Another distortion in the timeline.
£42.99. That was the price for Final Fantasy XIII-2 in my local game shop when it was released. If it had been the standard £39.99 I may have well bought it, but this slight but clear attempt to fleece me after the appalling waste of time which was Final Fantasy XIII, went too far, and I left, leaving thoughts of buying the game on the shop floor.
Fast forward several months and after many none too surprising price drops, I gave in and bought the damn thing; how bad could it be? Well, dear reader, pretty bad as it turns out, although not the complete train wreck which it might have been.
Final Fantasy XIII-2, Square Enix's attempt to address the failings of its direct predecessor, does manage to overcome many of the hurdles of it's older sister, but at the same time it has a number of problems all its own. It also feels rushed and incomplete, as if it had been cobbled together from bits left over from the last game, which according to Square Enix, there were. It's not a bad game by any means, but it's not good either, and you'd be hard pressed to not think that this was some old style expansion, rather than a full game.
But let us be systematic and start with what perhaps is Square Enix's biggest weapon traditionally; graphics. Final Fantasy XIII, at least at the time of release, was perhaps one the best looking console games around, and it's colourful and rich vistas together with its stylish designs, made the tedious journey at least slightly more bareable. Final Fantasy XIII-2 fails to even draw level with the previous game. NPCs look crude, enviornmental geometry is very angular and rough, and despite some genuinely arresting views, such as the sprawling metropolis of Academia, the game feels behind the visual curve. The game also re-uses many of the same areas in Final Fantasy XIII, and although this is to be expected, and they are somewhat modified, the effect on the player is also somewhat dimished as a result. It's very easy to feel as though there ought to have been more new areas, and unfortunately the game has a paltry 10 areas or so, and while each come with different versions to represent the differing times to which you will travel, the net result is feeling short-changed.
The next element for which Square Enix/Squaresoft is usually noted, is their storytelling, or lack thereof in this humble reviewer's mind. It is in this regard, far more than any other, that the game trips up. The story picks up 3 years after Final Fantasy XIII, and the basic premise is that Serah, Lightning's little sister, and Noel; a hunter from the future, must travel across time to save the world and find the aforementioned Lightning, who disappears soon after the events of the last game.
What follows however, is utter bilge, and something of an insult to anyone with a basic understanding of English, or anyone who's ever read an actual book. Aside from the standard cliches of "finding something or someone to protect", the over the top and un-earned sentimentality, and the laughable attempts at profundity, the game sandpapers your ears with endless exposition, non-sensical motivations, and a propensity to waffle on in this platitudinous way which forces you to ask how such cretins ever got a writing job in the first place. Luckily for me, and for some others perhaps, the game's main antagonist, Caius, is rather sexy.
The gameplay in Final Fantasy XIII-2 has undergone something of a makeover, but the battle system remains the same for the most part, with the inclusion of "wound" damage, which cannot be healed conventionally. You also only ever have 2 main party members, with a captured monster taking up the last spot and specific role assigned to it (both Serah and Noel can switch and upgrade the game's six roles). There is some fun to be had in finding new enemies to recruit, and the game's upgrade system allowed me to use the same creature for the entire game, so potentially you can have your favourites fight with you for long periods without being forced to change.
The biggest changes however, come in the form of the being able to time travel, as you must collect Artefacts, which open new areas, and fragments, which can unlock special abilities if you gather enough. What this means is that you will be jumping from area to area, completing story and side missions, often having to backtrack as many of the side missions require you gather items in other time zones. All of this actually lifts the game over its predesseor, as gathering fragments is usually pretty quick, and the ability to talk to NPCs and explore does a fair bit to make the game more fun, or at least less tedious than XIII.
There are still problems however as many of the side missions are still just fetch quests, and entire areas are devoted to nothing but gathering fragments and solving the game's puzzles. This is just padding, and it doesn't really add anything other than some more time to your playthrough, which for me was around 30 hours or so. The game also has a casino and other distractions, should you want to take a break from battling.
Other quibbles include a number of weird difficulty spikes, re-using of music from XIII, some terrible metal tracks, a slew of overpriced DLC, and the fact that the cover of the game features Lightning, who's in the game for a matter of minutes.
In closing, I must say that it was a disappointment, as I had high hopes for it after it was acknowleged how Final Fantasy XIII failed to deliver the experience many were craving, and the developers were keen to make amends. Final Fantasy XIII-2 however, is like a band going back to the style of music that made them famous only to find that they can't capture the magic anymore. With the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, others have already presented new and interesting views on the future of the JRPG. Square Enix needs to grow up fast, and to my mind, needs new talent at the helm if it doesn't want to fall completely in the very same arena which it helped to build.