My first venture into the halls of the Javits Center in NYC was met with a warm and stale hello, in the form of the nerd prowess that belts you in the face, and it was absolutely glorious, particularly due to the fact the Square Enix was showcasing a playable build of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Squealing with delight, I dropped my friend like a bad habit, and picked up the controller, eager to find out what was inside.
Hopping on the controller brought a cutscene voiced over by Lightning, recapping the story and (re)introducing us to Serah and her new companion, Noel Kreiss. After some more scenes, I was thrown right into a boss battle with an invisible giant, or what's being passed off as a boss battle these days. Jumping back into Paradigm Shifting was easy and familiar, particularly because nothing major has been changed. A nice addition to combat is seen in the new Feral system, allowing a monster to become a party member, and each monster representing a different paradigm. They can perform special attacks as well, provided you've filled up the Feral Meter (through normal attacks). While only quicktime events, they come in rapid succession, helping to vary battles and keep them from becoming a mundane spectacle.
Control is still limited to one character, and battles still break down to an endless switch between paradigms to stagger the opponent, but on top of the Feral Meter Square Enix tries to freshen it up with Cinematic Events (more quicktime). These are simpler than the Feral ones, as they are nothing more than flicks of the control stick or mashing buttons, and quick "boss battles" that would have taken a good couple of minutes in the original. Streamlined, yes, yet not very rewarding.
Where combat sees some minor improvements, welcomed alterations to the rest of the game have been made. The overworld is far less linear, allowing some exploration, as well the ability to utilize the new Moogle Mog to help initiate battles more effectively and to seek out hidden items. Mog helps combat move more swiftly, allowing for more frequent pre-emptive strikes as long contact is made with the enemy in the time limit. Missing the window becomes detrimental, forcing slower battles and a weakened state.
FF13-2 also features a mock choice system called "Live Triggers," where characters are able to ask opinions of other people in the party before a choice is made. Though the game has multiple endings, Live Triggers will not have an effect on them, making them a curious addition. Only the very apparent "this or that" choices will determine the ending, and this time around the plot is further convoluted due to the introduction of time travel, alternate realities, and paradox monsters. Final Fantasy XIII-2 sees the return of puzzles to the franchise, which are known as Anomolies. The demo focused on one of Noel simply walking around disappearing platforms collecting crystals. Not terribly difficult, but it feels good to have puzzles back. It does a great job at helping to break the linearity.
Square Enix had both the 360 and PS3 versions playable, and it looked just like it did back in 2009, which was by no means bad, but some improvements would have helped. Pixelated hair? C'mon now. It's a good thing the rest of the character models are pretty enough to divert attention away from the hair. Yet, as always, the voice work is spot on, and brings back the solemn voice of Lightning and the rest of the cast, as well as some talented newcomers. Combined with the orchestrated music, the soundwork helps to create that melodramatic, intricate style we all love (love to hate) Final Fantasy for, and FFXIII-2 promises to be brimming with it as Serah and Noel search for Lightning across Cacoon(s).
While certainly enthralling (if you liked FF13, that is), Final Fantasy XIII-2 surprised me with how many issues they actually addressed. It's great not to run down a continuous hallway for hours, and the Feral and Cinematic attacks are pretty neat. One potential problem arises with the introduction of more convolution (time travel, alternate realities, and paradoxes) to an already convoluted story, but if anyone can pull it off - and with unrivaled style - it's Square Enix.