Childish Philosophical Pondering Can't Hold XIII-2 Down
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is, at its core, a much better game than its predecessor. Many of the issues that fans had with XIII have been addressed in some significant way here, from the linearity to the slow-burn pacing, and Square-Enix has even made a few subtle improvements to the already fantastic combat engine to boot. These improvements make the overall experience of playing through this Fantasy a much more pleasant and coherent one, but they also serve to make the areas in which the game stumbles that much more apparent. Still, this is the strongest entry the troubled franchise has seen in years, and if it's a sign of things to come, consider me officially excited about Final Fantasy again.
XIII-2 picks up several years after the end of XIII, so if you haven't played that game through to completion consider yourself warned. Personally, I grew bored with XIII long before finishing it, but having the rudimentary knowledge of the world and its terminologies proved invaluable. This is by all means a direct sequel, and it's important to have that knowledge base if you intend to play XIII-2. That said, story is by far the weakest of this game's pillars. Given all of the time you'll spend watching cutscenes, you'd think someone at Square-Enix would've taken the time to make sure that the story they told was, you know, coherent.
Instead, XIII-2 subjects you to seemingly endless waves of dime-store philosophizing about learning from your past to make for a better future. Coupled with the angst-ridden characters, it becomes clear exactly who this game is targeted at, and further clearer that I no longer contribute to said target. Furthermore, the concept of time travel is used as a deus ex machina device far too often to be believable. Every time the developers felt like changing the rules of the world, it's glazed over as being a "Paradox" and then forgotten. All in all, the plot becomes easy to ignore. The faux-philosophy sort of blends together into a largely forgettable haze, with the exception of several instances of schadenfreude-inducing melodrama that are so out of left field and so over-acted that they're just kind of hilarious.
Luckily, the great gameplay picks up where the plot slacks. This is odd for Final Fantasy, where the reverse is often true, but in the case of XIII-2 I actually wanted to keep playing because of the gameplay, not in spite of it. The Paradigm system from XIII makes a triumphant return here, with some subtle but strong additions. No longer must you sit through a stupid "Paradigm Change" animation every time you switch your party's roles during combat. This equates to a few seconds less that you have to sit and watch your party get pummeled while they decide to change their clothes. Additionally, the party leader's death no longer leads to a Game Over screen, meaning that the battles in general feel a bit more forgiving even as they now have the potential to demand even more tactical thought. Finally, leads Serah and Noel are the only two characters you'll have in your party, and they can change into any of the six Paradigms.
To make up for the lack of additional party members, you can now recruit monsters into what the game calls a Paradigm Pack, essentially a collection of tamed creatures who will fight by your side. You can only bring one into battle at any time, but two more wait in the wings and can be summoned at a moment's notice to replace your current selection. This opens up a vast number of possibilities for creating a party, as each monster represents a different Paradigm. Cait Siths, for example, make handy Medics, while Chocobos make for strong Commandos. Each monster also has a special Feral Link ability that can be activated in battle as long as the Feral Link meter has been given enough time to build. These Feral Link attacks prompt brief quick time events, and take the place of vehicle summons from XIII. As a way to keep you on your toes during battle, Feral Links do the job admirably.
Quick time events have also been shoehorned into boss battles, typically popping up at the end, and while they really don't add anything significant, they hardly detract from the experience. In fact, XIII-2's implementation of quick time events is kind of novel in a few ways, as there will be certain moments during battle where the game will ask you to press one of two different buttons, which will seamlessly lead into one of two different outcomes occurring in battle. In an early battle, you can press either X to attack physically or B to attack using magic. Lightning's actions in following will change accordingly. It's not really a big deal, but it's kind of a neat little touch.
Overall, battles in XIII-2 are thrilling and kinetic in a way that most RPGs can only dream of. The vastly flexible Paradigm system does an admirable job of providing players with numerous options during battle, and the Paradigm Pack adds to that flexibility. The monster capturing mechanic is deceptively addictive, too. Capturing a monster's crystal (and thus, their loyalty) is often dependent upon the rating you receive for the battle, with five-star performances being more likely to land you a new ally. It can be maddening to encounter a tough enemy numerous times but never obtain his crystal. At the same time, you'll keep on trying despite yourself.
Outside of battle, this is largely a traditional Final Fantasy experience. This is in stark contrast to XIII, which was essentially a series of funnels for the first thirty or so hours. Compared to its predecessor, XIII-2 looks like Skyrim. Which, sadly, it still isn't. This level of openness is basically the standard in most JRPG franchises, but at least Square-Enix has moved back up to the standard. You can roam around pretty freely to take on side quests, speak with NPCs, and fight optional bosses. There are even multiple "Paradox" endings (see?!) for those willing to take the game on a second time.
Jumping back in for another go isn't as daunting a prospect as it normally is in these games, however, as XIII-2 clocked in at a relatively short 30 hours for me. Your mileage may vary depending on how many sidequests and optional bosses you take on, but it still won't be a long RPG by any stretch of the imagination. That was fine with me, though, because it never felt like the game and its mechanics were overstaying their welcome.
As with most Square-Enix games, your time spent in their world will be incredibly easy on the eyes. I played XIII on the PS3, and by contrast the 360 version of XIII-2 is noticeably worse looking, especially with regards to the textures. Either the games have actually gotten worse looking as they've gone along, or there is a pretty significant graphical difference between the two platforms. That said, even the 360 version of the game remains gorgeous, with colorful environments, great looking character models, and exuberant particle effects shaming many other games on the platform. The soundtrack is a completely different issue, though. The grating music is almost always accompanied by generic lyrics about finding yourself and never giving up on hope, which are often shouted in screamo fashion. I cannot emphasize enough how jarring it is to hear this reprehensible soundtrack juxtaposed against such beautiful visuals.
Soundtrack and story aside, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the strongest entry in the franchise in ages. It's beautiful to look at, but beyond that it is downright fun to play. The depth and breadth of strategic options available to you will have you looking forward to each brutal boss fight as the game makes its way towards the closing acts. If only we could do something about the game's penchant for empty philosophy and new-wave metal, the next Final Fantasy could be something truly special indeed.