Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: Probably best left to fans of the original, FF13-2 is a fun and ambitious sequel. It's also flawed and even a little insulting. Truly a mixed bag.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a unique game in the sense that as I sit down right now to write this review, I'm at a loss as to the score I'm ultimately going to give it. It's a sequel that improves in a couple ways over the love-it-or-hate-it 13th installment in the long-running Final Fantasy series, yet falls behind it in others. It's a game that both had my jaw dropping in awe and my head shaking in frustration. It's a game that struck me as being fun throughout yet ends in such an unsatisfying way that it almost feels like it wasn't even worth playing.

Almost. I won't go that far, because at its heart, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game that I'm sure was made with good intentions, and the developers should be commended for trying to do something different. This is not just a phoned-in sequel, and what they've created is a (mostly) fun game, so in that sense, I don't regret playing it. But frankly, I'm wondering if you will.

Graphics: But for now, let's start with the visuals. At a little over two years now since Final Fantasy XIII's Japanese release, the tech on display may no longer pack the same punch, and here it comes packaged with some ridiculously long load times, but the art direction's still incredible. From the second I first gained full control of Serah in the town of New Bodhum, I was drawn into this world by the incredible art direction. The way the sun's rays, weakened by a heavy layer of clouds but still visible, pour out from behind the crystalized wreckage of Cocoon, the way the whole area's bathed in a slight felt like I was waking up in some sort of dream, and that was the perfect feeling for the start of this story. Oftentimes where Final Fantasy XIII-2 impresses visually is in its weather effects and use of vibrant colors, and Isamu Kamikokuryo, returning from Final Fantasy XIII, does not disappoint with his art direction. The characters still look good and animate well, especially in the in-game cutscenes, which continue to feature this console generation's best facial expressions. CG scenes are incredibly few in number this time around, but they're the series' best-looking, and it's truly showstopping whenever one does happen to arrive. I guess it's maybe a little disappointing that the graphics saw no major boost from Final Fantasy XIII, and that this sequel comes with far longer load times and even the addition of some slowdown, but the beautiful art direction and colorful world makes this game great to look at anyway.

Story: Picking up from where Final Fantasy XIII left off but branching off in a different direction almost immediately, this one goes all over the place, as most plots involving time travel do. I can't describe it too much without going into the ending of Final Fantasy XIII, which I'd rather not do, so I'll leave it at this. Final Fantasy XIII-2 stars Lightning's sister Serah, who played a small but important role in XIII, along with new character Noel. Why he's named Noel, I have no idea, but he actually winds up being one of the more down to earth and compelling main characters the series has seen in quite some time, and Serah surprised me too. She's strong but in a very different way than Lightning was, and the two of them have a great dynamic. They manage to make the plot, which is laughably convoluted at times, almost make sense. The cutscenes are incredible, and some of the action sequences have to be seen to be believed. I wouldn't say the storyline here lives up to the stories of any of the Final Fantasy games that came before XI, (many of the emotional moments fall flat, for whatever reason) but it's not a total trainwreck, either. Well, until you get to the ending, which is, unfortunately, as bad as you may have heard it was. But I'll get to that a bit later.

Gameplay: Unlike with Final Fantasy X-2, the previous direct sequel, this one doesn't throw out its predecessor's battle system, instead, it brings it back with some tweaks. You only get to control the two main characters (Noel and Serah) this time, along with the addition of a monster character, several of which you capture throughout the game. Though I was initially afraid of what this change would mean, it turns out to work pretty well. The monsters have their own different ways of leveling up (using items that you collect from battles) and they reach their peaks far sooner than the other two characters do, but you wind up with such a large deck of monsters to choose from, all with their own Job, (Paradigm) and their own skills to learn, that it doesn't get old, and I never missed having a 3rd party member. Also nice is that no longer do you get the Game Over screen when your lead character dies, with the game switching automatically to your other character. Leveling up has been streamlined even further from where it was in Final Fantasy 13; now, once you pull up your Crystarium, you simply mash the A button until you run out of Crystogen points. Where you get to make some decisions is when you reach certain bonuses. You can choose to add another segment to your character's ATB gauge, or you can teach them another Paradigm, or increase the bonuses they receive from the same Paradigm....all that stuff. By and large, the game provides you the freedom to develop your characters in the direction you want, with no level caps until you hit 99. Add in this game's respawning enemies (versus the "once they're dead, they're dead" battles from Final Fantasy 13) you can level grind to your heart's content.

Not that you'll find yourself needing to all that often. What's so bizarre about Final Fantasy XIII-2 is how easy it is. With the exception of 3 bosses (two of them coming at the end of the game) I blew through almost all battles and boss fights here with almost shocking ease. Final Fantasy XIII, which was one of the more challenging modern games in the series, prided itself on creating a combat experience that forced you to strategize, to constantly be on your toes, and to switch your Paradigms frequently to adjust to the many different enemy types and their strategies. Here, well, you grab a strong Commando or Ravager monster character and the game becomes a cakewalk. It literally reaches a point where I wasn't sure whether what I was fighting was a boss or just a big random encounter, and I got 5 stars on almost all of them. There's just no difficulty progression whatsoever until you hit the very end of the game, and even those fights have little on what the last game regularly threw at you. Maybe Final Fantasy XIII was too challenging at times, but here we have an experience at the complete opposite end of the spectrum: a game that feels like nobody developing it even gave the difficulty (and its progression) a moment's thought. This leaves me in a weird predicament as someone reviewing the game because while I have to say that the battle system is unquestionably fun, as it was in Final Fantasy XIII, the gameplay here is simply broken; there's just no skill necessary to play the vast majority of Final Fantasy XIII-2.

But I'm going to step back from combat for a minute because where Final Fantasy XIII-2 differs most from its predecessor is that there's more to its gameplay than just battling. Whereas the original decided to focus almost exclusively on combat and the presentation of its story, Final Fantasy XIII-2 tries to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, to very mixed results. First thing's first; one of the biggest dividing factors with Final Fantasy XIII was that it sacrificed explorable towns in favor of non-stop action gameplay. One of Final Fantasy XIII-2's big selling points is that it was said to be bringing back the RPG aspects that were missing from its predecessor, so did towns make a return? Honestly, that's a difficult question to answer. Yes, there are now areas where you can wander around: places where you can listen to and chat with NPC characters without battles going on, and yes, some of these NPCs give you sidequests that you can choose to take on. That said, most of these "towns" resemble basically a square packed with people, which seems town-like on the surface, but you still can't enter any buildings, there are still no shops save for one rather annoying shopkeeper who follows you everywhere, there aren't any inns, and all the sidequests basically take you outside the towns anyway, so really, in my opinion, there aren't towns here. These are just small environments packed with people and no battles. The one exception is a massive (and incredible-looking) city you visit and get to explore towards the end of the game, and though there's still very little you can do in there except to walk around, it's a true highlight and something I wish we saw more of across these two games. I appreciate the inclusion of these town-like areas (and Final Fantasy XIII certainly would have benefitted from them) but I feel like the developers missed the point, and wish they'd go back and re-experience Final Fantasy cities like Lindblum, Midgar, Luca, and hell, even Final Fantasy XII's Rabanastre, to see what we're missing here. Close, but no cigar.

Sadly, this expression can be applied to almost every new aspect of Final Fantasy XIII-2. In an attempt to add variety to the gameplay, bizarre puzzle segments were thrown in, and while I can understand the reason they were included, their implementation is so poor that I wish they hadn't bothered. The instructions given to you at the start of each puzzle are fairly confusing, and there's no way (unless I missed something) to pull them back up once you begin the puzzle and actually have your bearings. The puzzles themselves stick out from the rest of the game like a sore thumb, and the story really stretches to justify their existance...again, I wish they hadn't bothered. Luckily, the developers seemed to have forgotten about these puzzles pretty quickly, with the game all but abandoning them once you get about 1/4 of the way through it.

In an attempt to make up for the lack of mini-games in Final Fantasy XIII, you can now visit a theme park of sorts where you get to play some of them, something that sounds like a cool addition on paper, but again, it feels like more could have been done with it. The theme park takes the form of another small "town square," one which contains a whopping two activities: Chocobo Racing and Slot Machines....Gold Saucer this is not. I half-wished they just brought back Nautillus from the original and added these two mini-games to it, as that area was far more exciting than what they threw together here.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 also sees the inclusion of dialogue trees, where cutscenes will pause, allowing you to choose the next line of dialogue for your character to say. The game makes surprisingly frequent use of these, and while it's a fun novelty, it doesn't add all that much to the experience. Your choices rarely seem to have an impact on the story, (not that I really think they should...this is a JRPG, not Mass Effect) and it's often obvious which choice is "the right one." What works a little better are the addition of QTE-like segments to the cutscenes, and again, while I wish this concept was taken farther than it was, (getting to choose which move Lightning uses against the enemy in the opening cutscene is sadly the exception, not the norm) it's a fun new feature that adds some satisfaction to the cutscenes and lets you feel like you played a part in them. The game always warns you when they're about to happen, and you're rewarded for doing them well and not punished for failing, so it's a harmless addition.

Probably the most substantial new feature is the Historia Crux, which serves as your gateway to the game's locations. Final Fantasy XIII-2's plot relies heavily on time travel, and this is how that's reflected in its gameplay. How this works is that there are various Time Gates scattered throughout the locations you visit. To activate each, you need something called an Artefact. The Artefacts needed to progress through the story are given to your characters automatically as the plot dictates, but to enter other, optional ones, which open branches on the Historia Crux that take you to new areas to explore, you're tasked with finding their respective Artefacts, either given to you by completing sidequests or just by finding them hidden in the environments. It's through this that all the locations in the game are criss-crossed across the Historia Crux timeline. It's a cool idea that gives you some freedom to explore and the ability to find new areas, something lacking in Final Fantasy XIII. You can even return to areas you've already visited, reset them, and live through those events again, this time with your more advanced characters.

As ridiculous as a lot of this sounds, I was on board for most of it; this mechanic encourages you to explore each environment in search of Artefacts, and the ability to find and explore hidden locations is a breath of fresh air after Final Fantasy XIII's corridor-like gameplay. But towards the end is where Final Fantasy XIII-2 totally lost me. There's a point where to progress through the main storyline, the game has you return to areas you've already visited to hunt down tiny objects which are literally invisible. It's filler in the worst sense of the word, the type of thing I have no patience for, especially when I ran out of "Wild Artefacts" and had to go back on a search for one of those too. The game goes from this item hunt into the final dungeon, which makes use of the new (annoying) Jump feature to have you platform hop across a maze of rotating blocks and stairs over a bottomless pit. Not fun in the least. And it was as I became more frustrated with Final Fantasy XIII-2 that it began to occur to me that I never really felt like I was a part of this game's world. The Historia Crux has you jump from one area (and time period) to another, so these locations are all completely disconnected from each other; as a result, we have a game that feels more like a series of episodic set pieces and less like an adventure.

Sound: "Confusing" doesn't even begin to describe this game's music. Very heavy on the vocals and synth, not exactly great with the atmosphere, the soundtrack has nothing on Final Fantasy XIII's, or any other numbered Final Fantasy game for that matter. A couple of the new tracks are interesting, (Oerba's music is kind of cool in an 80s throwback way, and the song playing in New Bodhum has a nice dream-like quality to it) but it's never a good sign when recycled Final Fantasy XIII tracks constantly upstage the music that was composed specifically for this game. The voice acting,on the other hand, is pretty excellent, with Noel (especially) and Serah's actors doing some great work throughout, which is good, because you have to hear a lot of them. All the actors from Final Fantasy XIII whose characters have parts in the sequel are back, which is always a nice touch.


Verdict: All in all, I'm honestly stumped as to who I'd recommend this game to. The combat system remains fun, the story definitely has its moments, and many of Final Fantasy XIII's locations have been given cool new re-inventions, along with the inclusion of some new ones. The addition of NPC areas, sidequests, and exploration are all nice, even though none of these are really taken as far as they could be. But then the game's final act is so tedious that it left a bad taste in my mouth, something that's certainly not helped by the total "**** you" of an ending that they tacked on, and frankly, if you didn't play Final Fantasy XIII, you'll be completely lost in this game right off the bat. Speaking as someone who did play it, I found the lack of closure provided by this sequel's ending to be all the more irritating when taking into account that this is the second $60 I've given to this development team, and that clearly, they want me to pay even more.

Aside from the ending, I have to say that Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn't as insulting to its predecessor as Final Fantasy X-2 was to Final Fantasy X. Final Fantasy XIII, though, still feels to me like a more epic adventure than this sequel is; it's certainly the more polished and better-balanced of the two. As a game Final Fantasy XIII-2 tries to do more, and the boldness of some of its experiments and improvements are commendable, but then the game doen't take them far enough. When all's said and done, this is's just not Final Fantasy; it's very much a part of this new series that began with Final Fantasy XI and hasn't gone anywhere since. With this game's lack of a cohesive world, its dialogue choices, its "pay to continue the story" DLC structure, its filler item hunts, bad jumping mechanics, and an unfinished ending.....I can't help but feel like that old Final Fantasy series is further away now than ever.

Presentation: Interesting but messy storyline that's helped immensely by its two great lead characters. Slick menus, but long load times.

Graphics: While no longer as technically impressive as these graphics once were, the art direction shines through, creating an often visually-stunning game. Cutscenes look and animate fantastically.

Gameplay: Fun combat system with some nice tweaks. Introduction of exploration and "towns" are welcome, lack of difficulty progression is not, and please, Square-Enix, keep jumping (and that irritating "Wound" status ailment) FAR away from Final Fantasy. Filler item hunt towards the end is unfortunate.

Sound: Music is decent at times, unbearable at others. Voice actors though do an incredible job.

Replay Value: Higher than most other games in the genre, especially Final Fantasy XIII. Ability to go back and make changes and unlock other endings is nice for those who want it. Game's around 20-25 hours for just the main quest.

Overall: 7.0/10

(Note; My reviews go on a .5 scale. This is a review of the 360 version.)

Guess that's my score. Good but seriously flawed game for fans of the original, everyone else probably can look elsewhere.

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