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Final Fantasy XIII-2: Hands-On

November 23rd, 2011 by Tony Garsow

I had a chance to sit down with the first several chapters of Final Fantasy XIII-2 for a hands-on report we’ll be delivering to you over the course of the holiday weekend! The following is part one of my impressions of the game, and I’ll have another report up with juicier details soon! Please look forward to it!

Be sure to check out our interview with Final Fantasy XIII-2 producer Yoshinori Kitase and art director Isamu Kamikokuryou, and the Q-A session we’ll be posting!

Read on for the impressions!

“Lose yourself in my preview, and rejoice!” – Some guy.

From the get-go, Final Fantasy XIII-2 establishes a major theme the developers have been echoing throughout the game’s development cycle: player interaction and choice. Taking the praises and criticisms of its predecessor to heart, the development team sought to make a game largely based on fan feedback. The result of that is a game that not only yields more freedom to the player to progress through it as they see fit, but hearkens back to a great Square development technique of crafting memorable player-involved moments, rather than passive cutscenes.

To understand the impetus behind creating Final Fantasy XIII-2 in such a fashion, we need to look to the original game. Critics of Final Fantasy XIII often cite the general linearity of the game as one of its most intrinsic and damning flaws. In reality, Final Fantasy games are predominantly linear in nature, but the sentiment here can probably be better expressed this way: lack of exploration, lack of interaction, hands-off-the-controller aesthetic.

This subject has been the focal point of many vitriolic debates about Final Fantasy XIII. While some fans appreciated a more cinematic and streamlined approach to the game, others balked at the notion of not being able to retread any major location in the world prior to Chapter 11, amongst things. In large part this may be attributed to the development style of the project’s team, especially with director Motomu Toriyama building his chops on creating cinematic scenarios and cutscenes in titles like Final Fantasy X.

To make a game cinematic, there must be a certain flow and pace to it, and ultimately distractions such as exploring or sidequests would only serve to impede that. Ultimately, relegating these to tail end of the game proved to be an unpopular decision.

So how does Final Fantasy XIII-2 approach this criticism? Well, it does this in a multi-pronged approach that I will expound upon throughout the following preview.

In the game’s opening cutscene, we find Lightning entrenched in battle with Caius Ballad. He is an enigmatic man capable of wielding great power similar to Lightning whom has now accepted her new role as protector of Etro’s throne. The game starts off like any typical Final Fantasy of the last 15 years: with an impressive pre-rendered cinematic lead-in. However, we’re treated to something a bit different after it concludes.

The scene itself continues with Lightning and Caius exchanging blows in the in-game engine. It’s here we come across one of the game’s first Cinematic Action sequences that come in the form of conventionally executed Quick Time Event prompts. Press the button before the timer runs out and you’ll successfully complete the action; fail, and the cutscene continues with less fortunate flair. While we’ve seen this technique used frequently (perhaps in excess) with other franchises this generation, these are placed thoughtfully and never felt excessive nor unrewarding to watch.

Interactive cutscenes such as this may not particularly impress us now, but looking back — way back to 2006, I would be remiss to say that the general perception of these events was anything less than positive. To add to that: this addition plays to a long-forgotten promise of Advent Children-style combat in Final Fantasy XIII, with scripted cinematic sequences as seen below. Sure it isn’t the same, but we’re getting there.

These Cinematic Action sequences also ask the player to make quick decisions in a cinematic fight. As Caius leaps towards Lightning, we are presented with a choice to either strike or shoot him with her gunblade. Choosing to shoot, Caius deflected her bullets with his own weapon and the scene continued on. Immediately, I wondered what would have happened if I had chosen to strike him instead. While the cutscene would have continued on somewhat similarly if I had chose the other option (or failed either one), the decision I had to make placed value into the cutscene I wouldn’t have if I were merely watching.

Other forms of decisions players will make are dialogue prompts in a new system called Live Trigger. The player is presented with four choices mapped to a face button to respond how they see fit to certain situation.

What sets this apart from games such as Mass Effect, is that there is no deliberate placement or marking of what will elicit a positive or negative response. Many of the Live Trigger events, as the developers have stated, serve as ways to extend the game’s storytelling rather than influence the game. To put it simply: dialogue options. While the Final Fantasy series is no stranger to this, Final Fantasy XIII-2’s Live Trigger scenes make them a welcome return.

However, there will be decisions players will make that will affect how the game wraps up, though the initial chapters we played didn’t seem to have any major groundbreaking choices, as we saw no repercussions of some of the dialogue choices we had made earlier.

Since Live Trigger events can only be answered once, replaying the area via the game’s Historia Crux will allow players to choose different options on another go, giving cutscenes and dialogue a new level of interactivity Final Fantasy XIII lacked. Completing some Live Trigger events will give you items such as Adornments you can place on your monster party member, so there are incentives to choose differently if you’re not keen on switching for dialogue-related purposes.

While Final Fantasy XIII-2’s story is being billed as a darker and more mysterious flavor than the original, there are points of humor and lightheartedness that can be initiated through Live Trigger. Exploring all the different dialogue options built a memorable experience interacting with members of NORA and the inhabitants of New Bodhum. A criticism of the first game is that it took its story too seriously, allowing for little humor, but this seems to be remedied through my experiences (and choices) to interject silliness into some of the conversations.

What sets Final Fantasy XIII-2 apart from previous installments is the inclusion of the Historia Crux, which will allow Serah and Noel to travel to different locations and different times in the game’s timeline. At any time you can pause and quit to the Historia Crux menu as soon as you activate it in the story, where it functions as a de facto hub for all your time-traveling needs.

You’ll be able to replay any segment of the story at any time, allowing the player to run the course of the narrative as they see fit. Incentives are granted for revisiting earlier areas, such as hidden treasure and other gameplay elements. However the main hook of this feature will be to replay areas for different Live Trigger answers, different outcomes to Cinematic Action sequences, and other factors that will manipulate the game’s story.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 has been clocked in at around 30-40 hours in length, but if you’re feeling adventurous (and the game definitely provides the temptation), it is easy to imagine the clock extending beyond that.

Environments in Final Fantasy XIII-2 are decidedly less linear, and I found myself with an abundance of nooks and crannies to explore and NPCs to chat with, eliminating the corridor-like feel of Final Fantasy XIII’s Cocoon locales. Enemies appear randomly on the field map through the new Mog Clock system, but can generally be evaded so that you can fight and explore at a pace that feels comfortable to you.

When exploring the Bresha Ruins for example, there were multiple paths we could take… and even different approaches as to how we were to take down Atlas. Activate a machine to weaken its defenses or charge in guns blazing. Both are viable and rewarding options.

Coming away from Final Fantasy XIII-2, it feels that the team has successfully implemented their plans of of incorporating the player’s input into the game. While Cinematic Action sequences and Live Trigger prompts are definitely a good start, I’m hoping to see less conventional means to create “Final Fantasy moments” over the course of the game’s narrative. Sometimes, it is better to let a player “play” a moment rather than show it to them.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is quite a malleable game as far as structure, and will play out largely on how the player prefers to tackle their RPGs. Some players opt to play through the narrative and save the extraneous sidequests and content for later, while others take it all in, exploring and experiencing the content they want at the pace they want. The game caters to each party.

Through the Historia Crux system and the interwoven themes of player input and involvement, Final Fantasy XIII-2 presents itself to be a sequel to surpass its predecessor while winning a lot of hearts along the way.

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