It's amazing how important seemingly small changes can be to a game's overall quality. Uncharted 2 is a good example - it's mostly the same as Uncharted 1 but by making a few tweaks here and there (blind fire, better grenade controls, smoother stealth & melee, more locale variety, etc.), they turned a pretty good game into a great one.
Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, was a much more divisive game†than Uncharted was. It's understandable that they might make more drastic changes to the formula with Final Fantasy XIII-2 in order to regain fans they lost with the first one. However upon playing the demo, I was impressed that not only were there the bigger changes we were all expecting, but that they had also made some smaller but no less clever changes to improve the overall feel of the game. Therefore, I present my list of 10 ways that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is better than Final Fantasy XIII, full of changes both big and small.
1. Large text option - How sad is it that in 2012, the option to increase the text size in a game is so rare that it caught my eye? Now I know my engineer friends are going to say, "Just make the UI so that the default text size isn't a problem!" but that approach ignores personal preference. Some people may prefer smaller text so they can more easily see the visuals, whereas others may prefer larger text so that reading is easier and less of a strain. Plus some players may still be playing on an SDTV or may have visual disabilities that make it difficult for them to read small text. That Square-Enix has given the player a choice in the matter is to be applauded.
2. Fight the enemies rather than fight the game - In Final Fantasy XIII-2, the delay from animations when paradigm shifting has been removed and there is an option to make the cursor default to the Abilities line in combat rather than the Auto-Battle line. These may seem like very minor increases in speed (a few seconds here, one less input required there) but they make combat feel more fluid and over the course of an entire game save the player a lot of time.
3. Real-time cutscenes - Final Fantasy XIII was full of prerendered cutscenes which always seemed a bit silly to me considering how good the in-game graphics already were. In Final Fantasy XIII-2, most of the cutscenes are rendered with the in-game engine. This has a number of benefits such as reducing the amount of space required for the game (thus allowing it to fit on a single DVD in the Xbox version), making the visuals more consistent, and allowing for a variable character appearances in cutscenes.
4. Monster party members - Once you had the option to choose your own party members in Final Fantasy XIII, there was rarely a reason to switch members - just pick your favorite team, your favorite strategies, and use them for the rest of the game repeatedly. In Final Fantasy XIII-2, one party member slot is dedicated to various monsters. Since I assume that later monsters will tend to be more powerful than early monsters, the player is going to want to change their monster lineup over the course of the game thus adding variety and helping to prevent the player from getting in a strategic rut.
5. Goodbye tubes - The change from extremely linear maps to more open maps is the change that most people have been focusing on the most so little more needs to be said.
6. Items & equipment - Final Fantasy XIII had a very poorly designed equipment system where the player was supposed to pick one weapon for each character and then spend the entire game grinding materials to give that piece of equipment better stats. It required the player to lock-in their decisions at an early stage and was extremely tedious to maximize stats. Final Fantasy XIII-2 ditches that poorly conceived system for a more traditional item and equipment system.
7. Greater control over the party - Final Fantasy XIII-2 adds the ability to switch the currently controlled player both in and out of combat. It also adds an optional additional layer of control over paradigms with the ability to prioritize single or multi-target abilities.
8. Trust the player - One of the main complaints many players had with Final Fantasy XIII was how it felt like the game didn't trust the player with comments like "30 hour tutorial!" being common. That does not seem to be the case in the sequel with a full 3-character party and most combat, equipment, and leveling options unlocked very early on.
9. Time Travel - This is hard to see in the tutorial but based on comments on the full game, it's possible to make and remake decisions in the various time periods and to see their effect on other times, thus making the story more interactive than past Final Fantasy titles.
10. Improved Leveling System - Final Fantasy XIII's Crystarium leveling system had the illusion of freedom with its various paths but in actuality, the game carefully gated the various ranks to the point so that just playing through the game normally usually gave the player enough XP to max out everything. Final Fantasy XIII-2 looks to have removed most of the restrictions as well as speeding up the process (just select the paradigm you want to LV-Up) giving the player much more control over how their characters will progress and develop.
It's easy to overlook the importance of relatively small aspects of game design and focus on the big picture, however games are often made by their smaller aspects. Seemingly minor things like "The jumping feels floaty" or "the text speed is too slow" are all too often the only things that stand between a great game and a not-so-great one.