Before talking about Final Fantasy XIII-2, I think it's important that I'm up front with my thoughts on the original game. I didn't like it. Aside from a clever battle system and a heartfelt middle act, it was an incomplete mess, stretched out over 50 hours.
That's exactly why I'm cautiously optimistic about FFXIII-2. With a base to build upon, the only thing for Square Enix to do is create content. This is Final Fantasy XIII with an extra year of development time, and the demo I played at this weekend's New York Comic Con showed what a difference a year can make.
From what was explained to me, the overlying plot of FFXIII-2 involves a shattered timeline in which the cast must jump from one moment in time and space to another. Paradoxes play a fundamental role in the plot, meaning this could end up being the most convoluted Final Fantasy plot yet. When I voiced concern that the first game was no slouch in the confusion department, a Square Enix representative assured me that a different approach to storytelling should make this entry more enjoyable. The developers recognize that hiding half the game's plot in a codex was the wrong move. FFXIII-2 will remain a complex tale, but it won't try to hide anything from you this time.
The demo I played put me in control of Serah and her new friend Noel. While the game will jump between main characters, including a return of Lightning, the spotlight will remain on Serah. Your party will also see the addition of monster characters that fight by your side. A little Pokemon can go a long way, and it seems this change will add a lot of customization for battles.
The game retains the paradigm shift system, retaining the same selection of commandos, ravagers, medics, etc. The difference is that one of those three roles in each paradigm will be your pet monster, and each paradigm can have a different monster assigned to it. This will allow you to choose monsters that specialize in a particular class, something that should have huge benefits in battle.
Monsters also come standard with a "feral" meter, a limit break-esque power that can be deployed whenever you want, once available. The feral attack varies with each monster, as does the time to charge it. Some monsters may need several battles to fill the meter, but a feral attack can even dispatch a boss quickly if they're staggered. Once deployed, the feral attack requires a brief quick time event to deal the most damage.
Quick time events are Square's way of adding some cinematic action to battles and cutscenes. That may sound like a pain, but they again quashed my fears--QTEs will always provide benefits, but they'll never punish you.
Even the way you begin battles has received an upgrade. Enemies appear and you must press a button to attack and gain the upper hand before battle begins. Run away and the enemies give chase. A hulking robot may not be able to keep up, but a smaller enemy in their group can chase you down for a punishing advantage. Run into NPCs in the world during this chase and they'll come to your aid. You can even dispatch weak enemies in the initial attack, skipping the battle altogether.
Between battles, Square Enix has made a conscious effort to add as much variety as possible. A Moogle helper will act as a time-traveling metal detector, diving into hidden time pockets to retrieve helpful items. During certain moments in the adventure, players will enter paradoxes, areas not unlike some of the more surreal moments at the end of the original game. Instead of battles, players will engage in simple brainteasers. In the demo, for example, I had to cross a bridge of falling platforms, determining the ideal path to collect all the items and avoid falling. It may be a slightly silly diversion, but it was exactly this effort towards variety that turned the mediocre Assassin's Creed into the phenomenal Assassin's Creed 2, and that's what these additions remind me of.
Much has been made of FFXIII-2's much-needed branching environments, though that was one aspect of the demo that I didn't see much of. Yes, the area I ran around in was more than a single hallway, but multiple hallways to a quest marker isn't what I had in mind. Hopefully, exploration along the lines of Gran Pulse (without talking to all those silly statues), will be in the cards for the full game.
Because the game plays around with time travel, I was told by the rep demoing the game that you'll be able to revisit areas in the game from the beginning. It didn't seem like the details had been sorted out yet, but the impression I got is that completionists will want to return to areas to see and do everything Final Fantasy XIII-2 has to offer.
I'm still hesitant to return to the soap opera fantasy world of XIII. I can never get those original 50 hours back, and the idea of doing it all over again in a sequel makes me cringe. Final Fantasy XIII-2 looks like more than that, though. My time with this demo has rekindled my desire to give the XIII universe a second chance. Don't fail me again, Square Enix.