Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review
See PixlBit's Review Policies
On 02/04/2012 at 11:55 PM by Julian Titus
Final Fantasy takes a journey into the future of the franchise, but hits some potholes on the way.
Even if Final Fantasy XIII left you cold, you might want to try this one out. The story is shades of Chrono Trigger, and the battle system is still top-notch.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 had a lot to make up for, being the follow-up to one of the most divisive games in the beloved RPG series. For a franchise that was built on every iteration being wildly different from the last, Final Fantasy XIII perhaps changed a little bit too much in removing many of the core elements that the series—and JRPGs in general—are known for. While that game took over 5 years to develop and was met with confusion and in some cases rage, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game that went from announcement to release in about a year. Is it possible that a game so rushed could hope to right the perceived wrongs of its predecessor? The short answer is “yes”, but there’s a pretty big “but…” to go along with it.
From the outset, FF XIII-2 does a pretty bang up job of addressing the largest criticism of XIII: the lengthy tutorial period. XIII kept the training wheels on for the first 20 hours of gameplay. Within the first two hours of its sequel you’ll have pretty much all the tools of the trade available to you. The stunning intro teaches you about the flashy but ultimately inconsequential Cinematic Actions (read: QTEs), and after that you’re given a quick refresher on the battle system.
This battle system is largely unchanged from Final Fantasy XIII, and that's a good thing. The combat is a heady mix of strategic thinking coupled with a need for lightning-fast reflexes and changing tactics in a split second. If you’re familiar with XIII you’ll be right at home here, and in truth you wouldn’t be blamed for looking at a screen of XIII-2’s battle screen and thinking it came from its immediate predecessor. That’s not a knock against the game by any means, mind you. It’s still a blast to figure out the best strategy to get a tough enemy into a stagger and then exploit its weakness for victory, while at the same time switching character roles from offense to defense as needed. These fast paced battles are intensely satisfying during the really tough encounters, and the ability to retry a fight if things aren’t going well give you license to be creative. I’d like to see a return to a more traditional Active Time Battle system in the future that gives me full control of my entire party, but fighting in XIII-2 is just as much fun as it was the first time around.
That shouldn’t suggest that there’s nothing new under the hood, however. Final Fantasy XIII-2 adds the ability to capture and utilize monsters in your party. You only have two human characters in the form of Serah and Noel, but you can bring three monsters to fill out that third spot on the battlefield. Monsters all fall under the roles of the FF XIII universe: Commando, Medic, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, and Synergist. You can enhance the stats of each monster with items that are surprisingly plentiful in the game. Unlike the weapon upgrade components from XIII that were so difficult to procure, leveling up your monsters is a rather painless process. You can rename your monsters and adorn them with various cosmetic items, but at the end of the day I found myself wishing that there was a third true party member.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII-2 replicates one of the more annoying traits of the previous game: the uneven difficulty level. Some of the early boss battles really tested my patience, and I got the impression that this game was intended for those hardcore XIII players that spent hours doing all the post-game, super-challenging content. But once I got a few better monsters in my party, the game became a cakewalk. Earning CP (used to upgrade your human party members) is a breeze, and by the end of the game I had both characters at level 99 on multiple roles. I was constantly mowing through battles in less than 10 seconds, and most of the boss fights were over before I knew it. But then I got to the final area which throws some enemies at you that will annihilate a well-leveled party in no time; fortunately, XIII-2 still allows you to retry, putting you right where you were just before the fight started, so you don’t lose progress. The game also includes auto saves and the ability to save anywhere, which is a long overdue and much welcome addition to the franchise.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a tale of time travel and alternate timelines. As you proceed on your quest to correct the paradoxes that have sprung up and caused Serah’s sister Lightning to vanish, you’ll be whisked away to new locations in multiple eras. Considering that this is a sequel it would be safe to assume that many environments would be reused, but that’s really not the case. While you’ll revisit areas from the previous game like the Archylte Steppe and Yaschas Massif, you’ll be in entirely different sections of these known quantities. The areas in each zone can be reached in wildly different eras, and it can be a little jarring to see a place 300 years in the future looking almost unchanged. It’s an odd misstep that can detract slightly from the thrill of opening a new time gate, but I was so invested in navigating the wide open areas that I really didn’t mind.
While it’s true that you’ll find towns in this game, they still don’t compare to the towns and cities of older Final Fantasy title. But these areas teem with human life, and it’s a far cry from the meager amount of NPCs to interact with in XIII. Talking to these NPCs will lead you all over Pulse as you complete side quests. These areas aren’t comprised of simple straight paths like last time, and the environments are built around exploration. You’re rewarded for going off the beaten path in XIII-2, and if you want to get every last Fragment and unlock every time period you’re going to have to be thorough. It feels like a more traditional Final Fantasy game in this regard, and XIII-2 does an excellent job of appealing to the story hungry players as well as the obsessive gamers that want to wring every bit of content from the adventure. I powered through in about 25 hours and was satisfied with my experience, but there is a staggering amount of post-game content that can easily bump your play time into the triple digits.
A few things keep the story from being truly great, however. Square Enix's reputation for awkwardly spoken dialogue is in full force in FF XIII-2. While the game doesn’t have actual conversation trees like a Bethesda or BioWare game, you’ll be given plenty of opportunities to ask questions and get more information. It gives you the opportunity to delve into the story as little or as much as you like, but the problem comes when that information is repeated in a cutscene and your character acts as if this is a revelation. It comes off as clunky when compared to other modern role playing games, but the inclusion of these conversation bits is a step in the right direction for Square Enix. The real problem is with the ending. It’s the type of ending that not only gives players cause to rage, but it almost makes the entire journey irrelevant. I can’t recall a time that a game ending has angered me as much as this one did.
Slightly less infuriating are the characters of Serah and Noel, who just couldn’t live up to the cast of FF XIII. Some of the most interesting bits of XIII-2's story involve encounters with the XIII heroes, and that’s because they’re just more interesting to begin with. Even though Serah shows some growth as a character in the course of the game, Noel is a boiler plate JRPG protagonist that seems like he was plucked out of a cancelled Kingdom Hearts game.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 goes a long way toward repairing some of the damage done to the franchise by FF XIII and FF XIV. The return to large areas to explore, smoother level progression, and the restraint shown in leaving intact an already great battle system are all good moves. Many of the design decisions show some real forward thinking, and considering how quickly the game was turned around I can forgive things like the less impressive visuals, recycled monsters, and reduced cast. But for all of those great decisions, some things I just can’t abide. That awful ending left a bad taste in my mouth, and the soundtrack is not fitting of a Final Fantasy game. I enjoyed this game immensely, but I think it’s time for Final Fantasy to take some time off before setting out on a new adventure.