Historically, all true Final Fantasy installments have been entirely new; i.e., a whole new world, new story, new characters, and even new gameplay mechanics. From Materia to Junctions to the Sphere Grid to Licenses and Gambits and everything in between, each has been magnificent in its own right. But Square Enix broke the mold with Final Fantasy X-2 , which turned out great in my opinion, but many say wasn’t up to franchise standards. So what to expect from the latest sequel attempt…? Well, I'll do my best to explain.
As you might expect, production values are once again sky-high, as players will enjoy meticulously crafted CGI sequences and quite a few well-envisioned set pieces. Too many of the environments are too dark for my taste, but that’s my lone complaint. I actually like the character design more than I did in FFXIII, as there’s a bit more inspiration and innovation in that vein (look at Alyssa, for instance), and the special effects and in-game visuals are pretty damn good. Essentially, it’s beautiful without being overwhelmingly amazing.
The sound will be a mixed bag, depending on your personal preferences. While we do receive some of those patented music pieces – classically composed, sweeping, majestic, epic – Square Enix tossed in a harder hitting variety of mainstream tracks. There’s some heavy rock and pop-y type themes here and there, and some may not like the amped-up battle music. The effects are just as good as always, and the voice acting seems a little better; Noel and Serah are quite good, and Lightning, Hope, and other returning characters do their jobs well.
I won’t spend a great deal of time detailing the specific upgrades, alterations and tweaks, as I assembled such highlights in a recent write-up . Please refer to that as a supplement to this review.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 finds the protagonist of FFXIII, Lightning, locked in an over-the-top battle with a blue-haired bad guy, who we learn is Caius. Lightning, referred to now as the “Warrior Goddess,” is somehow in Valhalla, and she tasks Noel, a surprise time traveler, with finding Serah. As FFXIII players will remember, Serah was Lightning’s sister and Snow’s fiancé. As such, Serah and Noel team up to solve the mystery surrounding Lightning and the strange time paradoxes that crop up everywhere.
During the first few hours, the game does a good job of recapping FFXIII events in a way that doesn’t seem tiresome or boring. You’ll also notice that you have more freedom right off the bat; you can run around the settlement of New Bodham, talking to NPCs and going off to fight some enemies, if you so choose. This freedom permeates the entire adventure, which is definitely a good thing because once you reach the Historia Flux, you can select any open time available. This means jumping back and forth between various sections in the game is not only admissible, but encouraged.
As I stated in the rundown linked above, the developers did indeed make plenty of desired changes, and that includes the aforementioned freedom and open-endedness, as well as the combat. With the Mog Clock (strike an enemy just after it appears and gain the upper hand), Cinematic Actions (button prompts during certain boss sequences and Feral Links), restricted and thereby more strategic Accessory equipping system, and streamlined Crystarium, there’s a lot to like. Did I mention they sped up the Paradigm Shift, too? The first switch is no longer intrusive.
The addition of Monsters is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a compelling, in-depth mechanic that urges you to capture every monster and select your favorites for use in battle. You can level them up via Crystarium (special items are needed) and even “Infuse” them; in other words, one monster absorbs another and becomes inherently stronger. On the other hand, as a monster is always your third party member in battle and it’s only Noel and Serah throughout, you’re robbed of the RPG joy of choosing your party. Really, that's sort of a staple.
Yes, of course you can always change your monster, but that’s not really the same thing. You don’t necessarily feel any personal connection to any monster in your party and besides, since when do we have a Final Fantasy that doesn’t have more than two human characters to choose from? It just bugs me. That being said, given all the improvements with the battle system, this is a greatly refined mechanic when compared to the one in FFXIII, and that shouldn’t be glossed over.
Even so, we’re still looking at what should be deemed “RPG Lite” in terms of gameplay. Despite all the added depth, regardless of all the micromanagement that is indeed in this game, combat still allows you to hit Auto Battle with the X button and win the majority of random encounters. As I’ve said before, this means you can win a fight in a so-called RPG without ever actually looking at the abilities you chose to use, and that’s just wrong in my eyes. Am I the only one?
But I would like to stress that despite my hesitancy to label this an RPG, it’s still fun. Due to the battle tweaks – game isn’t over if the leader falls, the ability to change the leader in combat, faster Paradigm Shifts, etc. – this feels like a more solid, reliable system. And it’s true that boss fights and other tough encounters will force you to be strategic in your ability selection; you really need to take advantage of your other classes, like Synergist, Saboteur, Sentinel and Medic.
The biggest problem involves the story, which unfortunately isn’t very good at all. There was a time when we played Final Fantasy for an amazing story and memorable characters, but in their admittedly valiant attempts to listen to their fans, they made the gameplay better but forgot about the story. It’s there and it’s kind of heartwarming at times (what with Serah trying to get to her sister), and there are intriguing time-related elements. But it’s also convoluted and uninvolving overall.
After a while, I realized I was playing for the sake of playing, and not for the plot and characters. That’s a first for me in this series. It gave me mixed emotions: I really liked the combat and overall gameplay flow, what with the great freedom and added depth via side quests and a dozen other upgrades. It’s what kept me playing and I definitely enjoyed myself. But the whole time, I’m sitting there thinking— “Damnit…I’m only not supposed to care about the story in a game like Skyrim .” So I’m having a blast…and not giving a fig about the plot.
I still have mixed feelings about that. As for the control elements, it’s not perfect. The camera can still be an issue in cramped areas and the addition of jumping (Circle button) often seems superfluous, as the blue jump spots are still in existence, and you can’t jump to places that are out of reach for other reasons. It’s also annoying that in tighter areas, enemies appear very close – if not on top of you – and therefore, you’re thrust into battle without having a chance to strike them first. But really, these aren’t major concerns.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 improves on the formula of FFXIII in just about every way possible. And yet, we lose a little more of what makes Final Fantasy a story-driven role-playing game. It’s amazing that this happens given all the great features and gameplay elements that should’ve been included in FFXIII. I’m actually thinking that if you combine this sequel and its predecessor, take the strengths of each, and abandon the weaknesses, you’d finally get a 9+ game.
Lastly, there’s one phenomenon I mentioned when FFXIII arrived, and it’s once again relevant here— Had this game been called anything else; had it been a separate IP that wasn’t in the Final Fantasy universe, I absolutely guarantee that review scores, on the average, would be at least a half-point higher, if not a full point. You drop a game like this into a critic’s hands without decades of landmark greatness and the expectations that go along with a legendary franchise, and I promise the scores would be higher. Take it with a grain of salt, if you wish.
Personally, I tried not to fall prey to this widespread effect, and simply gave this game the score I think it deserves…visions of what FF used to be notwithstanding. 😉
The Good: Super high production values. Some good music and decent voice acting. Overhauled combat mechanic is undeniably better. Freedom aspects make the adventure more immersive. Noel and Serah are good characters. Nicely designed areas. Varied gameplay mechanics add diversity.
The Bad: Some of the new music will grate. Story is definitely lacking. A Monster as a permanent third party member doesn’t feel right. Control isn’t completely stable.
The Ugly: “I think Square Enix is trying…I really do…but…”