Final Fantasy XIII returns with a sequel that's better
When Final Fantasy XIII was released in 2010 it caused some concern for the series. Good and bad ideas were infused in the staple Japanese RPG franchise that caused fans to speak their disappointment with game. On one hand it looked brilliant, with the typical great Square-Enix art and one of the fastest battle systems to ever feature in the games to date. None of that was the problem though, what annoyed people was the fact that the game took too long to open up. It was extremely linear, so much so in fact that you spent 20 hours walking down closed corridors until you reached the 11 chapter out of the game’s 13. Vital aspects were also missing, like full towns and shops, a world map and other things that you assume should be in a main Final Fantasy title. Square-Enix said it wanted to create a cinematic experience as an excuse for the linearity.
It’s not often a Final Fantasy title gets a direct sequel that involves the same world and characters. I feel the reason behind this is Square-Enix felt the outcry from the fans, and felt like they needed to do correct the wrong doings of XIII.
And for the most part they have.
XIII-2 continues from the events of the XIII by setting the story three years after. Lightning is no longer the star of the game as this flame has been passed on to Serah, Lightning’s younger sister. Serah is in a bit of a state because she seems to have memories of Lightning returning home, yet no one else believes this and understands her to have died. After waking up from a dream of her sister her village is attacked by monsters, during this she meets Noel, a person from 700 years into the future who has been asked by Lightning to bring Serah back to her. It also seems that the time where Noel comes from isn’t very pleasant, with no humans alive save for him, so together they go on an adventure through the timeline to resolve paradoxes and hopefully change the future for the better.
The tone of the story in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is light hearted, feeling less serious than its predecessor for most of the time. This is also somewhat of a problem too because the story feels disjointed. Serah and Noel do a lot of side tracking due to the time travelling. This can lead to the story being pushed to the side while you do the smaller quests. To get the most out of the story you are going to have to do all the optional side quests and find all the multiple endings that are featured. Even if you don’t do this it is still an enjoyable playthrough, if somewhat forgettable.
Thinking about it, the story is probably the weakest part of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Square-Enix has certainly taken the critical feedback from fans to heart as the mechanics behind this game are much more open-ended than XIII ever could be. There’s no world map still, instead you traverse to different locations using the game’s Historia Crux system. You use this to jump through various time gates allowing you to visit drastically changed locations from the present, up to 700 years into the future.
Time travelling adds the much needed nonlinear gameplay due to branching paths that open up. Some might criticise it as an excuse to reuse some of the area assets, but I found it genuinely compelling to see how an area had change over the course of time. Found in areas are fragments that are necessary to open up gate portals to other areas, with certain types needed to activate different gates. Each zone has a limited amount of these gates and fragments to amass. In total there are 120 fragments to hunt down in the entire game.
After the initial few hours have passed it becomes clear that Square-Enix tried to capitalize on the game’s improvements. A large amount of the locations are much more open than the corridor running adventures of Lightning in XIII. Most feature a lively town and multiple areas to explore with their own set of tasks to complete.
Fresh additions to XIII-2 include a feature called “Live Trigger,” a gameplay element that allows the player to ask questions and pose reactions when speaking to characters. There are normally four options to pick from and they will play out differently depending on what you pick. You also gain items for taking part in the live triggers, so answering “correctly” will get you the best items. If you’re a bit of a completionist or hate missing out on all the possible outcomes from taking part in a live trigger, then you’ll be happy to know that the Historia Crux grants the ability to reset an area you’ve already explored. It allows you to revisit situations or changes things if you didn’t like how you did it the first time.
Battle mechanics are an improvement; some slight changes to the system make them flow more smoothly. For example, the Paradigm Shifting transitions much faster, allowing for you to swiftly move between Paradigms. Auto Battling is still featured, but just like XIII you aren’t forced to use it. To be honest, Auto Battling in the game is only useful for battles that you know you can win. If you are far into the story then the feature essentially becomes pointless as it focuses on picking lower-level skills more often than not. Repeat is still in as well, so you don’t have to keep selecting the same skill if you plan on to using it again.
Apart from the initial Lightning fights at the start of the game, Noel and Serah are the only two characters you control throughout the whole game. I was a little disheartened with this as I would have loved to play other characters. Players still take on the role of one hero while the A.I controls the other, but you can switch between them if you need to use another character’s skill. Thankfully you also don’t get a ”Game Over” splash if the party leader dies. If someone is unfortunate enough to perish then the game moves you to the other character to take control.
Random battles make a return, but the “Moogle Clock” system is a pleasant difference from the norm, and may make people who dislike that feature in Japanese RPGs a bit happier. When an enemy randomly spawns near you the clock will appear and a large circle will form around the base of your character. If you manage to hit the enemy in this circle before the clock transitions from green to yellow then you’ll get a preemptive attack. Yellow just makes the fights normal, but if runs out of time then you will go into a fight with the retry option disabled, meaning if you die you get a Game Over without the luxury of being allowed to spawn back to the same location prior to engaging in battle. Running away from battles are only done in the Moogle Clock, just run away from the enemy so that he’s far enough to be out of the radius of the circle and it will vanish.
Brand new to the battle system is the use of Monsters. Only one of them will fight in battle with you, taking up the third character slot, but you can have three equipped at one time and switch between them by using the Paradigm Shift. Acquiring Monsters requires you to fight and beat them, although you aren’t always guarantee to get it since there’s a percentage chance involved with each unique monster.
Monsters are never playable; they are controlled by the A.I and are associated with one of the six paradigm roles. Each one comes with its own particular set of skills and a powerful move called Feral Link that builds up over the course of battle. Using the Feral Link will require the player to take park in quick time event (QTE) that will buff the Monster’s attack if you press or do the motion correctly. Out of battle, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has combined these QTEs into scenes called “Cinematic Actions” that attempt to immerse you with well produced Square-Enix cutscenes. Sometimes there are options that allow you to change the outcome of the scene, for example using magic instead of shooting. I’m a fan of QTEs when they are done right, and I never felt once that I was handicapped when trying to press the on screen prompts as they gave me plenty of time to react.
Monsters can level up and gain new abilities; it’s slightly different than how the playable characters do it. Instead of spending Crystarium Points you will find materials as rewards at the end of battles that will allow your monster to level up. Their level mechanic system is identical to how Noel and Serah’s works. If you’ve played XIII then you’ll know all about the Crystarium.
Completing the main game took me just over the 33 Hour mark. That was with only collecting 67 out of the 120 fragments that are available. After beating the game you’ll no doubt be somewhat annoyed at some certain words plastered on the screen (best give me some closure in the DLC Square-Enix!) but after you are greeted with the chance to carry on playing to do all the other side quests in the game. There are rare monsters to find, chocobo racing, puzzle solving, plenty of paradox endings to discover and hidden bosses to fight, doing it all will double the amount of time you spend with this game.
Final Fantasy XIII-2’s graphics look attractive, but that surprise you got when you first saw XIII in action somewhat diminishes the shock feeling in the sequel. There also seems to be a drop in frame rate sometimes. It’s mainly noticeable in some of the close up scenes of the characters and occasionally pops up during heavy content-filled towns.
I can commend Square-Enix for what they were trying to do with XIII-2. I personally didn’t think much of XIII as it abandoned the stuff I liked about the series. XIII-2 brings some of it back, making it a great compelling JRPG, but what it brings most for me is that I found it much more fun to play, and that’s a correct thing for any game to do. It won’t be remembered as a classic, or be on a person’s top Final Fantasy game list as it falls short from being a superb game. It’s different than what you expect from a Final Fantasy title, but it does wash away some of that bad taste that came with XIII, and that is something I can get on board for.