Can’t always get what you want.
Square-Enix have never excelled at giving gamers what they want. Sure, they’ve often displayed a preternatural ability to deliver features players didn’t even know they were waiting for, but for every one of their runaway successes there’s always been a contentious next move – a X-2 for every X.
This reputation is complicated by the lack of consensus on what exactly their false moves have been. Few would argue that we are enjoying a Final Fantasy golden age, but whether the series’ current plateau began when they released an MMO as a numbered entry in the series (XI), a game that straddled action RPG and management sim (XII), an endless corridor served as an epic adventure (XIII), or… Final Fantasy XIV – well, the jury’s still out on that one. The fact is Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game with a lot to prove to a lot of demanding fans, and the biggest surprise is that Square-Enix – perhaps, for the first time – are intent on giving players exactly what they want.
Playing fast and loose
The first thing to go is XIII’s linearity. The notorious infinite hallway of the previous game may have lent itself well to cinematic action and pacing the player experience, but many called foul on abolishing the exploration and side-quests that had long been a series staple. XIII-2 acknowledges this complaint and promises to reinstate Final Fantasy as an exploration experience, with deviations from the designated path to wander down, secret areas to discover and even the ability to bend time and plot to your will.
The injection of a bit of the old wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey is possibly best explained once you know the two core party members in this adventure. The first is Serah Farron – three years older since she appeared in XIII as Lightning’s younger sister and sibling-in-distress, now inverting their roles as she searches for a way to retrieve her sister from the alternative dimension of Valhalla; the second – time-travelling adolescent, Noel Kreiss – is a mysterious boy from the future, who may well know how to find Serah’s missing sister.
It may come as little surprise in a JRPG where the protagonist is looking to rescue her sister from another dimension with the help of a boy 700 years her junior, but things soon take a turn for the time-paradoxical. Dimensional portals and time-travel are par-for-the-course for a Final Fantasy by now, yet XIII-2 looks to boldly go where no single-player Final Fantasy has gone before and make it an actual game mechanic. In other words: those who complained about XIII’s levels following a straight line will be pleased to hear that, in XIII-2, even time is non-linear.
There’s no place like home
It all starts with another forgotten Final Fantasy staple: the hub town. A little hamlet known as Historia Crux acts as your base camp. Here you can not only shop from actual vendors, but also open time gates to visit times and places in an order of your choosing. Once familiar locations from the previous game have been ‘altered’ by the events of XIII, and while details are currently slim in relation to the effect time and place will have on each other, there is certainly promise in the idea of returning to a particularly challenging time-period once you are suitably levelled.
‘Effect’ is an appropriate term when describing XIII-2 – not least because of the looming presence of a certain Shepard – and the assurance is that this is a world where your choices matter. Key battles will occasionally present with QTEs where the options are more often: ‘choose A or B’ than ‘ press X not to die’ and in conversation with NPCs, dialogue options are designated to each face button in a pared-down Mass Effect style. Your current party leader will also be a significant factor, as each character will have a different approach to interrogation, allowing new directions to be taken.
Gotta catch ‘em all
And your party will rarely consist of just Serah and Noel. More often the third party slot will be filled by a monster you have chosen to train as an ally. These pocket monsters (if you will) are recruited when a defeated enemy presents the option to take it on as a kind of warrior pet. These will then level and gain new abilities like any other member of your party, and will even be customisable with a wide range of hats and accessories.
It may be that Final Fantasy as a series has lost its way, but one has to wonder whether cribbing from Chrono Trigger and Pokémon is to misunderstand the problem. Enough fuss has already been made of the ‘Ezio costume in XIII-2!’ furore that we won’t stir the pot here – suffice to say, if fans are concerned the series is losing its wilful individuality, these developments may do little to settle their minds.
Everything old is new again
The less note-worthy tweaks – such as a more active battle system, added weather effects where rain dampens fire attacks, and a new ‘wounded’ status that cuts max HP during battle – all suggest XIII-2 has within it the potential to be a nuanced and unique entry in the series’ illustrious canon. The only concern is whether the addition of unnecessary ‘jump’ buttons and Poké-pals becoming the new Dresspheres, might derail what is currently being billed as a darker, more sincere game than its predecessor.
‘Time will tell’ goes the phrase, and it’s doubly true here. If Square-Enix can make time-travel work in a way that makes sense for XIII-2 they could have on their hands the most freely adventurous Final Fantasy ever. Handle it poorly and for all their bluster of time-gates and branching paths the result could be just another type of corridor. If anything’s constant in the games industry it’s this: it never pays to underestimate Square-Enix. Whatever the future holds, XIII-2 will doubtlessly be worth your attention in 2012.