FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 (2012) – SQUARE ENIX
For all intensive purposes, Final Fantasy XIII-2 shouldn’t exist. Final Fantasy XIII was not the new age hit that Square Enix hoped it would be; in fact it did the opposite and split much of the fanbase with its questionable plot and automated battling. The decision to make a direct sequel, tailored more to a Western audience, is questionable at best then. Strangely though, for whatever reason the premise works – XIII-2 is a much better game than the original, but still suffers from quite a few of the problems that made XIII a disappointment.
Warning: Spoiler alert for Final Fantasy XIII inbound.
XIII-2 picks up the story three years after the events at the end of the last game; Cocoon remains floating in the sky due to the crystal pillar created by Vanille and Fang’s sacrifice, and the protagonists have been freed from their L’Cie curse…except Lightning has disappeared off the face of the planet and no-one except her sister, Serah, can remember her. One afternoon, a giant meteorite falls from the sky not far from Serah’s home of New Bodhum, which causes a temporal interference and prompts strange creatures to attack the town. Serah is saved by a young lad named Noel Kreiss, who claims to be from the future and knows that Lightning is stuck in Valhalla, a place between worlds where she is sworn to protect the Goddess Etro. Hoping that she can find her sister, Serah agrees to travel with Noel through a time gate that appeared near the meteorite, and embarks on a journey through time to save the world.
If you find yourself easily confused by time travel plots, then steer clear; XIII-2 is driven by a story that takes Serah and Noel here, there and everywhere, and with all the talk of time and paradoxes you can be overwhelmed at times. Fortunately, every time you load up the game there is a brief cut scene relaying recent events to ensure you don’t lose track of what to do. Overall, the story is better than the one found in XIII – Noel and Serah are a more likeable party than the six eclectic protagonists of the previous game, and it also helps that for the first time in ages there is a engaging villain in the form of fellow time traveler Caius Ballad. For those that did enjoy XIII’s plot then there is also reason for cheer; you will be revisiting some of the areas from the previous game in different times, and a few old characters regularly pop up to aid our heroes.
Despite the relative short time in-between the two games being released, Square Enix clearly took onboard a lot of the criticisms aimed at XIII and changed the sequel for the better in terms of gameplay. For example, there are now towns to walk around with NPC’s that you can talk to instead of narrow corridors. There is an ever present woman in a silly outfit that you can buy items from at reasonable prices, as opposed to the shops being located at save points. There are proper side quests that will require you to travel between time zones to complete. There are quizzes and logic puzzles, and a casino where you can play slots and race chocobos. Put simply, there’s more to do, and it ends up feeling more like a Final Fantasy game for it. If you want to collect all 160 fragments (the artefacts of time that help unlock new areas and add backstory to proceedings), then there is a good 35+ hours that you can invest into the game.
On the battling front, things are a bit less promising – they left the auto battling system in, meaning fights still come down to a matter of pressing the A button a lot. However, two additions make fighting more bearable this time around; first you get money again from killing monsters (anyone who played XIII will know just how sparse finance was), and second you can recruit monsters to your party. In battle, if you are lucky you can collect crystals from fallen enemies, who can then be recruited and leveled up to fight for you. You can even give them funny hats to wear. Each monster has different abilities and skills, and so it’s quite fun to mix and match until you get a reliable set of allies to take into battle via the retuning Paradigm Shift system. Personally, I like fighting with a Behemoth or a Tonberry at my side, so the system was a welcome improvement. When it boils down to it however, the fact is that battling is still too easy, and will remain that way until auto-battling is removed.
Running off the same engine as XIII, it’s little surprise that this game looks pretty nice in action. There are some minor hiccups here and there, which is unsurprising considering they shoved the entire game onto one disc rather than three this time around, but its still one of the better looking RPG’s out there. Some of the larger, more populated environments such as the city of Academia and the retuning Archylte Steppe with its varied weather effects are the standout places to have a gander at. On the musical front, XIII-2 feels a bit like an experimental project – there’s some rock (included a butchering of the Chocobo theme…), some calming piano pieces, and a whole lot of music returning from XIII, a soundtrack which I will admit has grown on me over time. Voice acting has improved since the first game, mainly thanks to the addition of Liam O’Brien as Caius and Jason Marsden (who voices Max Goof don’t’cha know) as Noel.
There is enough change on show in Final Fantasy XIII-2 to allow me to say with confidence that this is a better game than XIII. The slightly less confusing plot and the more balanced and involving gameplay outside of battles help it earn a higher score, but as previously stated it still holds the auto battling trait that I personally cannot commend. The unprecedented threequel that was recently announced, Lightning Returns, appears to be changing the gameplay once again – on the evidence presented so far, lets hope it continues a slowly upwards turn in quality for the trilogy.