The bulk of the previous game's playing experience involved battling from A to B through corridors accompanied by a party of team members whose personalities varied from clinically depressed to drug-use cheery. Response to this was uniformly negatively and likely informed XIII-2's return to the traditional open, town based structure.
Taking control of Noel we're able to walk around the ruins of Bresha and it instantly feels like a Final Fantasy game again. The muddy, rain-soaked streets are littered with people, many of which give us a short soundbite as we pass, while other NPCs have floating speech bubbles next to them and can be talked to for information.
Bresha itself didn't have much to offer beyond the chatty townsfolk but we revelled in our returned freedom by wandering around the town for a few moments anyway, for old times sake. Returning to the task at hand, we're tipped off by a Alyssa, a girl in the town who points us in the direction of a device she claimed could be used to weaken or even control Atlas.
Player choice is a design feature that has come become popular since Final Fantasy 12 thanks to the efforts of western RPG developers such as BioWare, Obsidian and Bethesda. Although it's still playing catch-up, Square Enix has made a conscious effort to shift its own emphasis to the player, which in XIII-2 manifests in the form of 'Live Trigger Events'.
These moments allow the player to influence the course of progression by picking which actions to take from a series of options. In our demo we're given the choice of tracking down the device and using it to potentially weaken Atlas or fighting head-on from the outset.
The gameplay pauses and offers us the ability to consult Moogle, live in the moment and take the fight to Atlas, or wallow in our indecisiveness. Although we ask Alyssa for her advice, there's nothing preventing us from ignoring it and choosing to do as we please anyway, so it's unclear what bearing - if any - this has on the gameplay beyond providing the illusion of choice, but it's good to see the player being given a little more control over proceedings. Baby steps.
FANTASY WORLD 2.0
The biggest indication that Square Enix has been listening to criticism comes from looking at the map screen. Compared to monotonous dungeons of the last game, which were from the wobbly straight line school of design, Final Fantasy XIII-2's map is a veritable labyrinth.
Although the main path is obvious, there are numerous branching paths snaking out from it with dead ends, and various nooks and crannies that no doubt hide treasures. Taking a cue from Fable treasure is sniffed out by our Moggle companion, which gleefully says "Kupo" in that annoying but endearing Pokemon kind of way when it has something of interest in sight.
We grab the hidden item and find ourselves confronted by a Flan and a Behemoth only a few paces later. The game introduces some significant changes to the way it handles random encounters; instead of the patrolling sentries of the previous game enemy monsters randomly materialize in your vicinity. A circle encases the party and denotes a kind of 'danger zone', keeping enemies out of that area keeps you from having to trade blows with it.
Along with that a 'Mog Clock' also appears. This is sectioned into green, yellow and red areas. Confronting the enemy and initiating combat while the clock's hand is in the green area means you begin the battle with an advantage, doing so in the yellow area means both sides are on equal footing at the start of battle, but do it in the red segment and you'll start off on the back foot.
The Mog Clock creates a good balance between the surprise random encounters of classic FF games and a new strategic approach to engaging in battles. This offers you the freedom to choose whether you want to battle an enemy, and the capability to escape ambushes or even turn them to your advantage without having to tiptoe around to get the jump on them.