Tomorrow marks the second time in Final Fantasy history that Square Enix releases a direct console sequel to one of the numbered entries in the fabled series. Considering the first time around we got a trio of pop divas playing dress-up, this one has to be better, right game reviewers?
We've seen how I feel about Final Fantasy XIII-2, now it's time to take a look at how the rest of the game reviewing world handled the time travels of main character's sister and her Kingdom Hearts refugee-looking sidekick. Has Square made up for Final Fantasy XIII? Can Square make up for Final Fantasy XIII?
When the dust clears tomorrow and the game is in the hands of North American fans, perhaps the series' harshest critics, none of this will matter. For now, bring on the assembled video game reviewers.
There was once a time when "Final Fantasy" meant greatness, when seeing Square's brand on a game box meant you were about to play something special. That time has long since passed. In today's gaming landscape, Final Fantasy is more punchline than powerhouse, more quantity than quality. After the mediocre Final Fantasy XIII and the sheer disaster that was Final Fantasy XIV, many fans have lost faith in the RPG titan.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the publisher's attempt to mend this relationship. At times, it feels like the development team just went down a laundry list and added everything that fans believed Final Fantasy XIII lacked. Non-linear dungeons? Check. Sidequests? Check. NPCs and towns? Check, check. In other words, the whole game seems like one big apology.
That isn't to say Final Fantasy XIII-2 is as epic an adventure as you may have expected. The story isn't long as far as Japanese role-playing games go—maybe 25 hours for a standard playthrough. There are reasons to linger or return if you're the completionist type, but the length is a consideration for series fans hoping for a Final Fantasy-sized adventure. If those 25 hours were jam-packed with challenging action and dramatic cutscenes, perhaps you wouldn't notice the story's brevity. Alas, a lengthy fetch quest makes the game drag considerably, as does a protracted platforming sequence that causes the pace to chug as you near the conclusion, right when you'd expect the tempo to take off. The cinematics and battles both burst with occasional thrills, but it's as if developer Square Enix decided that unnecessary padding was the proper solution to the problem of Final Fantasy XIII's overly linear progression.
Environments no longer follow a single path. With webs of rooms to explore and treasure chests hidden off the map, Final Fantasy XIII-2 encourages you to take your time and look around. You can access these environments, which dot the timeline, in more than one order. While a general flow from one place to another moves the plot along, the freedom to sidetrack greatly enhances the explorative flavor.
More impressively, you can unlock the ability to close time gates and start the area from scratch, correcting mistakes or just trying something new. This functions as a literal "reset button" mid-game. This sense of freedom, even if you choose to ignore it, helps Final Fantasy XIII-2 feel more like a traditional RPG where discovery dominates the experience.
The combat of FF XIII returns in a familiar yet improved form, resulting in my new favorite battle system in the Final Fantasy series. Fights require a satisfying mix of strategic management and direct control, forcing you to switch your tactics and adapt to changing conditions. Quickly shift to a defensive paradigm when a boss is about to use a powerful attack, or use a buffing/debuffing paradigm to prepare for a long battle. It's a little easier than the last one, but remains fun and fast-paced, without the minor annoyances that got in the way in FF XIII.
The biggest addition to battle is monster collection, which isn't just an optional side-activity. You'll always have Noel and Serah in your party, and the third slot is occupied by a monster that you've caught by defeating (no Pokéballs necessary). Each monster has a role that you can level up and use to build your paradigms. For instance, Feral Behemoths are commandos, Blue Chocobos are ravagers, and Cait Siths are medics. You need to consider these roles along with Serah's and Noel's aptitudes when forming your paradigms. This adds a level of customization and versatility that you didn't have with your party before. Plus, finally obtaining a powerful monster that you've been hunting delivers an extremely satisfying thrill.
The hotchpotch world design - which feels as though a hundred artists went off into separate rooms to work on different places in isolation, before coming together to merge their work into a lumpy whole - is more forgiveable here than it was in Final Fantasy 13. The inconsistent art is explained away by the game's structure. However, the world lacks a coherent sense of place, not least because there's no sense of geography; after all, you access different locations from a menu screen.
It was a bold move on Square Enix's part to ask fans that struggled to engage with Final Fantasy 13's world to suddenly care about multiple versions of that world. Beyond the raw video game draw of solving each location's problems, few players will care about piecing together the jigsaw of its story.
Official Xbox Magazine
It's easy to see how Square Enix took the feedback from FF XIII and used it to make a better product, but this follow-up still has some lingering issues. Every so often you'll encounter an obnoxious gimmick sequence, such as a giant time-jumping fetch quest, a series of out-of-place logic puzzles, or constantly regenerating and unavoidable Cie'th enemy hordes chasing you throughout a massive maze. Plus, the story falters at times, falling victim to leaps of logic and silliness, and dialogue exchanges often feel like characters are simply talking at each other rather than truly interacting. The trademark Square Enix CG is sparse, with most story sequences rendered in-engine. But perhaps most annoying are the technical issues: framerates drop precipitously when a lot is happening onscreen, and this sequel's few movie sequences frequently suffer from hideously artifacted compression.
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.
80 isn't the end of the world.