"Linear, linear, linear," says Motomu Toriyama. For the director of Final Fantasy XIII, it's a word that wasn't even in his vocabulary until a whirlwind press tour that saw critics and fans constantly questioning the new direction for the series. It's a criticism that Toriyama and producer Yoshinori Kitase don't want repeated for the sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2. They've been working on a host of new gameplay mechanics for XIII-2, all intended to move the game from a "story driven" experience, to a "player driven" one. We got a taste of these changes in our hands-on at E3, where we jumped back into the stunning world of Pulse and got a glimpse of the new fully armoured Lightning in action.
Our hands-on began with a short cutscene, introducing us to new character Noel. Dressed in harem pants and wielding a pair of swords, he cut an imposing figure as he jumped across the screen to join his pink-haired companion Serah. A huge hand then rose out of the ground, smashing the surrounding scenery and letting us know the pair were on the run. That hand was attached to a semi-invisible giant called Atlas, who the pair subsequently faced in battle. Joining them was a moogle, which transformed into a weapon that Serah could wield.
Atlas' size meant he barely fit on the screen, dwarfing the heroes who stood at his feet. It was here that we got to grips with the battle system. It remains largely unchanged from that of XIII, making use of a paradigm switching system that let us change the role of our characters during battle. Defensive paradigms let us block and heal, while offensive ones let us unleash a string of strong attacks. Switching between them effectively remains key to winning battles, and it wasn't long before we had worn down Atlas' health bar.
Before we could finish him off, a cutscene began, showing a group of large vehicles flying overhead. This showcased a new feature called Live Trigger. Cutscenes now feature quick-time events, such as having to hammer the A button repeatedly or twist the analogue sticks in certain directions. Depending on whether you perform the action correctly or not, the cutscene plays out in different ways. While you can't fail as such, the path of the storyline changes, giving you multiple paths to play through. On this occasion, we successfully performed the QTE, causing the ships to fire at Atlas and send him back into the ground from which he had emerged.
It wasn't the end of Atlas, however, and the rumbling of his movements beneath the ground let us know there was still work to be done. We moved forward to investigate a set of ruins, which were drenched in water from a thunderstorm. The weather effects looked beautiful, with each drop of rain causing reflections of light to bounce around the surrounding rubble and buildings. Like in XIII, there are numerous enemies to fight along any given path. Walking into them initiated a battle, but with a twist. Before the fight, a clock appeared onscreen with a fast-moving ticking hand, which we had to try to stop in a green section of the clock. Doing so gave us an advantage in battle, which in this case was a preemptive strike. We were told stopping the clock in a yellow area would result in no advantages to our team, while stopping it in a red area would result in a penalty.
After defeating a pair of floppy flan opponents, we received a crystal. In subsequent battles we could use that crystal to summon flan and have it fight on our side, which could prove useful if your team is weakened or you're down a member. Moving further into the ruins we noticed that our character now had the ability to jump, letting us reach different areas of the map and discover secret pathways. Our moogle helped out too, using a special power to help us uncover a stash of hidden treasure. After a brief cutscene, Atlas reappeared, and he didn't look happy. It was here our heroes heard of an ancient controller that could possibly deactivate or control Atlas. We were given the option of trying to find the controller in the ruins, asking our moogle for advice, or tackling Atlas head-on. We decided to tackle the giant, which proved a costly mistake because his superior level destroyed our entire team with one hit.
Loading the previous checkpoint, we decided the more sensible option might be to try to find the ancient controller within the temple. We were told that it is possible to defeat Atlas without finding the controller, but it would have required a team with much higher levels. After making our way through a grimy tunnel, we discovered the controller, but before we could activate it, Atlas' giant hand appeared, pulling us into a vortex. This took us to an area called The Void Beyond, a spacelike area filled with a number of red platforms. To leave the area, we had to solve some simple puzzles using the platforms--collecting crystals scattered across them. Each time we stepped on a platform, it disappeared shortly after, so we had to figure out the best way to collect all the crystals without falling into the deep abyss of space below us. These small puzzle sections are littered throughout the game, which Square Enix told us were intended to break up the action.
After collecting all the crystals, we were transported back to the real world, where we could activate the controller. This caused Atlas to change colour and suddenly start behaving strangely. Moving back out of the ruins to the surface, we faced him once more. This time, his attacks were significantly weaker and his health bar had been halved. He was also much easier to stagger, letting us unleash a barrage of attacks and eventually take him down.
While that was the end of our hands-on, Square Enix showed us another section of the game, this time featuring XIII's heroine, Lightning. The level opened with Lightning falling from the sky and landing on Odin, all while being chased by a very angry-looking Bahamut. As Bahamut launched energy projectiles and vicious-looking swipes at the fleeing Lightning, the camera swept across the scene, showcasing the beautiful ruins of a city in the stormy background. Lightning continued to fight off Bahamut from atop Odin, with her new suit of armour protecting her from attacks. We noticed that Lightning's health, attack power, and level were much higher than those of the characters we saw earlier. Square Enix told us that she starts the game at a much higher level than the others--a concession to the fact that her heroic deeds saved the world in the last game, and therefore she is already extremely powerful.
Our time with Lightning was even briefer than that of our hands-on, and so the demo ended there. The numerous changes to the game were a lot to take in, in particular the QTEs, which are no doubt going to be a divisive new feature for fans. Giving the player more choice is a nice idea, though, and the multiple paths, plots, and puzzle sections all go some way towards making the game feel less restrictive than its predecessor. We were also promised that speaking to non-player characters in towns would present multiple options for dialogue, allowing players to discover hidden side quests and secret items. More minigames were promised too, though sadly Toriyama and Kitase weren't giving anything away at this stage. Whether all the new features will banish linear criticisms remains to be seen, but since its release date is set for early next year on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, we'll be sure to get a further look at Final Fantasy XIII-2 before its release.