The Final Fantasy franchise gets a lot of hate. Not only is it a Japanese game, so it’s usually met with intense rage and confusion by your typical (read: dudebro) gamer here in the west, but the games have stuck to such a formulaic approach in the 25 years since the first game that anything radically different or even innovative is met with harsh criticism not only from passersby, but from even the fans. Final Fantasy XIII didn’t help matters by taking a much quicker approach to combat, having largely linear environments, and having a convoluted story that really didn’t make sense to anyone.
So imagine the dread felt when a direct sequel was announced to what’s arguably not only the most divisive game in the series, but one of the most divisive games of all time.
It didn’t make sense. Why would Square go out of their way to make a sequel to a game that received the most mixed reactions of the entire series? Are they intentionally trying to put themselves out of the business?
No. They aren’t. It’s clear Square knows exactly what they’re doing.
XIII-2 takes place three years after the events of the original game. Lightning is in trouble. While everyone swears that Lightning perished instantly after the final battle in the original game, her sister, Serah, swears that she had actually embraced Lightning and even received a blessing so that Serah and her fiance Snow could get married.
After having several dreams about Lightning, Serah wakes up in the middle of the night as some sort of strange phenomenon is happening outside. Serah meets Noel, a strange man who hails from 700 years in the future. He comes with a message from Lightning for Serah, explaining that Lightning is in a divine place called Valhalla, fighting an eternal war against
a hair metal band reject Caius Ballad, a man with unknown intentions. Lightning is losing the war, and sends a call for help for Serah and Noel to join her at Valhalla in order to silence Caius once and for all.
Noel just asks that, along the way, the two find a way to fix the future so Noel isn’t living in a lifeless wasteland.
How do they get to Valhalla? Turns out Serah and Noel have the ability to travel through time and space using time gates that have been appearing absolutely everywhere. The problem therein lies that the time gates aren’t the only things showing up at various whens and wheres. Paradoxes, things that don’t belong in certain times, have also been appearing, making time travel terribly unstable.
So, to spell it out for you, that means your long-term goal is to make Noel’s future better, find Lightning, and save the universe. Your short term goals are making sure everyone goes home when they’re supposed to.
The story isn’t as laid out as older games were. It was always something simple like taking down an evil tyrant who wants to rule the land or taking down a person who wishes to destroy the world because he’s a mama’s boy. XIII-2 actually has a story that requires the player to pay attention, and you might even need to slow down and watch a cinematic over again to catch everything the developers wanted you to.
It’s also great that there’s an actual bad guy this time around. One of the reasons the story in the first game was so hard to follow was the lack of any real villain. All the characters were just kinda angry at the Gods, and it’s sort of difficult for a person playing a video game to be angry at fake Gods when they never take any sort of physical form or anything. Caius is actually a very good villain, one that will rightfully seem messed up and maniacal by the time you finish the game.
Time travel is done through the Historia Crux, a magical, mechanical tunnel that connects to the various time gates you’ll fall out of over the course of about 700 years. The Historia Crux acts as a level select of sorts, meaning the game isn’t open world like all of the earlier ones were, but closer to Final Fantasy X where you have a series of open, yet smaller maps made up of villages and other locales. This breaks up the linearity of the first game, especially when following the story means you’ll be going back and forth between time periods frequently in order to make sure paradoxes are extinguished.
Players will actually have to choose how to go about certain events in certain locations, but don’t fret if you make a decision you aren’t too fond of. Early on in the game you gain the option to start specific locations from the beginning and play through a different way to see all the possibilities.
It should be noted that it isn’t guaranteed you’ll visit every location simply by progressing the story. By the time the credits rolled, there were still about 6-7 locations I hadn’t even visited. These locations were created specifically to house side-quests and other optional parts of the game.
You heard that right, kids. There’s actual side-quests in XIII-2. And not simply those hunts that were in the first game. You’ll be tasked (or not, that’s why they’re side-quests) with taking down bosses bothering towns, finding items in hidden areas for blithering soldiers, and a bunch of other little distractions from the overall arching story. It’s incredibly welcome to see side-quests make a return to the game.
Of course, side-quests aren’t the only thing you’ll notice that’s changed. For one, the combat has received a few improvements in order to make things a little more streamlined. People who thought the combat was too easy the first time around won’t quite find anything terribly different here, but performing a Paradigm Shift is much quicker and smoother than it was in the first game. You’ll feel like a strategic genius for flying through different Paradigms turn by turn.
The Paradigm system from the first game hasn’t changed. You’ll still put together sets of roles (melee fighter, magic fighter, defender, buffer, debuffer, and healer) in combinations to whatever suits your battle style the best.
The combat is usually accented at the end by the new Cinematic Action scenes. These are a series of quick-time events performed typically during boss battles in order to put an explanation point on the battle, instead of just getting the end battle screen and the cutscene playing out. I’m usually not very animated when playing video games, but at least three times during finishing off a boss battle with these Cinematic Action scenes had me saying to my self “Wow! This is f***ing awesome!”
Even the way you encounter monsters in the wild has gotten a change up. Previously, monsters were seen roaming freely. In XIII-2, there’s a new mix of monsters roaming free and random battles. You’ll be walking along and suddenly monsters will appear, and a circle will surround you. This is the race against the Mog Clock. You can either run, and try to get all the baddies outside the circle surrounding you in order to successfully run from whatever wants to chew your face off. If you can’t run, it means you’ve got three different stages of the Mog Clock your battle will fall into. While green, you can attack the monsters around you for a preemptive strike, and get a quick bonus and an early hit. Yellow means the battle starts as normal. If you run out of time on the clock, and the indicator goes red, that means your retry option is locked should you fall in battle, and you have to start at the last save point.
Should you get lucky once the battle is over, you’ll be able to take advantage of the new monster taming mechanic. Randomly after a battle, one or more of the monsters you just fought will turn into a crystal so you can use that monster as your third party member. There doesn’t seem to be any specific requirement or anything in order to tame a monster. It’s not like there’s a Pokemon-esque system where you have to weaken the fiends and then jam them into itty-bitty living space. It appears to be entirely random.
The monsters themselves have a single role, and you can have up to three of them in what’s called your Paradigm Pack. These are the monsters you can fit into Paradigms of your own.
Monsters level up just like your characters do, through the new and improved Crystarium. The first game had players managing several different branches of crystals based on what role you were using. It was horribly confusing. Now, the Crystarium is a single line where each role can be leveled up by the player’s choice on what they want to increase. Each character or monster learns abilities at pre-set levels based on which role you move around. It’s much easier to simply pick which role you want to level up rather than picking a role, and then trying to decide which ability or direction you want to go in.
The freedom of choice doesn’t just apply to the leveling system. Several story elements are also decided by choice now. Anyone who’s played the demo is familiar with the choice revolving around the early boss fight with Atlas. When you actually go to confront him, you can either attack him head-on, or take a side route where a machine lies that might weaken him, but it might also rip time apart even worse. Later on I was faced with a boss that kept respawning due to a paradox. You’ve got four options with how to deal with the constant respawning, but for each direction you take wrong, you have to fight him one more time.
Even conversations with characters can be directed in a limited fashion. Particularly when Serah is trying to find out more about Noel’s history, pick an option that interests you most and you’ll be able to hear about specifically that choice.
So since just about everything is done right, and pretty much all the complaints from the first game have been addressed, why did I knock off half a star?
The ending. The horrible, inexcusable ending.
There comes a point after you’ve defeated the final boss where the game would have been near flawless if it had ended right then and there. The credits could roll at that exact moment and it would have been one of the greatest Final Fantasy games in the series. Gamers worldwide would forgive the misstep that was XIII. But no. They went with an ending that creates more questions than answers.
I’m obviously not about to spoil the game for you guys and give specifics on why I’m so angry, but I’ll only say that the ending gave absolutely no closure whatsoever. All the time I dropped into the game completely meaningless.
Aside from that, I still had an absolute blast with the game, and it gets my full recommendation to anyone wanting a fast-paced, stylized RPG. I spent about 30 hours total thrashing through the story and some optional stuff, but keep in mind that by the time the credits rolled, I only had 40/160 fragments earned by doing main quests, side-quests, optional bosses, exploring, whatever. So there’s plenty to do here. Square Enix may have stumbled at the finish line with an impressive lead with XIII-2, but the race leading up to it was something to be remembered.
This review is based on a copy of the game we received for review purposes.
Aside from one glaring step in an awkward direction, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a great apology for the incredibly mixed reception of the first game.