There was a collective sigh from the JRPG faithful when Square Enix announced Final Fantasy XIII-2 earlier this year. Some wanted more FFVII or more Kingdom Hearts. Instead, a return to Gran Pulse was in the offing. But based on my recent hands-on with FFXIII-2, the sequel holds some intriguing changes to the formula set in place by the game that preceded it.
FFXII-2 picks up soon after XIII and players play as Serah, younger sister of FFXIII heroine Lightning. Lightning's gone missing and Serah's main quest in the game is to find her sister. A mysterious man named Noel claims to know Lightning is and Serah teams up with him, travelling around the world using mystical gates.
Meanwhile, the entire world's rebuilding after the spacetime upheaval of the previous game. Areas from the first game will get revisited but you'll see them in a different light in XIII-2. For example, the formerly icy Bresha Ruins have become warmer and less foreboding after the events of XIII. The ruins come under attack by a giant Paradox monster named Atlas, at which point I got to see the Paradigm battle system in action. It's much like it was in XIII -- with roles like Commando, Ravager, etc, returning -- but with a few changes. Most visually significant among these is the Cinematic Action feature, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. These are Quick Time Event moments where successful inputs can change the tide of a battle and nailing a perfect Cinematic Action can increase the percentage of rare drops, meaning you get better stuff more often. Players will be able to switch who the party leader is during a battle, making it possible to resurrect party members or change strategies in the middle of a fight. Different party leaders will also offer up different dialogue from NPCs, too.
Also, Serah's got a new Moogle companion named Mog who transforms into a bow or a sword during combat encounters. Mog can also hunt wild Paradox monsters and find hidden items in the world. He's not the only non-human that can join your party, either. FFXIII-2 introduces a new Monster Recruitment System, where you'll be able to tame and deploy the same enemies you fight. These monsters will only have one Paradigm role, but you'll be able to re-name and level up these monsters, as well as customise them with adornments. Like hats, for example. One example had a Cait Sith being beaten in battle and then dropping a crystal that let you call it into battle. There'll be over 150 monster types that you can recruit including old stand-bys like Cactuars and Tonberries.
Yes, there's a bit of Pokemon in XIII-2's Monster Recruitment and a bit of Team Fortress, too, what with all the headgear. But the most surprising thing about the changes XIII-2's bringing out is the new Live Trigger system that allows for storyline branching. Live Triggers are dynamic decision points where you'll have a choice of paths. On the level with the Atlas mission, Serah and Noel discover that the giant monster's actually a weapon with corresponding control technology. You then have a decision to either take him on without using that tech or gambling on the technology to help you defeat him. Each path reveals more about on that Live Trigger will also reveal more of the game's backstory, too. Live Triggers should add more replayability to FFXIII, combined with the game's Historia Crux. The Crux is a time-travel system that opens up quest options based on your plot choices, the collectibles you gather and where you are in the game. Most Final Fantasy games have been rigidly linear experiences but XIII-2 seems like it's going to open up the way you progress through the story more than previous games.
An increased focus on exploration also plays into the design of FFXIII. Serah and Noel will be able to jump, which Square Enix says is a first in a Final Fantasy game. Weather will affect battles, too, so if you're fighting a Paradox in the rain, fire-based powers won't be as effective.
What's interesting about both the small and big tweaks in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that, with the Live Trigger system, it seems like the developers might be reacting to the following that Western RPGs like BioWare's Mass Effect games have gotten. The Monster Recruitment is the kind of thing you see in other games, but the scope and level of customisation the mechanic gets in FFXIII still feels like a significant shift for this franchise. Final Fantasy fans have sometimes accused the series' producers for delivering the same thing over and over again, but now they'll have the chance to make their individual experiences differ greatly from other players. And it's happening in a sequel, no less.