Final Fantasy XIII was not a "4" for me, but I wouldn't have given it much more credit. The story was, at times, confusing and very hard to follow, the proper nouns it used made my ears hurt, and the summoned, transforming Eidolons were so silly that I was embarrassed for Square Enix and videogames in general.
The biggest issue with the game was the lack of player choice, as the story literally pushed you forward through a one-way corridor into mindless, repetitive battles for the first 20 hours of gameplay. It's as if Square Enix forgot about all the charm and complexity that made us fall in love with the series' earlier games. The end result was a game that mostly played itself for a long time before it opened up. I still enjoyed it to some extent, but I probably would only recommend it to diehard Final Fantasy fans.
With this second direct sequel Square Enix has ever made for a Final Fantasy game, there was a chance to go back to the original design and fix many of the issues fans had with Final Fantasy XIII. I'm happy to tell you that Square Enix took this second chance and made the best of what they had to work with for Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: January 31, 2012
Final Fantasy XIII's story kicked off with the surly, pink-haired, ex-soldier named Lightning fighting against her former military mates while dodging a civilian evacuation of her home planet, the floating planet named Cocoon. The evacuation and ongoing war between the citizens of Cocoon and the military faded into the background for Lightning, as she was solely focused on saving her sister, Serah, a girl considered to be an enemy of the military.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 sort of flips the story around to tell the next chapter; a story that picks up a few years after the ending of XIII. Serah finds herself having strange dreams of her sister, lost in a dark world and stuck fighting against an unknown warrior for eternity. She also sees a young man in these dreams, and later comes to meet him.
He is Noel, a traveler from 700 years in the future where he lives as the last human born, and he has been tasked by Lightning to help Serah save the future. In a role switch, Serah is now out to save Lightning. Final Fantasy XIII-2's story centers around time travel. Somehow the whole timeline of history has been altered, resulting in multiple paradoxes. Serah and Noel work to hop through history to resolve these paradoxes with the hopes of setting the future straight so that humanity does not come to an end in 700 years.
I was worried when I first heard about XIII-2's story, as a sequel that uses a time travel gimmick could easily go very wrong. I imagined revisiting old locales, running through unimaginative missions in an attempt to get more mileage out of XIII's visual assets, with some nonsensical story strung throughout. Although some assets are reused and some previous locales are revisited, there are plenty of new locations, characters, and enemies, while the time travel element actually ties nicely into the game's story.
While this could have been a time travel turd, Square Enix was smart about how they handled old assets and quite crafty with how they laced this story through it. Instead of creating a sense of déjà vu, it ends up being quite fun hopping around time to check in on the last game's characters, or see how a city has changed over the years. Thankfully you're never lost in time, as there's strong structure and plenty of less-than-subtle dialogue cues to guide you to the next era. There's a lot to see and do, and it's all open for you to freely explore at your leisure, but I never once found myself lost in time. At least you can't call this one linear!
As smart as the aspect of time travel has been handled, I don't want to give the story too much credit. It's certainly stronger than Final Fantasy XIII's story, but since it was built on its predecessor's uneven foundation, it never feels completely whole or in any way less nonsensical than before. The overarching storyline does its best to work with what there was to work with and continue on with something that's entertaining and sometimes surprising, but the smaller bits of story that center around unresolved time paradoxes rarely makes sense. I suppose some might say that these sections are intentionally strange, as they deal with a warping of time, but I feel like the time spent developing these segments could have been better spent on the background characters.
Unlike its predecessor, XIII-2 does a really good job of fleshing out its protagonists Serah and Noel, and you eventually grow to understand the antagonist and his motivations. However, the rest of the game's cast are left there to dangle with little in the way of character development or backstory. While it's nice to see old friends like Hope and Snow, they just sort of appear in the timeline and there are huge gaps of unfilled story that you're left hanging on. Another returning character whom I won't name to protect you from spoilers has no story development whatsoever, making me kind of mad that this character was even included.
If you want to get the most out of this game's story, you're going to have to dig, getting into the optional quests, hidden paradox endings, and in-menu log reading. Even then I suspect that most won't be fully satisfied. It's a shame, as Square Enix has packed some really strong ideas and character possibilities into the story.
Be warned that the game's ending is easily spoiled. You won't find spoilers in this review, but know that they're out there, and they will come to find you once this game is released in the West. Get in, keep your head down, and see it for yourself! It's a strong ending, though, and a real visual treat. I thought the game's conclusion was thrilling and very surprising, but I'm sure others are going to take issue with how this one is wrapped up.
While the story didn't turn out to be as strong, Square Enix has made major improvements in storytelling over the last game. The dialogue is a major high point in XIII-2; it actually makes sense now, and the writing is much more accessible and lighthearted. New Live Trigger events momentarily stop the story and ask you how you would respond to a question to steer the dialogue, taking a page from Western RPGs.
Noel and Serah are very strong characters, supported by exemplary voice work that highlights the motivations and emotions of the title's protagonists at all times. Laura Bailey surprises as Serah and Liam O'Brien brings the badass to character Caius, but Jason Marsden absolutely knocks it out of the park with Noel, bringing a great balance of strength and humor. Even the NPC voicing is good and compared to Final Fantasy XIII, the contrast is surprising. Even if you don't fully understand all of what the story throws at you, you will likely be entertained by the dialogue and voice work.
Final Fantasy XIII-2's gameplay positively shines when compared to its predecessor. Gone are the narrow corridors that run you into forced battles with faceless soldiers. XIII-2's time traveling nature leaves you wide open to explore, bouncing from era to era to take on missions and quests at your own pace. There is a solid story structure with navigable timeline called the Historia Crux, but you're mostly free to conquer it in any order. Time gates open up in each locale, and when you've found the proper Artefact in each era, you're free to use them at gates to open up new locales. Most of these places are open, expansive worlds packed with hidden items, fighting challenges, NPC quests, and lots of extra story bits. Once you find all the Artefacts and open all the Time Gates, the entire game's timeline is at your fingertips, as a simple press of the start button pulls you back to the Historia Crux, letting you jump to any time and place you wish. You're also free to stop anywhere you'd like as Final Fantasy XIII-2 breaks new ground for the series with a save anywhere option, assigned to the Start button.
There are plenty of other new gameplay additions that help make this game much more entertaining than XIII. Final Fantasy's cutest monster, the Moogle, makes a triumphant return to the series in XIII-2. A Moogle named Mog comes to Serah as a gift from Lightning, and he serves many purposes. By default, he's a flying companion that can help find hidden items with his glowing bobble, or work as an item retriever when thrown. Yes, you can throw your Moogle! Right before battle, Mog gives you a sort of clock meter that lets you preemptively attack to get the jump on random encounters, a sort of replacement for the series' time-based battle spells. Strangely, in battle, Mog transforms into Serah's primary weapon.
Item hunters will be obsessed with finding the game's 160 Fragments. Some are tied to the story, but most are optional hunts. Tracking them down is definitely worth your time as they can be plugged into the game's Fragment Skill system. This serves as a sort of limited God Mode for Final Fantasy XIII-2, letting you tweak things like how much your items sell for in shops, or how high/long your character can jump. Everything from options to tweak the encounter rate to a switch that opens up hidden story bits can be found among the Fragment Skills. Some of the story-required item questing missions do get close to getting out of hand, though. One in particular requires way too much traveling and fetching, and it smells slightly of filler.
When you want a break from item hunting and time traveling, XIII-2's Serendipity zone should serve as a nice distraction. Anyone that enjoyed Final Fantasy VII's Golden Saucer will find a lot to like here. This lost-in-time casino is packed with scantily clad bunny girls, slot machines, casino table games, and even chocobo racing. The latter diversion is so deep that it almost could be turned into its own game, with options for leveling, betting and training. Gambling and race winnings can be traded in for rare game items.
As welcome as many of the gameplay changes are, I'm not as thrilled about the addition of puzzles to the mix. Hopping from era to era, the game sometimes throws you into a puzzle world with little to no explanation. The story calls them Temporal Rifts, and they're supposed to be voids in the timeline that reach out into alternate dimensions -- only by solving their puzzles can the timeline be set straight. Unfortunately, many of these puzzles are dull, with many of them having you walk between jewels to sort of connect the dots. They seem to serve no purpose, and have no connection to the storyline. Thankfully, there are only a few instances of Temporal Rifts throughout the game.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes its predecessor's battle system and runs with it, which is great because the battle system was easily the best part of that game. The Paradigm Shift system is still in place this time around, and with it comes its wonderful mix menus and fast-paced action. Again, the key battles make excellent use of lesser used Final Fantasy spells and effects. For instance, Poison is actually effective on bosses. Likewise, casting defense altering spells, like Deshell and Deprotect, is a valid strategy now. Paradigm Shift is faster this time around, with almost direct switching from one paradigm to the next, letting you shift tactcs on the fly without waiting for change animations. There's one new damage type in XIII-2 called Wound, and receiving this type of damage subtracts from your total maximum available hit points in a battle. But, at its core, the battle system here is largely the same as that of Final Fantasy XIII's, so if you hated that one you're not going to like this one much more.
One of the best additions to the game play this time around is the ability to recruit monsters to your party. This works a lot like the demon collecting system in Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei games, and it's every bit as open to customization. This monster party member system lets you take in an enemy, level it up, tweak its abilities, and then use it to maximize your battle strategies. Your chosen monster becomes your third party member, and up to three different monsters can be plugged into your paradigms to be used at any time.
Each monster has its own special attack, which becomes available after filling an attack meter. Collected monsters also have their own Crystarium, letting you level them up, change their abilities and even transfer abilities from one monster to another. This incredibly deep system lets you create your dream party. I took in a Chocobo early on in a battle, trained him, leveled him up to a ridiculous level, and liked him so much that he dealt what looked to be the final blow in the very last battle. He was a beast, and his special screaming "Kweh" attack never stopped being funny.
Cinematic Action sequences are also new to the Final Fantasy series, making their debut in this game. These are prompted battle inputs that give players some control of interactive cutscenes -- quick time events, if you will. Most of these take place during battles, where standard fighting seamlessly transitions into a scene that, if timed correctly, will let players avoid attacks, stagger an enemy or deliver flashy final hits. Most of these sequences are flat-out awesome, with all the dynamic camera work and flashy lighting you'd expect from a Final Fantasy cutscene. There isn't a penalty for missing prompted button and stick inputs during these sequences, but there's often a benefit that could make your battle easier, and perfect performance brings about an item reward.
Even those that didn't care for Final Fantasy XIII had to admit that it was a beautiful game, and in some ways XIII-2 is even more impressive. Realtime cutscenes replace pre-rendered ones in this game, and the animation and attention to detail are outstanding in them. You'll see how a gentle wind catches a character's hair and clothing, and you'll really connect with character's expressive faces and gestures. The lip synchronization is the best I've ever seen, to point where I wonder why the rest of the game industry isn't borrowing Square Enix's technology. The game's scenery is, as always, imaginative and often beautiful, and the lighting and weather effects are stunning. There's a rare odd background texture, and a couple of the early cutscenes seemed to take a framerate hit, but these are just nitpicks in what is otherwise a visual powerhouse. Trust me, you've never seen this much pink and purple in a videogame.
Shopping in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is really weird; you won't find the traditional RPG town store here. Instead you'll find a being that looks to be part human female, part Chocobo, with plenty of exposed skin, but feathers covering her crotch, breasts and arms. Oh, and her hat appears to be a dead chocobo head. She calls herself Chobolina and she travels through time to be right where you need her when you need her most. She sells typical healing items as well as weapons and upgrades. Her prices never change and the selection rarely does either, but what she has to say to you every time you encounter her does, and it's almost always hilarious. Sometimes she screams "Choco-boco-lina" when you see her. Other times she becomes philosophical and talks about how she's not quite human. It's almost as if Square Enix is using Chobolina to apologize for how terrible shopping was in Final Fantasy XIII. The real gift from Square Enix comes when the inevitable Chobolina cosplay trend begins this year.
I suspect that fans will be divided on Final Fantasy XIII-2's musical score. I thought it was wonderfully varied and lots of fun, but traditionalists will likely take issue with some of the stranger selections. Square Enix let three composers team up and go absolutely nuts on this soundtrack, and from the sound of it, they had a great time. In the mix you'll find many different musical genres, ranging from standard orchestral to metal. Battle songs with rapping or overworld themes with J-pop style vocals are mildly surprising when they first appear, but nothing can prepare you for the screaming vocals of one of the key battle songs. The soundtrack has multiple Chocobo themes, but the heavy metal one is my favorite. Even if you're not sold on some of the more alternative tracks, just about all should be able to appreciate how map themes smartly morph into battle songs when an enemy is encountered. Among the oddball tracks you'll find some outstanding work. Overall, I think the idea with the music was to have fun and go nuts.
I've heard the same question many times in the last few months: Will those disappointed by Final Fantasy XIII enjoy this sequel? I think so. In fact, it seems like Final Fantasy XIII-2 was made with these people in mind as it seems to address many of the criticisms of its predecessor. Many of the best aspects of this game seem to be direct responses to concerns raised on the last game, so now the combat is deeper, the customization options are wide open, and the pacing is sensible and anything but linear. Lack of substance? Not here, I'm glad to say. The story, while still a bit stunted in the character development department, is vast, and now offers a lot in the way of player choice. There's better writing for better characters, and the performances for these characters are outstanding.
But, overall, for me, what really made Final Fantasy XIII-2 an enjoyable game was that Square Enix brought the fun back. They brought back some the inventiveness, creativity, humor and uniqueness that we sorely missed in Final Fantasy XIII. Maybe this game tries to do a bit too much, and it's probably too late to dig this story out of the hole that it's in, but it was made with a heaping dollop of that undeniable charm that we loved in the older series games, and that goes a long way towards making it enjoyable.
Nice comeback, Square Enix.
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