Article contains spoilers relating to the end of Final Fantasy XIII.
SquareEnix, a Japanese company best known for its Japanese role-playing games, had just one Japanese game to show at E3. While androgynous teens and silly haircuts remain firmly intact, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is clearly influenced by the likes of Mass Effect and Fable. While this might not sit well with staunch supporters of the vegetating JRPG genre, this western inspiration addresses many of the problems critics had with FFXIII.
The E3 demo welcomes two new characters; Serah - Lightning's little sister - and the mysterious Noel, a scruffy haired youth with a distinct look of Squall about him. Specialising in magic and melee respectively, we see the pair scrapping with a colossal golem known as Atlas. I'm not sure what his beef was, but he's a sizeable obstruction in Serah and Noel's adventure to find Lightning, who is presumed dead after the events of FFXIII.
Changes to the battle system are subtle - not quite the shake up I was hoping for - but some interesting new features have been brought to the table. Let me use this opportunity to get something off my chest: the battle system in FFXIII is fantastic - those that didn't like it simply didn't get it. If you were put off by 'Auto-battle', clearly you didn't understand what it was there for. Strategy isn't derived from which spells or abilities you're selecting, but which Paradigms you activate - which in turn determines which spells and abilities your party will use. If you didn't get on with this the first time around - for shame; little has changed in the sequel.
While the core pillars of combat remain unchanged, there are several new features that attempt to shake things up. Most notably, you can now employ the services of monsters in the midst of battle. Certain enemies will appear as loot once they've been killed, which can then be added to your party. By filling a Feral Link gauge in the corner of the screen - thus 'synchronising' yourself with the beast - you can use its special ability. Think of it as a Limit Break, of sorts.
New QTE events break up the flow of battle, offering cinematic portions of gameplay where strategy is swapped for some good old fashioned reaction-based button bashing. Whether this will serve as the palette cleanser Square Enix hopes it will, or a needless interruption from the strategy remains to be seen. It looks pretty, though.
The screen still does that familiar swishy thing before a battle, but this time around you can determine the nature of battle based on how you engage with monsters in the overworld. A timer appears when you stroll into the vicinity of an enemy. From here, you can either choose to run, or attack the beast head on - giving you a pre-emptive strike should you land the blow successfully. You can even use NPCs - guards, as they were in the presentation - to distract your enemies, allowing you to pass through an area undetected.
After fending off Atlas as best they can, Serah and Noel find themselves in the Bresha Ruins; an area of stark contrast to the corridor-like environments of (the majority of) FFXIII. The mini-map is reassuringly complex; Bresha is spacious, littered with chatty NPCs and chests off the beaten path. Fans of the series will be happy to learn that a Moogle follows you about now, and will kick up a fuss whenever there's treasure nearby - much like your dog would in Fable.
Perhaps the most interesting additions to the game are the new dialogue options. Live Trigger events give the player the opportunity to sway the outcome of a situation based on conversational choices. A different response is mapped to each of the four main buttons, each offering a different route through a scenario. In the lead up to the boss fight with Atlas, Noel is given four characters he can pester for advice. While one choice masks a way to weaken the golem before battle, another allows you to rush into battle head first.
Emphasising this notion of choice, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will welcome multiple endings for the first time in the series. This is a big deal - another step Square Enix is taking to merge the western and eastern RPGs, even if they say this isn't an intention.
Before the presentation reaches an end (and after watching Serah and Noel bring Atlas to his knees), I'm shown something not available on the show floor: a Lightning centric scene near the start of the game. Clad in a silver chest-plate, gauntlet and greaves, riding Odin along the shores of an unknown beach, Lightning hints at the fact that FFXIII-2 will follow two very separate plot paths. The gloomy beaches of this location are "unlike anywhere in FFXIII" I'm told. It certainly wasn't anywhere on Cocoon or Pulse, but Square Enix isn't talking about the specifics of this just yet. An afterlife of sorts, perhaps?
Having saved Pulse during the events of FFXIII, Lightning is in peak physical condition; her HP figure is considerably more impressive than Serah and Noel's. The battle shown here takes place on the back of Odin in his horsey form. Taking advantage of cinematic camera angles and the aforementioned QTE sections, the scrap with Chaos Bahamut plays out quite unlike anything in FFXIII.
Square Enix has crammed a lot into XIII-2. Expansive environments, new Live Trigger events and multiple endings are what many would have expected the first time around, but they're a welcome addition nonetheless. The only worry is that the experience as a whole will be less cohesive as a result - there's a hell of a lot going on here.
Most distressingly of all, Sazh wasn't shown anywhere during the demonstration. This is something that will have to be addressed as soon as humanly possible in order to win me over completely.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is due for release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in early 2012.