Final Fantasy XIII-2
Few names in gaming bring with them as much baggage, or expectation as Final Fantasy. The series, whose fourteenth instalment (an online MMO) was released last year, returns to a previous game by way of a direct sequel for only the second time, in the somewhat awkwardly named Final Fantasy XIII-2. Those familiar with the series will be aware of the debate that surrounded the previous title; a slow, linear story masking an interesting and enjoyable battle system which the developers seemed reluctant to let you take full control of. Even if you disagree with the aforementioned shortcoming, it’s clear that XIII-2 has taken big strides towards fixing a lot of what XIII got wrong, whilst mixing things up enough to provide a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable experience that stands tall on its own merits.
Set three years after the events of the first game (at least initially), the game follows Serah, Lightning’s sister, as she struggles with visions that all is not right with the world and remembers Lightning returning after her adventures on Gran Pulse, while no-one else does. Cue the time-travelling Noel, bringing a message from Lightning that thrusts Serah into action. Together they must travel through time to stop an evil force creating paradoxes and destroying the timeline. As opposed to the sprawling, multi-character story XIII told, the sequel has a much simpler premise, but uses it to jump off in many weird and wonderful directions.
The time travelling gimmick allows you to visit a variety of locations and time periods quickly, providing much more freedom in the story for exploration and discovery. A downside to this is that the story becomes somewhat convoluted in having to account for the various game mechanics that are laid down – this deadens the emotional impact, and despite a strong sense of intrigue, there is a lot of plot that you just have to accept and refrain from thinking about too deeply. Whilst the lack of more characters from XIII is initially disappointing, Serah and Noel are more than worthy replacements by the end of the tale… making the various narrative issues forgivable in the long run.
Gameplay-wise this is most definitely more Final Fantasy XIII, though the combat system opens up quickly, making many of the early battles enjoyable and interesting. You are also left a lot more to your own devices when it comes to managing your party and levelling characters, and although this is a positive, it is worth noting that for newcomers it could be overwhelming. If you think strategically then these things may come more naturally, but this is one part of the game which could have offered a little more guidance. Outside of this, the only major change to the still excellent battle system is the inclusion of monsters.
As you fight through the game you will ‘capture’ certain monsters, which can then be added to your party. These have specific roles and can be levelled up through materials you can buy or gain throughout the game. It is here that the variety in your party paradigms can be expressed, offering a lot of fun as you discover new monsters and make use of them in your team. There are also some special moves that specific characters and monsters can use in the form of short Quick Time Events, which add another wrinkle to battle. These QTE’s are also used on some of the major boss battles and serves as a somewhat puzzling device which is abandoned later on. Easy and infrequent, these events stand out as unnecessary additions given how enjoyable the combat is overall.
As FF XIII-2 draws to close, you may find yourself wishing that the combat had been expanded upon further. The same standard techniques work throughout the game and it’s a shame that there weren’t more ways of mixing things up, plus adding in a new class or system might have helped to keep things fresh until the end. A couple of boss fights aside, the game doesn’t provide as much of a challenge as certain parts of its predecessor did which may disappoint, though this does mean that you shouldn’t need to do much in the way of levelling up outside of the main story, which could very well have been the intention here.
Square Enix have made a concerted effort to expand the world as a whole and give players the option to complete a series of side quests in the various time zones that they visit. These are very welcome; though often seem like little more than a token gesture after some of the criticism levelled at the previous title. The majority of these quests are purely to recover fragments, of which there are 160 to collect (and only about a quarter of which are earned via the main story). The issue with a lot of the side activities is that they lack any engaging narrative, however slender. There are virtually no characters outside of story that are developed nor are there real village or town areas to make this feel like a living, breathing world. Instead you get nameless NPCs offering basic fetch quests or instructing you to kill certain monsters in expansive, but still linear environments. The addition of other areas such as the intergalactic casino (seriously) can be a distraction, but you won’t find much of interest unless you’re making the effort to gather the collectibles.
Thankfully, the main story is generally strong enough to support these weaknesses. The gameplay is varied enough, a late game fetch quest is a welcome change of pace and the variety of differing levels and time zones you visit is constantly inventive. The only downside is the somewhat lazy feel to the game’s final moments, where there is at least one recycled boss fight too many and a disappointing lack of real story resolution, but it’s not enough to completely undo what has come before. Visually, whilst it may not have the impact Final Fantasy XIII had a few years ago, this is still a fantastic looking game in terms of art and design. It runs smoothly and the creativity on display helps to keep the presentation eye-catching.
Unlike so many modern games, you really feel part of a completely alien world and, unbound by convention, the designers make the most of this. The creature design in particular is inventive and this helps the core gameplay by keeping the battles fresh through the various encounters, whether these are they random or scripted. Though the return of random encounters is not always something to be glad for – especially in areas where battles are forced upon you as you attempt to solve puzzles and make it across a map – such moments are rare. It seems that there are still elements of the experience that will need to be ironed out in future instalments.
Although not the complete overhaul that some may have desired, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a surprisingly bold and distinctive sequel. Many of the issues that plagued its predecessor have been negated in one way or another, and the twisting narrative and often downright bizarre tangents that the game spins are enough to keep things feeling fresh and distinctive. For all its eccentricities, there is still something about Final Fantasy’s mix of overwrought cinematics, dense mythology, heavy story, enjoyable gameplay and often spectacular visuals that still feel unique enough in concept and execution to earn a place in the modern gaming pantheon. There is little new ground being broken here, but as a sequel to such a divisive game, it really has no business being this good and this bodes well for whatever the future holds for the franchise.
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