Dissidia 012 Duodecim Updated Impressions

We pick up our gunblade and run up walls with an updated hands-on look at this combination role-playing fighting game.

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Final Fantasy has been around for a long time and taken many different genre forms. Last year, Square Enix launched Dissidia: Final Fantasy, a spin-off series that would take many of the franchise’s favorite hero and heroine characters and throw them in a cage to chew on each other’s faces in a battle royale hybrid of action role-playing and 3D fighting. When we first saw the sequel, Dissidia 012: Duodecim Final Fantasy at this year’s Tokyo Game Show, we struggled a little with the demo because it was only available in Japanese. This time, we wrapped our hands around Sony’s PlayStation Portable and unleashed brutal attacks in English.

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Despite the strong legacy of narrative that permeates the Final Fantasy universe, many critics were left feeling cold with the action hogging the limelight at the expense of plot in the first outing of the series. And while we didn’t see it in action during our play session, we were told that the story mode will play a more important role in the sequel, with Duodecim acting as a prequel leading up to the war between Cosmos and Chaos. Good and evil come together, combining their powers to serve a common purpose, and in the process, players will be rewarded with information that helps bridge gaps left by the original storyline.

Fans who liked the first game will be pleased to hear that the Dissidia formula remains largely intact. Combat centers around bravery and HP attacks; the former performed with the circle button and used to chip away at your opponent’s bravery bar (which acts like a shield). Doing this bolsters your own attack power and allows you to unleash devastating HP attacks by tapping the square. You can launch into HP attacks at any time, but to maximize piercing an enemy's exterior, you’ll want to reduce him or her to a quivering mess with a series of quick, nimble sword slashes; punches; and gunshots. The returning characters will also be receiving an overhaul, giving them new combat moves and ensuring they have a fresh feel in this follow-up. Each character has a unique combination of bravery and HP attacks. Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII fires her weapon and is capable of firing shots from the air; Dragoon Kain Highwind’s spear stabs true; and Zidane runs riot with both blades before finishing with a cyclone that scoops up and incapacitates the target and deals multiple hits.

Though the full roster hasn’t yet been announced, during our play, we came across the three faces mentioned above, as well as Cloud, Tina Branford, Tidus, Cecil, Frioniel, Onion Knight, Cloud of Darkness, Jecht, Tifa, and Vaan. Following in the steps of the previous game and with such a varied cast of characters available, customization will play a huge role in Duodecim. Costumes and equipment will be doled out at regular intervals, with the team at Square Enix going as far as to say there will be thousands of items to unlock and use as you fight your way through the game.

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The EX system present in last year’s game makes a return, but it does so with a few tweaks. EX is still gained by collecting items scattered around the battlefield, and once full, it allows you to fire huge, flashy finishing moves. One new aspect is the inclusion of a revenge meter that functions like those found in arcade fighters like Street Fighter IV and Tekken 6. When you’re really getting hammered, you can quickly turn the tables, using your EX bar to return fire or perform a nifty counterattack to escape being juggled to death.

The other new trick at your disposal is the assist mode, a selected tag team partner who rushes on to your aide. These partners work like the offscreen allies in the Marvel vs. Capcom series and can be summoned into the ring by holding the left shoulder button and tapping the circle button to provide some breathing space. Or when playing offence, they supply a combo extender as you wind up your next attack.

Open-plan crystal fields with grindable light ribbons, courtyards with a raised tower in the middle, and combination indoor/outdoor arenas with ramps were just some of the available environments. While the frame rate remained solid even with assist allies tagging in and out and fancy animations zipping around, the camera did suffer the odd hiccup. Open spaces make it easy to spot and plan for an approach to your foe, but indoor areas--particularly those with ramps and objects that could be hidden behind--obscured the action in a few cases. Arrows indicate opponents who are above or below your current altitude, but there’s still an element of client prediction needed when attempting to string together air combos or land a deft blow as you fall to earth.

The other new aspect in Duodecim is the inclusion of a role-playing game mode. It plays similarly to the arcade action, but it is designed specifically for newcomers. Your selected character is moved around the environment automatically, tool tips stay on screen and show the name of each ability mapped to the face buttons, and your only job is to press the corresponding key when you want something to happen. It's certainly not going to be for everyone, but it will make the tutorial process a little more interesting for those learning the ropes.

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Like its predecessor, multiplayer will again be limited to ad hoc local play (which we didn’t get a chance to try out), but it will include a new battle mode called Tournament. Details remain scarce for the moment, but we’re hoping for some sort of lobby-based mode that allows spectators to watch friends battle as they wait their turn in the ring.

Dissidia 012 Duodecim: Final Fantasy follows the template set out in its precursor but looks to refine the formula with a handful of new features. The combat is as fun and frenetic as ever, and we’re eager to follow its progress leading up to its launch in the first half of 2011.

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