The last time we had a sequel to a numbered Final Fantasy game, Square was coming off of Final Fantasy X, and they took the opportunity, with X-2, to go a little goofy with fan service ("Dresspheres"? Really?). There will be some of that in XIII-2, but the stakes are higher this time. The game represents two opportunities: the chance to re-introduce players to what XIII did right, and to smooth out some of the problems players had. According to a little hands-on time we had with the game last week, Square Enix is taking full advantage of that first opportunity, and only grudgingly stepping up on the second one.
The demo we played through starts off with two characters -- Sarah, Lightning's sister, and a new male character named Noel. It's his first time to the world of Cocoon as the two start the game, and no sooner do they step out into the world than they're attacked by a gigantic creature named Atlas. He's translucent, with just one arm that looks solid, because apparently he's trying to reach through a dimensional portal into Cocoon.
The "Command Synergy Battle" system is back with almost no core changes, as if Square Enix wants to convince players that it really does work. And it does, mostly -- all of the Paradigm roles are still here and still work generally the same way. Commandos and Ravagers push up a Stagger bar while doing damage, Medics heal, Synergists support, and Sentinels tank with defense.
But there are two main differences here. The first is that some battles are punctuated with "cinematic action sequences," basically button-press events that not only do damage to the enemy, but can actually grant buffs to the party if pulled off correctly. Pushing the left stick to the right when asked can give the party a damage and spell buff, or missing it can actually hurt the party. There's even some action to these -- at one point, Noel ran up Atlas' arm to attack his head, and the game asks you to press a series of buttons, God of War-style, resulting in a crit.
The other big change comes later -- after Noel and Sarah have beaten Atlas (as a two-person party), he rises up again in a series of nearby ruins, and the on-field battles start. Monsters in random battles will sometimes drop special crystals, and those crystals enable you to equip a third party member: The monsters you've defeated. The monsters you equip in battle change based on whatever Paradigm you ask them to have, so choosing Ravager as your third class will have you fighting alongside a Flan creature, or choosing Sentinel could put a Scalebeast next to your two-person party.
The monster fighting with you has a "Feral Link" meter that raises as you fight, and when it fills, the monster gets to pull off its own special ability, another button-press event that has different effects depending on what monster you've got equipped. There were only a few monsters available in the demo, but surely these will be collectible, with rare ones requiring tough hunts.
There's also a change to the way battles start -- when you approach an enemy, a meter appears on the screen, and you need to find the enemy and press a button to attack before the meter falls out of a green area. Attacking quickly grants bonuses like a pre-emptive strike, definitely removing a little bit of the positioning randomness in the last game.
Overall the updates provide a surprising amount of extra variety to Paradigm changes, and the button-press sequences do make you feel like you're a little more in control of the fight and your party. Battle still isn't as direct as the old Final Fantasy menus (you're still just technically controlling one character and queuing up actions rather than choosing them yourself), but including the monsters and their abilities in battle does make things more interesting.
As for XIII's other big complaint, the linearity, it's tough to tell from the short demo if Square Enix has really tackled that issue in the game's overworld (if, indeed, there even is one). But the demo starts in a sort of "town" area, with various guards hanging out that you can talk to and get information from. And the dungeon itself even tries to offer up some choice with what Square Enix is calling a "Live" event -- when Noel and Sarah finally find Atlas again, they're notified that another artifact has been found in the ruins, and given the choice of attacking Atlas right away, or going for the object first.
Unfortunately, attacking Atlas is a no go -- he kills the characters in one swipe, and you're forced to restart the game. It's as if the developers were told to offer players a choice, and did the absolute minimum about it. The "too linear" feedback has been at least heard, even if it hasn't been acted on in a major way.
There is more -- finding the new artifact throws Sarah and Noel into a weird "Tile Trials" puzzle minigame, where you have to collect crystals on a disappearing path of tiles. The party is also accompanied by a Mog, who offers cute commentary during exploration, more than a few "Lupo!" calls, and the ability to make certain environmental objects, like treasure chests, appear from other dimensions. And there is a weather system in the game -- we saw rain which not only leaves droplets on the screen, but also is supposed to affect the battle system in some yet undiscernable way.
It seems unlikely that Square Enix will win any haters over with XIII-2 -- there's plenty of the original elements that inspired criticism still intact. But the changes are solid, and given that most of Final Fantasy XIII featured our characters moping around about things they couldn't understand, a little sequel-style levity might be just the thing for this world.