Moments I’ve experienced in the Final Fantasy series has always been about the characters. Say what you want about battle systems but without its characters and their personal nuances, those wonderful summon attacks or limit breaks have less meaning behind them. Sephiroth from 7. Rydia from 4. Celes from 6. Each character, whether they played a large or small role in the story, made some connection with the player. Since FF7, Square has always gone for those grandiose storylines wrapped with production values that reach far beyond what most high-profile games spend a dime for. And with Final Fantasy XIII along with its sequel, XIII-2, the CG cinematics rivals that of Advent Children. But does it deliver?
Final Fantasy XIII was setup to take the series back to its roots and that entry in particular was known for its battle system. Unfortunately, its story could not match the intensityof its combat mechanics. When I got a chance to play Final Fantasy XIII-2 at E3 last year, I was hoping to see the game fix what didn’t work with XIII and push the battle system to new heights. I may have unfairly raised the bar for myself in this regard.
FF XIII-2 brings Serah, Hope and a moogle front and center with a new protagonist – Noel. Meanwhile, Lightning and Fang (who seem to be the more interesting pair of characters from this story arc) are relegated to background an cameo roles. The plot places the cast in a convoluted premise that make liberal use of time travel. In some ways, the time travel story arc starts to get really crazy and all of these alternate realities somewhat feel like another excuse to have a ton of crazy things happen at its convenience. “I can’t get through here”, “why is he acting weird now” and a few others are some of the quotes you may say to yourself but it’s more obvious than anything that it all has to do with some weird time paradox. If you still don’t get it, just ask Doc Brown. Now, this is not to say that time travel can’t be done right but the plot gets so caught up with time travel that it’s hard to get invested in the characters and their actions. It’s hard to find meaning to what everyone’s doing when there’s 30 things going on.
What makes following the story difficult is that it is not complete and is riddled with several “what if” endings and the game concludes with “to be continued”. It’s likely that future DLC will not cover it either. Which leads me to one terribly jarring moment that will hopefully not become an omen for the series’ future: While exploring an optional casino, in which you can spin slot machines and race chocobos, there’s an attendant who teaches you about the different available mini-games. She gives you a few options to select from. Upon picking one, she told me, “To be unlocked with future downloadable content.” Not cool.
And going back to story, there’s just too many plot holes. At one point I thought I took the worst path or did something wrong in the game that would’ve pushed me away from the real ending. Nope. Square Enix left the story open and and the announcement of Final Fantasy XIII-3 will eventually come out from the PR caves sooner or later.
I understand that the tone of this review may not be received well among Final Fantasy fans (to which I also am) but storytelling is one of the most significant pieces of RPGs. FF purists may also feel compelled to talk about how the latest games take away from the tradition of self-contained stories but all is not lost in Final Fantasy XIII-2. This is not a terrible game by any means fans of the series will think of Final Fantasy XIII-2 as the game with the coolest battle system thus far. Additionally, FF XIII-2 is enjoyable in other ways. I’m not just saying that either just to offset my critical thoughts of the story but other parts of the game are excellent to the point where I’m willing to give the game another try just to see if I’ve missed anything to the story.
FF XIII’s battle system returns to familiar territory yet there has been some serious polish and nice new wrinkles made to the system. It’s a significant upgrade and, in some ways, has resulted in my new favorite battle system of the entire series. Fights require a mix of strategy, timing and a style that makes combat not only fast flowing but oozing with stylish flair giving each victory a satisfying feeling. You’re never left feeling like you’re grinding away in every battle. Quickly shifting to defensive paradigms when a boss is about to use a devastating attack or debuffing paradigms where you’re setting up for the long haul. In fact, there are quite a number of improvements made to the system since the last game that make battles much more enjoyable:
- No longer will the game end when the party leader dies.
- Paradigm Shift animations are much more brief and in most cases, omitted.
- Paradigms can be tuned to focus on single or multiple targets
- Six classes are available
- Summons don’t transform into vehicles
- Shroud items (like Aegisol) have been removed
- TP is gone
But, best of all, the biggest and most addictive part of the game is monster collecting a la Pokemon. That isn’t to say that each monster you capture is something cute. It’s quite the opposite. Monsters can range from moogles to hulking mechs used to work along side Noel and Serah (who will always be in your party). There’s also a strategic element to what you recruit and who you deploy come battle time. For instances, certain monsters belong to certain types of classes. Some act as commandos who are basically the tanks of the party, ravagers and even medics. This adds depth to your character loadout screens. And when you’re hooked up with a powerful monster who’s given your party troubles before, thrill is similar to having a new toy in your arsenal of weapons.
FF XIII-2 also gets some nice bonus points for addressing one of the most glaring issues of its prequel (linearity) and I’m happy to report that they’ve addressed this issue. Now, thanks to time travelling nature of the Historia Crux, you can travel to 10 different areas in different time periods – some which are unlockable. Obviously, there are certain areas that are dependent on progressing the main storyline but now there are sidequests, rewards, cameo apperances and the like. And if you’ve feel you’ve missed something you can return to the Historia Crux and try something else. Of course, unlocking new places requires new things (Wild Artefacts) but essentially you can do other stuff. Those who’ve felt the tunnel vision from XIII will like the newfound freedom the Historia Crux allows.
With the linearity issue solved, the smaller issues that were prevalent in the previous game got the same treatment. Level caps on the Crystarium has been removed so now you have an excuse to keep playing the game post-ending letting you level your characters through undiscovered areas and collect the rest of the monsters. Although it would’ve been nice to have an additional game mode to strut your omnipotent character around, you can at least revisit individual areas once you’ve cleared them in order to replay their stories. QTE (Quicktime events) and conversation branch points add to the game’s (albeit convoluted) story in an otherwise mostly static experience.
From the story to the battle system, certain elements of FF XIII-2 will have its supporters and detractors. For the most part, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does the right things – player-driven progression, fast-flowing combat, high-production value interactive cinematics. All that remains is a well-written story to wrap all those nice features in one nice cohesive package. But then again maybe we just need to keep our expectations in check. For better or for worse, the Final Fantasy has changed and will continue to evolve with the times but let’s hope that when Final Fantasy XIII-3 debutes, it’ll be third times the charm.
There are not many graphic differences between the two systems nor are the loading times so different between the two systems. However, you can install the game fully on both systems to reduce loading times but you’ll still do alot of waiting. But if you’ve finished FF XIII in your preferred system, get the game for that system to get some nice cosmetic bonuses.