Note: Just like getting diagnosed with inoperable blue warts might cause a patient to look to another doctor for a second opinion, gamers sometimes need more than one take on a particular game.
There is little denying the fact that Final Fantasy XIII did not resonate with gamers the way past entries in the series have and for many, XIII signified a directional shift heading down the wrong path. For a variety of reasons, developer/publisher Square Enix set out to right the perceived wrong and the fruits of their labor is the tragically named, Final Fantasy XIII-2.
XIII-2 picks up three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning, one of the main protagonists from XIII, is in Valhalla, serving as a guardian for the Goddess. Everything is tranquil until the mysterious villain Caius appears creating distortions in time that need to be stopped. Enter Noel, a time traveler from the future, who is tasked with finding Lightning’s sister, Serah, and reuniting the two. To try and explain it any further would be a disservice to the gamer but suffice it to say that as in all Final Fantasy games, the end goal is far grander than initially thought.
Time travel is a fascinating subject and one that has worked quite well before in games. However, due to the subject matter’s confusing nature the writing needs to be well thought out and scripted. Final Fantasy XIII-2 fails to do these things and for as interesting a premise as the game brings to the table, the delivery of the storytelling is abysmal. The dialog in particular is some of the worst written in a Japanese roleplaying game this generation and with the game’s focus on only two primary characters (Noel & Serah) the poor dialog leads to poor characterizations which causes additional problems.
As mentioned, Final Fantasy XIII-2 focuses solely on Noel and Serah’s story and in so doing the game takes a drastic turn from how previous games in the series were handled. There is no eclectic band of heroes to team up with. XIII-2 is all Noel and Serah, all the time. If you end up hating either of the two main characters you will undoubtedly be in for a long, uncomfortable ride with the game, granted, not anywhere near as long as its predecessor.
The campaign of XIII-2 will take most players anywhere between 25-30 hours to complete, relatively short for a Final Fantasy title but still a game packed with more content than many other games available. Having time travel as the core concept of the game means there will be a lot of different areas that get visited over and over in a variety of eras. Getting from one area to the next is done by collecting artefacts and unlocking gates. There is quite a bit to collect and unlock, although not all of it is essential to the main quest. With that in mind though, the time travel aspect lends itself quite well to return visits and returning to the game once finished with the main quest will open up additional story aspects worth exploring or re-exploring.
Considering how Square Enix presented this game, as a title that will fix many of the issues of its predecessor, it is odd to see that what is included in XIII-2 is such a mixed bag. Things like towns and shops make a return but their implementation is so awkward that they might as well not be there. The towns that are in the game are small and have very little to do in them, especially considering the shopkeeper is a time-traveling chocobo lady that sells everything and appears quite often along your story path. The game also includes a weird story progression system called the Live Trigger. Live Triggers are a four pronged dialog choice that steer the current conversation in a particular direction but aside from some seemingly random rewards received after doing one, there is no direct correlation to what is chosen and how the story progresses.
Possibly the most puzzling of all the design choices in the game though is the reintroduction of random battles. Out of all the complaints that I have heard levied at Final Fantasy XIII by critics of the game, not having random battles in the game was never one I heard brought up, so reintroducing them is a major head scratcher. These are not your standard random battles though, instead enemies will randomly appear in the vicinity of the player and combat is initiated by attacking the enemy, having them attack you or simply letting a countdown clock expire. The advantage of attacking first is being awarded a pre-emptive strike as the real battle starts. Initiating said combat though can be a tad big frustrating as the action controls feel wonky at their best.
But for every weird design choice that was made, XIII-2 features some truly worthwhile additions to the traditional Final Fantasy formula. Save points, something that has long seemed archaic to many gamers, are a thing of the past in XIII-2, as players can now save whenever and wherever they want. There is also a fairly decent auto-save system in place so lost progress can be easily avoided. XIII-2 also wisely sticks with XIII’s battle system. The Paradigm system as it is called, keeps battles fast paced and exciting as players are tasked with shifting between different combat roles to quickly take down opponents. The paradigm system was built on the foundation of a three party member system, of which the cast of XIII-2 only fills two of those slots. To get around this issue, XIII-2 allows for the third slot to be occupied by captured monsters. While I did not want to catch them all, I can see many people getting thoroughly sucked into trying to.
Much like Nintendo’s Pokemon series, collecting monsters is only half the fun though. The other half is upgrading them to perform better in battle. These upgrades are done using the retooled Crystarium leveling system from the original game. Instead of using Crystarium Points, which are awarded to Noel and Serah to be used in their own retooled Crystarium, monsters use special items that are collected from battle, chests or the Chocobo lady. There are few things in the game more satisfying than leveling up a Behemoth and watching him lay waste to enemies in battle. It would have been nice to be able to actually control the monsters in battle but sadly that is not the case.
The odd dichotomy of design choices the game exhibits continues along the technical and artistic side of things as well. XIII was a great looking game and its sequel is no slouch. Environments and character models are highly detailed and they blend perfectly with the pre-rendered cutscenes in the game. The artistic design of the environments is top notch and they all have a wonderful sense of place. However the character design itself feels lazy. Tetsuya Nomura, Square’s go-to character designer over the past decade, has seemingly hit a wall. Everything he does is starting to look the same, with Noel even looks like a mature version of Sora from Kingdom Hearts. It just feels lazy and at least for me, is somewhat off-putting.
Even more off-putting is the music in the game. Say what you will about XIII as a game but in my opinion it was the best soundtrack in a Final Fantasy game in over a decade. XIII-2’s soundtrack is the exact opposite. There is no sense of consistency in the musical choices and at times it feels like the soundtrack selection process was done by picking songs out of a hat. Worse than the consistency issues though is how terribly bad a lot of the music actually is. Nothing has so violently assaulted my ears in years like the strange death metal sprinkled throughout the game. For a series that features many of the most memorable themes in videogames to have something that is so sub-par honestly makes me sad.
Inconsistency is the one thing I took away from playing XIII-2. The game features some great high points but it also features some amazing low ones. For the most part the gameplay of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is fun and engaging. Sadly though, XIII-2 is a roleplaying game and the success of such a game, particularly a JRPG, is reliant on having a strong story and iconic characters in addition to that solid gameplay. XIII-2 does not have any of that. It does not have that as a roleplaying game and it most certainly does not have that as a Final Fantasy. There are glimmers of greatness buried beneath all the dreck but judged on its own merits, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is just a passable game, it is nothing more than that and when you bear the Final Fantasy moniker that in itself is something of a disappointment.