Happy New Year, those are the words you'll be waiting to hear before you can lay hands on Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII follow-up. Well, unless you live in Japan, or can read Japanese, in which case summoning an import copy should be simple enough—Square Enix says Final Fantasy XIII-2 will debut in Japan slightly sooner, in December 2011.
At least they're not making the U.S. wait three months. Final Fantasy XIII debuted in Japan on December 17, 2009, but didn't surface stateside until March 9, 2010. I grabbed an import copy myself, though getting through the introductory sequence was grueling, and the fan translations at sites like FinalFantasyXIII.net turned out to be amateurish, incomplete, and often wrong (I don't blame them, I'm just hypercritical about translational stuff).
What we know about Final Fantasy XIII-2 so far: It's set five years after the close of Final Fantasy XIII and involves most of the same characters. It's supposed to be less linear from the get-go (though if you want The Elder Scrolls, play The Elder Scrolls, and leave these games alone). For the municipality-minded, it'll include honest-to-goodness towns. I still say those who quibbled about the lack thereof in XIII missed the point.
The story's supposed to be "darker" somehow and deal with the setting's broader "Fabula" mythology, including the system's third deity, dubbed Etro (XIII obsessed over the relationship between the Pulse and Lindzei). There's an interesting birth/death, visible/invisible-world motif prowling in the background, if you put any stock in this fan Wiki page, so perhaps we'll delve further into the whole realms-in-balance theme. Anyone hoping for cues from Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, or the ascendant mechanic in Steven Erikson's Malazan series?
Combat's still the heart of the game, and remains XIII-like (the brilliant command-queue and paradigm shift systems are intact, thank goodness), but with refinements. My only concern: I'm reading creatures will appear randomly on battlefields instead of roaming visibly, though there's a mini-game element involving a "Mog Clock" that confers bonuses if you strike a creature, pre-battle, at the right moment.
Oh, and you can manually jump—a first for the main series—implying more of an "explore the world" approach.
What it won't be: Final Fantasy X-2. No J-pop launch sequence. No predominantly cheery atmosphere. No playing dress-up with your characters during battle. According to Square Enix, XIII-2 should feel every bit as much a standalone entry in the series as VII, VIII, IX, X, or XII.