Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (Both Versions Tested)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
The first thing that the discerning Xbox 360 owner will notice upon firing up the recent Final Fantasy XIII-2 demo is just how clear everything looks. No, it's not quite as sharp as the PS3 version, not quite, but it's a damn sight better than The Game That Came Before.
It's no secret, I had a rather ambivalent reaction to Final Fantasy XIII. But then I'm a reviewer, I was spurred onwards by a critical code of sorts, mandated by editorial guidelines to persevere until completion wherever possible. And I'm glad I did. Gran Pulse was the sort of environment any long-time Final Fantasy fan would have been after from the start, a semi-open world landscape of breathtaking beauty and plenty to do, see and explore. It wasn't Square's problem that you had to grind through 15 hours of autopiloted melodrama, and by grind I do of course mean press 'Up' and 'A' incessantly.
Except, of course it was Square's problem.
This game, then, provides a second chance, but from the first battle of the demo you could be forgiven for thinking that very little has changed. Brendan covered this particular FFXIII-2 demo rather comprehensively post-Eurogamer Expo last year, noting that "the overly simple nature of the auto-combat was all too apparent when I was able to start taking notes on my phone with one hand while hitting X with the other". He wasn't exaggerating, not to begin with, anyway.
Dispatching the AI to take care of things for you is all too easy for the regular foes, with little thought necessary. In fact we'd be surprised if you find the need to Paradigm Shift much before the final confrontation with the enormous Atlas. That said, the Atlas battle outlines the potential for the combat system, and why people managed to stick with FFXIII through the first fifteen hours or so. Making sure you're all set up beforehand, that you've got your bases covered, knowing when to engage in all-out attack, when to engage Ravagers for Stagger opportunities, when to try and defend with Sentinels and Medics, it's against the larger or more numerous foes that the combat system starts making sense.
There are a few little changes to the action mechanics. Monsters you encounter can now be captured upon defeat and made to do your bidding, adding depth to your Paradigms. You can level them up and they can learn new abilities. Quick Time Events are now in too, but serve to enhance and augment the special attacks of your monsters. Taking damage and dealing it out with charge up a new bar which, when full, will allow the monster currently adding flavour to your Paradigm to unleash a unique attack. The efficacy of this is determined by how quickly and how often you get the QTE right. It's simple stuff - bash this button, push the L-stick in this direction - but it adds a little sense of urgency to what is 70% of the time a case of simply tapping 'A'.
The demo doesn't reveal a huge amount in terms of character but, knowing as we do now, that Snow will return, it's enough that I want to know what the hell Noel is doing and where he's come from. The fact that I've plunged nearly 100 hours into Skyrim, though, means that every time he opens his mouth and Jason Marsden's voice comes out I get a sudden urge to unleash some serious Thu'um. XIII's story devolved into complicated absurdity by the end, but then again that's part of the reason we play Final Fantasy games in the first place. It was enough that I wanted to see XIII through to the end and, to be fair, it does feel good to be back in Cocoon.
Part of that is the fact that it's so pretty, but RPGs aren't just one night stands - you're in for the long haul and personality and character, depth of mind and hidden suprises, these are what count the most. In that respect, there are further signs that Square's listened to their fanbase, with semi-open areas and NPC interactions giving rise to side missions early on. A brief conversation wheel sees you asking your party for advice (hopefully further examples will provide events of actual consequence) and a quick bit of grid-based platform-puzzling hints at further new gameplay ingredients, Exploration and treasure hunting with Mog the Moogle is rewarded with frequent loot, and the allure of branching side roads, new areas that provide respite from the linearity of this game's predecessor, are too curious to ignore.
The game's arrived and we'll have a review for you at the end of the month, and truth be told it'll take more than a 20 minute demo to convince us that Square have really upped the game with this sequel. There are promising signs, to be sure, but as with all RPGs, Japanese or otherwise, demos are fairly redundant as they nearly always fail to convey the sense of scale and cannot hope to reveal the range of mechanics. That said, FFXIII-2's taster has given us enough of a spark of curiosity to welcome a return to this world, to these characters and a new story for them.
The Short Version: Square have clearly stuck to their guns over the combat, but it's the little enhancements that make us hopeful of a happy return to Cocoon. The capable ease of 'Auto Battle' execution worries us a fair bit, but the side quests, monster crystals and conversation wheels are intriguing indeed. Only the full game will reveal how much Square have taken onboard, mind.