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Demo Impressions: Final Fantasy XIII-2

January 20, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

If one series will forever rule the J-RPG universe it’s Final Fantasy. Spanning over twenty years, five console generations and everything from High Fantasy to steampunk futurism, it is the undisputed daddy of all. Its greatest merit and constant magic is its ability to repeatedly reinvent and innovate itself while retaining the core of what makes it brilliant. Each new game brings a brand new world, new characters and enemies and usually a new battle system. We’ve come a long way from the basic turn-based battling of old and the last game, Final Fantasy XIII, switched it up again with the breathless and intoxicating Paradigm system.

Let’s forget that part about reinventing and innovating for a while, because the double-numbered sequel has struck again. On February 3rd, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be hitting the shelves of game shops across our bleak nation. Aside from making you sound a tit when saying the name out loud (Final Fantasy Thirteen Two doesn’t quite have a ring to it) it continues the tale of Lightning and co, but with a brand new perspective in the guise of her sister, Serah. Joining forces with anime menswear model Noel, she sets out across time and space to do… something.

Plot details are, as usual, thin on the ground and the demo sitting on XBLA and PSN doesn’t give much away either. Never mind though; the plot can be saved for the full game. The purpose of a demo is to allow you to figure out if you like the game or not and it’s here where the decision becomes very easy for veterans of the previous game. If you enjoyed FFXIII then you’re going to enjoy the sequel. Little has changed in the core mechanics; you still use Paradigms and the Auto-Battle system, you still jog around massive empty areas talking to nonsensical civilians and accepting fetch-quests from soldiers. Combat is still exciting and fast-paced while exploration remains an enchanting if over-long experience.

There’s a good chance you won’t have played the last one, however, so I’m going to take you through the demo and explain some of the new features as well as giving a brief overview of the core gameplay.

We start as Noel and Serah come bursting through a time portal only to realise said portal takes them to a time giant, Paradox Alpha, who’s already got started in fucking up the surrounding Bresha Ruins. To battle then! The Paradigm system returns from FFXIII and works just as well. Each character has a class, and you can change those classes on the fly by using Paradigms; basically set-ups of classes. Each class has a focus; dealing damage, Staggering the enemy (more on that later), healing, defending or disabling. So you can have Serah dealing damage while Noel heals her, or let Noel go for the Stagger while Serah defends him. Switching between Paradigms to match the flow of battle is almost as important as setting them up beforehand and while it takes a while to get used to, it’s definitely an ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ experience.

He must be a right laugh at the Christmas party...

Picking a damage dealing Paradigm and hitting Auto-Battle, the game selects some juicy attacks for me and executes them when Noel’s ATB (Active Time Battle) bar is full. This simple method was ridiculed by some fans as ‘too easy’ but considering how hectic battles can get it’s a God-send. After hammering the giant for a bit, a Quick Time Event rears its ugly head and I have to flick the Left Stick to avoid getting squished. The addition of these ‘Cinematic Events’ is an odd move by Squeenix to hammer in a mechanic that most of have been bored with since Resident Evil 4.

It’s also amusing that they call them ‘Cinematic Events’ as if they’re something fresh and new. Anyway, a bit more fighting and I get another one, this time one that Staggers the giant. Staggering is basically a way of bombarding an enemy with Ravager attacks to build a meter. Once it fills, the enemy is Staggered and takes a fuckton more damage from attacks. It’s really the only way to bring down bosses and tough enemies and the game demands you get used to using it almost immediately. After a few more hits, another Cinematic Event interrupts! I have to hit Y a lot to bombard the giant with rockets from nearby hovercraft. The big fucker is down but not out and now I have to go finish him off.

After that anticlimax, I’m dumped in Bresha Ruins with a map and an objective. Running about I get into scraps with smaller foes, which introduce a new engagement system. Enemies pop up in a circle and you can avoid battle by leaving the circle before you get touched. Additionally, a ‘Mog Clock’ appears underneath you. If you attack an enemy before the clock counts down you get a bonus. It seems unnecessary and more of an attempt to show progress than a genuine accolade to combat. After battering a few monsters I unlock the ability to keep them as sort of pets.

Each monster has a set class; they can’t switch like Serah and Noel. You can assign a monster to each Paradigm, further reinforcing your set-ups. So my all-out damage dealing set can now have a healer or a ravager. It adds a new dimension to battle and almost makes up for the lack of a third-party member. The monsters can be levelled up just like the humans, although using items rather than points. The level up system is a showy but basic system consisting of following a trail from planet to planet investing points in various classes. Anyway, you can also accessorise and name your monsters, although bizarrely you have to pick from a list of stock names. Neither of these things have any effect in battle so I assume it’s for kids and people who like dressing up their dogs.

Combat is as hectic and exciting as ever.

So I trudge around the Ruins fighting monsters and picking up a few fetch quests. I meet a whacky woman in a bird suit who functions as a shop where I manage to afford new weapons for both characters and a few accessories too. After a while I finally find Paradox Alpha, wrecking havoc at the other end of the map. It’s then I’m presented with a choice, another new feature. Noel gets a radio message from some soldiers claiming they’ve located an artefact on the other side of the map (of course) that they reckon is tied to the giant. I get to decide whether to give the artefact a shot or just bowl into battle and it’s a no-brainer for me. I’m putting an 80-pound girl and a Boyzone reject up against a fucking time giant; I’m going to take every chance I’ve got.

I get to the artefact and it sucks me in. At this point I think I’ve screwed the pooch. Maybe it’s a red herring, designed to lure me in and gimp me for the battle? Maybe it’s a chance thing, where sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad?! I wince and brace myself for the outcome and… I’m in cube land. Our Mog friend says something about being in the limbo of the Crystal but I don’t really understand what he means. Basically it’s a puzzle; I have to move along a path collecting gems and reach an exit without touching the same square twice. It’s not exactly challenging but I can imagine these sections will get exponentially harder as the full game progresses.

So, we finally emerge and wait to hear what we’ve achieved. Apparently the slowest boss creature in the history of mankind is now… a bit slower. Brilliant. Not less powerful or weakened. Not silenced or now particularly vulnerable to Staggering. Just a bit slower. So I trudged across the map and walked through a simple puzzle to do essentially nothing.

The second time round Paradox Alpha is a combination of frustration and bullshit. He can destroy my entire party in three hits and the artefact is confirmed to have done sweet fuck-all; he can still get two hits in before I can even attack. Any strategy I try fails at the final hurdle. I try all out damage but then get killed too quick. I try to Stagger him but every time the meter hits halfway it just sinks back down to zero.

I remember there being a reason for this in the previous game but I can’t remember it and foreknowledge wouldn’t be any help to a newcomer anyhow. I try defending and healing but nothing works. As soon as I split my classes they’re all too weak to have any effect. I try numerous times but can’t seem to beat him. Is this how the demo should end? Should I have grinded more? It doesn’t matter; it’s a sign of things to come in my books.

In conclusion, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is essentially a continuation of the story with a few new features thrown in. Super-fans will probably say that the monster system and the Cinematic Events are revolutionary and make it an entirely different game, but that’s all relative and in my opinion it’s more of the same.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if you ploughed through FFXIII’s enormous story you’ll feel immediately at home and will likely be thrilled to finally get to see Serah in action after she was mainly confined to flashbacks and a crystal in the last game. The new features will seem like big progress and will probably add a new dimension to your tried and tested Paradigm Deck.

My main worry is that the lack of real change will alienate two very important groups; those who loved the first one but want to justify spending another 40 quid and those who gave it a go but didn’t like it much. The issues that flecked FFXIII are still here; the occasional clunkiness of the battle system, the breathless nature of the Paradigms, overcomplicated item systems and the abundance of needless mini-games. Unless you never played FFXIII and are looking for the 2.0 version or are so enamoured by the plot and characters that you lie at wake at night, counting the seconds to the time when you’ll be able to finally step into Serah’s shoes, I can see FFXIII-2 being a negligible purchase.

It will sell because Final Fantasy always does. Get hold of the demo and give it a try for yourself; there’s definitely fun to be had. You’ll know if you want the full game about halfway through the demo; when you either get sick of running through empty areas and fighting repetitive groups of enemies or you sigh wistfully and start drawing up a countdown calendar.