, you can go from dishing out both weapon and magic damage, to having one character heal while the other defends, to many, many other combinations. For me, the battle system’s fun came from customizing different Paradigms for different situations, and changing Paradigms to respond to the flow of combat.
New to combat is the addition of friendly monsters for support characters. During the course of XIII-2, Serah and Noel come across various creatures they can collect, helping fill additional roles in the party, like the healing Cait Sith or the ice-wielding Nekton. Each monster levels up individually, adding a Pokémon-like catch-and-train aspect.
Graphically, XIII-2 adheres to XIII’s previously high standards, with impressive-looking characters and gorgeous environments, though I thought it was odd how everything had a slight shine to it. Music sounds less like avant garde jazz piano than the previous game, instead possessing more of an electronic tinge. The voice acting is much improved from XIII, with both Serah and Noel sounding much more natural than the overblown performances of characters like Snow or Vanille.
Honestly, I’m a bit blown-away by XIII-2’s demo. While I enjoyed parts of XIII, I didn’t have a tremendous time it, and I wasn’t sure how XIII-2 would win me over. Leave it to Square Enix to exceed my expectations, and address nearly every beef I had with the first game. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is back on my radar, and I’ll be paying close attention to it when it launches on January 31.