Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
After ten hours of Final Fantasy XIII, I was beginning to lose patience. No, I'm not the fastest gamer in the world, nor the most proficient, but not even I needed a tutorial that lasted for half a day. JRPGs have often employed a fairly rigid sense of linearity into their formulae, but this was ridiculous. All I'd done to get this far was press 'Up' and 'A' and listen to Hope moan and whine about a tall, brash hothead in a beanie.
Yes it got better, but for some that was already enough. Square had put out their stall, and many felt unfulfilled. Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't fix everything that was wrong with the first game, not by a long shot, but it does go some way to creating a better experience and one that after ten, twenty or thirty hours, still makes a return to Cocoon and Pulse an attractive proposition.
This is primarily down to a simple inversion of sorts. Gone are the branching, confusing narratives of the past game. No more irritating character switching, no feeling of organisational impotence. Whereas FFXIII had you bouncing between characters, separated sometimes by necessity, sometimes by pride, occasionally by events that didn't seem to make any kind of sense at all, its sequel offers up a simple, high concept story, and one that proves far more engaging because of its refined focus.
The premise is this: we find Serah, Lightning's sister, three years after the events that ended Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning , seen on the beach of Gran Pulse at the end of that game has seemingly disappeared, vanished into thin air, and no one knows what has become of her. Plagued by visions of her sister trapped in an alternate realm, battling a suitably menacing-looking chap named Caius, Serah knows that even though no one remembers, Lightning is still alive somewhere.
Her certainty is further anchored when a meteor crashes into the ground, having seemingly ripped through the very fabric of the sky itself, accompanied by a young man named Noel. Noel reveals himself to be a time traveller of sorts, having come from the future where he has seen the End of Days as the last human. Buoyed by the possibility of travel between ages, Serah resolves to go looking for her sister accompanied by her new young friend, who's along to see if he can't prevent the future destruction of the world.
In a practical sense, this means hopping about through areas, both familiar and new, at different points in time. At each location, in each era, there are a variety of time gates to unlock, crystal fragment collectibles to be found and paradoxical timelines to resolve. It seems that Noel and Serah aren't the only ones dabbling in the timestream and their bid to save the world becomes a twisting tale of cause and effect.
Time travel is navigated by a central hub called the Historia Crux, a virtual map of the timestream that's accessible at any time during open play, saving your progress immediately in the current age and giving you the freedom to hop backwards or forwards in time as you wish. And you'll need to. But the emphasis there is on the words "open play", or at least the notion of it. Final Fantasy serves up a fairly linear story as things go, but the moment to moment nature of it is far more expansive than that of its predecessor.
There are the occasional corridors, but there are also wide, open field; desert wastes; leafy, branching jungle pathways and more. Often when you touch down in a new era, you're given the freedom to just kick off and explore, to hunt for those bobbing treasure spheres or see what weird and wonderful critters pop out at you this time around. In each level there are a certain number of Fragments to collect, obtainable by completing side quests that you'll stumble into from the start. If you just play through the main storyline, you end up with around 40-60 Fragments and, with a total of 160 to find, there's plenty still to do after the credits roll. You can initiate chats with NPCs in this game (thank god!), and some of them will have tasks for you; tasks that may well have you jumping between a couple of ages to fetch something or battling a transformed Cie'th or finding a hidden treasure.
To help you, in regard to the latter, comes your Moogle companion. My flatmate stood gawping at the rotund, irrepressibly cute, batwinged, red-nosed creature and proceeded to jokingly question both the sexuality of yours truly, and that of the Moogle himself. He's never played a JRPG, and nor is he ever likely to. But that's rather the point. Give the demo a whirl and, if the Moogle's tendency to stick "Kupo!" on the end of every sentence irritates more than his treasure-hunting ability and general, bafflingly endearing appearance charm, this might not be the game for you.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't do much to move the JRPG forward - although we're endlessly thankful for a save system of such immediacy, the little cutscene montages that offer a skippable 20 second recap of the story so far each time you boot up the game, and the return of the Paradigm system. Final Fantasy XIII's combat was excellently setup, it's just that the incidental battles were almost entirely superfluous due to the ease with which "Auto-Battle" could be deployed. Sadly both the best and worst things are retained in that sense.
Combat is actually much faster now, the emphasis being on tactical preparation - getting your Paradigms right ans shifting quickly between them to suit the battle. Against stronger, more numerous enemies and the larger bosses, it shows itself to be an excellent system: fluid, surprisingly engaging and tactically sound. The second point is augmented by new Quick Time Events that can see you unleash special attacks (once a bar has been filled) and deliver the final blows in Cinematic Events. But there are too many incidental battles that last no more than 5-30 seconds, instantly forgettable chapters that serve no real purpose other than to dispense items, offer small handfuls of Crystarium Points and break up the flow of the game. Worse still, random encounters make a full comeback. They don't ruin things completely, so easy it is to overcome them, but in those places where the path narrows and you can't outrun them, it can get pretty tedious.
There is another incentive to keep battling, though, and that comes in the form of monster crystals. Every time you defeat a monster, there's a chance that you can obtain its crystal form and have it fight by your side. These monsters correspond to one of the the six Paradigm alignments and are upgradable with special item drops, the idea being that at any given moment you have a party of three: Noel, Serah, and which monster (ie. Paradigm) you want alongside them. This allows you to focus your Crystarium upgrades for the two protagonists into two or three roles early on, with the monsters giving you certain flexibility. It's a nice idea, but it does rather expose the wholly unsatisfying nature of Crystarium upgrading, and makes you hunger for something like the Materia system.
Once again, this is a stunningly pretty game to look at. It's difficult at times to tell where the cutscenes end and in-game graphics begin. But better still, there seems to be parity between the two versions, that is to say that the visual issues that plagued the Xbox 360 version of the previous title appear to have been ironed out. The vocal-heavy soundtrack is like an aural duvet that perfectly envelopes the experience and each era brings with it new aesthetic delights. This time, however, you're relatively free to enjoy them at your own leisure.
Two years on from Final Fantasy XIII, its sequel is what you'd expect. Those looking for a completely different game will be disappointed, but they should also ask themselves what they expected to begin with. As a JRPG that builds upon its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII-2 tweaks and enhances in just the right places. Yes, the endless random encounters often frustrate (if only because they seem so needless on account of their ease), but never for very long. To end on a somewhat personal note, I find myself discussing Final Fantasy XIII-2 with others with a smile on my face, talking of Noel and Serah as though they're old friends, something I never got with the original game. Seeing these locales, interacting further with the world(s) around you, bound unto these two protagonist, it's difficult not to feel attached in a way that one never really could with the permanently angry Lightning or the one-dimensional shaggy loyal dog that was Snow.
It won't change the minds of anyone who's been burned by JRPGs in the past, and it's a poor introduction to the Final Fantasy series for newcomers, but that's rather beside the point. For anyone who had even a passing interest in FFXIII, this game is for you. Even if you never finished the original, there's a Beginner Primer that recaps the whole saga for you and the game feels familiar, even though it's clear there have been numerous tweaks and upgrades to the system. It doesn't matter if no one else gets it -as they say, haters gonna hate - but Square Enix have made their fans proud.
- More focused story yet increased exploration and replay value
- Paradigm and captured monster systems shine when it comes to bosses
- Excellent fan service
- Random battles often pointless thanks to auto-battle
- Random battles?!!
- Won't convert any JRPG sceptics.
The Short Version: What Square Enix have served up here is something of a rare, if flawed, treat. They've delivered a game that builds upon and corrects a number of the mistakes of its predecessor, whilst sacrificing none of what made FFXIII an attractive proposition in the first place. This is a game that makes few concessions to genre unbelievers, preferring to reward the faithful with some fine examples of fan service. It's not perfect, and it doesn't quite stand on its own two feet, but rather makes a bid to be the game that FFXIII should have been...and it largely succeeds.