Final Fantasy XIII Strikes Back


?She must not be forgotten.?

This quote, written by character designer Tetsuya Nomura accompanied an image of Lightning, and started making the rounds in December of 2010. Some speculated that maybe this was tied into the recently announced Dissidia 012 title for PSP, in part based upon the fact that Nomura had mentioned he would have liked to have included Lightning in the first game. Shortly thereafter the domain name for Final Fantasy XIII-2 was registered and traced back to Square Enix, and then Final Fantasy XIII-2 was officially announced in January of 2011.

Speculation ran wild, since it?s pretty rare to see any main Final Fantasy game see an actual sequel. Final Fantasy X is the only one that?s ever had the literal attachment of the number 2, while Final Fantasy IV had the recently released After Years, and Final Fantasy VII had the god-awful Dirge of Cerberus (which I guess is a stretch to call a sequel). So naturally fans, me included, were pretty curious to see where this might head. Final Fantasy X-2, after all, was remarkably different from the original. Some thought this might be a more light-hearted tale that liberally borrowed elements from FFX-2, while others hoped that this would allow Square Enix to make the game they thought FFXIII should have been.

Lightning throws down in the Final Fantasy XIII-2 reveal trailer.

Images and a short trailer were released depicting Lightning clad in armor, facing off against a dark, male opponent that appeared in contrast to Lightning?s almost paladin like appearance. The dark clad warrior has since been revealed as Caius Ballad, and works in opposition to Lightning for reasons unknown. He also has ties into other characters featured in the game, and like one of the game?s protagonists, hails from the future.

As information about XIII-2 began to trickle out to the press and fans, it was revealed that while the plot certainly revolved around the whereabouts of Lightning, that a lot of the central gameplay would be focused on Lightning?s sister Serah. In a sort of flip on the previous game?s events, Serah is now placed in the role of hero, setting out to find her lost sister. She?s accompanied by new character Noel Kreiss, a young man from 700 years in the future. After a meeting with Lightning, who is currently residing in Valhalla has a protector of the Goddess Etro?s shrine, Noel goes back in time to meet Serah. Together they set off to not only save Lightning, but to also change the dim future that Noel hails from.

Time travel plays a petty significant role here. The game introduces a mechanic call Crux Historia, wherein the player can unlock gates that allow them to travel back and forth between different points in the plot. Some of these gates lead back to times previous to the events in Final Fantasy XIII, whereas others will place them far ahead and closer to Noel?s original starting point. It?s been said by the developers that the player will be able to have a direct effect on different events, with different outcomes, and tied into that, different endings for the game. It?ll be interesting to see how this is handled, as time travel can generally be a tricky subject for even the most talented writers. However, anything that evokes a nostalgic feeling for Chrono Trigger can?t be all bad, right?

From left to right: Noel, Serah, Lightning, and Caius.

Square Enix has been surprisingly mum on the possibility of returning party members from the first game. We know that Snow plays a role, and that Sazh is bound to pop up, but the ultimate fate of heroines Vanille and Fang seems to be up in the air. Whether or not their sacrifice sticks from Final Fantasy XIII isn?t known, but I imagine with a time travel mechanic involved there might be a way for certain key events to come undone, or play out differently than before. There are also a handful of new characters that have emerged, but again, how they impact your overall party structure isn?t really known. I?ll be curious to see if your party expands beyond Serah and Noel, because right now that seems to be the only two characters you?ll have direct control over.

A few other things are being introduced here, in an effort to make different returning elements a little more interesting. The battle system has been refined, still making use of the Paradigm system of XIII but with a few new twists. One is the ability to recruit and tame monsters, which can then be used in battle as allies. Monsters also have the equivalent of a limit break style move through the Feral Link system, allowing you to unleash special moves that seem to be specific to each monster type. Monsters you?ve tamed can also be upgraded by leveling up, allowing you to adjust stats and even outfit them with special equipment. Considering the fact that Final Fantasy XIII was full of some pretty tough monsters, I?m wondering if there are any specific limits on the types of monsters you can gain control of.

Another element being introduced to the battles is the use of quick time events called Cinematic Action. I?m not generally a fan of button prompts during cinematic moments, as that particular idea grew stale years ago, but reportedly these prompts won?t cause you to auto-lose a fight at least. As long as the mechanic is only used to give you a potential boost in attack power then maybe the idea will turn out alright.

Not quite as scary with a bow tie.

Actually getting into a fight is a little different this time out too. While in FFXIII you?d spot monsters on the field long before you?d run up to fight them, in XIII-2 the monsters will only randomly spawn on the map. When this occurs, a Mog Clock will activate, ticking down to a certain point. If you manage to initiate combat fast enough, you?ll possibly get the jump on an unprepared beast, but if you?re a little too slow the tables will be turned. The concept sounds similar to the way battles are initiated in numerous other RPG?s that use on-field monsters to start battles, but it sounds like some of the bonuses granted for initiating a quick fight might be randomized, which could be pretty cool.

Other revamped elements including the leveling system via the Crystarium, which now contains all available roles on one Crystarium instead of dividing it up. It?s also structured in a slightly more interesting visual style, taking on the form of each characters weapon type instead of a series of stacked circles.

Newer elements being introduced here are the inclusion of dialogue branches when speaking to NPC?s (yes, you can actually talk to them now!), through a system labeled Live Trigger. The options you choose reportedly won?t have an effect on the overall ending of the game, but will have a smaller rippling effect on different events. Also there?s the promise of actual town hubs, and even the inclusion of mini-game events via a casino style town called Serendipity, similar to the Gold Saucer from Final Fantasy VII. It even includes classic Chocobo Racing, but without the breeding aspect.

Racing Chocobo, XIII-2 style.

Are you getting hyped yet? Well, you?re not alone there. While I might not be big on the Cinematic Action concept, it?s hard to deny that a lot of the other changes have the potential to make this into a pretty stellar RPG. Numerous interviews with the developers have led us to believe that Square Enix was actively listening to player feedback and criticism surrounding Final Fantasy XIII, and has attempted to craft a better experience with the sequel. An attempt at making the game a little more open, both through the time travel element and by introducing the possibilities of side quests earlier in the plot certainly sound like good things to me. And not scrapping the Paradigm Shift system but instead refining it seems like a step in the right direction.

Another interesting aspect is that Square Enix has decided to ditch the gorgeous CG cutscenes in favor of using the in-game engine to tell the tale of Serah and Lightning. This might seem like a step back for those of you that love those beautifully rendered cutscenes of XIII, but its good news for Xbox 360 owners, as the game will ship on a single disc this time out. I think it?ll actually help give the game a more cohesive look throughout, without any jarring cuts between cutscenes and gameplay, so I?m certainly not too down on the idea.

In my extremely early opinion of the game, I really like what I?ve seen so far. I do think this has the potential to be the game Final Fantasy XIII should have been from the start, and I?m dying to get my hands on the game come January 31st. Early importers will be able to land a copy of the game as early as December 15th, which is the launch date in Japan. At least by then we?ll have a better idea if Square Enix succeeded in some of their loftier goals surrounding this title. Will this be enough to put the Final Fantasy brand back at the forefront for RPG fans across the world? Or will it end up causing more harm than good? Well, only time will tell, and that time is coming up on January 31st, 2012.