In an epic tale of time-traveling heroism, Square Enix travels two years into the future to rectify the mistakes it made with Final Fantasy XIII. Have they found redemption with Final Fantasy XIII-2, or is history doomed to repeat itself?
What ever happened to Lightning? Something horrible has happened to the main character of 2010's Final Fantasy XIII, and only her younger sister, Serah Farron, seems to notice anything is out of place. Somehow time has gotten twisted out of shape, and it's up to Serah and a mysterious temporally-displaced young man from the future named Noel to set things right.
Thus beings Final Fantasy XIII-2, a rare direct sequel to a major Final Fantasy game that many are calling Square Enix's apology for the sparse and overly-linear original. They've swapped out main characters, replaced straight-corridor dungeons with the twisting corridors of time, and slipped in some exciting new features meant to propel this game above-and-beyond its predecessor. How did that work out for them?
Just as Final Fantasy XIII-2 recycles many of the game mechanics of its predecessor, my Final Fantasy XIII-2 review recycles the beloved review format I utilized for the original game. Without further ado, here's what I loved and hated about Final Fantasy XIII-2, red versus blue.
An Adventure You Can Really Lose Yourself In: Well aware of complaints that Final Fantasy XIII was too linear, Square Enix erects a giant time tunnel-shaped anti-linearity cannon and fires it into the heart of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The game consists of a series of different eras linked together via the Historia Crux, a magical time navigation device mysteriously accessible by the two main characters. Once an era is unlocked the player can drop in and out of it whenever they like. It doesn't matter if they're just wandering about hunting for treasure or standing directly in front of a major boss fight; as long as the player isn't in battle, they can warp from time to time at will.
There are no straight corridors leading you directly from goal to goal here. Even the earliest era features branching paths, hidden shortcuts, and out-of-the-way nooks where obscure treasures await. Where Final Fantasy XIII players could easily get lost because each level was so uniform and bland, in Final Fantasy XIII-2 they'll get turned around because the environments are so vast and twisting; a welcome difference indeed.
Twisted Tales of Time Travel: Crafting an intricately detailed yet easy-to-follow fantasy tale meant to keep players involved for dozens of hours is no mean feat. Throw time travel into the mix and it's damn near impossible. Somehow Square Enix, a developer that's crafted some of the most dense and convoluted storylines of all time, has managed to craft a time-twisted narrative that I understood completely and, for the most part, enjoyed thoroughly (expect for the very last bit, grr).
A great deal of that enjoyment is due to the characterization and motivations of the game's three core characters. Over the course of the game I witnessed Serah transform from Lightning's mousy sister into a heroine in her own right. Newcomer Noel Kreiss is an amazingly strong character for all he's been through in life, his experience serving as the impetus for one of the game's most powerfully emotional moments. And perhaps the game's greatest character, villain Caius Ballad, metamorphoses over the course of the narrative from a purple-haired Sephiroth clone wielding a massive sword that could have been stolen directly from SoulCalibur into one of the most human antagonists the series has seen.
A Slightly Less New Paradigm in RPG Combat: The Paradigm combat system I enjoyed so much in Final Fantasy XIII returns in XIII-2 with several minor but appreciated tweaks. Player characters (and now their monster companions) have several roles they can play in combat, from the magic-hurling Ravager to the impenetrable tank of the Sentinel. The player can create six different configurations of these and swap between them on the fly during battle. Is there a high damage attack on the way? Switch to triple Sentinels. Want to debuff your enemy while bolstering your own defenses? Then Saboteur / Synergist / Sentinel is the way to go. Determining the proper time to use the proper Paradigm is where the game's strategy lies. XIII-2 deepens the system somewhat by allowing players to select how each Paradigm they create behaves. Should everyone focus on the same target, do their own thing, or stick with wide-area attacks to take out large groups? It's all up to the player.
The way roles advance as also been streamlined into an ultimately more enjoyable system. Rather than have different Crystarium (power grids) for each different role, players have a single advancement path to follow, choosing which role they wish to focus their points on along that single track. It's a simple-yet-satisfying way to develop your characters, much improved over the previous game.
You Simply Must Catch Them All: The single greatest addition to Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the ability to capture the creatures you battle and recruit them into your party. Boss monsters aside, any creature you battle in the game has the potential to become your new best friend. Monsters come equipped with their own set party role, advancing along their power grid by ingesting special items found in battle or purchased from a vendor. You can even dress your monsters up with silly decorations; Chase, my Chocobo Commando, is currently wearing a tiny tree on his head.
What begins as a simple diversion soon becomes an obsession, driving the player to explore every inch of the game in search of the rarest, most powerful monsters. Acquiring them is only half of the fun. Leveled up creatures can be fed to others to strengthen them, creating even more powerful companions. It's not a mini-game, but rather a full monster-collecting experience tucked inside an epic RPG.
One-Stop Shopping: The rather impersonal vending machines of the previous game have been replaced with a rather annoying woman wearing a Chocobo costume. How is this a plus? Well for one, rather than having a bunch of different virtual shops to wade through to find items you may or may not need you've got one simple list. Plus, ear-gratingly annoying as she is, the omnipresent Chocolina is a welcome dose of humanity in the wilderness, something Final Fantasy XIII certainly could have used.
The Breathtaking Beauty of Time-Tossed Shores: Free from the constraints of space and time, Final Fantasy XIII-2's development team has created a visually sumptuous buffet of beautiful scenery. From the lush jungles of the Sunleth Waterscape to the glowing technology of the Augusta Tower, each new era is a treat for the eyes. One expects striking and colorful characters and creatures from Square Enix, but this strikingly gorgeous kaleidoscope of strange and unique settings was a welcome surprise.
All the Small Things: Another major complaint about Final Fantasy XIII was that it lacked the numerous diversions that made a Final Fantasy game feel like a Final Fantasy game. There were no towns to visit, no NPCs to talk to; just a single-minded mission. That made sense given that game's urgency, but Serah and Noel have all the time in the world to relax in-between story missions.
So the developers have laced Final Fantasy XIII-2 with plenty of non-essential content. There are non-player characters doling out side missions; hidden items to hunt down via your ever-present treasure hunting Moogle; shards to collect that unlock special powers and abilities; and some especially brutal trivia challenges. There's even an entire era dedicated to roulette, Chocobo races, and eventually (via DLC) playing cards. Now that's service.
Lightning Crashes, a New Heroine Tries: Square Enix has gone out of its way to feature Final Fantasy XIII lead Lightning in all of its promotional material for Final Fantasy XIII-2. The pink-haired warrior princess appears in the trailers, is featured in the advertisements — she's even on the game's cover art. Sadly once you combine all of things together you've probably seen Lightning more in the marketing than you will in the game proper. She's more of a motivational goal here than an actual character.
The developers have done a fine job taking Serah, the two-dimensional damsel-in-distress from the first game, and turning her into a compelling character. She makes an excellent companion for Noel, the mysterious young man from a bleak future. I was just expecting more from the more interesting folks we met in game one. We get a light dusting of Snow and a few brief cameos from other members of the original team. The only returning hero that gets significant screen time is Hope, the pitiful whining child from Final Fantasy XIII, transformed by a decade into a character so much more likeable he might as well be somebody else.
Music to Vomit By: I've discussed the soundtrack to Final Fantasy XIII-2 previously on Kotaku, and unfortunately I must report it hasn't magically transformed into Chopin between then and release. We've still got the Lake Bresha rap song and Chocobo death metal. The ending theme song is still sentimental fluff. It's not a complete loss, with several tracks enjoyable enough to make me linger in one area longer than I should just to hear them out to the end. It's still so bad that shelling out extra for the collector's edition of Final Fantasy XIII-2 complete with four-disc soundtrack is akin to paying someone $20 to shit in your ear.
It's impossible to talk about the triumphs of Final Fantasy XIII-2 without touching on the failures of Final Fantasy XIII. Fortunately this is because in order to fully appreciate how good the second game is one really needs to have experience the first. Final Fantasy XIII was the shadow of an excellent game. Final Fantasy XIII-2 steps into the light, a much more tangible, spectacular, and fully-realized experience. Apology accepted.