The demo begins with our heroes, Serah and Noel, fending off against the arm of a giant, invisible boss called Atlas. After the initial cutscene, the first thing I notice is the paltry number of hit points the characters possess. Judging by their low levels, I assume this fight occurs rather early in the story, possibly a couple hours in. The combat, or Active Time Battle system, remains largely unchanged from Final Fantasy XIII. Each playable character can fill the roles of a Ravager, Commando, Sentinel, Medic, Saboteur, or Synergist. Knowing what combinations of attack styles to use is the key to winning any fight. I switch to Slash & Burn (Commando and Ravager) to build the Chain Gauge while still dishing out the damage. The battle goes off without a hitch with the odds clearly stacked in the duo’s favor.
But mid-fight, I get a taste of the Quick Time Events Square Enix has been teasing. Successful completion of a QTE will build the boss’s Chain Gauge significantly, while failing the event will leave your team battered and bruised. After the brief skirmish, several gunships unleash on the beast. Another QTE releases a devastating barrage of missiles that sends the monster retreating.
With Atlas sent packing for the time being, I’m free to explore the Bresha Ruins of Cocoon, an example of the towns that make their returns. Instead I choose to investigate the various paradigms I have equipped. For anyone unfamiliar with Final Fantasy XIII, paradigms are the role loadouts that you swap between in the midst of battle. Players can rock a full party of Commandos to pack an obliterating punch, roll with a full team of Medics for more dire situations, or mix and match to better suit the circumstances.
The red portion of an individual's health bar is their wounded meter. Casting a healing spell will only restore the amount of wound damage inflicted instead of the entire health bar.
Once I’m content with my party’s paradigms, I try to delve into the Crystarium, Final Fantasy XIII’s system for leveling your character’s abilities. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough experience points at the present, so I return to exploring the town. It seems Atlas has been causing a fair share of trouble. I talk with many of the townsfolk, but no one has an available side quest, so I resume my main mission: Track down Atlas. Yet I notice something weird. Serah’s Moogle begins glowing. Following the little critter, he leads me to an orb stuck in a paradox. A quick press of the RB button reveals the hidden treasure and draws a crowd, but I continue with my search.
I soon encounter several new surprises upon my next battle. Enemies no longer appear in real-time. Their appearances are random like those of console generations past. I put down the weaker opposition without much hassle only to receive two new monster crystals. Once a monster crystal has been acquired, that beast can now fight as your party’s third member. Each creature fills a certain role (Medic, Ravager, etc.) and can be infused (combined) with another monster to gain new abilities. Players can also accessorize their critters with equipment found around the environment or rename them to something more intimidating like Gilgamash or Whiskers. Don’t worry if this all sounds confusing; the concept is much easier to grasp with a controller in your hands.
Content I can now hold my own in the eventual boss fight, I proceed. However, the developers have even more tricks up their sleeves. In Final Fantasy XIII, players could see the number of soldiers/monsters on the battlefield pre-combat. This allowed players to either attempt a preemptive strike on their targets (which instantly fills the Chain Gauge) or avoid a fight altogether. Now, foes simply drop into your field of view if you enter their area. A dial will appear that is divided into green and yellow sections. Attacking the enemies while the needle is in the green will give you an advantage in the fight in the form of a fuller Chain Gauge and possible buffs, like decreased time between attacks. Striking an enemy while in the yellow will progress the fight as normal, but failing to attack the target at all will only hinder your party. Of course you can always run away, and if my intuition is correct, tougher enemies will have a smaller window of opportunity to strike while the dial is green.
Monsters can also level up in a separate Crystarium from Noel and Serah.
After an additional handful of fights, one of my creatures finally fills its Feral Link bar. Activating a creature’s Feral Link will produce a damaging effect to the opponent. In the case of my Ravager monster, the enemy’s Chain Gauge is filled halfway with a single salvo. After the magic volley, the Feral Link bar begins to build again, but I finish off my opponent before it fully recharges. The bar’s progress carries over between battles though, and just as a side note, your group’s health does replenish after a fight.
I make my way to the star marked on my map, a waiting Atlas. But just as I reach the juggernaut, a new objective appears. I have the choice of either fighting the monstrosity head-on or hunting down a recently materialized machine that will cripple the beast, the only caveat being I must survive several more encounters along the way. A dialogue tree pops up as well so that I may give my input on the situation. “I live for the moment…,” I respond (the other chat selections seemed just as out of context) and opt for the latter route. According to Square, these dialogue choices will have a minimal effect on the overall story. They are simply there for added immersion.
I successfully make my way to the machine, upon which I immediately stumble into a time paradox. During these stepping stone sequences, players must collect all the crystals along the path before proceeding to the next puzzle. The platforms fall away with each passing step though, so it’s best to plan a route ahead of time. Thankfully, you have an unlimited number of retries and there is no penalty should you fail. I complete the brainteaser and return to the present where I activate the machine. Now it’s time for the real fight – Atlas is toast.
XIII-2 is set three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and from the sound of it, Hope still hasn't hit puberty.
I won’t spoil any of ensuing action or Quick Time Events, but not even an interdimensional destroyer can withstand the assault of our heroic tag team. The demo concludes with a short cutscene of the ruins repairing with the demon’s destruction.
So now you may be wondering, what did I think of the demo? And what is my interest concerning the release of a sequel to the polarizing Final Fantasy XIII? Well I didn’t get a taste of the time travelling or meet any of the new/old NPCs, nor have I conveyed every minute gameplay touch I witnessed, but I can say I’m excited for what Square Enix has to showcase come the end of the month. The game looks good. The insane outfit choices are what I’ve come to expect from a JRPG. The locales are vibrant too, and there is plenty of on-screen mayhem during the QTEs. The gameplay is much of the same from Final Fantasy XIII, but the addition of allied monsters and a redesigned preemptive strike system expands on the already solid formula of Active Time Battles.
But whether or not you like the voice acting is from a purely personal standpoint. With the English dubbing of an original Japanese script, the voice work may not sell you on the characters or their emotions. Noel fills the position of the cocky, spiky-haired teenager, and Serah comes off as the reluctant heroine eager to protect the ones she loves. Lightning is already a compelling character thanks to the conflicts of her past and Caius embodies the whole destroyer-of-words vibe, but anyone that groaned over the previous performances of the powerless Hope and obnoxious Snow might find little remedy here. However, it’s hard to say for certain when the only content available to American consumers right now is a demo, and Final Fantasy games have a history of being long and drawn out.
As for me, I finally beat Final Fantasy XIII during my winter vacation. My official playtime concluded after the 75-hour mark when I no longer cared to level my party further, but I’ve always liked the franchise. Even if the 3D titles never eclipsed those of the 16-bit era, I still enjoy the cheesy characters, story, and so on. I look forward to learning about Lightning’s fate, Caius’s motives, Noel’s backstory, and more soon. Plus, where else am I going to get my Final Fantasy fix while I wait for Versus XIII?