Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the direct sequel to 2010's Final Fantasy XIII, the last single-player entry in the long-running role-playing series. As well the return of the same cast and a series of locations with some added twists, it aims to improve on XIII's shortcomings with more interactive story, town-like environments and sidequests. We go hands-on with an early-game dungeon to see how these changes affect the game.
Taking place three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII, there are some strange things afoot in the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon. Former protagonist Lightning has gone missing, which sees her sister (and now playable character) Serah set off on a journey to look for her. She's joined by newcomer Noah, a boy with a mysterious background, as well as a Mog, who acts as a companion and helper for the player throughout the game.
It's a story that focuses heavily on time, with players travelling to the same locations hundreds of years apart from one another, which can have a knock-on effect on the game's story, resulting in multiple endings. Our hands-on session early on in the adventure saw the trio thrown into a battle with Atlas, an invisible, towering beast seemingly trapped in different timelines, who runs amok inside a Cocoon settlement before retreating inside the Bresha Ruins, a dungeon close to XIII's Bresha Lake area.
Final Fantasy meets Pokemon
The battle system has seen a number of differences, but it keeps the same vital elements of Final Fantasy XIII's combat, a relief considering it was one of its strongest in the series to date. The Active Time Battle bar that's broken up into segments for multiple moves, Staggering enemies to temporarily weaken them, and the Paradigm system that has you swap classes on the fly all return. Boss battles now feature Cinematic Action pieces - which are essentially Quick Time Events - that have you thrust analogue sticks or hammer buttons as a cutscene plays out mid-battle, all in a bid to make the action a little more interactive and involving than previously.
The biggest and most exciting change to combat are the addition of monster allies. Not completely unlike Pokemon, players can now tame and use monsters in battle. During our demo session (and we can assume the rest of the game) the monster acted as a third party member alongside Serah and Noah, with different creatures brought in and out of battle depending on your current Paradigm. They also have a Limit Break-style 'Feral Link', unleashing a special attack based on their characteristics. We used a Chocobo, a Flan and Cait Sith (similar but not the same as the VII character), while the full game will feature over 200 to collect and level up.
More populated towns, less populated dungeons
There are some big changes when it comes to exploration, too. Before we head into the Bresha Ruins, there's a large hub area populated with characters to talk to, telling you about the local happenings and fleshing out the game's universe as a whole. We're told that there will be more town areas like this throughout, another common complaint of XIII. Another was the lack of sidequests, and as we talk to those in town and chat to soldiers in the dungeon we encounter two in quick succession. While both appear to be simple fetch quests, later missions include hunting down specific monsters and exploring new areas.
Enemy encounters have seen a change as well. Final Fantasy XIII-2 drops the presence of roaming enemies in the field, opting for empty locales where enemies will suddenly appear beside you, ready to fight. At this point a dial named the Mog Clock appears on the screen, and if quick enough, you can gain a pre-emptive advantage and go into battle with the first attack. It's also a system that allows you to avoid enemies far easier. An interesting blend of classic random encounters and the on-screen enemies of XII and XIII, while you won't be able to see the enemies far in advance, you do get some prior warning as to whether you want to battle or press onwards.
Dialogue choices and time travel
Finally, the story is also accompanied by two new in-game mechanics. Live Trigger is essentially a dialogue tree, pitching you a series of choices based on your current situation. When we caught up with Atlas mid-dungeon, we could ask the advice of side characters first, whether to tackle him head on now or find a way to weaken him first. But with only one selection possible, the decision made is fairly important since you're only going to learn about the advantages of one possible outcome.
Finally, the Hystoria Crux system allows players to travel hundreds of years forwards and backwards at designated crystals, opening up new dungeon types and story paths. Wandering through the dungeon further allowed us to access a temporal rift to weaken Atlas, which warped the party out of the dungeon for a puzzle, having the party navigate a lit path in the right order to progress.
Although the extent of Final Fantasy XIII-2's time-travelling outcomes largely remain a mystery, in terms of the gameplay changes it appears to address many of the complaints raised by fans over the last divisive entry. It's designed as a far more open, branching adventure, with classic Final Fantasy tropes such as town-like areas, sidequests and a random encounter system, as well as a monster party system that's set to add a fresh take on XIII's already-strong combat.
> Read our Final Fantasy XIII-2 interview with Square Enix
Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 from January 31 in North America and February 3 in Europe.