It’s said that there is a “cycle” to abusive relationships: an endless loop of the tension building phase, the incident, the “honeymoon phase,” and the calm phase. The Final Fantasy series has made me think about that cycle a lot.
Having been burned by Square Enix repeatedly over the past few years, my love for the PS1 Final Fantasies left to bleed out in the gutter as game after game smashed my happy memories to pieces, I kept myself miles away from the hype train for Final Fantasy XIII-2, direct sequel to one of the more love-it-or-hate-it installments in the franchise, but with the demo now available, I decided it was time to take a look. With a heavy heart and a skeptical outlook, I tried out the demo for XIII-2.
The demo opens with a series of calm shots panning over a great, ancient-looking ruin; soldiers, ever so familiar from the many of their kind in XIII, are loosely strewn about the area. Within the ruin, in shining text smoothly projected against the environment (in a style which reminded me of Splinter Cell: Conviction, oddly enough) it was established that I was playing Chapter Two. Lightning, the iconic main character of XIII, provided a Captain Kirk-esque narration, speaks of cryptic things but provides little to set the scene.
Our heroes, the cutesy Serah Farron (who served as little more than a crystallized plot device in XIII) and newcomer Noel Kreiss (a time traveler from a future in which he is the last human) arrive, look around for a bit, and are immediately attacked by a giant hand.
Welcome to the Final Fantasy XIII-2 demo.
A boss fight begins immediately with the shimmering giant whose hand appears to be the only tangible part, and I discovered quickly that the combat system here was almost completely unchanged from XIII (characters have set roles such as “Commando,” “Ravager,” “Medic,” et cetera, which dictate their abilities in combat, and battle strategy mainly revolves around switching between them and letting the characters choose their own actions). The battle was challenging- I thought I could lazily make my characters do the fight on their own and actually died once- but little did I expect a very pleasant surprise.
Mid-fight, a smooth transition to a cinematic occurred and the words “Cinematic Action” appeared on the top-left of my screen. The giant hand swooped in to strike my team, and I was given a button prompt to quickly press. I did so, and my characters avoided taking damage- right as the cinematic transitioned right back into the fight.
Not bad, Square. Not bad at all.
The fight continued, and another Cinematic Action sequence later kicked in involving Noel dashing up the giant’s arm and hacking away at its nearly transparent head. I nailed these button presses as well, and the battle swung in my favor as a result. At the very conclusion, allied helicopters arrived and I was tasked with jamming on the Triangle button to control their flurry of missile strikes against the foe.
Switching gears, I was quickly deposited in a nearby rest area of the ruins where I was allowed to talk to NPCs, buy items from a woman dressed like a Chocobo, and accept side quests. As the tension break that towns provide was desperately needed and conspicuously missing from XIII, this brief stop was much appreciated and bodes very well. I ventured into the ruins and fought monsters along the way, gaining the ability to add up to three monsters to my party, who I could rotate out as I saw fit. This seemed a tad complicated at first, but quickly made sense; it was essentially an extension of the aforementioned role-switching “Paradigm Shift” system.
I ran into a number of NPCs willing to chat (and the chocobo woman, who either has twin sisters or teleported ahead of me multiple times) and at least two trying to push sidequests on me. I accepted them to be polite, but I was mainly interested in trying to complete my objective: Round Two with the giant.
Along the way, a radio crackled to life and a voiceover from a young kid presumably acting as my Mission Control started in about their fear that if there are multiple worlds, are there multiple versions of them?
Christ, I thought. At least Navi knew to keep the conversations focused on the task at hand.
As I approached my objective marker- the giant- Mission Control presented me with an option: dive right into battle with the giant, or try to find a crystalline machine underground which could affect the giant in our favor. I was given four choices, revolving around who to ask advice from, though I was left to decide how to handle the decision on my own. I opted to venture to the machine, where I was thrown into a puzzle.
Yes, that’s right: a puzzle! More points for Square.
Any Dissidia players would find the puzzle- a “time labyrinth”- identical to the design of Dissidia’s dungeons, laid out in a grid-like system on which I walked around. The challenge was to pick up all of the crystals on certain blocks and reach the end without returning to any previous blocks; simple, but in the end, a satisfying break from the norm. After completing all three levels of the puzzle, I was told that the giant had been affected. I ran back to the surface, challenged him again, and was summarily killed when I once again mismanaged my team’s roles.
The second time I tried the fight, I triumphed- and was treated to yet another Cinematic Action sequence in which Noel and Serah smashed a massive projectile from the beast, climbed all over him, and stylishly destroyed his crystalline weak point. I was very impressed.
The demo ended there, and I was left with conflicting emotions. I was curious about the game, but I still felt anxious about certain things- the small rest area I had been allowed to relax in was nice, but didn’t imply the level of freedom “classic” Final Fantasy towns had. Additionally, the battle system and character leveling system (known as the “Crystarium”) were given added complexities since XIII and not entirely explained, leaving me to wonder if players who hadn’t gotten their hands on XIII would be able to easily come to grips with the system.
In the end, my opinion of XIII-2 led me to believe that Square Enix may be heading in the right direction. I just have to hope that I’m not simply stuck in the Honeymoon phase.