Lightning strikes twice?
With a popular, long-standing franchise, it can often be difficult to innovate without upsetting the fans that got you there in the first place. Final Fantasy is perhaps the perfect example of this; with over 20 years of history looming over it, the thirteenth iteration received an amount of positive press on release for its positive direction – yet criticisms shortly followed from fans suggesting that it was far too linear, that the removal of towns was a fatal mistake, and that the game didn’t really begin until far too many hours were invested. Acknowledging this, and as only the second time a numbered Final Fantasy game has received a direct sequel, Square-Enix are looking to XIII-2 to continue on the tale of Lightning and her friends, whilst trying their best to fan the flames of discontent at the same time.
Game: Final Fantasy XIII-2
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Taking place after the events of XIII, XIII-2 pits you instead under the control of Serah – who you were trying to save last time around – and Noel, a new character who joins you in a quest to try and find Lightning, who has disappeared under strange circumstances. Surprisingly, both manage to strike a balance that Square-Enix often miss, with neither being sickening upbeat and positive, without then plunging to the other end of the spectrum and wallowing in self-despair either. Whilst a large cast of characters from the original make appearances, these cameos are nearly all fleeting at best, and any still-burning grudges against any of these are certainly not legitimate reasons for any apprehension coming in to this title.
Despite being a direct sequel there’s no explicit need to have played the previous game first either, and if you’re looking to catch up or just want a re-cap, there’s a handy “Beginner’s Primer” to explain the events of the first game too. The story this time around is largely based around time-travel, but thankfully doesn’t get into the habit of loosely justifying outlandish plot developments due to it; if anything, it just gives the player the opportunity to make a more clear distinction between side-questing and progressing the main narrative. In line with this, the story-telling in general is slower and more relaxed than before – something that many will find quite refreshing. Thematically it still relies on some of the recurring ideas the series over-uses – memory loss, self-sacrifice and teamwork in particular – and whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does put a limit on the degree of brave and original writing you can expect.
Using the same ‘Crystal Tools’ engine that XIII used, it’s no surprise that on the visuals front there’s plenty to celebrate. Character design is generally positive but remains wholly subjective; Noel bears the traditional J-RPG floppy-yet-spiky mop of hair, and Serah’s dress would most certainly be considered inappropriate for formal occasions, but this is – for better or worse – par for the course. The range of environments you find yourself exploring is far less objectionable though, and although there are certainly less of them to explore, the time-travelling mechanic gives room for the designers to play around with each, toying with various states of disrepair and changes in climate as time shuffles on. Whilst most all of the monster classes are repeats from various points in the series, this is less of a criticism of the designs themselves, but rather the imagination on show, which has clearly been kept for other areas of development.
One big change is the increased dependence on handling cut-scenes using the in-game engine – whilst there are still some of these saved for special occasions, the reduction is significant enough that the Xbox 360 version of the game has been crammed onto a single disc as opposed to the 3 of the original. It’s certainly no great loss to the story-telling either, but it must be noted that these scenes are typically quite subject to slowdown, with frame rates dipping with some regularity – especially during the interactive ‘cinematic action’ scenes. General exploration is much the same too, particularly in livelier areas where many NPCs freely walk about, chatter inanely, and react to enemies that appear around around them; this is an obvious change undertaken as a direct response to the criticisms of XIII, but has clear has quite a material impact on system resources. Mercifully, the one area that’s generally free of these dips in performance are the battle scenes, despite all of the action that can take place within – and given these can be quite demanding of your reactions, this is quite some relief.
With the volume of spoken dialogue being attributed to a much smaller cast this time around, it’s thankful that the vocal performances from both leads are convincing and well-realised. It’s not all rosy though, as the undisputed low-light of the cast goes to Mog; your faithful but rather irritating sidekick. A fan favourite from yesteryear, his cutesy charm and trademark repetition of “kupo” (and countless variations hereof) have not had a particularly thoughtful transition from sprites and written text up to a fully animated 3D model with a voice performance – but thankfully is still largely ignorable.
It may not be a surprise to hear that the soundtrack is superb given the series’ legacy for just this, but it’s certainly not so in a conservative way, and is full of quite a number of surprises. From an early point onwards there’s an uncharacteristically large range of musical genres – pop, rock and rap in particular – that have inspired the compositions, and to complement this vocals are included in a large portion of the music too. It’s a little unsettling at first, and listening to some of the tracks away from the game certainly makes for some justifiably cringe worthy reactions, but it’s often so subtly woven into the overall presentation that it’s quite charming – that’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions to this rule, however. The more reserved, orchestral pieces are a delight in a much more traditional sense, and to top it off there’s some quite unashamed lifting of some of the more powerful pieces from XIII for certain sections of the game, which fit just as brilliantly a second time over.
Fans of aimless wandering rejoice! Exploration is far more significant this time around, with the inter-connected, corridor-heavy styling of XIII being usurped in favour of a series of more open yet individually-wrapped maps to ramble about in; most of which are also blessed with lively hub areas, crammed full of people all vying for your attention. Whilst at first this may seem a surface-deep change, the ability to engage with a larger number of NPCs gives you access to any number of side quests for you to consider at any point in your quest. These will often see you darting off to other times and places, however your access to the ‘Historia Crux’ means you can literally drop in and out of areas as and when you see fit, giving you a much more open approach to the game. New zones are unlocked by the use of time gates, and although most related to the story can be opened by specific artifacts offered up by plot progression, there are a small number of these that require the use of the limited and expendable ‘wild artifacts’, often stopping you from treading too far awry.
Those expecting a complete overhaul of the battle system in XIII may find themselves disappointed, as by and large the changes are more of a touch-up as opposed to a ground-up reworking. Once again you only take control of a single character in battle, where the ‘Paradigm Shift’ mechanic is the much more significant way to influence the outcome of the battle – allowing you to make strategic changes to the entire party, ranging from a cautious backing off to heal and buff, to an all out attack in the hope of a quick victory. You can switch control from Serah to Noel at any point, however with your vacant third party member slot you are entitled to one of the more exciting new systems – tamed monsters. These are typically gained by beating the particular monster enough and getting lucky, but once they are yours they can then be upgraded and even infused with other monsters to create a stronger, hybrid-like set of abilities. Your party paradigms can be set up with 3 monsters at any one time, but given each has is fixed to one of the six main roles – unlike Noel and Serah who can change freely between all six roles – and their unique ‘feral link’ ability, this suddenly becomes a constraint you have to work around intelligently in order to keep all facets of your team at appropriate levels of strength. Given the range of monsters and skills available, party construction revolves far more around this one feature than it does around even your two main characters, making it an unconventional, but thoroughly enjoyable addition.
A number of other key features are carried across from XIII and have undergone revamps to varying degrees too – albeit in a reduced format, party upgrades are handled once again by the Crystarium, whereas the weapon upgrade system – and the mandatory grinding for materials – has been dumbed down quite severely in favour of the tried and tested approach of selling new weapons via Chocolina, a larger-than-life travelling merchant. In terms of new mechanics, and introducing a more western RPG spin on things, ‘Live Trigger’ and ‘Cinematic Action’ step in to introduce dialogue choices and QTE events respectively, with ‘Temporal Rifts’ also throwing in a selection of puzzle mini-games to mix up the gameplay. None of these are particularly over-used in their implementation, and do little to detract from the game directly, but it does continue to stack up as evidence of Square-Enix taking the scatter-gun approach to appeasing fans, throwing every idea they can at the drawing board.
As to be expected, it’s very easy to find yourself engrossed in the game’s world for a large amount of time. Whilst the main story can be bettered inside of 30 hours without too much trouble, it’s fair to expect at least twice that if you intend to spend time going for a complete set of fragments on top – fragments being the reward for any number of quests, boss battles, side quests, puzzles and the like. On paper it’s a shorter game than XIII, but it certainly doesn’t feel the lesser game for this factor alone – despite the plot shifting down a gear, the speed at which the game builds initial momentum is considerably faster, with challenging battles relatively early on, and the world and systems almost fully exposed within a matter of hours.
The time-travel mechanic is one that lends itself well to extended play as opposed to a restricted ‘end game’ world too – replaying segments of the game in their entirety is possible, ruling out the perpetual nightmare of missing items forever, and also introducing new challenges in earlier areas by returning with souped-up characters. Spoken with deliberate vagueness, there’s enough reward in what’s left to see after finishing the game to warrant exploring a good chunk of the bonus material.
Rounding up the key points, it’s safe to say that development has been very closely structured by the negativity that surrounded the original – linearity and pacing in particular have undergone some huge work, and certainly feel a lot better for it. Visuals and sound are of the usual high standards, and whilst the wealth of new ideas thrown at the game aren’t quite so convincing, none are particularly game-breaking – just downright peculiar.
As a finished product, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a mixed bag of ideas and concepts; the kind that is just too unfocused and sporadic to ever be seen in a stand-alone entry to the series. A lot of what’s lost in cohesion is clawed back elsewhere though, and whilst it’s almost possible to recommend for curiosity’s sake alone, there’s enough refinery of XIII’s more glaringly weak areas to make it a better game on the whole – and one worth investigating even if its predecessor put you off.