Final Fantasy XIII returns with time travel, monster-hunting, and truly preposterous hair.

What do you do after you save the world? For Lightning, the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII, the answer is pretty simple: get erased from existence in a time paradox. It’s not quite as glamorous as living the high life with her hard-earned Gil, but it does provide the impetus for her younger sister, Serah, to begin a perilous adventure to bring her back. During my time at New York Comic Con 2011, I got a chance to try out Final Fantasy XIII-2 firsthand. While the game is functionally almost identical to its predecessor, it has a few new tricks to keep things fresh: less linear level design, a robust monster-hunting system to augment your party, refined combat, and the ability to change the story via time manipulation.

A PR representative for Square Enix set up the story for me as I waited for the demo to load: a few years after the end of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning encounters some temporal trouble when a time paradox causes her to disappear from the world. Her younger sister, Serah, joins up with an adventurer named Noel in order to rescue her. Along the way, the two – along with the help of a friendly moogle named Mog – will piece together more secrets of the worlds of Cocoon and Gran Pulse while meeting old friends, confronting new enemies, and taking down enough monsters to fill a Meteor-sized hole.

The demo begins in a set of ancient ruins where Noel, Serah, and Mog search for clues about Lightning while a military organization conducts a scientific study. Immediately upon entering the area, Noel and Serah must do battle with Paradox Alpha, an enormous golem boss. The combat here will be immediately recognizable to anyone who played Final Fantasy XIII. Like most Final Fantasy titles, the battles are a real-time/turn-based hybrid. Characters wait for an action bar to fill, perform their actions (such as attacking or using items), and then wait for the bar to refill. This gives battles a real sense of urgency and interactivity, although players will still control only one party member at a time. The Paradigm system makes a return as well, allowing players to assign offensive, defensive, and healing roles to the whole party on the fly.

Anyone who played Final Fantasy XIII should feel comfortable with XIII-2‘s battle system, but that doesn’t mean that it’s exactly the same. A few key features differentiate it from its predecessor. Before a battle begins, a Mog Clock will begin a countdown with green, yellow, and red phases. If the player strikes an enemy during a green phase, the battle will begin with a pre-emptive strike. A yellow phase confers no advantage, and a red phase will mean that the enemies get the first blow. As in Final Fantasy XIII, a pre-emptive strike opens up enemies for devastating combos much earlier in battle, and is well worth the effort. If there are weapon-wielding NPCs in the area, though, they might take out enemies before the encounter even starts. This could be frustrating when trying to grind for experience or items, but extremely welcome when trying to advance to the next plot point.

Two other major changes in battle are Cinematic Actions and the party’s composition. Cinematic Actions are quick-time events that take place during boss battles. Certain enemy attacks will begin short cutscenes with these events. Successfully completing a Cinematic Action (usually pressing a button or rotating a control stick) will reduce or negate damage, while missing one may spell doom for the party. Quick-time events are not necessarily the most beloved game mechanic out there, but the game gives ample warning before each one, and it’s fairly simple to get the pattern down on the first try.

As for the party, Noel and Serah are the only playable humans who stick with the group. The third slot is otherwise occupied by monsters, which players can recruit after defeating them on the battlefield. Different monsters fill different Paradigm roles, so switching between multiple monsters in a single combat is common. Each monster has unique abilities and stats, and each one can level up along with the rest of the group, so this affords a player a ton of customization.

The demo progressed in fairly standard Final Fantasy style from there. I traversed the ancient ruins (which had multiple branching pathways and hidden treasure to find, a pleasant departure from the original’s interminable linear corridors), solved a few puzzles, and encountered enemies leading up to a huge boss fight at the end. However, the area was littered with “time gates,” that were inactive for the demo. In the full game, these portals will bring players to other time periods and give them a chance to explore the area in a different light. The gates can also alter the story, driving it towards one of a few possible endings.

As the demo winded down, I had a choice: fight the big boss monster now, or solve a puzzle to make him a weaker target? Square Enix informed me that choices like this will be common throughout the game. As far as I could tell, there was no penalty for taking on the significantly weaker version of the boss, although anyone looking for a challenge will likely enjoy having this option.

Overall, the game plays like a slightly-upgraded version of Final Fantasy XIII. Fans of the original should keep an eye on this one, while its detractors may want to give it another look based on the story’s premise and the revised mechanics. The game will see a Western release on the PS3 and Xbox 360 on January 31, 2012.

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