Review by DDJ
"'Compilation Syndrome' strikes again."
In order for this review to make any sense at all, I need to start by explaining what in the world I mean by Compilation Syndrome. It's a term I've coined, although I considered calling it Square Sequel Syndrome because that's where it seems to crop up the most. Note also that this review will contain some spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII -- but if you haven't played it yet, there's little reason to be interested in Final Fantasy XIII-2, either.
Compilation Syndrome, named because the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7 is the most egregious offender, refers to sequels that really have nothing satisfying to connect them to their predecessors. I don't mean games like the main-series Final Fantasy games which never bill themselves as direct sequels to one another; instead, I mean games that actually do frame themselves as being direct sequels or prequels, but simply fail to leverage that position. This can come in many forms. For example, a game might significantly retcon (retroactive continuity; that is, rewrite the original story to fit the new story) the previous game. Or, a game might adopt the same cast of characters, but significantly change their personalities. A game might dispense with the important relationships from the previous game. The game might not reveal anything about the previous game's plot, or largely ignore the previous game's backstory and world. The game might go to great lengths to introduce new characters, world dynamics, and history while simultaneously ignoring the characters, dynamics, and history introduced by the previous game. Maybe the game assigns strange legendary roles or prophecies to the characters that never appeared in the previous one.
To put it more subjectively, Compilation Syndrome refers to sequels that just don't feel like sequels. Imagine an independent development team pitches an idea for a game to a game developer, and the game developer replies, "Sure! Sounds good! One thing, can you make it a sequel to this other game?" And so, the development team changes some names and makes some other superficial changes so they can call the game a sequel. They change the names of the characters they always created to match characters from the previous game, write in cameos from previous characters that make no difference to the overall plotline, and toss some random references in enemy descriptions to the cultures or dynamics of the previous game. There's nothing deep tying it together with the predecessor. Imagine a sequel to The Matrix that focused on Neo fighting aliens instead of machines, or a sequel to Avatar that focused on a criminal syndicate smuggling goods off Pandora without ever actually showing the planet. Those would be examples of Compilation Syndrome.
In case you couldn't tell from the review title or my long, rambling diatribe about my made-up label, my main issue with Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that it is an a blatant culprit of Compilation Syndrome. Ask yourself first, when you think of Final Fantasy XIII, what comes to mind? For me, it's the interesting dichotomy between the cultures of Pulse and Cocoon. It's the rich back-story that underlies the game about the Pulse and Cocoon fal'Cie, their roles in creating the world, and their roles in keeping the world running for people. It's Barthandelus's plot to destroy the world for a purpose beyond simply watching the world burn, and the mysterious 'Maker' that we never see. It's the equally mysterious Orphan and the way in which Cocoon culture relies on it. It's the government structure that overlies the game, with a fascinating political battle being fought behind the scenes. It's the characters, of Sazh and Vanille and Fang and Snow and Lightning and Hope. It's the interesting relationships between every single pair of main characters, and the way each character grows and changes over the course of the game. It's the way each character's story ties in with the overall narrative of the game.
Fast-forward, now, to Final Fantasy XIII-2. Cocoon is little more than an object in the background and a landmark in time. The fal'Cie play no notable role at all, and nothing more is revealed about why Pulse and Cocoon went to war in the first place; in fact, hardly any reference is made to the fact that they went to war at all. Nothing more is revealed about the Maker Barthandelus was attempting to summon, and hardly any mention is made of the battle against Orphan. The government structure has been completely destroyed and replaced with something completely different. And, perhaps, most important, of the original main cast -- Sazh, Vanille, Fang, Snow, Lightning, and Hope -- none of them play a crucial active role in the plot. Snow makes a cameo in a portion of the game that could have existed exactly the same without him. Hope makes a cameo, but effectively it's just Hope's name slapped on a completely unrelated character. Lightning appears often as the destination at the end of the tunnel, but nothing more. Vanille, Fang, Sazh? Nowhere to be found.
Now, don't get me wrong. Parts of that are justified by the plot. Vanille and Fang being gone makes sense considering they effectively gave their lives to save the population of Cocoon. The government disappearing is predictable considering the world it governed has been mostly abandoned, though introducing its successor could have been done more gracefully than, "And this new form of government appeared." What's important, though, isn't just that the game didn't leverage or use enough of the source material, it's that it created its own bizarre new dynamics and retconned notable portions of the original. Instead of using any of that source material, they create effectively an entire new world, borrowing only general motifs and schemes from the original. They introduce seeresses and time travel and gates and paradoxes and all manner of things that weren't present before instead of using the rich story they already had at their disposal and expanding upon it. And, to do this, they go back and devote great attention to retconning the ending of Final Fantasy XIII in order to set up the new game, instead of actually building upon anything that Final Fantasy XIII actually provided. Pardon the crude analogy, but to a large extent, it's written like a bad fanfiction: the mark of a bad fanfiction author (aside from self-insertion) is an inability to stay true to the original characters or plot, and yet that's exactly what Square is exhibiting with Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Perhaps nowhere this is more apparent than in the main characters, Serah and Noel. I liked Serah in Final Fantasy XIII; she was, in my opinion, one of the most believable and intriguing characters the Final Fantasy series has given us in generations. I was thrilled to hear they were making her the main character of Final Fantasy XIII-2... until about ten minutes into the game. In the first ten minutes, they completely changed her personality, gave her a sword, and made her a competent fighter. Three years ago she was a sweet, harmless girl: then she becomes a schoolteacher for three years, and voila, she can fight like Jet Li? It wreaks of slapping an old name on a new character. They don't even make any effort to preserve or develop her romance with Snow, easily one of the strongest relationships in Final Fantasy series history. The other main character, Noel, is all-new, and is without a doubt the most dull, bland, stereotypical Square hero I've ever seen. Imagine averaging Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus, and Balthier together and you've basically got Noel. I'm not convinced a new character was even necessary, let alone one this dull.
Aside from this dynamic, there are a lot of other things I could criticize about Final Fantasy XIII-2. Even with the plot and cast set aside, I think the gameplay pales in comparison to Final Fantasy XIII. The time travel mechanic is horribly contrived and makes very little sense. The new level-up system is confusing and offers basically no opportunity for customization. There's a new monster-training system, but effectively it's just a different way to choose the job for your third party member. The music is incredibly distracting (lyrical background music has never worked in RPGs, in my opinion) and often mismatches the scene at hand. The battle system has been altered to return to random encounters, but instead of just randomly getting into battles on the map, they'll literally teleport in around you for some contrived reason. The paradoxes (that is, time getting "messed up") are the ultimate deus ex machina, being used to explain basically everything in the game from random encounters to teleporting gates to disappearing chests. The ambient conversations, a great feature in Final Fantasy XIII, are ruined. Oh, and there are quick time events. And my God, the moogle. That effing moogle. If you thought Navi was annoying, wait until you see this damn moogle. The only thing they "fixed" was the linearity, but in reality, it's still linear: it just does a better job of hiding it.
But all those complaints pale in comparison to the Compilation Syndrome. Those are things that would detract from an otherwise decent game; Compilation Syndrome is what prevents the game from being decent in the first place. It's a disappointment, pure and simple.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 03/15/12, Updated 03/16/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (US, 01/31/12)
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