If Final Fantasy has taught us anything it’s that the titles of games should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s a series that has defied its titular promise for more than 20 years, spawning dozens of sequels, spin-offs and CGI movies. Even those who don’t play Final Fantasy games have heard of them. They have come to define the Japanese role-playing game the way Call of Duty now defines the US military shooter.
For series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, the first Final Fantasy was personally literal: if the game wasn’t a commercial success, it would be his last before returning to university to start over in a different field. That, of course, did not happen. In more than 20 games since then Final Fantasy has only fleetingly flirted with failure – but the linearity of the 13th instalment outraged some fans who argued it was dipping a trembling toe into the bog of mediocrity. A direct sequel, then, is the last thing this vocal cadre wants.
But after some extensive time with the game, Final Fantasy XIII-2 appears to have very little in common with its predecessor. The game picks up after the events of XIII. Serah Farron seems to be the only one who can remember seeing her sister Lightning after she defeated Orphan. None of her friends any longer share Serah’s belief that Lightning is alive somewhere.
Or Somewhen: XIII-2 is constructed around time distortions. Serah and her companion Noel must venture to different time nodes and reorder them correctly. Something or someone’s tampering with the time continuum has thrown the past, present and future into disarray, and events from different years, decades or centuries are now overlapping and causing no end of chaos – including, it seems, a collective forgetfulness of Lightning’s epilogue.
Noel is personally invested. Cast back in time and charged with the protection of Serah by Lightning herself, he is the last human, apparently from a future with no hope, but an abundance of hair conditioner.
These nodes are presented as a kind of narrative tree; completing one opens up several adjacent events throughout the timeline for Serah and Noel to complete. Not only do Serah and Noel take a non-linear path through the years, players will be able to go back and replay particular events to achieve different outcomes in the future.
That non-linearity also extends to the nodes themselves. Towns are back. Dungeons and wilderness join them, and all are replete with quest-givers and side-missions. Those who felt that XIII was a pretty, 40-hour long corridor will undoubtedly welcome the chance to explore and rework in XIII-2.
It’s important to stress that we were playing an early, incomplete build of the game. However, in what we saw, the trade-off for the more expansive gameplay comes at a downtick in visual fidelity. Monsters aside, few – if any – in-game assets look to have been recycled wholesale from XIII.
Serah and Noel appear to be two permanent characters in the three-party system. As they’re also the only characters who are aware of the time discrepancies, the third position is filled by monsters that the party defeats and captures. XIII’s Paradigm Shifting combat and Staggering or Breaking debuff also returns. The monsters can be trained and selected to accompny different Paradigm Shifts, filling roles such as direct-damage, debuffer and healer. If not identical, the bestiary of monsters is similar to that of XIII.
The party is rounded out by a Moogle. Beyond adding some quintessentially Japanese kitsch to the game, the Moogle identifies hidden items, morphs variously into a sword and bow for Serah to use in combat, and warns of upcoming random combat encounters.
As Serah and Noel approach a random encounter, the Moogle clock displays. Initiate combat in the green, and the party will receive a first-strike buff. In the yellow, both the party and the enemies will begin on an even footing. Get caught in the red, and the monsters will begin with the upper hand. An encounter radius completes the system, letting players see how far they must move to evade combat altogether lest they be caught out.
Perhaps the most disappointing inclusion in the combat system is quick-time events in the attempt to add some closing grandeur to a successful boss fight. XIII-2 offers some variety by occasionally giving the player several ways to progress the cinematic, but it only goes so far to elevate one of the most loathesome concepts in modern gaming. Worse still, our failure to correctly complete one quick-time event resulted in resetting a difficult boss fight entirely – much too great a penalty as far as we’re concerned. In fact, we’d go so far as to call quick-time events a blight on game development circa 2012. For shame, Square Enix.
But quick-time events aside, it’s hard to think of another game that has been influenced so directly by vocal consumer feedback. Eight hours with XIII-2 suggests that the game is radical in its departure from many of the design elements of its direct predecessor. Look out for Square Enix’s extremely promising mea culpa on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in February next year.