Last weekend saw me reach the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the latest semi-canonical instalment in Square-Enix's flagship RPG franchise. From start to finish, I sank about thirty-five hours into the game over the course of five weeks, and overall I really enjoyed the experience. Coming from somebody who went into this game tentatively, and whose opinion of Final Fantasy XIII was often divided and ultimately indifferent, that statement hopefully conveys that if nothing else, the continuation of Lightning's story is an improvement on its predecessor. Final Fantasy XIII-2 probably won't go down in history as one of the greatest titles to bear the franchise's name - its appended number and questionable characters and story will probably see to that - but for me personally, it marks a step in the right direction.
In order to better paint a picture of my attitude going into FFXIII-2, it might be wise to begin by recapping my time with Final Fantasy XIII. Prior to that game's release, I was still a pretty avid follower of Square-Enix's output, especially anything bearing the Final Fantasy name. Needless to say, I was pretty hyped for FFXIII. Then the game came out, and... well... it wasn't quite what I'd expected. Aspects of it were great - the pacy, Paradigm-focused combat system, the impressive aesthetics, and the excellent world-building that drew me into the series in the first place were all present and accounted for. But alongside those great parts were glaring problems. The writing was uninspired, the characters were uninteresting, the story was built on promising foundations but arranged into an almost irredeemable cluster-fuck, and the fascinating worlds of Cocoon and Pulse were rendered unexplorable by the game's highly linear focus. I won't go into any more detail - those looking for a comprehensive account of my feelings towards FFXIII can find them here. I'll simply say that Final Fantasy XIII was a bit of a wake-up call, reminding me that this mighty franchise wasn't quite as infallible as I'd once believed it to be.
Which brings us nicely back to Final Fantasy XIII-2. I initially steered clear of everything to do with it, but as the months went by more information about the game surfaced, most of it seeming to promise things that I'd wanted from FFXIII - bigger, more explorable environments (and incentives to explore them); a script that focused more on story and less on interpersonal melodrama; a wider variety of side-quests to keep the player occupied. By the time FFXIII-2 released at the start of February, I'd warmed to the idea of returning to that universe just enough to put the game on my birthday wishlist. Based on the amount of enjoyment I got out of my time with FFXIII-2, I'd say that was the right choice.
The easiest thing to cite as an improvement in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is its environment design. As I said in the blog linked above, I found myself really interested in the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse as they were portrayed in Final Fantasy XIII, but also frustrated by the fact I couldn't explore those worlds at greater length. FFXIII-2 addresses that by making its environments feel more open with branching paths, wide expanses and dead ends. Fundamentally, you're still running from point A to point B, but at least there are multiple ways to make the journey now. There's also more incentives to explore these bigger environments, ranging from hidden treasure spheres to experience rewards for 100% map completion. The fact you can jump between different locations pretty painlessly is also a welcome addition, especially after FFXIII refused to let players return to the game's early environments. All these changes are minor and largely cosmetic, but they combine to make FFXIII-2 feel like a more open, less guided experience than its predecessor.
Another area in which Final Fantasy XIII-2 delivers (at least partially) is in its side-quests. Final Fantasy XIII (and Final Fantasy XII before it, to be fair) really failed to serve up anything interesting in terms of side-quests, eschewing substance in favour of lots and lots of monster-hunting. FFXIII-2's side-quests may not be enough to add tens of dedicated hours to your playtime, but they at least acknowledge that an RPG needs something more than a few high-level marks to keep the player distracted from saving the world. The monster-hunting is still there, but it's not as prevalent as it was in the last couple of games, and it's supplemented by other stuff as varied as fetch-quests, lore quizzes and grid-based puzzle-solving. The monster-raising side of things is pretty involved, and there's even a Gold Saucer-style area where you can cash your Gil in for casino coins, fritter them away on slot machines or chocobo races, and exchange your winnings for prize items. There's nothing going on here that will eat up a player's time in the same way as chocobo breeding in FFVII, the card games in FFVIII and FFIX, or the blitzball in FFX, but it's good to see developers moving away from the thinly-spread additional content of more recent Final Fantasies and trying to offer up a wider variety of distractions.
But as well as Final Fantasy XIII-2 makes up for some of its predecessor's shortcomings, there are other flaws that it either fails to address, or happily brings along for a second run round the track. The greatest offenders in this respect are the game's characters and story, two aspects of Final Fantasy XIII which left me underwhelmed and continued to do so through the sequel. In terms of its cast, Final Fantasy XIII-2 was pre-destined to struggle due to FFXIII's original crew being largely uninteresting. Characters like Hope and Snow, who bored the first time round, feature fairly heavily through FFXIII-2's main story, while the first game's more interesting characters like Lightning and Sazh only make fleeting appearances. The issue is compounded by the decision to cast Serah Farron as the game's leading protagonist. Pretty much a blank slate after spending most of FFXIII trapped in crystal, this game doesn't really do much to establish her personality either. Her companion and battle partner, Noel Kreiss, has a slightly more interesting back-story, but not much more. For what it's worth, I did like the lead villain - Caius Ballad's situation and motives may not have been original, but the way they're revealed over the course of the story leading up to the final pay-off was pretty impressive, I thought.
The story was arguably the biggest disappointment for me, though. To be fair, the script isn't quite as melodramatic as Final Fantasy XIII's was, so the game at least has that going for it. My biggest gripe with Final Fantasy XIII-2's plot was that it wasn't so much tied to the end of FFXIII, but loosely and cheaply soldered to it. FFXIII established a rich world with a detailed history and some pretty complex systems working within it. FFXIII-2 largely abandons those existing options to craft a whole new story about a magical goddess of chaos sitting outside of time and space and pulling all the strings. The story is told in a fairly messy way, skirting over important information in cut-scenes and then forcing the player to read explanations in its datalog. I'm also not a fan of its forced 'To Be Continued...' ending, which has since been confirmed by the developers to signal some future Epilogue DLC:
There are a couple of other minor design choices that bothered me over the course of my time with Final Fantasy XIII-2. The decision to make staggering less important in combat, thereby making battles feel less strategic, had me scratching my head a little. The monster-taming stuff was interesting for a while, but I ultimately found myself relying on just a handful of monsters for most of the game and probably would have been happier with a standard third party member. The Synergist and Saboteur roles also felt slightly less important than I remembered them being in FFXIII, but that could well just be me. Ultimately, what really matters is that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a lot of fun to actually play. The interactive aspects of the game feel like a significant step forward, and it's hopefully a sign that come the next instalment in what remains one of my favourite series of video games, Final Fantasy might just stand half a chance of returning to the personal pedestal it once occupied. Thanks very much for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Halo 3 (X360)