When you first start playing Dissidia 012 Duodecim: Final Fantasy (a mouthful, that title), you might be struck by how little progress has been made since the first Dissidia fighting/role-playing hybrid was released. If you give it time, however, Duodecim reveals its unique strengths, building on the original in meaningful ways without sacrificing its cinematic energy. New characters, a new single-player structure, and new features (including a robust create-your-own-adventure toolset) make this another rich package, brimming with hours upon hours of colorful battles in gorgeous environments. Like in the original, every success also results in a showering of rewards in the way of currency, equipment, moves, and more. The promise of more is Duodecim's key asset, and it's a big part of what keeps you enthralled for hours on end. The obstacles hindering the joy are familiar ones: a camera that performs poorly in claustrophobic arenas and a self-indulgent story that plays out like embarrassing Final Fantasy fan fiction.
Vaan does his best Whirling Dervish impression.
The story is, unfortunately, a key element of Duodecim, which tosses together well-known Final Fantasy heroes into a melting pot of one-on-one battles, leveling up, and inventory management. There are multiple story modes, with the primary one focusing on the heroes new to this edition: Lightning (FFXIII), Vaan (FFXII), Yuna (FFX), Tifa (FFVII), Laguna (FFVIII), and Kain (FFIV). The tale, such as it is, focuses on the continuing conflict between the forces of Cosmos (the good guys) and Chaos (the bad guys). The proliferation of enemies called manikins further complicates the heroes' efforts to bring an end to the conflict. The setup is simple enough, but the storytelling is often an excruciating mess of superficial conversations in which every character is reduced to a single personality trait. Everyone uses a lot of words to say nothing at all ("I took a risk to believe in a chance"), and they drone on about the nature of friendship as if they were quoting from Chicken Soup for the Shallow Soul. You can skip cutscenes, though doing so brings the long-ish loading times to the forefront.
Some of the changes that have been made to the story mode are immediately obvious; others are revealed after many hours. The most apparent addition is that of an overworld. You still move from battle to battle on overhead grids, but now, you navigate to those grids by trotting through fields and deserts. This new structural element adds little, muddling the previous game's already Byzantine story structure without much benefit. Nonetheless, trekking to your destination gives you time to enjoy the outstanding soundtrack, which remixes beloved Final Fantasy tunes into light piano ballads, brass fanfares, and minor-key reveries. There are roaming manikins to battle out there, as well as treasure chests to open. There are also shining spheres to attack; if you slash four, you earn a chain skill. On battle grids, these skills allow you to string multiple battles together, which earn you better rewards.
Jecht is always so cranky.
Party battles are another new feature, though it takes a while for Duodecim to introduce them. Eventually, you aren't just in charge of a single character but a group of them. In turn, you may face enemies also grouped together in parties. You can either fight parties in a round-robin format, in which you control a different character in each round. Or, you can do battle in a tournament format, in which you use the same fighter until he or she is defeated and replaced by the next one on the roster. It's a great addition that grants extra freedom and diversity by letting you use multiple characters on a single grid. Once you move to the second story mode, you must also consider such aspects as emblems, which are grid pieces that offer bonuses to you or your opponent when you initiate a battle from one. There are a lot of mechanics going on at once, but Duodecim introduces them at such a measured pace that you aren't likely to feel flooded by a deluge of information.
The fighting system has also seen some tweaks, though the basics are the same. You face your opponent on an expansive battlefield; many of them allow you to race up columns and walls, as well as grind on rails. You run across terra firma and dart through the air, and attacks differ based on whether your feet are planted on the ground or you are hovering above it. There are two attack types: bravery and HP. Bravery attacks increase your bravery point total while subtracting from your opponent's. The higher your point total, the more damage you do when landing an HP attack. Most battles are a blast in which you and your opponent dance around each other; you fire off ranged attacks and slide around rails and then come in for a few choice slashes when you see the right opening. EX attacks have returned too, halting the action and initiating quick-time events that not only do a great amount of damage, but also show off Duodecim's extraordinary good looks.
Summons can completely change the course of the battle.
One major addition is that of assists. Landing bravery attacks fills your assist meter. When it's filled, you can call in a support character that stays just long enough to land (or miss) a few blows and then disappears from the battlefield. It's a good distraction that enables you to come in for some additional damage, though should your opponent strike your assisting fighter, your assist meter will be shut down for a short period of time. You can also initiate an EX revenge by activating EX mode while under attack. Time slows down, the screen's color washes away, and you get a limited period of time to bash on your competitor unabated. These and other tweaks make for great additions to the combat, adding some tactical complexity without convoluting the fighting system. And then, there are the new fighters, all of whom play in remarkably different ways from each other. Lightning is the most versatile and the most complex; she can switch among three different modes (ravager, commando, medic), which have their own unique set of attacks. Laguna is a weapons expert, tossing grenades or going in close for a shotgun blast. Each of these characters brings something new to the experience, and the story mode smartly has you switching among them, which goes a long way toward keeping the battles fresh.