It could only be in a Final Fantasy title that a stranger feeds the line to a young girl that he's seen her supposedly dead sister, and to come with him if she wants to see her alive again. It's Terminator with a sexual predator twist.
We're aware that's the cynicism talking. Final Fantasy takes the double-tap of world-saving responsibility and soap opera theatrics on its chin without blinking an eye. Here, its newcomer Noel Kreiss coaxing Serah Farron who [Final Fantasy XIII spoiler] didn't buy it at the end of the first game, to come on a time-travelling adventure with him to seek out her lost, thought dead, sister Lightning.
Their escapades across the ages of Cocoon and Pulse are delivered with what amounts to quick-fire brevity when contrasted against FFXIII. The momentum's more rapid, the rewards and reveals more immediate.
They jump to different areas that are more expansive than the original linear pathways, and contain a wider array of side-quests with a distinct MMO flavour. Clear out ruins of monsters to allow an archaeological dig to continue, shear sheep, help recover a student's notes..there's a fair mix of mundane trials, ridiculous objectives and classic dungeon-trawling in these bite-sized missions alone.
It's still Final Fantasy though. You'll get plenty of exposition, though doled out in smaller portions than a Weatherspoons dinner option, about the nature of life, death and fate. That's counter-balanced with a greater degree of light-hearted banter that may be hard to stomach for those that like their J-RPGs permanently adopting a thoughtful frown throughout the narrative.
And it still holds true to Final Fantasy XIII's mechanics. Crystarium and Paradigm Shifts dominate upgrades and battles. But the biggest change is in the delivery of the experience. Locations are disconnected from each other, travel between these hub worlds by way of menu select and a handy time-travelling device.
Areas and times (by the hands-on end we'd leapt across three hundred years and into a handful of places of Pulse history) are selected through the Historica Crux system (Square's love of wordy labels to chew through continues unrelenting)
At heart it's a glorified multi-branched stage select. But it gives the game a focus without sacrificing non-linearity. It's a removal of the long corridors of Final Fantasy XIII's opening half that defined that game for many, and instead plugs you directly into a multitude of hub-style stages you're free to explore.
That you'll return to these worlds multiple times is expected. Escaping any stage and back into the time-stream requires the discovery of a specific artefact hidden within the level, which will open a time gate - glowing monoliths positioned randomly throughout levels, again emphasising the need to explore. However, levels have specific artefacts for specific gates - so if you want to travel to a different path on the timeline, you'll need to put in the footwork.
If you mess up, or want to start over, you can restore conditions back to pre-arrival. Through a button click you can soft reset any period to the moment before you appeared and started going Marty McFly. Branching timelines are always an interesting premise, and its a shame that here the idea of player action altering the future isn't heavier emphasised.
On asking producer Yoshinori Kitase to clarify the ripple effect after our hands-on, he remarked that "it's not like if you do something in the past that would have a consequence in a future world in small aspects such as treasure chests and small items in the environment - it doesn't really work for that...we didn't really need to make all these little changes to reflect the consequences."
But it is possible to alter circumstance within stages. A hulking mechanical giant in the process of being unearthed suddenly activates in one level based in and around Bresha Ruins, one of your early stop-offs. You can put off the climactic fight to investigate a just-discovered device deep underground that may give you the upper hand in the battle to come (it does).
Another has you discovering a weather-altering device at the edge of a settlement in the Archylte Steppe. Animals of all shapes and sizes roam the grassy plains around you, but some appear only in particular conditions. Different missions require a quick crank of the machine to entice the right carnivores out of hiding.
They're admittedly small alterations, but if they've diverse and loaded throughout each stage as we've seen thus far then they're a welcome dynamic to the gameplay. Same too with conversations, that let you choose from multiple responses. A clear influence by Western RPG counterparts, though all talks we had lacked dramatic fallout or repercussion; more a chance to be flippant or serious in our response.
Both locations and fighting system are a mix of familiar and new, though returning areas are "dramatically adjusted or processed" according to Kitase. Battles now have a small mini-game tied in at the start.
A Mog, the winged cat-like creatures who pop up throughout the series, joins your party at the start, and aside from sniffing out hidden treasures, inducts the concept of the Mog Clock. When enemies appear in the field screen a glowing circle will drop on the floor indicating their (limited) line of sight, and a timer will start counting down.
You've got two choices. Either try and outrun the enemy, with several seconds outside the circle needed for it (and them) to disappear, or hit your foe and initiate combat early. Do so and you're granted a premptive strike. Leave it too late, or be unsuccessful in running away and they get first dibs on landing first hit. Meaner the beasts are, the more likely they are to pursue, but the option of escape is a welcome optional refinement of the franchise's love affair with random battles.
Paradigm Shifts are the same - the opening tutorial brief and to the point - letting you define and switch Noel and Serah's roles during battle. While other characters will shuffle in and out of your party as story dictates, you're also able to recruit monsters to aid your team. These are picked up at random during fights and can be assigned to specific roles and Paradigms. They operate as a standard NPC ally, but can be upgraded and outfitted with collectables, as well as doling out special charged attacks.
There's little in the way of proper introduction at the game's start, and thus the unspoken history between characters and the worlds they inhabit can be baffling for newcomers. Direct sequels never do (Arkham City pulls much the same trick), and it feels like the developer is actively addressing one audience of players: those that have played Final Fantasy XIII and found it lacking.
Yet despite the alterations this feels like safe ground the series, a remix tread that bares more similarity to the path X-2 took in refining aspects of the original title. Time-jumping aside, its a straightforward take on this generation's Final Fantasy - we're eager to see how the game develops past those first few hours.
So it seems like safe bet for now perhaps, but it at least shows the publisher is willing to appease fan concerns, while trying to find its own feet and a direction for the franchise in the future.
You can read our full interview with producer Yoshinori Kitase about the game, its development and the future of the series here.