Review by Sise_Neg

"...And the Truth Shall Set You Free"

Final Fantasy XIII disappointed many fans of the franchise due to an abundance of massive problems such as a weak and convoluted plot, a shallow and forgettable cast of characters, linearity that prevented any sort of exploration and gameplay that required little interaction. Final Fantasy XIII-2 attempts to rectify these problems and provide RPG fans with a better experience this time around. Does Square Enix succeed in improving on Final Fantasy XIII? Yes and no. While there are some welcome changes, most of them are trivial and fail to fix the basic problems that plagued Final Fantasy XIII. A weak and forgettable cast, a convoluted plot, shallow gameplay and an uninspired soundtrack combine to create a wearisome experience that is best left in the shadows of history as another forgettable RPG.

Graphics
Once again the developers at Square Enix spent a lot of energy in creating a world full of colorful graphics and pretty scenery. Love or hate the game, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does look great on a big screen television. However, despite how nice everything looks there does seem to be a slight downgrade from the graphics of Final Fantasy XIII. It is also puzzling that the artists once again decided to fill areas with so much pink. This seems counter-intuitive to immersing a gamer in a story that is supposed to be quite serious. Additionally, magic spells are small and unimpressive. The flashiness of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is mostly found in cutscenes. It would have been nice had attacks in battle been more elaborate. Nevertheless, the graphics are good and those who are obsessed with graphic quality in their games will not be disappointed in this area.

Sound
Unfortunately the soundtrack in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is uninspired. Square Enix decided to go a new direction this time around. The soundtrack is filled with a variety of generic metal and generic J-pop. The main battle theme, which will be playing the most, is a string of repeated power chords with some violin interspersed here and there. If you think about riding a chocobo, prepare to hear the classic chocobo theme turned into an angst-ridden barrage of power chords and screaming. This brings up the problem of the vocals present in the soundtrack. Many of them are not quite understandable due to the instruments being much louder than the singer. This only adds to the fact that the lyrics, when present, destroy the mood of the environment. That is not to say that singing should never be allowed in a Final Fantasy soundtrack – Nobuo Uematsu proved that with the great musical piece “Suteki Da Ne” in Final Fantasy X. But none of the vocal tracks work here, and despite the flatness of the pop and metal themes, it would have been better had the vocals just been left out.

The sound effects are quite basic, if not lacking. Slashes of swords, magic attacks, enemy growls and the like are all there, but nothing actually stands out or sounds like you think they should. The physical attacks and spells do not sound like they create much of an impact. If it was not for the status bar above enemies it would be hard to tell that they actually got hurt from being attacked. If I punch a person in real life, I know that the person I punched is hurt by the cry of pain. Similarly, I will be more impressed with myself if the punch sounds like it made an impact. Instead, during battles magic attacks hit with what sounds like a broom scratching a hardwood floor and sword slashes do not sound realistic

Voice acting does not redeem the other poor qualities of the sound. While the voice actors certainly are not helped due to the poor quality of the script, the voice actors themselves are a big part of the problem. The dialogue between characters is stiff and unnatural. The lead female character often get too high pitched and grating to the ears, and the male lead sounds like he does not want to be in the recording studio. At times I found myself missing some of the voice actors from Final Fantasy titles on the Playstation 2, which speaks volumes for the poor quality of the voice acting here.

Plot
Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a plot so melodramatic and incoherent that following it takes a great deal of patience. The game takes place three years after the events of FFXIII. The world of Cocoon has fallen and some of the survivors now live in the world of Gran Pulse, where new cities and locations have been built. Lightning has disappeared and been taken to Valhalla because of a time paradox and Snow ends up disappearing some time later. Serah is left to look for Lightning on her own when one day the town she lives in, New Bodhum, is overrun with strange monsters. A new character named Noel Kreiss appears out of nowhere and says that he knows where to find Lightning. Serah decides to join him and they travel through time so as to find out where Lightning is. Essentially, Final Fantasy XIII-2's plot is one big time traveling fiasco.

A story can have a less than stellar plot and still be enjoyable as long as it is told well. But good narrative is not to be found in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Rather than have the story unfold and let players see for themselves where the adventure takes them, and perhaps pick up on subtle messages along the way, the script writers decided to unravel the plot through cutscenes of long and uninteresting monologues of explanation. The narrative is meticulous to such a degree that putting everything together takes a fair bit of thought. That could be forgiven if the plot's conclusion manages to be worth it all, but when it finally appeared I was left with a thought of “So, that's it? Huh.” There are some “Paradox” a.k.a. alternate endings, but none were especially interesting. The melodrama so present within the story makes the conclusion very anticlimactic and disappointing.

The cast is unable to act as the plot's crutch due to its mix of superfluous and unlikable characters. I say superfluous because many of the characters present in Final Fantasy XIII hardly get any screen time and are quickly tossed aside right after they are introduced. Many characters may as well be wallpaper in the background. Serah and the new guy Noel Kreiss are the main characters in this installment (as well as a levitating moogle named Mog). Unfortunately, I found this trio to be unable to maintain my interest. This is unfortunate because the characters that are tossed aside have much more potential than the characters the story focuses on.

Gameplay
If you are not a fan of the Paradigm system from Final Fantasy XIII then you will not like the battle system in Final Fantasy XIII-2. For those who did not play FFXIII and do not know what the Paradigm system is, basically you assign automated roles that act as jobs in battle that have certain bonuses. With this system, you essentially control one player and watch the CPU take control of the others. Once the tide turns in battle or you feel like switching your style up a bit you can change the Paradigm as you please. So if one of your characters was assigned as a Commando originally but then starts to get low on health you can change the Paradigm to Medic for healing. Likewise, if the enemy is about to die you can switch everyone's Paradigm to one that is attack oriented and watch them pummel it to the ground.

The reason why the Paradigm system feels so uninspired is due to the lack of involvement and control compared to the battle systems of previous installments in the Final Fantasy franchise. With the Auto-Battle feature one can simply enter a battle and watch the characters fight it out without having to press a button, as the party usually has everything under control and will win the battle without a need for Paradigm switches. It is really only necessary to switch Paradigms every so often during boss fights. The reason I say this is because the challenge in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is almost non-existent. Random battle enemies are never a threat and bosses are quite simple despite their massive sizes. Battles are basically just going through the (few) motions and there is not much thought required. Most battles can be won by attacking all-out and using a Medic every once in a while, meaning some of the Paradigm roles are useless. Not once did I have to use the Synergist or the Saboteur roles to get through a battle. There are very few Quick Time Events added into battles now. Completing them successfully garners certain bonuses and failing nets a penalty. But since there are only 5 of them, this adds almost nothing to the gameplay. The variety of weapons to use in battle is also minimal and party members can all be equipped with the same things, meaning characters have very little that separate them in battle. With this lack of variety there is hardly any incentive to spend time customizing various stats.

Another problem is that the actions in battle that are controllable are extremely limited. For example, if you give someone the role of Medic you will never be able to choose who the person heals. Most of the time the healer will cure the one with the lowest health and not the person being attacked, and even after everyone is healed the person will keep healing even though there is no healing to be done. It is a very limited battle system that feels like a big step down from previous titles. The ATB system present in Final Fantasy X-2 was much more involving and strategic and would have worked well for this game. Additionally, some frame rate issues also plague the battles at random points, so not only does the battle system lack involvement but it also doesn't run smoothly at times and feels like a laggy CGI sequence.

There are some changes to the battle system, however. This time around when your party leader is knocked out you are not automatically given a Game Over. Instead, the control is switched to the surviving party member and this gives you a chance to heal up. Another change in the gameplay is the Mog Clock. When a monster is about to show up on the world map a timer appears and the X button has to be pressed within a certain period of time. If successful, certain bonuses will be added at the start of battle, such as enhancements like Haste being given to the party or a larger chain gauge on the enemy. However, if unsuccessful penalties like the Slow status effect or an empty ATB gauge will be given. One new aspect of the battle system that people seem to like is the ability to capture enemies. After a battle there is a probability that the party will capture the defeated monster which can later be used in battle. However, each monster has its own inherent battle role and cannot use every role like the main party members can. This constricts the battle system even further. Though the monster capturing does add something to the gameplay it is really a shallow addition, considering that it is essentially just another character that you have no real control over. There is not much reason to have a stronger monster if there is not much one can do with it.

One improvement over FFXIII is that the long hallways are gone. Now you can do some real exploration and talk to people that populate towns or grasslands and what have you. However, just because exploration is back does not automatically make it a saving grace. While it is a welcome change from the hallways in FFXIII it is not exactly deserving of a ‘thumbs up' considering that world exploration has been a staple of RPGs since the genre's inception. The exploration is also hampered because of the atrocious pacing in this game. The beginning has a pretty good balance between cutscenes, battles and exploring of environments. But eventually that good balance ceases to exist as exploration is shoved down your throat so you can find Artefacts that let you open Time Gates. That would be fine if the items did not take forever to discover. The game gives no clues as to where certain items can be discovered, so finding them all requires a lot of patience or extra money for a strategy guide. Also, for some reason the only vendor in this game is a strange woman in a bird costume named Chocolina. One has to wonder why there is only a single person to buy merchandise from.

Extras
There is an area called Serendipity that is basically a huge casino that lets you play mini-games. Slot machines are present as well as a return of the chocobo racing from Final Fantasy VII. But it is not as pleasant as it could be due to the obnoxious metal remix of the chocobo theme and hardly as useful in terms of rewards. Slot machines are also frustrating in difficulty. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the extras is that they are not all there…yet. Imagine my surprise when I tried to choose a card game at the casino and the attendant at the desk replied that it would later be installed in downloadable content. So great, I have to pay extra to get things that should have already been included? That's real swell. Want some optional bosses that you can test your skills against? Apparently Square Enix will add some additional bosses in the Coliseum, but that remains to be seen. As of now you will have to make do with the poor optional bosses to be found in the game, mainly lacking due to their absence of challenge and poor design. There are some sidequests present, but they are mainly just fetch quest missions or “go from point A to point B”. The void of extras and dullness of the side quests just add to the impression of laziness so prevalent.

Conclusion
There seem to be many who think that just because a game has high production costs it should automatically have a grade of average or higher, especially when it comes from Square Enix. But people should have learned by now that high production values do not make a good game. Competent script writing and involving gameplay have been sacrificed once again for pretty graphics. It is time for Square Enix to rebuild the franchise and fully admit that they failed with Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2. They were in denial when they thought that the story and characters were salvageable, and that is abundantly clear in this game.

Pros:
+ Exploration has been added
+ Graphics (for the most part)

Cons:
- Battle System requires little thought and control
- Challenge is non-existent
- DLC required to play certain games
- Exploration hurt by it being forced upon you for large segments of the game
- Focus centered on uninteresting characters rather than the ones with potential
- Mini-games and sidequests are sparse and unimaginative
- Pacing is all over the place
- Plot is incoherent and too melodramatic
- Soundtrack is a mixture of the dull and obnoxious and battle sound effects are weak
- Stats and spells are noticeably missing
- Voice Acting is bad

Final Verdict: 3/10


Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 02/14/12

Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (US, 01/31/12)


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