Review by Donald Love 87
"It's good, but it's hard to shake the feeling it could've been better if it weren't a sequel"
After beating Final Fantasy XIII, many probably did like me and put down the controller and thought "Oh, so that's it... what just happened?" So when after a while you started to realize that Square-Enix would continue the story with a sequel, it was really hard to understand exactly how they would be able to pull it off. Now that the game is out, I can say that it's pretty fun to play, but still lacks in some compartments and the biggest of them all is probably the luggage it carries from FFXIII.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 has beautiful graphics just like its predecessor, and while they might be a bit tweaked and of somewhat higher resolution it's really pretty much the same. While it's nothing that pushes the console to its limits with any extraordinary facial effects, wide open landscapes or anything like that it's rather things like restricted areas with really neat designs and some good attention paid to the backgrounds and atmospheres that are the best parts. What's weird is that you rarely stop to check out the background graphics, which really could be a good idea since they're so detailed. One thing which isn't a problem between different places you visit but is apparent in some areas is that it's a bit repetitive, while it's detailed the environment doesn't change locally as much as I'd like.
The characters look good too, and it's nice to see NPC's with as much diversion as in this game; while some are repeated models there are still loads of them and they look really different from each other. But the focus is on the main characters, and both lip sync and feelings come through nicely. The animations are good too, both in battle and on the field. When on the battlefield it can be hard to tell exactly what's going on because of the quickness of the game and lots of effect-heavy spellthrowing, but since you don't need to aim (menus are your input system) it's just to sit back and enjoy the flashy fireworks.
Sound effects and music
This game has the most mixed quality of music pieces of every Final Fantasy game I've played. While the blu-ray sure can hold a lot of data and therefore can store some really hi-quality sounds, that isn't the problem. Many of the tracks are really beautiful, and even if some tracks already had lyrics in FFXIII there are even more here and it's interesting to hear how nicely they fit in. What doesn't fit in, however, is the so called "theme song" which is playing at a moment where it really is just annoying and a mood-breaker, and it really doesn't deserve to be called a theme song. Another annoying song which isn't of such importance but still stands out enough to be mentioned is the one that plays when you ride on a special type of chocobo. While the normal chocobo songs are fine, this is a heavy metal composition which breaks out too much from the rest of the soundtrack. It also doesn't fit with the occasion, it's not really like it's a chocobo rodeo but just that this chocobo eats gysahl greens at intervals instead of just one when mounting it. That track is without a doubt the worst track ever in FF history, and while others in this game are better there aren't any that are as memorable as "Aeris Theme", "Eyes on Me" or even "1000 words". You might find yourself humming some song just after playing the game, but they're very quickly forgotten.
Voice acting is also back, and while sometimes it sounds a bit overacted you need to remember that the dialogue in Final Fantasy games has always been different from how people really act and interact with each other, it's just much more notable when it's heard. But the quality of the recordings is good and well lip-synched, and it sounds like each actor really has got into their roles and understand what it's about. Sound effects are really nothing special, they're there and you'd miss them if they were not, but it isn't anything you go "woah!" over either.
Here is where the bad things of the game's origin starts to come into play. Starting out 3 years after the ending of Final Fantasy XIII, with Cocoon still standing on the crystal pillar but with a lot of its former inhabitants living down on Pulse, building new towns like New Bodhum, which is where Serah is living. Of course everybody remember the day Cocoon started falling, but the memories Serah has differs a bit from other people - she thinks her sister Lightning was there with her when she was saved, but everyone else around her are sure that Lightning sacrificed herself along with Vanille and Fang.
Now, of course that can't be right, because during the opening cutscenes of this new game you get to see Lightning alive and well, though she's fighting in a very strange looking place against a human who seems to be the commander of a monster army. Somehow, a man named Noel also ends up in this place, though Lightning quickly tells him to use a certain machine to get to Serah and tell her what needs to be done. Noel follow Lightnings orders, and ends up in New Bodhum together with Mog, a real living moogle with magical abilities. After explaining everything to Serah, it's clear what the problem is - when Cocoon fell somehow the timeline got ripped apart, meaning that paradoxes got scattered all over the place and Lightning got lost in time. Those paradoxes can be anything from enemies to items in the wrong time, but what's clear is that they need to be fixed to restore the timeline, and that's up to Serah, Noel and Mog.
During the course of the game you'll find out what happened to the timeline and a new history unfolds. So while it's not really the type of sequel which resolves a lot of open questions about the earlier installment, it's doing as good as it can. As I mentioned before the luggage from FFXIII is evident, and it's most obvious when it comes to story. Since there were very few characters in FFXIII you actually got to know it's much harder to do a sequel because there aren't as many characters you want to know what has happened to. They've managed to get at least a mention for every party member, and several locations are also the same as in FFXIII, but that also opens up for some questioning - considering how large the areas of Pulse and Cocoon on the pillar are, isn't it a bit strange that so many areas used in the sequel are the same as ones you visited in the first game? Also it's not feeling as good as it should since there aren't really any areas you'll see and think "Oh cool I was here back then..." because a lot of it were so anonymous and a lot of the areas has been made unrecognizable for one reason or another - some explainable through storyline causes but others totally unnecessary.
Another thing that messes a bit with my head is how time travel works in this game, and this isn't really negative but just a bit confusing... As you go through the timeline to fix things, of course you can visit the same place in different times to change events in one time to affect the other. What's odd is that there is still a link available which takes you to the part of the timeline where that change never occurred. If you've ever watched the Back to the Future movies, they have the much more easier-to-grasp explanation that there is only one universe - if something happens when you go into the past those changes will effect the future you return to. To go back to the original future, you'd have to go back in time and undo the changes made. Most fictions revolving around time travel use the same system, so to see it different here is a bit confusing. Of course it's probably done to make sure that you won't lock yourself out of anything you need to do to progress through the game or a sidequest, but it still leaves a strange feeling and a thought that you'd really like to actually be able to change the history for real. While the game doesn't have as many "what just happened and why"-events as FFXIII, there are still much that can be hard to notice or understand, much because of the complexity of a time travel story, and you'll have to read the datalog and fragment info bits (each fragment discovered gives you an info page) to get some important story bits. While the story gets a bit tangled up at the end, a separate mention must still go to the main villain - unlike true evil characters this guy actually has some good points, which makes him feel much more human and interesting than in the black/white morality landscape found in many other games.
Standard JRPG's don't really need to have great controls to be enjoyable since most of them are slow-paced and you'll have lots of time to navigate through the menu systems without any repercussions. In this game, however, the controls are very tight and the fights actually need some quick triggering from time to time.
But let's start out with the controls on the field. The control sticks are used for moving your character around and circling the camera, this is working good most of the time even if I miss some other camera angles - as it is now it's always using the character as center, but a first person "lookaround"-mode would've been a great feature for when you actually want to look at something and not just towards it. The circle button is used for making the character jump, and unusually for a Final Fantasy game you can jump whenever you want. This is used in some maps, but it's somewhat inconsistent as some areas lets you jump gaps while others NEED you to activate a switch to get a bridge across, even if you'd clearly make it. X is your main activation button and is used for opening treasure spheres, talking to NPC's and similar things. There are three different buttons that activate menus - Start, Square and Triangle. With start you bring up the game menu, which lets you save, go to the hub menu or exit the game. Triangle takes you to the main menu where all settings, commands, items and stats are available. Square is a shortcut to the map which can also be accessed via the main menu. With the exception of the strange jumping the player controls work very well, the menu controls are also good even if it still feels a bit weird to not have the items in top like old FF veterans are used to, but it's an understandable change and only shows how far the series has gone - since you get auto-healed after each battle you'll never use items in the field anymore.
In battles you have no direct control over your player characters, instead having to rely on menu commands. Those menus are navigated just as in the other gameplay with the left stick (or D-pad), X to activate and circle to go back a level. With the menus you can select which attacks and items to use, or select auto-battle, and then you wait for the time bar to fill up so you can use the selected attacks. The right stick will still control the camera, albeit a bit less than in the field and in battles you'll get good cinematic shots even if you leave it alone. With triangle you can activate a special attack, "Feral link", for the third party member and with L1 you can bring up the paradigm menu (more about party members and paradigms in the gameplay section). Choosing L1 for the paradigm menu is a pretty neat idea, since you really need to be quick on the draw to bring that up sometimes, and what's better then than using a shoulder button - very commonly used as a trigger in shooting games. Overall, the controls are good and very quick, and they're extremely easy to use once you learn them.
While the gameplay bit has been mentioned a bit already in both the story and controls sections, there are still many things which has remained unsaid so far. Basically, the concept of the game is that Serah needs to get to the point in time where Lightning is, and the way to go there is through special time gates. One gate can only lead to one destination which means that you cannot insta-skip there but has to explore your way through time and places to find more gates. All the places you have visited and can visit are accessible from a hub menu called "Historia Crux", and for each gate you open up this time map expands. Now the game isn't just to go from area to area finding gates, but you also have to find artefacts which are used like keys for the gates. How those artefacts are found differ from area to area, but in most cases you'll have to do something like a sub-quest in the current area to be able to find it.
Just like the previous sequel in the main series FF games - Final Fantasy X-2 - FFXIII-2 is much more loose and sidequest-based than the main numbered installments. If you know where to go, getting through the Historia Crux the shortest way would probably make this the least time-consuming Final Fantasy game to see the ending of since the series went 3D. Still that isn't what it's about; most of the areas can be explored much more than they need to and that's what you SHOULD do, since just beating the final bosses and finishing the game is probably less than half of the experience. In addition to the artefacts, items called fragments also happened to be spread out across time when the timeline got mixed up, and those fragments are also valuable to collect. While they won't have a direct effect on the gameplay like the artefacts they've still got their uses and the more you collect the more you repair the timeline. Just like artefacts you get these by fulfilling certain requirements such as completing sidequests or defeating powerful monsters - fragments are rater common rewards since there are 160 of them in the game, while the artefacts can probably be counted on your fingers and toes. The only problem with the fragment collecting as main gameplay is that many of the sidequests are taking way to long to pick up - sure they do have connections, the same areas over different time usually works as sort of an story arc, but it is taking too long before they really catch your attention.
Most of the sidequests start out with you talking to some NPC or otherwise gaining information about what to do, then this "mission" pops up as a text box with all the info you have so far and a picture. That picture is very important, since it show you in which area you need to look to find your target, whether your looking for an NPC, an item or a monster, that's where you need to look. Sadly, some of those screenshots can be a bit hard to pinpoint, so at times it'll be hard to figure out where you need to go and in which time, so you might have to be prepared for some frustration or using a guide a bit more often than in other FF's. Another thing which can be annoying is if you talk to an NPC who sends you on a fetch quest to retrieve an item, but you already have this in your possession from an earlier visit to the area. The NPC won't recognize this when giving you the mission, so if you don't talk to him or her again afterwards you'll go off to find something which is no longer there, which is really irritating before you realize what's going on. Another thing which is a shame is that way too many of these quests are just fetch quests, when monster marks like in FFXII and FFXIII really should have been more common than they are because the battle system is so great.
Speaking about the battle system, it's generally the same as in FFXIII but with a few tweaks - some which were well needed but you didn't know it while some sadly are a step backwards. Encountering enemies is done in a somewhat different way - due to the problems with the timeline being all tangled up not only people and objects fall through the spacetime but that can happen to monsters too. So all out of nowhere they'll pop up when you're walking around in an unsafe area, and the Mog clock will show up on the screen. The Mog clock is a device which lets you see the enemies aggression level - as soon as the enemy appear you can use X to attack them and initiate battle (which takes place on a separate "battlefield" just like in FFXIII), but depending on how soon you hit them it'll either be a preemptive strike (green field of the mog clock) where you get a headstart on the stagger bar and also have haste cast on you. If the clock goes down to yellow the enemies will actively start following you (shaken off the confusion from being timetransported) and you can still get the preemptive bonus but here if they can hit you first a normal battle will start. If the Mog clock goes all the way down to red a battle will be started where the Retry option is locked - the function which otherwise works as a continue feature. The system with using the clock is good since it feels interactive and you actually can run away, but it's still hard to escape the feeling that it feels like random encounters, something which haven't been done in the main series FF games for years.
Before going into exactly how battles work, it's best if you know how you build a team. Since this game only has two playable characters - Serah and Noel, you might think it'll get boring during battles. While Mog travels with the party, during battles he'll double up as Serah's weapon. So what to do? Pretty early in the game, you'll get an unusual power for a FF game - monster recruiting. Most enemies you encounter has the chance of turning into a monster crystal when defeated, and if they do they're yours to keep. So while the human player characters are fewer than in any other FF, the team building possibilities just got much bigger. At any time you can have three monsters in a so-called "Paradigm Pack", and all monsters have a given role in battle. Just like in XIII, roles are an important factor to winning, and are all the same ones - commando for dealing damage, ravager for raising the chain gauge, sentinels for taking damage, medics for healing and synergists and saboteurs for applying status effects. They are more tweakable in this game, however, so for an example you can set multiple commandos to attack the same target. You set up to six paradigm sets (and can save those and the paradigm pack to three slots) in the menu and then you can change freely between those six as a battle progress - this is an extremely important strategy factor and good paradigms are truly a matter or winning or losing the fight. Serah and Noel will obviously stay in the battle at all times, but the monster member will be switched out as you change to different paradigms with different roles. Now it might sound great to bring in a fresh monster, but they all carry over the HP% and status effects from each other, and even take a bit longer to come into play when switching, so it has it's cons too - even if it's good to have the one best meant for the job do it. It's an interesting mechanic to see and the collector's spirit from Pokemon is really present.
Both Serah, Noel and monsters can level up, even if it's a bit differently. Starting out with the human characters, each role they can take on has it's own level (going up to 99 for all six roles), and there's a crystarium just like in XIII but it isn't exactly the same. Instead of each role having it's own path to follow here they all share the same route, which also makes it a strategy factor as there are big and small crystals you can activate, and depending on what role you choose to develop for the big crystal you get a boost in that roles most prominent attribute, meaning that you can somewhat custom-make your characters. When reaching certain key points of the crystarium, "expanding" it, you'll get the choice of a few new abilities (reminding a bit of perks, for you WRPG gamers) ranging from learning new roles, getting role boosts, getting more equipment slots or get new ATB segments. Progressing through the crystarium is done through the main menus and uses up CP; Crystogen Points, which is one of the rewards you get for defeating enemies and you also get CP when collecting fragments. Monster development is not exactly the same, but also works around a crystarium. The monsters can't use CP, so instead you'll have to use monster materials to develop them - this feature seems to me is what has replaced the odd weapon leveling of XIII. Monster materials can be found pretty much anywhere; in treasure spheres, as rewards, spoils or even bought in shops. They come in two different base sets (for mechanical and biological monsters), with each set divided into tiers (the monster base level, from 1-5) and then each tier divided into four different materials. The four different materials are always the combo of one which gives a HP boost for each used, one that gives strength, one for magic and finally one which gives a smaller boost to all stats. Of course there's a strategy aspect here too, since a commando monster is probably better off with getting higher strength. Unlike Serah and Noel most monsters won't reach level 99 but max out much earlier, and they come in all variations - some grows quickly but can be replaced pretty soon, some takes a lot of materials to be leveled up but ends up strong and some are inbetween. So choosing what monsters to actually put down effort in can be hard, but it's a fun aspect of the game and it's probably the most customizable Final Fantasy game yet.
As I mentioned, monster leveling has pretty much taken the place of weapon leveling, and when it comes to weapons this game returns more to the old formula of just getting weapons and then equipping them. The same goes for other equipment, which just as weapons can be upgraded to better versions, but unlike in FFXIII you won't need to level them up beforehand but can do so as soon as you find the right shop and got the gear, synthesizing material and gil. Gil is also handled quite differently, as it's much more common than in FFXIII. Here you won't need to farm any super monsters to get it - most battles will result in you getting at least a few gil, and you're way more likely to end up farming for monster materials than gil this time. One thing which makes it nice is the in-game explanation that it's because when Cocoon was afloat they used a system similar to Visas and similar debit cards, while after the "crash" more direct payment methods started working again, meaning that finding valuables by just hunting got easier.
But by now it's probably time to get back to the battles. Anyone who've ever got into the battle system of FFXIII will feel very much at home with this too, and most differences are in the menus which I've already mentioned, but let's continue with a runthrough for all newcomers. To get an enemys HP to fall quickly you need to play a bit more strategically than just to choose attack -> attack -> attack. Instead you've got the paradigms set up. In addition to their HP bar, all enemies also has a stagger bar. This bar works in a way that when you attack the enemy the stagger bar rise, but then sinks again between attacks; most enemies have a stagger point on this bar so when it rises high enough the enemy will get staggered and easier to hurt, and the bar starts going downward instead. The key to working with this stagger bar is that different attacks affect it differently, the best examples are the offensive roles ravagers which attack with magic and raise the bar much but also speed up the depleting. Commandos (physical attackers) on the other hand almost won't affect the raising of the bar, but will slow it down. So if you're not overlevled you need to find out for each enemy what combination works best, all at the same time as you might throw in some healing, changing into sentinel roles to take a powerful blast or cast buffs or debuffs. Buffs or debuffs are getting more and more place in battles - if you've played the old FF games you'll remember that there were no use in casting such things since normal enemies were easy anyways and bosses were immune. For the last few games that has not been the cause. Also returning from FFXIII is the auto-battling, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like - with the press of a button, the game decides what it think will be the best actions to take depending on your role, stats and available enemy information. It might sound a bit boring, but with the paradigm shifts to keep you busy you'll be glad it's there, and you always have the ability to select commands yourself for your leader. The current leader can also be shifted between Serah and Noel during battles, and you only lose if both of the player characters are knocked out. The only time auto-battling is stupid is when using buffs/debuffs - the AI stops casting if you already has all the effects the AI has to offer, but the thing is that a recast would make it last longer. It can be annoying, but no fight really feels harder or unfair because of it. One thing which will be different for FFXIII veterans is that preemptive attacks won't just let you use them + quake to get a free mass-stagger anymore. First of all it's because preemptive attacks won't fill up the gauge to just before staggering anymore, and secondly it's because the ability to use TP-using spells like Quake isn't there either. That also means no libra (a spell to scan enemies) so the only way for you to get info and fill out your beastiary is to use librascopes (items) or defeat the same enemies over and over.
Overall, the gameplay is working good, but the absolute highlight of it is the fights. That's why I'm a bit disappointed to see that not more of the sidequests actually involve finding marks and hunting them down, but instead being mere fetch quests, since the stories of the sidequests isn't really that interesting to make up for it. So when this game is showing the best parts it's really good and flows on really well, but sometimes it turns over and almost gets boring.
To sum it up the game has some really good parts while some others are less interesting. The graphics are beautiful and the battle system is one of the best in Final Fantasy history (though not as fresh and groundbreaking as in FFXIII). The music is nice but rather forgettable, but the sidequests focus on the wrong things and the story has some problems with being more complex than interesting and the return to the FFXIII universe isn't really as fun because of the limitations of THAT game.
Still, I'd say that this game deserves an 7 out of 10. At times when the game is really at it's best, like with catching monsters and the customization of them to keep you busy for many hours, it really feels much better than that, but then some boring sidequest comes along and totally break the mode and pace of the game. The rating would also be higher if the game actually used all the potential you see in it now, instead of just letting it be, well, potential.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 07/06/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Crystal Edition) (EU, 02/03/12)
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