Since its humble beginnings on the NES, Final Fantasy has left an indelible mark in gaming, and that legacy has held strong for generations. Recently, the mantle of Final Fantasy has suffered from fan disappointment and a development strategy that can’t seem to decide between tradition and innovation. Although I was a tremendous fan of Final Fantasy XIII, the criticisms over linearity and overwrought story were absolutely justified. Final Fantasy XIII-2, only the second direct sequel in the series’ long history, is Square Enix’s apology to fans for the failures of the last game. With a far more open world, towns, and a story line that lets you hop all over at your discretion, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a lot of changes, but still manages to feel like an incomplete game.
Stepping back onto the planet of Pulse as Serah, the unfortunate soul who brought the cast together in XIII, finds the player in a different world than they last left. Time has passed, and much of what happened at the end of the previous game is recapped, although most of it has changed and shifted. Time has been fragmented, and only Serah seems to know that her memories have been adulterated. Her belief is vindicated by the arrival of time-traveler Noel, who brings a message from Serah’s sister Lightning, as well as a pet Moogle. This visitation sweeps Serah up into a quest to find her sister and fix time in order to restore reality.
Ambitious as the story sounds, it never seems to get out of its own way. Using Chrono Cross as a template for questing sounds promising, but it highlights where the series is stalling as a whole. Taking great ideas from almost two decades ago and stamping it as innovation isn’t fooling anyone. With no direct path, telling a comprehensive story becomes impossible, dialogue becomes a game of “count the clichés,” and Serah is given no identity other than being the distraught sibling to a hero. The dense narrative usually associated with Final Fantasy games was sacrificed to give players the appearance of more diverse game play. While not as engaging as previous entries, the light story does manage to stay amusing by taking a more lighthearted approach. Many of the characters you run across add levity, and there are inside jokes peppered throughout. There is some fun to be had in the story, although most of it is outside the main line, and fortunately the battle system outshines the gaps.
Encounters are the strongest part of XIII-2. The system continues the Paradigm Shift, allowing each character to switch roles in the midst of battle. Strategy comes out of picking your roles and being able to change them as tides turn. It is a deeply satisfying system, allowing for different players to adapt characters to their preference. Shifting roles is faster this time around, giving battles a much more frantic and occasionally stressful pace. The Auto-Battle option is still the primary function during battles, automatically picking the best options for a given situation. This option seemed like a cheat when it was first introduced, but once again battle strategy is based on roles and choices, not individual attacks. It is a rewarding and addictive means of dispatching your enemies, and is the most flawlessly executed change in the series.
Tweaking the fights to be quicker works well, but the other major overhaul to the game play is the addition of monster wrangling, a “Pokemon-“ style system of capturing, raising and battling with monsters instead of new party members. The third slot in your party is filled by various creatures, and nearly every monster in the game is “catchable” and capable of filling roles of your choosing. You can level them up, adorn them with silly outfits, and combine their attributes to create more powerful allies.
Using this ally system is fun at times, but it seems to belong to a different game. There are a huge number of options and combinations, but despite the mechanics, it feels disconnected from the rest of the narrative. No story helps to inspire your choices, and unless you have the desire to catch them all, simply grabbing a few early and leveling them will serve you the rest of the game. It’s a fun but needless addition that never quite comes together.
While the enemies you recruit may not garner much affection, the moogle companion, who transformes into Serah’s weapon when needed, adds far more than could be expected. Aside from offering a “Hello Kitty” dose of adorable, the moogle also acts as a treasure hunter and path finder. It can guide you to hidden treasure, reveals paths and treasure chests lost in time, warns you on approaching enemies, and can be hurled at far away spheres to retrieve items you can’t get to on your own. Making something that seemed like an overly saccharine addition become such a vital part of exploration should be lauded. I spent more time than I care to admit throwing the little guy across the map trying to grab items and hit far off landmarks.
Looking at the game from a purely mechanical standpoint would garner it high marks across the board. The exploration is wider, although the maps are still a bit small and linear (think Final Fantasy X), and there is a freedom to leaping through time at your own pace to backtrack. You can even “reset” time in an area if you need a fresh start, or simply want to replay a section. Cleaving through monsters and bad guys is still a blast, and the improvements make the systems sharp and clean. It is arguably the best take on the traditional RPG system this generation. On all those points, Final Fantasy XIII-2 towers over the original. Sadly, the story and characters just can’t inspire any affection or devotion. Running into the cast from Final Fantasy XIII only serves to remind you of how endearing they were, and how invested you became in their quest. Each time I wished I could drop Serah and Noel and pick up the old crew. Clocking in at around 25 hours, you should develop a love for the characters. That never happens here, and the tacked on, hurried ending only highlights the gaps and lack of planning. Square Enix spent so much time trying to make up for the complaints about linearity that they forgot what makes the series so special, and has kept such a loyal fan base.
In the end, Final Fantasy XIII-2 suffers the same fate as Final Fantasy XIII, just at the opposite end of the spectrum. Linearity is abolished, game play is quick and rewarding, and the amount of additional quests and alternate endings give players something to return to. Yet, the lack of story and likeable characters haunts the game. With so much dialogue and so many cut-scenes that go nowhere and serve no purpose other than to reiterate that time is fractured, it’s almost offensive how little there is to Serah and Noel. Those that can forgive that aspect will find a great deal to enjoy here, but those searching for a continuation of the characters they loved or a compelling story behind the characters actions will be severely disappointed.
|Addictive combat. Beautiful settings and spectacle. Large degree of exploration and control.||Disappointing characters, story and ending. Feels too much like fan service|