When Final Fantasy XIII was released in 2010, long-time fans complained that the series had abandoned many staples of previous titles. The game was overly linear, taking far too long to get going and had little to offer beyond the main storyline. On top of that last year’s MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, released to universal panning, leaving fans’ faith in the series and its developers somewhat broken. With Final Fantasy XIII-2, a rare direct sequel for the franchise, Square Enix are hoping the latest entry in the series addresses the issues that fans had with the original title whilst still being accessible for a new audience.
The story takes place three years after XIII. Although it’s ideal to have played the first game, there’s a story primer for those who are coming into the game without having experienced it. The game begins with a prologue of sorts as players assume the role of Lightning from the previous game as they battle with the new main antagonist, Caius. After introducing players to the battle system, the fight is interrupted as a young man called Noel Kreiss, who looks like he fell out of Kingdom Hearts, suddenly falls from the sky. Noel comes from a future where mankind has been eradicated, leaving him as the sole human survivor. Lightning sends Noel back in time to find her sister Serah, in order to fix the timeline and aid her in the battle with Caius. Players then assume control of Serah and Noel as they travel through time and space in order to find Lightning and change the future.
Despite sounding quite complicated, at its most basic level the plot is simply to find the girl as with so many other games. The characters are all quite boring really, either asking endless questions, being moody or playing the generic cocky animé protagonist. The game doesn’t take too long to finish the story, for a JRPG, as players should beat the main quest in around 20 hours without taking into account the side quests and exploration. Even so, the game is padded out incessantly with endless cut scenes where characters stand around asking questions, getting vague answers, whining about their own past or future and re-iterating the rather simple goal they have. Voice overs bookend each chapter that philosophise about the nature of time, and the game overall takes itself a little too seriously. Overall the narrative lacks focus and could easily have lost a great number of its redundant cut scenes and would have flowed a lot better. To add insult to injury, the bloated story doesn’t even end when the game is over properly, as the game announces it will wrap things up later, just as things get marginally interesting.
The method in which players will progress through the main story and find new areas to explore is through the Historia Crux, which is basically a fancy term for a level select screen. From this screen you can choose which area and time zone you wish to explore, provided you’ve unlocked the gate to there from a previous area. There is also the option to close a particular time zone and reset its state to how it was before you first entered that area. This option allows players to try out different methods to get to an objective, and is necessary if you wish to access all the multiple endings.
The areas themselves are fairly openly designed, which should be a welcome change for those who didn’t appreciate the endless corridors of its predecessor. There’s also a nice variety of zones ranging from grassy field areas to cyberpunk-style cities. The towns present here are filled with people to talk to, although for the most part they just feed you general dialogue detailing what’s happening in that particular time. A few people will offer side missions, although there’s no way of knowing if they have a side quest for you until you ask them, and even then you’re only allowed two active quests at a time. Although the areas are fairly open, the initial progression through them is fairly linear as you discover the main aspects of the zone, in particular with any story-centric area. Occasionally there are multiple paths to objectives, but usually they don’t vary too greatly beyond which path you feel like taking initially. In order to unlock gates to new areas, Serah and Noel must locate artefacts, items which are out of place in that time to access another time zone. Main story zones must be unlocked with specific artefacts, but extra areas can be unlocked using general Wild Artefacts.
The battle system uses an evolved version of its predecessor. Called the Active Time Battle System, players can select different attacks, spells and skills as the ATB bar fills up over time. Once the gauge has completely filled, any attacks or skills queued up will be performed by the controlled character. More powerful moves will require more slots on the bar. There is also the option of using various items to heal or cure ailments. Conveniently there is an auto battle prompt, which reduces the amount of clicking through menus, and generally does a decent job of weakening an enemy before manually using a specific set of moves. Only the party leader is directly controllable, as the AI controlled party members will act automatically depending on their current role.
The Paradigm Shift system returns, which allows players to change the role of the characters mid-battle. Paradigms are pre-selected role set-ups for party members, with each role having a specific purpose to the battle. For example, the Commando deals physical damage, a Ravager chains magic attacks together to stagger an enemy and Medics heal other party members. Paradigms are the main strategic element on play in the battle system, as changing between offensive and defensive set-ups are the difference between success and failure, especially in some of the later boss battles.
During important story-based battles, players can finish the fight by completing various quick-time events. Whilst I understand that Square probably thought the players would need more variety in the game than just hammering the A button during a long fight, the way in which these Cinematic Action set-pieces announce themselves mean you don’t really watch the cut scene as you look out for the button prompts. Fortunately, there isn’t really any penalty for failing these instances, and usually the only gain is to stagger an enemy, or they will get finished off anyway.
Generally speaking the battle system works very well, but the limited control over the entire party means that there’s a lot of messing around through menus, as other party members refuse to heal themselves unless they are a Healer. Navigating around menus to revive other party members is also a little irritating as everything’s confined to the lower left hand corner of the screen, making the menu look quite cramped. Loading up attacks is also quite time consuming, especially when you’ve unlocked new attacks through levelling up. Perhaps if there was a way to set up pre-selected attack strings as part of the auto-battle command, players may feel they still had control as well as a more fluid system.
After battles you are ranked on your battle performance, based on how long it takes to finish. Gaining five stars will give an extra 200% chance to gain rare items, although if fighting on easy mode this perk is removed. There is also the chance to capture monsters after defeating them and include them in your battle party. Monsters have a specific class that cannot be changed with a Paradigm Shift. Up to three Monsters can be active, but only one can be placed in each paradigm party. Having them as a back-up Medic or Sentinel can take the heat off the two main characters in more intense battles and by building up your ‘Feral Link’ metre with the monster, they can unleash stronger attacks. There is a certain addictive quality to collecting monsters not unlike a Pokémon title, as players may grow attached to their squad of critters.
The Crystarium is where players can spend their Crystal Points, collected from battles and completing quests, in order to level up the two player characters. By spending points you can level up one role of their character a rank, and will learn new skills within that role. At various intervals players will gain the option to gain other bonuses such as increased equipment space or the ability to allow that character to unlock another Paradigm Roll for them to level up with. Although the level of each roll will differ, governing how they perform in each Paradigm, key stats like health increase with every level-up, regardless of role. Captured Monsters can also be levelled up using Monster Items that are either picked up as spoils or bought from a shop, and as they level up higher grade materials will be needed to increase their skill progress. Unfortunately there’s no real weapon upgrade system. The only way to get better weapons is to buy them whenever they become available, provided you have enough of the required components collected from battles.
Overall the battle system feels like you only really have a loose control over the events of a particular fight, with no way of directly controlling the other party members it becomes somewhat awkward babysitting them. Battles themselves are initiated somewhat randomly as enemies suddenly appear in the field, taking a step back from having them roam freely as in Final Fantasy XII and XIII. Sometimes it’s very difficult to avoid a fight you don’t want to participate in when you’re pre-occupied with a certain objective. Square’s fascination with making player’s make use of the A button extends to the victory and spoils screen whenever a battle is won, when all this data would easily have fit onto a single screen as it does take up the whole screen. Nevertheless the overall system does offer a fluid control of the party leader as well as the general role of each party member, perhaps the menu system could evolve in the next instalment to incorporate different inputs for shortcuts as most of the buttons on the controller are just sitting there not being used for the duration of every battle.
To break up the gameplay, Final Fantasy XIII-2 includes new puzzle sequences located in Temporal Rifts. They are pretty simple affairs that involve tasks such as collecting shards from square platforms that disappear once walked over, joining up same coloured shards or erasing all the numbers on a clock. The clock puzzle sounds complicated as you need to move the hands apart to erase numbers but once you see it in action it makes sense. As a means of changing up the gameplay the puzzle sections aren’t too challenging and are brief enough that they aren’t particularly annoying the few times they do appear.
The main game storyline is probably the weakest aspect of the game. The game starts off promisingly enough as new areas become available, but towards the end it feels fairly rushed, as the game is endlessly padded out. Around two-thirds of the ways through, you are suddenly sent on a dull fetch quest through areas you’ve already explored, and after then story zones are much sparser affairs as you simply walk up to objective markers and watch cut-scenes or participate in overly long battles. The last main level also insists on having a needlessly long and tedious platforming area, suddenly breaking a game that had an auto-jumping system.
Although the canon storyline is fairly linear, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does offer more than just the main storyline. A system called Live Trigger allows players to make choices for their character that have both minor and major effects. However, some are pretty pointless as is one at the beginning of the game as you catch a kid who has stolen something. If you threaten or scold the child, the other characters disapprove and make you re-approach the little thief with gentle reassurance that you won’t get angry with him. Most other choices do have permanent effects however, and players who wish to see how other choices change things can reset the time zone and select a different option.
The ultimate goal in the game is to collect all of the Fragments, of which you can finish the game with around a quarter of the 160 that are scattered throughout the various zones. You can earn them by finishing story elements, defeating certain monsters or by completing side quests called Fragment Missions. These side quests do offer a lot more exploration as the player is usually asked to find something which may be locked away in a different time zone of a particular area. Whilst there are no quest markers, the initial menu giving the information usually includes an image of the general area you will need to explore. The side quests generally feel like a reluctant concession made by Square to appease fans as they are for the most part quite direct and short. Although quite brief, the missions do allow for players to ease in to the flow of exploration a lot more without being stopped constantly to be reminded what has happened, what is happening and what will be happening in the immediate and distant future. There’s also a Casino in which players can play on the slot machines or bet on Chocobo racing for extra currency to purchase better weapons and extra items.
The in-game visuals are for the most part excellent. Character models in particular look great with lots of detail without having their skin look overly shiny like so many games this generation. Environments are also great looking, especially the weather and lighting effects. Although personally I would rather do without pre-rendered cinematics, the CG cut scenes on display are visually stunning, if a little over-directed. Real-time cut scenes are also impressive, even if some of the lip-syncing is slightly off. Upon loading a save, the game will play a brief reminder of where the player is up to in the story with brief snippets of past cut-scenes, however these are absolutely horribly encoded, featuring excessive macro blocking that’s incredibly distracting, or at least on the tested Xbox 360 version.
Voice acting is fairly well done throughout, as the actors do a decent job of delivering the excessive amounts of dialogue. The soundtrack is quite diverse, featuring a lot of vocal tracks which personally I could have lived without. There are some more traditional, minimal musical pieces used in some areas that I felt were a lot more effective in building the atmosphere of the game. Those who enjoyed the grand orchestrations of Nobuo Uematsu from previous games probably won’t appreciate all the fluffy pop songs that make up a great deal of the soundtrack.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game that has some good ideas, it’s just a shame they haven’t been completely fleshed out and feel like they’re just part of a checklist to please fans. The areas aren’t as expansive as they first appear, and the side quests are fairly repetitive as you merely look for things or defeat unique monsters. The actual storyline is pretty atrocious; taking what should be fun subjects like time travel and turning them into boring exposition-laden cut scenes constantly re-iterating character motivations and the potential ramifications of altering the timelines. Overall, the game lacks focus and probably could have done with another few months of development to produce a more solid product. The lack of an ending suggests that a XIII-3 is an almost certainty and just feels like Square is recouping the costs of what must have been an incredibly expensive first instalment. That said, it’s not a bad game in itself and does get a lot more enjoyable after finishing the main story, even if the extra tasks are a little repetitive. Players new to the franchise may find some of the more over-the-top and repetitive elements a little off-putting, but Final Fantasy veterans will likely appreciate the steps that the developers have made to return some of the past features of the series.