Review by Lsnake
"The series steps into the future by learning from the past."
Final Fantasy XIII was a controversial game. It sold a lot, but lived on expectations and past experiences with the Final Fantasy franchise. It didn't live up to the legacy and offered the least "Final Fantasy" game of any in the numbered franchise. It was still a good game, and it sold enough to warranty a sequel. Luckily, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a great example of a company learning from the mistakes of the past, and ends up being a better game in almost every aspect, making for a far more varied and entertaining experience.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 directly continues the story of XIII, but unlike XIII, you don't control the heroes of that game. Instead, the game follows the story of Serah, the sister of Lightning who was the protagonist in XIII. Serah is searching for her sister who mysteriously disappears after the ending of XIII. In her search, she's joined by a mysterious stranger called Noel, and a Moogle called Mog. No more spoilers will be given in this review, the rest of this section will be used to mention the flow and progression of the story.
With XIII-2 giving the player a greater freedom in how, where and when they want to progress, the story unfortunately takes a hit. Naturally it's far harder to provide a consistent and logical story when the player is given so much freedom to do things in the order they want, but the issue still remains that the story feels overly confusing. While most Final Fantasy games has never been as straight forward as they immediately appear, XIII-2 immediately dives into chaos and the flow of the story becomes disjointed and confusing. To put it simply, even after getting the Platinum, I'm still not sure what exactly happened in this game, and what the actual end result is. The fact that Square Enix heavily relies on continuing the XIII series with either DLC or XIII-3, doesn't help and ends up making the game feel more like a middle part than a proper conclusion.
It's hard to be too hard on Square Enix for this. Time travelling, paradoxes and the Chicken and Egg theory are pretty heavy stuff in a Final Fantasy game, especially when it's not properly explained even within the confines of the game. My suggestion would be to not think too much about what makes sense and not, and focus on the simple task. Serah is searching for her sister, and something's going on with the flow of time creating paradoxes that they travel around resolving.
At the most basic level, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a traditional RPG. You fight monsters, gain experience and money, and level up. The concepts are pretty easy to grasp, but there is more to it than meets the eye. The Crystarium level system from XIII returns, only revamped and improved, allowing greater choice and freedom to build and customize the character. While Serah is primarily a Ravager (a magic based damage type that focuses on staggering enemies), and Noel is primarily a Commando (a physical based raw damage class focused on maintaining chain level), both characters will learn all six roles (Commando, Ravager, Sentinel that focuses on tanking and reducing damage, Synergist who focuses on buffing the party, Saboteur that focuses on debuffing the enemy and Medic that focuses on healing).
The battlesystem returns from XIII, and is built around paradigms. Paradigms can best be summed up as group tactics that you set before battle, designating each character to a role. Serah can be a Ravager, Noel can be a Commando and a Monster can be a Medic, for example. You set up to six paradigms that you can switch between anytime during battle, the trick then becomes to use the right paradigms at the right time. If you're going to be hit by a massive boss attack, having the Tortoise Paradigm where all three characters are Sentinels (Basically the tank role) will help alot as you switch over to it just before the attack hit. Then you might want to heal up after the attack, so you switch over to a Combat Clinic Paradigm where two are medics, and one is sentinel to protect the party while the two medics heal up. Once the party is stable, you can then shift over to Relentless Assault, where you have one Commando and two Ravagers to deal damage and build chain bonus.
Unless you've played Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask yourself "Chain bonus?". It's pretty simple. Think of it as a pain limit of the enemy. As you damage an enemy, you'll gradually build up a chain bonus on that enemy. When it reaches the limit, the enemy will become Staggered, and you'll do alot more damage and often causing the enemy to be unable to attack properly, leaving it defenseless. The trick is that the chain bonus will decrease unless you can maintain it by attacking the monster, and you will need to heal and buff up in between attacking. The trick is reaching Stagger as soon as possible to do massive damage, preferably timing so you don't need to heal and buff up during stagger phase where you only want to damage an enemy as much as possible.
It makes for a pretty fun system and adds another uncomplicated, but addictive part of the gameplay.
And when we're talking about addictive...you may have noticed that I said Monster. Think Pokemon, and you get the idea. You catch monsters that you defeat, and they join your party. Since the party normally only consists of Serah and Noel, one monster takes the place as the third party member. This makes for some extremely fun and addictive gameplay as you can recruit a huge amount of monsters that have designated roles (A Green Chocobo will always be a medic, a Tonberry will be a Commando and so on), and then you level them up by spending crystals and monster materials. You can also infuse monsters with other monsters, giving them stats from other monsters to create your own supermonster. Is your Cactuar a little too weak against magic? Find some monsters that offers resistance to magic, and infuse your Cactuar with them. You can infuse a monster with up to 10 properties, so a monster could have a wild variety of stats, ranging from your party getting extra gil per battle, improving physical resistance, increasing strength, improving chain building and more. You can also rename monsters and put some cosmetic items on them. What about a train conductor's hat on that Chocobo? Yes please.
Final Fantasy XIII got alot of complaints because it was deemed too linear, and it was, no question. Luckily, Square Enix really did go a long way to rectify this with XIII-2. While you still follow a story, you're far more free to choose in what order you want to do locations, if you want to pursue subquests or spend time leveling up. XIII-2 is by far the most untraditional game in the franchise in how it handles story and world progression, but ends up being a pretty great system. It doesn't beat the old airship feeling, but when you get the handle on it, it becomes a fast and effective way to travel back and forth to different areas. The key is that you're travelling through time. The "World Map" this time is more like a history chart of specific locations at specific periods of time, several locations appear both in the past, near presence and future, and as you play you'll unlock more and more areas and periods of time. You can at any time go back out to the world map, from now on called Historia Crux. Your progress is saved in all areas, and you'll also gain the ability to simply restart an area in case you want to experience the story or make a few different choices. Even if you restart an area, you can undo the restart and restore it to the previous state again. It's a little complicated to explain in a review like this, but it quickly becomes second nature, and you'll need to do it to experience the Paradox Endings (Alternate endings that occurs when you make some changes to the storyline). Don't worry, it's fun and once you learn it, it quickly becomes clear that it's one of the more optimal solutions for allowing the greatest amount of freedom in a world without a normal world map. Nothing is missable, and you don't have to replay the game to see everything. Just restart an area and do what you want again, go back out to the Historia Crux and revert back to the original version of the area. Nothing is lost, you keep all experience and items, so subsequent playthroughs of repeated areas are much quicker than the first time.
Even if the time travelling does affect the flow of the storyline and makes the game feel a little disjointed, the end result is that the game solved most of the complaints from XIII. Also, there's nothing missable, you can always go back to previous areas, and in worst case scenario, restart them to obtain better ranking on bosses for trophies. If Square Enix can improve on the storytelling, which is alongside the music the only negative change after XIII, then it's clear to see that they are on the right track to provide better Final Fantasy games that the fans have been asking for. It's not there yet, but with such addictive gameplay, and a good 60-70 hours of content and very little actual grind, this game delivers greatly with the gameplay.
It's worth noting that this is the first in the series to properly support DLC addons, and it remains to be seen how Square Enix chooses to support this game, but the first DLC is already out so one can hope that they can help keep the game alive to sate the appetite of the fans.
Built around the same engine as XIII, XIII-2 still looks very good. Some of the environments looks absolutely stunning, and there's a far greater variety in scenery and locations this time around, ranging from a huge city to snow-filled ruins, narrow canyons and even a casino, making the game feel alot more varied. There are still a few things missing that used to be a part of the series, such as blazing deserts and deep forests, but compared to the XIII, it's a notable improvement, even if some areas are simply reused a few times in different time periods. It goes a long way in improving from the relatively dull visual scenery of XIII, and is yet another improvement, at least in terms of art and scenery direction.
Character models looks pretty good, there's nothing that will blow you away but both old and new characters are nicely detailed, old characters have seen some changes due to the passing of time but stays consistent in style and personality. It might be worth to ask why their clothes continues to look like it takes an hour to put on with all the garments, ribbons and various fancy designs, as a simple design is most often the most effective, but it's not the worst costume design in the franchise.
The framerate has taken somewhat of a hit, but it's nothing major and doesn't affect the gameplay in any way.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 scores high in terms of voiceacting. Everyone from Serah, Noel and Lightning, to lesser characters like Chocolina are voiced very well, none ends up being annoying. While some might not like Chocolina, her fun and wild personality makes it hard to not adore her. (Given her nature in the game one has consider that her personality is a little crazy, but all in a good way). Credit has to be given to Liam O'Brien for his voicework on Caius, some exceptional force and menace in his tone gives the character weight and power. Competent voiceacting all over makes it much more easy to enjoy the story without characters driving you crazy.
Sound effect wise, there's nothing out of the extraordinary here. You get what you expect with a Final Fantasy game, various beast-like sounds that usually stays true to the previous series, such as the chirping of the Chocobos or the spring-like noise of the Cactuar. Weapon attacks, spells and various effects sounds clear, there's not much of directional effect on a surround setup, the sound is pretty even on all channels without anything standing out.
The music ends up being the biggest complaint of the game. Some might really dig the fact that you'll end up hearing screaming metal or rap in the game, but for a fan of the franchise when Uematsu was in charge, this is by far the most offensive soundtrack in the franchise. Apart from a few great tracks, especially one that could have been in Dark Souls, as dark and menacing as it is, this soundtrack is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It's memorable for being downright annoying and is unfortunately one area where Square Enix continues to drag the series down. This franchise used to be front and center in the industry in creating memorable and legendary themes on par with Mario and Zelda, now it's reduced to this. It's an insult.
If XIII-2 is an indication of where the franchise will go in the future, the series might hope to regain lost glory. XIII-2 is not perfect, but it's a great improvement over XIII, offering far more content and variation. It brings fun back into the franchise, a solid amount of gameplay and the huge addiction of capturing and leveling up monsters that should make any Pokemon fan start drooling.
After all, my medic is a Chocobo, and that alone is almost worth 8/10. The rest of the game solidifies the game at a strong 8, only the dreadful music and lack of consistent presentation of story prevents it from reaching higher. If you were afraid that the franchise was going the wrong way after XIII, you may now rest assured that XIII-2 is proof that sometimes even the biggest companies listens to fans like us, and it brings renewed hope for the future of the franchise.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/13/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Nordic Edition) (EU, 02/01/12)
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