Less Linear, More Mature: Final Fantasy XIII-2 [Preview]
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[Update: Our interview with longtime Final Fantasy producer/director Yoshinori Kitase can be found here.]
“People thought that [Final Fantasy XIII] was too linear and it limited the amount of exploration available to players,” long time Final Fantasy producer/director Yoshinori Kitase tells us. “[We’ve] accepted it’s something that could have been better and something we’re looking at improving in XII-2.”
Our eight hours with Final Fantasy XIII-2 this far certainly demonstrated a focus on increasing exploration and decreasing linearity. The driving force behind the change is the Historia Crux, a hub that allows you to travel through time and space in a bid to unravel secrets and correct anomalies that have appeared in the timeline since the ending of FFXIII. Arrange in a simple grid system, each of the Historia Crux’s nodes represents an area for you to explore and further the story.
In essence it plays out like a level/mission structure the like of which you’d expect to find in an action or adventure game. Each location within the Crux is dubbed a ‘Chapter’ and all of those we’ve played so far have finished with a boss fight of some kind and a single key piece of story progression. While we didn’t get far enough to test this for ourselves, we’re told that once you reach a certain point you can choose to visit the Chapters at your own pace and in your own order.
“We have an expectation about which route players will likely take through the game but some players will take very unexpected routes,” Kitase said. “That’s been something we’ve thought about a lot and have had to take into account when designing areas and the time in history that they exist.”
It’s a far cry from the stifling corridor system that dominated much of FFXIII. Once completed you can replay a Chapter to find treasures you’ve missed or beat enemies you were previously not strong enough to defeat.
Because different areas are set in different times, you’ll meet characters from XIII that are at a different stage of their lives than they once were. We’re bound to secrecy about specifics but rest assured that your favourites will most probably be here, but most probably older or younger than you remember.
Like the individual characters, we’re forbidden from giving much away in terms of the plot. However, the bare bones of it is that Lightning (protagonist from FFXIII) has been ‘crystallised’ and, playing as her younger sister Serah, it’s your job to save her. Anyone that has played XIII will immediately pick up on symmetry of the setup (Lightning had to save Serah in that game). The Serah of this game is a slightly older, more mature personality – the writers ridding her of the helpless child role she portrayed previously and kitting her out in significantly more sexy grown up attire.
I had previously not been a huge fan of the idea of direct sequels to Final Fantasy games, but the way in which this story focuses on character growth and viewing events from different angles is intriguing. In truth, despite only playing three chapters, it has gone some way to changing my mind about the sequel idea already. Just how much it changes my mind be something I’ll reserve judgment on until I’ve played the whole thing.
Not everything has changed though, this is still a Final Fantasy game and it’s still a Final Fantasy XIII game. For starters, the opening is as epic as you’re ever likely to see. It employs that classic videogame technique of look-how-strong-you’re-going-to-be-later, before starting you off on your journey without any of those same abilities and a burning desire to regain them.
The battle system remains largely unchanged, also. It’s still based around Paradigm Shifts and levelling up your characters to fulfil certain roles (healer, magic user, melee, status effect shifter) and your attitude to the whether that’s a good thing will entirely rest on whether you liked it in the last game or not.
As far as Kitase in concerned, the battle system has always been a success:
“[XIII] was the first Final Fantasy for the current generation of consoles so we wanted to implement a new battle system which was speedy and tactical, and I think it was a success also.”
This time around you’re able to bring certain defeated enemies into your party. While they’re not quite as powerful as your standard party members, these enemies often have unique abilities that can help you out in tough situations. For example, I didn’t have anyone with a healing ability for the first few hours (instead relying on potions) but bringing a foe-turned-friend into proceedings sorted that out immediately.
Boss battles have been given a cinematic boost by incorporating quick-time events as certain key points. Usually, but not exclusively, these occur at the end of the battle to provide a flashy, over-the-top visual flair to the finale. While they look great and offer something we’ve not seen before in a Final Fantasy title, their inclusion is not always welcome.
A certain boss battle was failed three times in succession on the same quick-time event. The result was that I had to start the entire battle over again every time. Adding a little zing is all well and good but it should never get in the way of the gameplay. Failing an epic battle on the back of something as trivial as not hitting ‘X’ fast enough seems wrong, especially in Final Fantasy.
The way in which non-boss battles are initiated is slightly different; the ‘Mog Clock’ giving you a slight element of control in selecting opponents and how they begin. When you approach an enemy in the world, your clock will pop up and scroll between green, yellow and red. The rate at which the colour changes is based on your distance from the target, their line of sight and their species.
For example, attack from behind and your clock will likely stay at green, giving you the first attack when the battle starts proper. If the clock turns red the enemy is about to attack and if you fail to beat them to it they’ll start with the first attack against you. Yellow will start a standard battle without advantages to either side.
Other than that the rest seems typically Final Fantasy. Chocobos are back, convoluted speech is back, grand mythologies are back and 90 per cent of names are still unpronounceable. Still, the Historia Crux adds a fresh spin on old ideas and should satisfy those that enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII’s individual elements but didn’t like the way they were presented as a whole.
Oh, and there’s a jump button. But it doesn’t do a lot…
I’m going to be honest and say that Final Fantasy XIII was the first game in series (excluding the MMOs) that I haven’t completed since Final Fantasy VII. I couldn’t get past the linearity of that first 30 hours. A mere eight hours into Final Fantasy XIII-2 and I can’t wait to play more and explore the possibilities of choosing my own path through time.
Plus, Serah is a more intriguing proposition than Lightning. Gentler and more naïve than her older sister I’m much more interested about how Serah will grow and change over time than I ever was with Lightning.