Review by Kayos90
"Turn the clocks back, it's time for redemption"
Final Fantasy XIII's development took around 3 years and received mixed feelings from both critics and fans alike when it was released. Many believed that the game was lacking content and features that distinguished itself to be a Final Fantasy game. With a development cycle less than two years, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the direct sequel of XIII, and the creators promised that all of the problems with the previous game have been addressed. Is XIII-2 a better game for it or is it doomed to meet the same results as its predecessor?
Final Fantasy XIII-2's plot starts out 3 years after its prequel. If you finished XIII then you will quickly realize that all is not as it seems. Lightning is in a mysterious world called as Valhalla locked in combat with Caius Ballad. Realizing that she needs help, Lightning sends Noel Kreiss, a young man from the future, to travel to the past and find Serah. When Noel does arrive to meet Serah at New Bodhum, he sees monsters attacking her and the townspeople. Serah calls out for Lightning to help but everyone believes her to be dead, however, Serah doesn't. Noel jumps into save Serah and the town. Shortly after the two characters begin their journey to find Lightning.
Much of the story revolves around Serah and Noel searching for Lightning through the use of time travel. The plot is divided into five episodes, which are paced very well rounding the entire journey to 20 hours. The beginning of the game starts out great but as you keep travelling, the story becomes more broken due to lack of explanations and constant convoluted plot points that revolve around time. As a result, it's really easy to get lost with the logic behind time travel and its jargon. Not only this but the plot is a mess by the end of the game to the point where you're wondering what was the point of it all. If you're looking for a solid narrative with an epic plot then you're not going to find it here. In fact, the game is bipolar. XIII-2 tries so hard to be serious but has moments of nonsensical character interactions that destroy the immersion. There will be an emotionally moving cutscene or an insightful piece of dialogue and some dumb line of dialogue will just ruin it. It's moments like these where the potential that XIII-2 possesses disappears.
Despite the actual plot failing, the best part of XIII-2 comes from its small cast of characters. The new hero Noel is an excellent character that seems almost realistic. Having seen the end of the world, being the last human alive, Noel desperately tries to change the future even if it costs him his life. His interactions with Caius and Serah are even more realistic as he tends to be serious when it calls for it but comical when the situation is not so dire. Despite looking like a hothead, Noel is actually quite calm but has his moments where he emotionally breaks down from frustration and it's at these times where XIII-2 truly shines. You begin to sympathize with his hardships of being the last person alive and the duty that falls on him to save the future. All of this culminates to a strong main character that constantly surprises you with what he says and does. Serah, on the other hand, is not so strong. She is perhaps one of the weakest characters of the game. Where Noel is very dynamic and realistic, Serah is extremely flat because she is always bent on looking for Lightning. Her character doesn't develop at all and she stays relatively the same from beginning to end. Even so, Serah is an excellent complement to Noel due to their differing personalities but similar goals in mind.
Caius, the antagonist of XIII-2, is an interesting character. Although he rarely shows up, you discover much about him by piecing together the information around you. As a result, you begin to wonder whether Caius or yourself is the true. The goal that he works toward appears to be good but at the same time the world deems it to be wrong. This conflict reflects onto Noel and consequently, Caius acts almost like a foil to him. Where Noel carries immense compassion about others and is selfless, Caius is very selfish but only because he has compassion for others. The interaction between these two characters forces the black and white moral to blend. The chemistry between all of these characters result in some heartfelt moments that bring out much more emotion than its predecessor did.
To further bring out the interactions between the various characters in the game, XIII-2 sports a new system called Live Triggers. During a cutscene a Live Trigger may appear where you have to answer a question in one of four ways. Each choice brings out different lines of dialogue and most of the time adds for a humorous effect. Live Triggers don't ruin the game or the experience, however, it's not something that enhances it either It's a welcome addition that gives you a breather and chance to reflect on everything so far. In addition to the Live Triggers are Cinematic Actions. These act quick time events where you click buttons as they appear on the screen. Cinematic Actions are completely useless and add no effect to the game at all. The main purpose that it serves is to hinder certain monsters or avoid taking damage in battle, and the difference from it is marginal.
Though the story falls short, Final Fantasy XIII-2's gameplay is very good. Compared to XIII, it is a drastic improvement on almost all fronts. You now have the ability to visit worlds that you've previous visited through the Historia Crux, which essentially is the focal point of time travel. This allows for the player to also visit the same location but at different time periods. A complaint of Final Fantasy XIII was that the maps were too linear and this problem has been addressed. Each world is no longer a straight line due to the addition of open worlds that allow for an expansive experience increasing the scope of the game. There are interactive environments and treasures abound giving you an incentive to explore. The fantastic art design really helps to bring photorealism although you won't see monsters running through fields and such, the worlds feel very lively. While vibrant colors the world visually, the track of each world is what hits home. They range from pop to orchestral and they are fantastic. The invigorating pop is just what you need to breeze through an area whereas a somber sad piece makes the world feel empty and desolate. The artistry of both visual and auditory in combination sets the immersion and traveling through the various worlds that XIII-2 has to offer a fun and emotional experience.
Perhaps one of the biggest complaints of XIII was the lack of sidequests. XIII-2 addresses this issue with myriads of sidequests and extra content. Many of them are fetch quests of various locations that can be like a puzzle sometimes due to different time periods of the same locations. Beyond the fetch quests there are puzzles in zones called Temporal Rift. These range from collecting jewels on a board where the floors disappear to mind-bending number puzzles. While they seem easy at first, they get much harder to the point where you start staring at the television completely blank. If going around to do side quests isn't for you then there is a fun location called Serendipity, much like a theme park. You can spend time racing Chocobos or playing at the slot machine. The sad thing is that Serendipity feels almost useless and the sidequests can get somewhat tiresome after a while. There is definitely diversity in Final Fantasy XIII-2's gameplay but most of it feels like unnecessary features or padding that was added due to fan complaints.
Despite no monsters actively moving around the maps in XIII-2, the game implements a combination of random and controlled encounters. As you freely explore the various worlds a group of enemies will appear and a small clock will begin to tick at the bottom of the screen. At this point you have two options, to engage the enemy with a preemptive strike or run away. Running away is fairly simple and often times you will be able to your foes, however, there are times when unable to. If the clock runs out and your enemies are still in the vicinity, you will have to engage them and you don't have to option to retry the battle if you die. This adds a dynamic that allows you to quickly think, whether I should engage with the advantage or risk getting caught and possibly die.
Once you engage your enemies you will enter a combat area. The fight involves a party of three that tackle monsters with you controlling only one of them. Instead of micromanaging your characters in the fight, XIII-2 is more about macromanaging and understanding the tides of battle. This is done through the Paradigm Shift. Each character can don one of six roles. A Commando will dish out raw damage, a Ravager bombards the enemies with magic to break them, and Sentinels absorb enemy attacks like it's nothing. A Paradigm then is a set combination of roles for each character. You can have up to six set up per battle and you have the ability to switch them on the fly. The combat embraces not what moves you use with each role but rather what Paradigms you utilize to conquer enemies. You will find that 3 Sentinels will mitigate large amounts of damage and as a result is essential in boss fights. Conversely, 3 Commandos excel at wiping out an entire field of enemies. Different Paradigms suit different situations and the game rewards the player for figuring out which Paradigms work best since it rates you out of five stars after the fight. Almost no change has been made to the actual combat system but the ability to tweak how you want your allies helps to control the battles better.
The dynamic of Paradigms have been immensely changed due to monsters. Unlike XIII, you only have 2 human members and the third is automatically designated to be a monster you captured, which is done through combat. Each monster comes preassigned with a role. Using the monsters at your disposal you can create a Paradigm Pack, which is a set of three monsters that can be used in battle. As you change your Paradigms in battle, so too you monsters. Each monster has its own special strengths and weaknesses and choosing the proper one adds great depth to how you control the fights that you engage. You can also further evolve them through eating other monsters that you've collected or through the game's leveling system. Even so, there are flaws with the system. The ability to only have 3 monsters in a pack limits the combination of Paradigms greatly. Secondly, capturing monsters is more of a hassle than an enjoyment since it feels like chance. Lastly, the difference between the strong monsters and weak ones are so large that there is no point in using the weaker ones. Unlike balancing all the monsters out in some way, they are always separated by a wide margin of usefulness.
Although the combat is phenomenal in XIII-2 the method you progress your characters is not so great. The Crystarium System makes a return once more as the leveling system in XIII-2. It essentially is a series of nodes all connected in a linear fashion. You unlock each node by assigning a specific role that you currently have at your disposal. Unlocking the node as a Commando will further your attack damage where a Ravager will increase magic. It's a fairly shallow system and it's very streamlined allowing no depth to how you build your character. Unlocking nodes with different roles unlocks new moves but that is the only incentive to leveling different roles.
A major issue with the overall combat and leveling system of XIII-2 is the difficulty. You can easily dispatch all your enemies with the most ridiculous Paradigms and still attain five stars. It's that easy. Despite having an excellent battle system that challenges the flow of battle, the developer decided to throw that out altogether. A complaint from players was that XIII was a hard game and perhaps this is a design change to reflect that. Even so, to the point of being dumbed down to this difficulty seems mediocre. On the contrary, while the entirety of the game may seem easy, the final episode of the game is a different story. The difficulty suddenly ramps up to unmanageable proportions. XIII-2 doesn't train the player to handle difficult situations throughout the game and as a result it may be tough to adjust to the sudden change.
The soundtrack of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is polarizing. Many tracks are superb arousing various emotions on the spectrum and give a sense of belonging to the world. At the same time there are some glaring pieces of music that just stand out as perhaps the industry's worst. A heavy metal, rap, and hard rock all deter the experience ruining essential moments in the game. When heavy metal music is playing as you ride a Chocobo, how does that make you feel? It makes me want to get off of the Chocobo. Despite this shortcoming, it's minor and something that you will overlook because of how good the other tracks are. The voice acting is also great with the exception of a few characters. Praise goes out to Noel again as he expresses his emotions so strongly and convincingly it's hard not to take him seriously. Caius has a thick voice to complement his villainous character. Hope has matured since XIII and sports a deeper voice. All of this culminates to one that provides an excellent audio experience. It's sad because all of this comes crashing down due to the annoying voice acting of Alyssa, Serah, Mog, and Chocolina. While the voices fit these characters, their high-pitched voices and annoying remarks make them unbearable most of the time.
Graphics perhaps is the one aspect of the games that almost feels lacking. XIII-2 uses the same engine that XIII did and as a result looks very similar. That doesn't mean it looks bad. In fact it looks great and where technically it's not superb, the artistic direction makes up for it. However, unlike XIII almost all of the cutscenes are done using the in-game engine and as a result the game buckles under its own weight. There are slight framerate issues and minor screen tearing, but it isn't anything too bad does that it break you away from the immersion. However, XIII-2 is a sign of the limitations of the engine that the developers are using, or a poor optimization of the tools available.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 definitely improves upon many failures of its predecessor. The addition of more open areas, the ability to have diverse sidequests, and mess around with mini-games is welcome and helps to diversify the monotonous progression that XIII was accused of. Even so, you can help but feel that XIII-2 is only a product that was created to correct the failures of XIII. Succumbed to peer pressure by its fans, perhaps the developers felt the need to correct themselves and as a result, not all of the new features work like clockwork. In fact, the game is bipolar in many ways. While the combat is extremely good, the difficulty ruins the challenge and a few destructive songs mar the soundtrack. The story is the same way; there are moments that feel truly amazing only to be ruined by some cheesy dialogue afterwards. Even so, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is good at what it does and acts as if it is what XIII should've been. If you wanted something more out of the original, check Final Fantasy XIII-2 out.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 02/07/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (US, 01/31/12)
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