The second attempt to append the ‘-2’ to a Final Fantasy title launches in a fashion even more ridiculous than what fans may remember of Square’s first stab at the idea. Instead of Final Fantasy X-2’s summoner turned pop star, however, Final Fantasy XIII-2 sings to a more serious opening tune. A spectacular sequence of CGI and admirably done interactive action scenes – tightly woven around composer Masashi Hamauzu’s yearning violin and orchestra – reacquaints players with Lightning, the heroine of their previous adventure. But she’s a different Lightning, a woman now adorned with plate armor, a shield, and a cloak of feathers draping at her side – a divine soldier of sorts. It would seem her ending was not the happy one everyone had witnessed before the credits rolled. Instead she faces a new foe, a purple haired man (to rival her pink) who expresses a grim wish for destruction, clashing swords on the outskirts of the universe.
Awakened by visions of this supernatural confrontation, Serah — Lightning’s younger sister and Snow’s fiancé, should players recall — finds her quiet coastal village suddenly under siege by monsters from another time period. A new friend appears amongst the confusion, a young man by the name of Noel Kreiss. He carries a warning from an apocalyptic future that he himself is all too familiar with, and a plea for help from Lightning in trying to save it. As they speak, the timeline of the world is turning onto itself, creating paradoxes (contradictions) in various time periods. A series of time gates also appear, devices Serah and Noel must use to steer the world away from destruction.
The two characters have surprisingly approachable personalities, are well voiced, and keep the player on track with a story full of silly pseudoscience terminology. Sometimes the game feels like it’s dumbing down its own plot a bit too heavily in this regard, spelling out and repeating concepts several times over (an excellent drinking game). Most of the cutscenes then, do end up being elementary back and forth conversations between Serah and Noel, lacking much action until the ending segments. It still proceeds at an interesting pace, taking a well mannered approach by allowing players to select occasional dialogue choices to pursue information that puzzles them.
The sappy nature of Final Fantasy is all still there, of course, the best and the worst of it. Serah is quite sincere in a warm way, and Noel’s cheesy, Tom Cruise like aura can easily bring out the occasional smirk. But unfortunately, eyes will surely roll to the ceiling whenever Lightning speaks, often having to chime in with a solemn monologue at the end of each scene, narrating from the beyond in some awful kind of poetry. It’s an overdone pep talk of not giving up hope, leaving the past behind, and moving forward that the game won’t stop repeating; even in the vocals of some poppy music tracks for certain environments.
Fielding the message much more gracefully is the universe itself, with XIII-2 rserving a respectable piece of its predecessor’s beautiful presentation. The game begins in the beachside town of New Bodhum, a place that warmly conveys the efforts of mankind to recreate the lives and memories they had within Cocoon, all while adapting to hardships of the real world. The image of Cocoon held up by Vanille and Fang’s crystal pillar in the night sky makes an excellent visual backdrop here, a reminder of the past, and a valuable lesson to the future. What follows is one of Square’s most open-ended entries to the Final Fantasy franchise, a game lovingly built to give players unprecedented access to a world they had only scraped the surface of before.
Serah and Noel will quickly leave the New Bodhum of the year 3 AF, and revisit locales of the game’s predecessor, many of them fully re-imagined and changed by the flow of time. The experiences therein are both nostalgic and wholesome, a memoir and playground for those returning. Players will swing vine to vine through the Sunleth Waterscape, return to the Archelyte Steppe when it was first inhabited by nomadic hunters, and revisit areas that still carry the emotional weight from the events of XIII – with frequent nods to its original soundtrack. And there are new areas to see as well, some dark and apocalyptic, others teeming with life and civilization. In one such optimistic timeline is the existence Academia, a sprawling futuristic city that has to be Final Fantasy XIII-2’s crowning artistic achievement for its expansiveness and absurd attention to detail.
Clumsily exiting each time gate, Serah and Noel casually wipe the dirt off their knees before setting out to solve the paradox of each area – finding what doesn’t belong. But sometimes there are missing items that should belong, and thus the premise for XIII-2’s grand easter egg hunt is set. Serah’s magical sidekick, Mog, is the key to finding these items of interest; devices or treasure phased out of the current timeline. They are recognizable by their skirting level of transparent camouflage, lining the nooks and crannies of all environments. It’s a shameless addiction, where coming across hidden treasure often by accident is always a welcome surprise, and motivation to keep the eyes squinted. Mog will light up with a pinkish glow if he senses anything nearby, and he’ll also leap into Serah’s arms as a nifty bow-sword when enemies suddenly appear. Random encounters are back.
Yes, back and exceptionally executed, offering a simple solution to the frustrating instant battle screens that have sometimes haunted RPGs of the past. Enemies are instead seen before being engaged, surrounding Serah and Noel but giving them ample time to weigh options. A timer appears, and this prompts an opportunity to enter the battle screen with a preemptive strike, and also one to simply keep running until the aggressors are left behind. The first strike opportunity proves invaluable, as achieving the 5 star battle performance rating actually has meaning in XIII-2, yielding higher drop rates for both normal and rare loot to players who perform well in combat. And now that players can both see and run away from most enemies, it makes seeking and capturing ones not already owned a painless affair.
Monster hunting is one of the biggest new pulls to the XIII universe, and XIII-2’s most rewarding aspect. Practically anything encountered in the game — from tiny gooey flan creatures, to a menacing behemoth, to a giant cactaur creature – is useable as a 3rd wheel to Serah and Noel’s battle party. Obtaining one is as simple as defeating it and hoping it goes into inventory, but finding personal favorites and rarities is where the fun lies; each monster specializing under a certain role players of XIII will be most familiar with. A creature’s primary use may also be as fodder for infusion, essentially letting one monster consume another for its abilities – a powerful tool for those who delve more deeply. Lastly, each creature also has its own unique feral link ability, a powerful skill that can turn the tide of tight battles, reminiscent the character overdrives of Final Fantasy X.
And so the combat is of the same handsome design of its predecessor’s, and with monsters simply being a stand-in for a 3rd human member, it’s easy to get right back on track with it. The combat is again structured around building the gauge bars above enemies until they Stagger, creating an exciting opportunity to deal maximum damage. With reactionary precision, players are to change their party between offensive paradigms to build the gauges, while mitigating damage from real-time attacks by switching to a more defensive approach. Keeping the offense alive and the party healthy is a potentially intense affair players of Final Fantasy XIII need not be reminded of, nor of its visual splendor. XIII-2 also manages to fix the slumping endurance encounters of the past with quicker battles and a faster introduction to the fully working system. But it also introduces new problems, carrying itself through a painfully easy plot line.
This arises from the fact that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is extremely fragile with its open approach to progression. The Crystarium does indeed return as a model to pour experience points into, and perhaps its new interpretation will initially feel more rewarding than XIII’s. But It is all too abusable this time around, and while farming a powerful party panders to the enjoyment of certain RPG gamers, it shouldn’t be so simple to achieve by complete accident.
Exorbitant amounts of experience points simply roll in, especially if a player — even for a moment — gives into the temptation of additional monster hunting and sidequests. The Crsyatirum then offers paths for characters to take at each level – a choice to open up a tree for another role (i.e. Sentinel), to add another attack to the time gauge, or to expand accessory capacity – but experienced RPG players will logically step back and see right through the charade. Expanding to more roles early on is flatly unintelligent given that monsters collected can fill the gaps for a missing Saboteur, Synergist, etc… Focusing on 1-2 roles before harnessing all 5 will instead lead to a powerful group early on, and why pursue the increased accessory capacity when the crucial ones don’t appear until the game’s final portions?
Still, taking an alternate time gate at several points of the game can – unbeknownst to the player – lead to a path where enemies suddenly begin scrubbing health bars clean. But the challenge spikes are much less apparent compared to the sudden prolonged lulls in difficulty for much of the game’s core 25 hours. If approached with the logical mentality as described above – especially if having found a monster who’s Crystarium peaks early to powerful levels – the game presents an inclination to sit on offensive paradigms with Ravagers and Commandos for much of its entirety. This is where XIII had an emotionally charged narrative to accompany its drier battle segments, a distraction XIII-2 pursues with unimpressive results.
Bosses in between the confrontations with the game’s purple haired antagonist, Caius, pose no relevance to the characters by comparison. A giant paradoxical colossus lashes out of thin air; half of its body trapped in another dimension. The paradox of another time period somehow lies in the jaws of a dragon. These enemies are often of impressive scale, but they have no words to say, no questions to raise, and the music accompanying them is equally less than sincere. Whether met with a powerful Crystarium and steamrolled over, or met with a weaker party and challenged considerably – players will find these central encounters quite forgettable.
Caius alone leads XIII-2 to an ending with a string of impressive scenes, demanding fights, and powerful lines of dialogue – but somewhere along the way the game completely forgot to develop his character, or did it so dimly it was difficult to appreciate. His motivations seem tied to Yuehl, a soft spoken doll-like girl that no really ever gets to know. And while most will point to XIII-2’s cliffhanger ending as reason for this ultimately disappointing campaign — raising more questions than it answers — it’s the fact the game ends based upon such a ridiculous guise of motives that no one can possibly relate to it. There is no message this time around, nothing to walk away with.
The ending to Final Fantasy XIII contained a contradiction; it broke the rules. But it rang true to the game’s overarching theme of the infinite strength of the human spirit, with characters that declared they would contradict all the rules — a touching note to end on. Final Fantasy XIII-2 then desperately jumps through fanatical loops in trying to dismantle the respectable conclusion of another game, and to a point of near hilarity. Savvy followers may even have questions of smaller magnitude, such as why everyone is suddenly capable of using magic. Well they just can, says the game’s datalog. Why didn’t Square just make Lightning a pop singer and call it a day?
But it’s naïve to say it all end’s there, and unfair to claim that Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn’t for the fans. It’s not even half complete when the credits roll, and a plethora of content still waits untapped. It’s a monster collector’s favorite hunting spot, a trailblazer’s backpack of spoils, and a completionist’s paradise. Cameos and salutes to older games abound, challenges to truly test those thirsty for battle await, and powerful skills and items lie in hiding – this is a gamer’s game, and it’s damn well appreciated.