Great Step Forward for the XIII saga
What can one possibly say about Final Fantasy XIII? It will go down in history as one of the most polarizing games of this console generation. I will admit a lot of the design decisions were very atypical for the Final Fantasy series as well as JRPGs in general, the extreme linearity being the most visible example. 2 years later, we have Final Fantasy XIII-2, a sequel to one of the most controversial games in the entire series. While it won’t change anyone’s mind about the XIII saga, XIII-2 is a great game in its own right and an improvement over the last game in almost every way.
The story of XIII-2 takes place 3 years after the first game. Lightning has disappeared, leaving only Serah with memories of even returning after the defeat of Orphan. While battling a man named Caius in another realm called Valhalla, she sends a time traveler named Noel to the past in order to protect Serah. The future Noel comes from was created by a series of time paradoxes that have been happening all across the timeline, so Serah and Noel set off to not only find Lightning, but to fix the paradoxes and hopefully change the future.
The plot starts off a lot faster than the previous game, and really isn’t that accessible to fresh players who haven’t at least read the Wikipedia page for the previous game. Even with that issue, the plot of this game is really interesting and expands the world of XIII in some very good ways. Noel and Serah are both really good characters, both having interesting moments of character development throughout the game, and their banter between each other does provide subtle character growth over time. The biggest issue with the story though is the writing. I personally don’t have a problem with this style of writing, but sometimes the lines of dialogue can come off as quite corny in a very Japanese-y sort of way and don’t translate very well into English sometimes. Other times plot points are repeated ad nauseum for no discernible reason other than to make sure the player gets the point. Even with these issues, I found the plot and story of the game to be very enjoyable and interesting, despite odd quirks here and there.
The entire game design has received a massive overhaul since the last game, opting for a time hopping mechanic rather than the straight linear paths of the past. Basically using a device called the Historia Crux, Serah and Noel are able to time travel to different locations in different time frames to do story missions as well as side quests. You have to activate more Historia Crux gates to advance these missions, and most of the time you’ll have to get items through story and side missions in order to do so. The game has a very good balance of directing the story, while allowing the player to do side missions at their own leisure. It’s much stronger than X-2’s similar design mainly because the story is much more focused this time around and because the side missions have a great variety of stuff to do besides monster hunting.
While exploring, you’ll do the usual routine of completing missions and fighting monsters, but random encounters have returned in a new form. Called the mog clock, monsters will randomly appear on the field, and when they do you can gain a pre-emptive strike bonus by charging them on, or let them come to you. If the monster catches you though, or the timer on the clock runs out, you’ll suffer some sort of penalty, ranging from inflicted Slow status or having the Retry option locked should you lose. It’s a really cool way of combining more action-RPG style encounters while retaining the tradition of “Oh crap!” moments through random encounters. Also, you can use your moogle sidekick to find hidden treasure, which isn’t game changing by any means, but just gives you more things to do within the world besides just walking around and fighting bad guys.
The combat system is more or less intact from XIII, retaining the 3 party, paradigm shifting gameplay. Though you can switch party leaders mid battle now, combat still plays the same way. Your time gauge is still divided into segments, and abilities still eat away at a certain amount of segments. For example, the Attack command takes away one segment, while a Firaga spell takes away 3. Character abilities are still divided into separate combat roles , and you still have to switch between different combinations of roles in battle, called paradigms, to fight. The same six roles from XIII return, with the main difference being, at least in my opinion, the Sentinel role becoming much more useful and the Saboteur role being somewhat weakened. Noel and Serah are the only 2 human party members throughout the entire game, and this is where the biggest difference gameplay-wise between the two games becomes apparent.
Your third party member is filled by monsters you recruit by capturing them similar to Pokemon. Basically while fighting battles in the world, a crystal will randomly capture a monster you just defeated, and you can select said monsters to be part of your main party. You can have up 3 monsters on hand at a time, and every monster fills in a certain paradigm role. For example, a chocobo will always be assigned as a Commando, while a Cait Sith monster will always be assigned as a Medic. These monsters switch out in battle depending on the paradigm they are assigned to. In an interesting twist, monsters learn passive abilities, such as Magic +10% or higher attack damage when HP is critical, that both Noel and Serah can’t learn, so you are strongly encouraged to experiment with different monster and paradigm combinations in order to find useful passive abilities as well as command abilities.
In short, the monster recruiting mechanic is one of the best things to happen to Final Fantasy in years. It brings an amazingly fun amount of customization and experimentation to the already great combat system and really encourages exploration to find all the unique monsters and abilities they learn. It’s the sense of endless possible experimentation that really makes the game so great in the long run. Trust me you will not get bored of this system any time soon.
Besides the monsters, the Crystarium returns, though it’s a bit more simplified, yet more complicated at the same time. The same basic ideas apply where you use crystogen points from battle to level up your character, but this time you can level up any role you want to for any character from the very start. Also, the more you level up a certain role, the more bonuses it will give your character depending on the role. For example, leveling up your Medic role gets you more HP than usual, and leveling up your Commando role gives you a bigger attack power boost than usual. It’s not drastically different than the previous game, though by dividing the roles into separate trees and by cleaning up the presentation, it’s easier to understand the bonuses you acquire and learn how to exploit them.
On the technical side of things, the game is on par with XIII as far as graphics and sound goes. The graphics are still excellent and have a really cool techno-organic theme to them. The music though is where things really get crazy. The soundtrack to this game is one of the most bizarre OSTs I have ever heard, yet I still think it’s great. It’s very eclectic, ranging from trance ambiance to bizarre death-metal versions of the chocobo theme. It will not win over everyone, but for what it’s worth, the soundtrack does at least demand you pay attention to it. The voice acting is solid all around, with particular note going to Laura Bailey as Serah and Liam O’Brien as Caius, who both have great performances and make the player engage with their characters, giving them more complexity then at first glance.
The one thing I will say though is that if XIII turned you off, this game is not going to change your mind about the story or gameplay. For fans of XIII though, XIII-2 is a worthwhile expansion on its foundations and universe. It takes some needed risks with the FF formula and does enough to justify its existence to series fans. It won’t convert anyone to the FF series or JRPGs in the same way FF7 or recent games like Persona 4 have for the genre, but Final Fantasy XIII-2 is still a terrific game in its own right and deserves your attention for one reason or another.
Great Expansion of FF XIII’s world and characters.
Monster Recruiting adds great experimentation and complexity to an already fun battle system.
Solid production values all around.
Story and game is structured enough to keep you invested, yet open enough to allow for lots of side missions and exploration.
Not exactly accessible to completely fresh players.
Translation quirks sometimes hamper the storytelling.
Won’t change anyone’s mind about the FF XIII saga or JRPGs in general.
FINAL SCORE: A-