Note: This review is based off of gameplay on the Playstation 3 console. It is also available on the XBOX 360. Square-Enix provided this game to Vagary.tv for review purposes.
Releasing a sequel to a game with such polar-opposite reactions as Final Fantasy XIII is a bold move, but Square-Enix proceeded to do it anyways. It’s really a rare thing when you see a sequel to a Final Fantasy game. But the fans that enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII and the world contained in it, rejoiced.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 picks up a few years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. In a drastic shift in the party model, you only control two characters throughout this journey, Serah and Noel. Serah is trying to find her sister, Lightning, who strangely disappeared after the grand reunion at the end of XIII. Noel’s story is more complicated, but in short , he was sent from the future by Lightning (from a place outside of time) to help Serah. In controlling just these two characters, it really strengthened the focus on their stories instead of trying to tie together half a dozen random individuals in typical JRPG fashion. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, but this really allowed for a more streamlined experience without the comments in the back of your head about “oh yes, fate at work again.”
Finding Lightning is the routine “starting goal”, but things grow in scale as you learn more and more about what is going on. I don’t like to hand out spoilers to games rich in story, but outside of one instance later on in the game (the obligatory “have to collect x amount of things” plot point), the story flowed well and kept me playing. It flowed so well, in fact, that I didn’t even want to bother with a majority of the side-missions. Outside of wandering around the more-open area on Pulse (which is much smaller compared to XIII’s version), I only did the small quests that were along the way.
Once finishing the main story, the option to go back and do “paradox endings” adds length to the rather short story-arch in XIII-2. These ultimately change the ending of the game altogether. My only problem with these paradox endings is that there is no real indication (that I could find, anyhow) on what exactly could trigger these events. To be honest, I used a guide to figure out what would trigger a few, and went and did them. Some hints would have been great, because I truly enjoyed these alternate endings and would have preferred to be coaxed along towards them instead of resorting to a guide.
Time travel plays a large part in XIII-2, with different eras and areas of Cocoon and Pulse unlocking as you make your way through the story. So think of each time period as a small sandbox, with its own item shop, individuals to talk to and get quests from, hidden items, monsters, etc. Square-Enix has removed the “point-to-point” nature of XIII by switching to this system, but you are still confined to a certain path in each area so in reality, the game is still rather linear. In order to access these areas, you must unlock them by going through a time gate. This requires a specific artifact or a generic “master key-type” wild artifact. Wild artifacts are usually hidden well, or received from side-missions. Story related artefacts can’t be missed.
While combat remains similar to its predecessor, XIII-2 has overhauled the Paradigm Shift system. As I said earlier, you control Serah and Noel. Your third party member is now a tamed monster, and you have slots to bring three types into battle. These three slots affect your Paradigm Deck choices. Each monster has a specific role and can be leveled up with certain items (usually gained after battles in decent quantities). You have no control over the monster AI, so if you are using them for buffers and ailments, you have to hope they are using the things you want them to use. Granted, the AI is smart when it comes to attacks in XIII-2, but aggravating when I wanted them to cast Brave, and they chose Imperil instead!
That said, the addition of monsters being in your third slot for battle makes things so much more dynamic. Each monster also has its own attack, known as a Feral Link ability. A gauge slowly fills up at the bottom of the screen, and when you chose to use it, you have to input certain commands (it differs per monster) to establish how powerful it will be. The possibilities for team setups are staggering, and I bet you could ask ten people what group they used at the end and it would be wholly different.
Now, approaching combat has returned to its “random battle” roots. In XIII, you confronted the free-roaming enemies in the open. Square-Enix has made things feel a little more classic by the enemy appearing randomly (and frequently, might I add), and the “Mog Clock” appears. The clock starts in the green position, giving you a chance for a preemptive attack. Once the clock reaches yellow, they start attacking you and you lose your Haste and chain-boost bonus’ (you can still hit them first and get the bonus, mind you, they are just more aggressive). Once the clock hits red, no matter how far away, you are locked into battle and no longer get a “retry” option. You do have the chance to flee, but the clock ticks down at different rates for different enemies. Some are completely unavoidable. It’s a functioning system that caters to long-time fans of the series.
The Crystarium (your path of progression in the FFXIII series) has also been overhauled. It now resembles the shape of your character’s weapon, and once you trace the complete path, you level up the Crystarium. This gives you a choice of opening a new role (you only start with two), adding to your Accessory limit, adding another ATB bar (giving you more options for powerful moves), or boosts to your role ability. You can select between the roles you have unlocked to level up, which grants you stat bonus’ or moves accordingly. The amount of abilities seems reduced as well. No more Haste or Regen, for one. And certain Final Fantasty-standard abilities are also missing, such as Mug for example. The updated Crystarium works for what it is intended to work for, but once I hit the 30-hour mark, I was done getting new abilities and it was simply a matter of boosting my stats.
Monsters work in a similar manner, but cap out much sooner. Depending on their level cap and grade (there are five grades, each needing a different quality of item to level up), some can be maxed out very soon while others can take the course of the game to max out. Another neat feature about monsters, though, is that they can be infused into another monster to pass on their abilities and stat increases. The stat increases are things unlocked in the Crystarium such as “+44% Poison Resistance”. Since each monster has its own, usually small, move pool, passing one to another can be very beneficial in the long run, though each monster can only have so many moves. Again, this whole new system adds a wildly-huge difference to the combat system in general.
The last change to battles of note are the Cinematic Action sections. These are just what they sound like: quick-time events. During certain boss fights, you’ll be prompted to hit “x” button or direction on the analog stick during an epic cut-scene. Now, why we couldn’t just watch the cut-scene with the awesome finishing move is beyond me. I never understood the fascination developers had with quick-time events. They detract from what is going on by forcing the player pay attention to button prompts.
I do have a serious complaint with the musical score at the end (though, admittedly, I enjoyed it up until that point). Without giving too many details, it simply doesn’t fit. Music is supposed to heighten moments, and it should be fitting for the mood. The final cutscene and its music just don’t match up correctly, and nearly ruins everything the scene is trying to invoke.
If you enjoyed aspects of Final Fantasy XIII, the sequel is definitely worth a shot. What Square-Enix overhauls and changes in the sequel make it feel fresh enough for people that put 60-100 hours into the first game. They also included a primer to get people caught up with what happened in case they either forgot or didn’t finish the story to its completion in XIII. While not a drastic change in the series from the previous installment, it’s a great extension to the Final Fantasy XIII universe.
- good continuation in the story from Final Fantasy XIII
- the monster system allows for a more dynamic party approach
- great post-game material to play after beating the main story
- the narrative isn’t as strong as its predecessor
- more limited skill sets for main two characters
- much shorter main story than XIII