Warning: Final Fantasy XIII spoilers ahead.
You know, in a lot of ways, I feel really sorry for Square Enix. They pumped a lot of resources, time and money into Final Fantasy XIII, and for the community to almost entirely declare universal disappointment, well it had to hurt. In fairness to them, they didn’t just leave it there though; Final Fantasy XIII-2 was to be their make-up game, one that would show the community that Square hasn’t lost it. I’m glad they made it, I’m glad they put the effort in, because, save for a few caveats, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the game I wanted XIII to be.
It’s almost tragic then, that the long gone Final Fantasy die hards that abandoned the series may not play this. The disappointment in XIII caused a lot of former Final Fantasy fans to simply abandon the series, adamant that a Sakaguchi-less Square simply could not carry the series’ weight anymore, that the days of the great RPGs were gone. In a way they’re right, XIII-2 doesn’t live up to the heights of VI through X, but in a lot of ways, it gets damn near close.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 continues, obviously, after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. Cocoon was saved thanks to Fang and Vanille, who are now inside the crystal pillar that holds up Cocoon. Serah has been rescued from her crystal fate as a l’Cie, and the group have all been freed from their roles as l’Cie. Everything is fine and dandy, until Serah realises Lightning has disappeared, having only been there a second ago.
Fast forward a few years, and Serah is living in New Bodhum on Gran Pulse. Snow, Serah’s fiancé and a main character from XIII, has gone to look for Lightning. He believes Serah, believes that Lightning is out there somewhere. One night, Serah dreams that she sees Lightning, in a place called Valhalla, fighting a man known as Caius in a great battle. Lightning sends Noel Kreiss, a young man from 700 years into the future to Serah, and together they set about travelling through time, changing the past and future to free Lightning from Valhalla, while trying to save the world from the destruction of Cocoon.
I won’t delve too deep into the minutia of the story, save to say that it gets a whole lot more complicated, and there are a whole lot of twists. It does become very convoluted though, and it can be very easy to get confused. A lot of the confusion can be caused by the game’s method of taking out some of the linearity, via the Historia Crux – which serves as the method for Serah and Noel to travel to different points in time to change the past and the future. Yes, there is time travel in Final Fantasy now, but unfortunately, in that respect, it’s certainly no Chrono Trigger. Picking times from the Historia Crux can often be a confusing affair, with the game not giving you much indication as to where you need to go, particularly if you open a few different gates at once .It would have been nice to have a little more direction, but as an answer to too much linearity though, it’s a good system. It does give you a good amount of freedom to do what you want.
Unfortunately, the script is pretty shocking in XIII-2. It’s full of out of context, philosophical nonsense and a whole loaf of cheese on toast, to be honest. This is not the wonderful dialogue of past games, and at times I was physically groaning at how absolutely cringe-worthy it was. The voice actors do their best with a dud hand, and that does help to alleviate some of the awful minute-to-minute dialogue that goes on, although they still come out as sounding really cheesy too.
Thankfully, the music is a lot better than the dialogue. The vocal heavy soundtrack in XIII-2 is certainly uncharted territory for Final Fantasy games, with fans like myself usually more accustomed to melodic, orchestral score, but the somewhat poppy nature actually works. Throw in a few heavy metal tracks, and the downright ridiculous, but strangely endearing chocobo rock song, and it’s a more than capable score.
From the character models, to the monster design, to the sprawling cities, the dense forests and the ancient ruins, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a visual treat – with the computer generated cutscenes being particular gorgeous. Unfortunately, those visuals do come at a price, and that’s a less than ideal framerate. It doesn’t impact on the gameplay much, but it does stick out like a sore thumb, especially when the rest of the game’s visual make up is so wonderful.
Easily the single most impressive aspect of Final Fantasy XII-2 is the battle system. It’s not an understatement to say that XIII-2’s battle system is one of the finest turn based battle systems out there. A big kudos to Yoshinori Kitase here, the subtle refinements that were implemented have transformed what was already a great battle system in XIII, perhaps the shining light in its disappointment, into something wonderful. It’s fast paced, tactical, and, most importantly, fun. The central element of XIII-2’s battle system is the concept of the paradigm shift. Each character has a number of roles, and you can choose a role for Noel and Serah and this creates a paradigm. Mixing and matching the different roles creates different paradigms, which creates different effects and different strategies.
Central to the battle system in XIII-2 is the use of tameable monsters to fight on your side. This is a three character battle system, but with only two main characters in XIII-2, something was needed to fill that gap, and it’s monsters that do that. Defeat a monster in battle, and you might gain the ability to use that monster. Each has a specific role, meaning they fit into your paradigms just like a character would, only they have fixed roles and can’t change that.
Levelling up your character’s roles is a much more streamlined experience in XIII-2, with the entire Crystarium open from the start. Whereas XIII stunted your progress once you reached a certain level until you unlocked the next level of the Crystarium through game progress, XIII-2 lets you level up each role as much as you want, making it a much more freeing experience. The Crystarium still has different levels, but instead of halting level up progress when you reach them, it rewards you for reaching them with a boost for specific roles, allowing you to access more roles or ATB gauges. It’s a much, much better system, and a big improvement.
In nearly every way, Final Fantasy XIII-2 amounts to a pretty vast improvement over XIII. Its beautiful graphics, wonderful battle system and joyous score make it an absolute delight to play through, although all that is somewhat marred by a convoluted story, bad ending and some dodgy dialogue. However, there’s no doubt that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is enjoyable from start to finish, and with a tonne of extra side content to do, it’ll certainly last you a while. For Square Enix, it’s a sign of a return to form, and a platform for them to build upon in the future, and judging by XIII-2’s quality, it’s a bright future indeed.