The Final Fantasy series has experienced its fair share of ups and downs over the years, with each new entry receiving both praise and criticism from long-time fans. Many people felt that Final Fantasy XIII’s new combat mechanic added a welcome dimension to the series’ Active Time Battle (ATB) system but voiced their disapproval at the game’s incredibly linear storyline and its emphasis on navigating long corridors filled with enemies.
While Final Fantasy XIII-2 has the same director as Final Fantasy XIII (i.e. Motomu Toriyama), it’s clear that the team has taken the many criticisms aimed at Final Fantasy XIII to heart and have tried to address these concerns in the sequel.
One thing to bear in mind when evaluating Final Fantasy XIII-2’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison to Final Fantasy XIII is that the former only had two years of development time compared to the latter’s five. This vast difference in the scale of production is very evident in Final Fantasy XIII-2 – from the limited cast of characters to the scarcity of CGI cut-scenes. Many environments, enemies and character models have also been lifted straight from Final Fantasy XIII for the sequel.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes place three years after the dramatic conclusion to Final Fantasy XIII and sees returning character Serah seeking out her sister Lightning who has been transported to a strange world known as Valhalla. Serah is joined on her quest by Noel Kreiss – an eighteen-year-old man from the future who has his own reasons for wanting to help Serah locate Valhalla. The story begins in the idyllic seaside town of New Bodhum and quickly ramps up in intensity as Serah and Noel discover mysterious gates that allow them to warp to various locations from different time periods.
What sets Final Fantasy XIII-2 apart from previous entries in the series is its limited number of playable characters. Most Final Fantasy games periodically introduce you to new characters who join your party and can be controlled in battle. In Final Fantasy XIII-2 the only playable characters are Serah and Noel, which initially proves disappointing until you get to grips with the concentrated story the game is trying to tell.
Along the way you’ll run into a few of the central characters from Final Fantasy XIII, some of whom are a lot more mature since you’re meeting with their future selves. This adds an interesting dynamic to the storyline and should please gamers who developed a soft spot for certain members of the Final Fantasy XIII cast.
Even if you’ve never played Final Fantasy XIII you can catch up on the game’s storyline via the ‘Beginner’s Primer’ which is available from the start menu. This feature offers a detailed explanation of each of the game’s fourteen chapters while giving you a condensed overview of the cut-scenes from each section.
This excellent feature is the first glimpse you’ll get of Final Fantasy XIII-2’s outstanding accessibility – this is simply the most user-friendly Final Fantasy game you’ll ever have played. Not only can you save at virtually any point, but you can also warp back to the Historia Crux (the screen that allows you to transport to any unlocked location) on a whim. This is especially handy later on in the game when you’re searching for various artefacts to unlock gates leading to new locations or time periods. Once you’ve found the artefact you were looking for you can just warp back to the Historia Crux and instantly access the area containing the gate that the recently discovered artefact unlocks.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 also keeps track of all your active quests so you’ll never be at a loss regarding how to advance the story. Most plot quests and side-quests appear as coloured icons on your map so this proves very useful in some of the game’s larger areas. Final Fantasy XIII-2’s side-quests are mostly optional although there’s one section of the game where completing a string of them in a couple of locations is necessary to push the plot forward.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 also has some well-thought-out puzzles that offer a nice change of pace to all the exploration and combat you’ll be doing. These puzzles take place in ‘Temporal Rifts’ which are essentially time anomalies. Some of the challenges include connecting coloured gems before the timer runs out and plotting an escape route without passing over the same floor-tile twice. Any puzzle explanations or hints can be accessed via the menu at a later stage if you ever forget what is required of you.
Final Fantasy XIII-2’s menu hides away far more than just gameplay hints and explanations. If you want to delve deeper into the game’s story then try accessing the Datalog sub-menu that features in-depth entries on the world, culture, history and characters of Final Fantasy XIII-2. When you begin to explore this content you realise that the scenario is a lot more complex and rich than how it is depicted through in-game cut-scenes and dialog.
A less impressive feature of the game is its combat system. Thankfully you can switch the difficulty level between ‘Easy’ and ‘Normal’ at any time, so if battles are wearing you down and proving too time-consuming you can always play on ‘Easy’ to get them over with quickly. My main gripe with the combat element of the game is it feels too automated and hinges more on pre-battle preparations than quick thinking in the heat of an encounter. The combat system is practically unchanged from Final Fantasy XIII, although there have been a few welcome tweaks such as battles no longer ending when your party leader dies.
Serah and Noel are joined by a selected monster to form a party of three. Certain enemies drop crystals at the end of battle which allow you to use them in combat. Which monster from your collection fights alongside you depends on the ‘Paradigm’ you choose. Paradigms are essentially role assignments that can be switched up during battle, and you can assign a different monster to each paradigm. For instance, you may set one paradigm to consist of a Commando (attack focused), Ravager (magic focused) and Medic (healing focused) and another to consist of a Ravager, Medic and Medic. The monsters in your party can’t change roles like Noel and Serah can, so you’ll need to place them in various paradigms according to what their designated role is.
You level up Noel, Serah and your monster collection via the Crystarium where you can sink Crystogen Points (earned in battle and by completing certain missions) into a designated role. You can’t actually choose which abilities you want to learn as your skill tree is basically a straight line. This is a shame as spending your CP is typically as mindless as mashing on the X button until you run out of points.
Combat isn’t much better as gameplay generally consists of selecting ‘Auto-battle’ repeatedly until you need to change paradigms in order to heal your party or perform some other action to increase your chances of emerging victorious. You can select individual abilities if you wish but battles are fast-paced affairs so taking the time to go into your abilities sub-menu and queue up commands may very well put you on the back foot.
While Final Fantasy XIII-2’s combat system doesn’t feel as fresh as it did when Final Fantasy XIII was released, its new environments are one of its most compelling features. Final Fantasy XIII’s locales felt very claustrophobic at times but the sequel does a great job of presenting lush, open environments that offer some of the most stunning vistas available on a console. While some areas are slightly modified versions of locations featured in Final Fantasy XIII, there are enough new environments to satisfy Final Fantasy fans who have fond memories of the beautiful towns and cities that made past games in the series such a feast for the eyes.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 definitely sports some of the most impressive graphics on a console, too. You can look forward to incredible lighting effects, detailed character models and a solid framerate throughout the twenty to thirty hours it will take you to reach the game’s epic conclusion. The art direction is another stellar element of the game’s design which goes a long way towards making the various locales on Pulse feel like they exist in the same universe.
The game’s sound design is also decent for the most part, although the music is not nearly as memorable as it was when Nobuo Uematsu was chief composer for Final Fantasy games. One or two songs on the soundtrack seem very out of place and most of the background music fails to leave much of an impression. That said, the voice acting and cut-scene sound design is every bit as good as you’d expect from a lavish production like Final Fantasy XIII-2.
I walked away from my experience with Final Fantasy XIII-2 fairly impressed. The game starts off slowly and feels a bit limited in scope since you’ve only got two playable characters at your disposal. Once the story picked up, however, I quickly forgot about this limitation and was captivated by the sheer variety of gameplay on offer. The game’s beautiful locales keep you interested during lulls in the storyline, and the time travelling mechanic prevents it from feeling too linear.
Despite being a sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2 brings plenty of original elements to the series and is definitely an RPG that delivers on its promise of offering an intriguing world with enough depth to satisfy Final Fantasy veterans.