Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game that will leave some with a variety of mixed feelings. It wasn’t a terrible JRPG, but neither was it a great one. On a positive note, it’s safe to say that Square-Enix does manage to refine a few elements since the last installment. But is it enough to redeem themselves?
The story takes place three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning has disappeared from existence and nobody seems to notice except Serah, her younger sister. It is soon discovered that Lightning has been spirited away to Valhalla, a world that exists outside the boundaries of time. The armored heroine now serves as the protector of this realm, demonstrating fealty towards Etro, the goddess of death, chaos and the afterlife.
It appears that Etro had intervened with the fate of Lightning and her companions at the conclusion of Final Fantasy XIII, choosing to relieve them of their crystal state out of pity. Because of this, Etro had altered the flow of time, causing anomalies throughout the future and past. Lightning seeks to restore and maintain the time line, however, a mysterious man by the name of Caius Ballad intends to do otherwise. For the most part, this pretty much sums up the story’s central conflict.
Realizing that the battle cannot be won on her own, Lightning employs the aid of Noel Kreiss, a young man hailing from a post-apocalyptic future. He is then sent back through time, where he meets up with Serah, whom he also recruits to the cause. As the story progresses, Serah and Noel travel through various time periods, where they unlock time gates and resolve anomalies. Aside from meeting old friends and crossing paths with Caius and the Seeress Yuel, there isn’t really much to add to the duo’s agenda.
Expect some convoluted explanations about the plot and some twists and turns here and there, though it’s certain that players will enjoy the story to some extent. It isn’t anything special, though the game succeeds in keeping things interesting throughout the whole experience. The ending, however, is subject to debate. Though sentiments of disappointment or excitement are both viable reactions.
The battle system has improved quite nicely. Instead of enemies wandering about the field, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has incorporated the use of random encounters. With use of the Mog Clock, the player has a limited amount of time to strike at a target. Depending on the situation, the player may initiate preemptive attacks or fall victim to an ambush. The latter doesn’t quite happen as often.
Combat is built off of the ATB framework of the previous game, with minor tweaks to the commands and skills. The six paradigm classes return, each serving a purpose associated with tanking, healing, buffing, debuffing, etc. Noel and Serah can shift from one paradigm to the other at any time, thus granting the upper advantage against any challenging opponent. In Final Fantasy XIII-2, the ATB gauge and paradigm shifts are significantly quicker, resulting in short but sweet encounters that last less than a minute or so (excluding boss battles of course).
As one might already notice, there is a lack of a third party member this time around. In fact, Serah and Noel are the only playable characters in the whole game (not including DLC of course, but we’ll get back to that in a moment). Instead, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has opted to utilize a monster recruitment system, in which the player can acquire monsters after combat and use them in their party. The likelihood that a monster will be recruited is dependent on its type and level, although luck seems to be the most definitive factor.
Each monster serves one paradigm role, so it is necessary to organize a pack of three monsters before battle. As Noel and Serah transition between paradigms, the trio of selected monsters will alternate with each other accordingly. Each monster also possesses a sync ability designated by a separate gauge. After the gauge has been filled, the player can unleash a monster’s ability, either dealing massive damage or healing the entire party. The usage of these sync abilities are crucial in turning the tides of battle, especially in dire situations.
Mastering the paradigm shift can allow players to “break” their enemies, or send them into a state of disarray. Once “break” is achieved, Noel and Serah can juggle their opponents or deal critical damage. Breaking was always the fundamental way of achieving victory in Final Fantasy XIII, but in XIII-2 it isn’t emphasized as much. You can win most battles without having to take advantage of the “break” system.
Some encounters, primarily with bosses, will initiate a series of quick time events during the course of the battle. These progression of these scripted events solely depends on the player’s ability to successfully input each button command at the right time. If done right, Noel and Serah will execute a series of flashy moves and inflict critical damage to the target. A perfect quick time event will also yield a larger sum of experience points and Gil.
At the conclusion of every battle, players are yet again evaluated by a five star rating system. However, this time around, the rating determines how much experience is rewarded, how much Gil is dropped, as well as how frequently items will be obtained. In other words, this system urges players to aim for a five star rating. In some instances, rarer items can only be obtained by five starring a boss. Thankfully, Final Fantasy XIII-2 allows unlimited opportunities to redo any of those battles when necessary.
Level progression also works similarly to the last game through the use of the Crystarium system. As usual, leveling up requires Crystogen Points, allowing the player to purchase status upgrades such as increased strength and defense. Final Fantasy XIII-2 substitutes the ring-like formation of the Crystarium for something a little bit more linear. The player can purchase each status upgrade in succession, switching between whichever roles that one may want to invest in. This linearity isn’t a bad thing, though because it is linear, it would’ve been easier if the developers just made leveling up automatic through exponential increases in stats.
In terms of exploration, players won’t get the chance to traverse a large and vast world like previous Final Fantasies, but rather choose a from a set of areas from a type of level selection screen. It is an unfortunate choice made by the developers, though it works in some interesting ways. For example, traveling through time from beginning to end isn’t as linear as one might think. In fact, depending on the choices the player makes, will determine which areas will be unlocked. It is even possible to complete each level in whichever order one wishes, though such will lead to the same end.
There are instances of dialogue choices and options, but they don’t really amount to anything, except for prize boxes that contain cosmetic items for your monster to wear. This was quite disappointing and could have been applied better.
While exploring a level, players will encounter anomalies, which are solved via small puzzles and mini games. Puzzles may include something as mundane as connecting the dots, though others might take some time to figure out. On the flip side, some obstacles simply require killing a certain number of enemies, advancing to the next area where a large boss awaits. The game mix and matches, which somewhat keeps things fresh and consistent. Once Noel and Serah complete their main objective in a given area, the player is thrown back into the level selection screen where the next area can be chosen.
There are more than enough side quests and diversions to keep players busy outside of the main storyline. NPCs designated by large exclamation point usually have problems that need solving or tasks to be done. Much of these tasks require the player to collect a certain amount of a particular item or kill a specific enemy. In practice, most of these side quests are kind of a drag. They don’t offer much incentive except for Gil and experience points.
Completing side quests also yield fragments, which serve as the game’s form of collectible items. After collecting a certain amount of fragments, the player can unlock fragment skills which range from increasing the probability of recruiting a monster, to lowering the frequency of enemy encounters. For those who seek to obtain every trophy/achievement in the game, collecting all of the fragments are vital in completing that feat.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 also features an amusement park known as Serendipity. Though, it appears to be an unfinished part of the game, as there are only two mini games available: the slot machines and Chocobo racing. It is a question whether or not Square-Enix plans to expand on this area with DLC, but chances are that is a large possibility. Serendipity is a thoughtful idea, though it pales in comparison to Final Fantasy VII’s Gold Saucer.
On the topic of presentation, Final Fantasy XIII-2 looks absolutely beautiful. The art style is what you would expect from a Final Fantasy game, especially the character and monster designs. Water ripples and grass parts when you walk through it; can’t really go wrong with that sort of detail. However, the one area that this game falters, is performance. Although the game pays extra attention to the quality of the environment and characters, there are slight slow downs and frame rate drops. While this does not take a whole lot from the game, it is somewhat annoying considering the last game performed significantly better throughout the whole experience.
There are towns in the game, though there isn’t much variation since the same areas and environments are reused quite frequently. The towns and areas might be presented differently (aka snowy, rainy, desert versions), though the layout is completely the same.
The musical score is surprisingly better than the last game. Square-Enix drew most of its talent from Naoshi Mizuta, the same composer who wrote material for Final Fantasy XI. His music fits well with every scene and event in Final Fantasy XIII-2, ranging from mysterious ballads to sweet, heartfelt melodies. The music is by no means on the level of Nobuo Uematsu’s work, but its satisfying enough for the type of setting the world falls into. Can’t really say much about the featured J-Pop artist though; Cherise’s Into the New World wasn’t really a fitting song, especially during the ending cut scene.
Much to my surprise, the majority of the cinematography was rendered in real time using the in-game engine. Square-Enix typically prides itself with its pre-rendered cut scenes in Final Fantasy games, though there are only two or three scenes that used this technique.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will net players a good 50 hours of gameplay, granted they invest in collecting all the fragments and completing all of the side quests. Apart from the main ending, there are numerous other “paradox” endings that can be unlocked, depending on what conditions are met. Most of these endings aren’t cannon to the plot, though they serve as interesting “what if” scenarios.
It has already been confirmed that future DLC is planned for this game. Characters such as Lightning, Sahz and Snow will have their own segments of episodic content. There are also a variety of downloadable bosses to challenge, such as the Omega Weapon. There are DLC costumes as well, but they aren’t really worth the money, unless you are a diehard Final Fantasy fan.
With confidence, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a big improvement over XIII, albeit not a groundbreaking one. It restores some of the traditional aspects of the franchise, so fans may like what they see.
Final Score: 8.5/10