Final Fantasy X-2-2
Let’s get this right out of the way: Final Fantasy XIII has become the internet’s whipping child. Thousands of people who have never pressed so much as Start to begin that game moan and complain about how it was too linear; how it took 25 hours to “get good.” It is now the symbol of not just Final Fantasy’s and Square Enix’s ruination, but that of all Japanese game development (I have a sneaking suspicion that Resident Evil 6 will only prolong the argument).
And where do I stand on XIII? I thought it was great. Final Fantasy is my favorite game franchise. I have finished all of the numbered FF’s since VII—and when I say finished, I mean I have completed every optional boss encounter and sidequest—and am well on my way to finishing IV and VI, the two entries held up by old-school hardcases as the best and last “true” FF games. Those two games are very, very good, but then again so are VIII and X-2 and XIII and all the rest, with X being the best in my opinion. Each one stumbles, excels, and stands out for different reasons, which is why the series has such long legs.
It was from this biased but simultaneously open-minded background that I started up FFXIII-2. Initially I was anxious to continue the story. FFXIII ended on a bittersweet note similar to X’s, and after the surprisingly deep and touching manner in which X-2 completed that story-arc, I was looking forward to XIII’s conclusion as well. However, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that XIII-2 ends on ANOTHER, much more obvious cliffhanger. (The third game, Lightning Returns, promises to deliver a true ending, for good or ill.) Even so XIII-2’s story brings to the table something that the original lacked: an iconic villain. There are essentially five characters in the whole story: Lightning and her sister Serah from the first game, and newcomers Noel, Kaius, and Yuel. Serah and Noel are the main playable characters, with Lighting starring in the tutorial level. You'll get a few cameos from major characters in XIII as well.
Immediately the connection between FFX-2 is clear; after an ensemble cast in the first game, the sequel trims down the party to only two (three in the case of X-2). And the similarities don’t end there. FFX and XIII were both immense, linear games in which narrative drove all actions. X-2 and XIII-2 give characters many more choices about where to go and in what order from the very beginning. They are choose-your-own-adventure mosaics that form a story not from a single thread of narrative, but from many seemingly disparate pieces.
And what a story XIII-2 builds. It begins with the final cutscene from XIII, but instead of everyone walking off into the sunset together, the world goes dark around Lightning and she’s given the charge to guard all space-time from the empty city-fortress of Valhalla. In short, she becomes a goddess. However, back on Gran Pulse, Serah is the only person who remembers that Lightning survived the final battle at the end of XIII. Flash forward in time (you’ll be doing this a lot, by the way), and Serah is a schoolteacher in a little seaside town on Gran Pulse. She and Snow STILL aren’t married—dude needed to lock that in right after XIII—but they are together with all his buddies you originally met in the tutorial area of XIII. Other than that, it’s difficult to talk specifics without spoiling anything, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that Kaius is a satisfyingly complex—and superbly dressed—foil to Noel and Serah’s wholesome do-goodery.
There is an odd meteor shower that rains monsters onto the beach and suddenly Serah is fighting for her life. It is here where you get your first taste of the revamped battle system. Fights in XIII were quick, strategic, and often difficult. Fights in XIII-2 are even quicker, but not quite as strategic or difficult. In fact, unlike XIII, where strategy was more important than party level, the toughest fights in XIII-2 are high-level roadblocks designed in such a way that you can’t really win until you level up a whole bunch and come back later, when the game designers are ready for you to earn those particular rewards. Such is the price of nonlinearity, I suppose, but it does take away the sense of progression that XIII created so well.
The biggest change comes in the form of monster hunting. As in FFX, you can “collect” each of the monsters you fight as a possible post-battle spoil, and once they’re collected, you can place them in your battle party. Whereas Serah and Noel can switch Roles (typically called Jobs in the FF universe) at will in battle, monsters are limited to an initial role. Quick explanation of roles: Serah and Noel can fight as Commando (physical), Ravager (magic), Synergist (buffs), Saboteur (anti-buffs), Medic (healing), and Defender (tank). You create up to five or six Paradigms that you can switch between at any point in battle when you need to. In the case of monsters, when you switch their roles, you swap out the monster itself. For example, at one point I had the following three monsters in my battle roster: Green Chocobo (MED), Flan (RAV), and a gold Chocobo (COM). Monsters level up through items rather than experience, and some of the rare spawns can become very powerful. At one point I came across this turnip looking thing I’d never seen before but which, once leveled properly, turned out to be the hardest hitting Commando in the whole game.
About three-fourths of the environments in Final Fantasy X-2 were directly recycled from X, camera angles and all, but XIII-2 wasn’t allowed quite the same luxury as most of the environments from XIII ended up stuck in a crystal pillar at the end of the game. So there are a few recognizable places in XIII-2, but as far as I could tell, only one setting was lifted wholesale from XIII. Very few of the new environments are as detailed or polished as those in XIII, but they also hide more branching paths and are designed to be visited multiple times.
Over the course of the game, you will visit and revisit each location across three vastly different periods of past, present, and future. It turns out that Serah and Noel—the newcomer who falls onto the beach to fight alongside Serah in the first scene—have the power to traverse the Historia Crux, a big scary whirlwind that serves as a crossroads of space and time. As they travel to each place and time, they encounter more access points to even more places and times.
Except that in order to unlock these access points, you must either use rare, hidden items or solve increasingly difficult mind-bending puzzles. Most puzzle types are enjoyable, even at their most challenging, but one type in particular was so glaringly difficult to my non-mathematical mind that I finally gave up trying to figure it out on my own and just used a nifty little algorithm that some internet genius wrote specifically for people having a hard time with the puzzle. Of course, as with any difficult game, you can find plenty of pompous douchebags on gamefaqs or wherever claiming that the number puzzles were so simple they could’ve done them in first grade. These are inevitably followed by an explanation of about 15,000 words, most of which my old calculus teacher probably hasn’t seen since grad school. Simple indeed.
That’s one of the stumbles FFXIII-2 makes (as I said, all FF’s stumble somewhere). Another is the over-simplified battle system, although I LOVE that the battles don’t stop for a long animation when you switch Paradigms for the first time the way they did in FFXIII. A third stumble is, surprisingly, pacing. It’s rare that you know where you’re supposed to go next, and when unlocking the access points requires very rare single-use items, you can make a few wrong choices and suddenly find yourself with a whole suite of sidequests and no obvious way to progress the story. I don’t THINK this situation can truly break the game, but there were a couple times I had to retreat to the online forums to find out how to move forward. It doesn’t help that one of the single-use items has to be won from a random-number-generated slot machine. Give me the one-way chute of FFXIII’s story progression any day.
Being a Final Fantasy game, XIII-2 is absolutely gorgeous without ever quite reaching the heights of the original. Despite being an updated version of the White Engine (now called Crystal Tools), no single level of XIII-2 can match any single level of XIII in terms of detail, polish, or even performance. I’m sure the lighting or pixel shaders or whatever are superior to those in XIII, but the art design just isn’t on the same level. Character models are still very good looking and detailed, and I’m sure plenty of folks picked up Serah’s bikini DLC when it hit digital shelves.
And in those costumes lies XIII-2’s most unfortunate parallel to X-2. After establishing Yuna as a self-reliant problem solver by the end of FFX, I found it disappointing that Square put such a focus on Yuna/Rikku/Paine’s costumes and bodies in the sequel. Similarly, I’m not sure why Square felt the need to “update” Serah’s default costume to include so many jailbait/fan-service shots of cleavage and upper thigh, especially after such a strong showing of female stars in XIII (even Vanille turned out to be redeemable in the end).
Square has gone on record to say that FFXIII was meant to be story-driven, while XIII-2 was meant to be player-driven. They kept their word as far as I’m concerned, and the result with XIII-2 was a less cohesive game overall. XIII-2’s story certainly didn’t take itself as seriously as XIII, and that’s for the good, but it’s a problem when player “freedom” comes at the expense of polish.
In the end, my Platinum trophy dinged with 65 hours on the game clock (compared to 95 for FFXIII), a goodish length for a JRPG. I enjoyed most of that time immensely and I will undoubtedly return for a second Plat run on my Japanese PSN account (it’s a thing I do—don’t worry about it). However, for a numbered Final Fantasy game, XIII-2 can’t find its way to the podium with the best of its brothers and sisters.