Few games in history have been more divisive than Final Fantasy XIII. While everyone could agree on certain excellent aspects of its design such as the visuals, the fanbase in general reacted poorly to the linear design. I have good news for you: Square Enix has been listening. As I played through XIII's new design, and then went to the walkthrough with the Square Enix representatives, I got the impression that almost every decision made in the game's design came straight from the list of fan complaints. The first part of the demo was on the show floor, but I was also taken through it in a developer walkthrough in a behind closed doors, so I'll be going through it from the persepctive of both having played it and given a developer walkthrough.
So as the demo begins we play Serah and a new character, Noel. Their little ragtag party is also assisted by a moogle, who transforms into Serah's bow and sword in combat, and can hunt down hidden treasures for your party. Character designs fit into the universe as you'd expect, with Serah's ridiculously impractical but cute dress and Noel's sleek and cool style (further enhanced by his dual swords on his back). The demo began with Noel and Serah battling a partially visible form of a boss named Atlus, who is absolutely enormous, further punctuating the game's stunning visuals.
Players of the original game will be able to jump right into the combat system, as the main components are the same. You can still queue up actions in the turn-based system, which are then activated when your active time gauge fills. Paradigm shifts also return, and are now activated a good deal quicker than in the original, making them even more effective. New to the game is capturing monsters to fight in your party. Square Enix won't tell us how many are available for capture, but we saw at least a few. When you change paradigms your monster will change as well, and each monster has a unique ability.
New to the game are QTE events which the developers have dubbed "cinematic action" sequences. These events fit well with the cutscene-heavy Final Fantasy formula, and seemed fairly forgiving from what I played and saw. The game gives you warning of the upcoming event with "cinematic action" flashing on screen, and whether you complete or fail the event can affect the flow of battle, though from what I can tell will not cause you to fail.
After beating this short form of Atlus, our demo skipped ahead to Serah and Noel wandering a rainy town on a large map. The town included a number of NPCs and shops (though these last may have been for show). NPCs all had things to say in passing, and some would talk to you about current events directly if you walked up and hit X (or A, as the case may be). Atlus was beginning to rampage again in this area, and we left the town to continue in the larger map. The town was only a small part of a pretty good-sized area, which was continuous with it. Not all of the area was safe, however. In fact, once outside of the town itself, combat was frequent. The map's design was very different from what you'd find in most of Final Fantasy XIII, and it had a number of branching paths and hidden items. The developers pointed out that some of these may not be accessible at this point in the game with the abilities and characters you have, so you may have to come back and explore later to acquire them.
As we progressed through the map an option for a side-mission popped up, which may give us control over Atlus. We chose to complete this side mission, which took us out of the way of the main objective somewhat. As we reached the terminal which may give us control over the great monster, Atlus's great fist crashed down, sending us into a strange new place. The developers called this a "temple rift," and it's a short puzzle sequence, of which there will be multiples in the game. This puzzle was pretty simple, just a maze where you had to gather items scattered on blocks which you could only step on once, but we were assured they would get more complicated as the game progressed. Upon completing the temple rift, we were also able to complete the sidequest. It didn't give us control over Atlus, but it weakened him by half his health and drastically slowed him, meaning the sidequest had a major effect on the main objective. Atlus was engaged in combat again, now in his full and final form. The battle took on a normal XIII-style pace, till Atlus finally fell.
That's the end of the show floor demo, and the part I actually played, but this was a behind closed doors appointment, so Square Enix booted up one more section of the game to show us the new and improved Lightning. This scene opened on Lightning riding Odin across a beach in a desolate looking world, wearing her sexy new armor as seen in the trailers. She was chasing Chaos Bahamut, a corrupted version of the Eidolon. Lightning is incredibly powerful here, and the developers explained that as the savior of the world her power should be apparent in her design and abilities. The battle continued on horseback, in a wild conflict that really showcased how well XIII's engine holds up. Eventually a new cinematic action event started, and the crazy acrobatics you'd expect from Final Fantasy's cutscenes showed up, but now with QTE controls.
This concluded our demo of Final Fantasy XII-2. The game shows some impressive changes, both following the requests of the fans and going beyond that to make the game more active and fast-paced. We don't have a lot of information on the story right now, but it looks like Final Fantasy XIII-2 is shaping up to be one of the most engaging games in the series. For those of you who want to get your hands on it, it will be available early next year in North America and Europe.