Review by ExtremePhobia
"Final Fantasy XIII-2: Best experienced, not rushed"
Since this is a direct sequel, I think it's safe to assume that you've played Final Fantasy XIII. If you haven't, know that it's a great game by most standards but may leave you unsatisfied if you are a series fan. With that in mind, while 13-2 provides an overview of the story for you, this is meant to be played sequentially so pick that up first.
For those of you who already know that, you're going to be asking how it compares to 13. The short version is that it is completely open ended and while story is still very important to the proceedings of the game, more important is the exploration. While most of the side quests of the game are pretty basic, slowly unlocking different areas to explore and no enemies to defeat is satisfying and frequently rewards you with more (optional) background information. And if you're anything like me, you'll be both scratching your head trying to figure out what's going on but completely drawn in to unraveling the mysteries and histories of the world.
Despite the unusual ways that time travel can unravel a great story when applied to a video game (who doesn't try to break the story?), the story is so expertly written that very rarely do have moments where you feel like something is out of place. Also of note is that while you gain an exceptional amount of freedom (it's quite breathtaking actually), the ability to just wonder off midway through the story can cause the story to lose it's urgency.
That is not to say that the story doesn't feel different than its predecessor. While 13 was very linear and directed, it also had a sort of epic, sweeping feel to it. While the story doesn't feel as humanly epic (there's less emotion), it has a different epic feel that comes from an expertly crafted story of time travel. Rather than how 13 tugged at your heart strings, 13-2 tugs at your intellectual strings. Rather than making you feel, every step of the story will intrigue you and inspire wonder and awe. The cohesiveness of the story makes you aware that the writers of this story are aware that for continuity, your characters may bring about a future where they never existed and you are left wondering what kind of feat you will have to accomplish to save everyone, including yourselves.
Just because the game appeals more to your brain, doesn't mean that there isn't a heartfelt story in here. In fact, possibly the most stirring emotions come from the stone faced antagonist, Caius. Throughout your travels, you will learn more about why he is doing what he is doing. Moreover, you come to appreciate his intentions and goals, and empathize with how he became who he is. Part of you may want the goal he seeks while the other tells you that you can't allow such a thing to happen.
The story of Serah is rather simplistic and even uninteresting until the end. Noel, on the other hand, is seeking to prevent the future he comes from. While you get invested in his desperation, it becomes interesting to see how he views things based on his experiences growing up. All of this tends to come to the surface during the points where you bump into the heroes of the previous game. When you meet Hope, you can clearly see Noel's admiration for Hope's intelligence and his absolute devotion to what he's trying to achieve. This builds a liking for Noel that makes it that much harder to discount his distaste for Snow later on.
They've really gone all out with exploring the story. You will frequently given Live Trigger events (basically conversation choices alla Mass Effect). They are generally pretty inconsequential to the story but they can give you a decent amount of back story. While this is nothing new, you later gain the ability to replay time periods from the beginning and you will be given different choices, allowing you to delve even deeper into the story if you so choose. You will also be rewarded in some small way for certain choices. Usually these are just adornments (cosmetic changes for tamable creatures) or minor items like potions but it still adds a nice incentive to explore conversations fully.
However, it should be noted that the story is not perfect. It runs a little on the short side. This isn't particularly bad because it seems that it's perfect length for the story they wanted to tell. This is in contrast to certain points in FF13 where the story dragged a little unnecessarily to create a Final Fantasy length game. 13-2 has a similarly feeling problem with its pacing though in that very rarely, you will do something out of order and nobody will know anything about it. For instance, you gain access to Episode 3B at almost the exact same time as Episode 3A. However, if you access 3B first and meet Snow, when you return to Episode 3A, you'll have a dialog tree where Serah will ask if Hope had heard anything from Snow and then offer no explanation that they've seen him and he's doing what he does best. While this is rare, more frequently you may notice that certain pieces of script are completely interchangeable with others. While the script is expertly written and performed, it does give you a moment where you are pulled out of the game. The rarity of the former problems generally smooth over the latter problem in almost every case, allowing you to just sink right back in knowing that they've gone above and beyond to ensure that you had as smooth of an exploratory experience as possible.
The gameplay is rather similar to FF13 but with a few refinements and changes. I'm going to assume you've played FF13 because, while it's not required, it might as well be. You have two constant characters in the game who always level up at the same pace and in the same fashion. The third party slot is reserved for creatures that you can tame. Whereas Serah and Noel will change roles based on the paradigm, each monster has a given role and you change creatures in and out as the role for that slot requires. However, in this slot you can only equip three creatures. What this means is that you can only have a maximum of three different roles in that slot forcing you to be more flexible with Noel and Serah rather than with the creatures. This also means that you can't have a whole set of pure paradigms (you can't have all three party slots as the same role for all six roles).
If you are worried about monster taming, you have nothing to be concerned about. While it can be a little tedious to balance leveling up a certain monster while balancing it against new monsters you may be collecting as you play, you'll find the same underlying FF13 simplicity principle here. By that I mean that you can do a minimal amount and still be successful or you can really get into it and create godlike creatures. Taming a monster is as simple as killing it in battle. You'll have a random chance to tame the monster you've killed. You can increase your odds of taming a monster a few different ways but you can only have one of each type of monster.
The leveling up system for monsters is a little unusual and a little bit closer to how items were leveled up in the previous game. You have to collect certain items (only specific ones will do) and use them in the monster's Crystarium. Each crystal you unlock will increase their level by one. Each level will add a little bit to each of their stats, including things like health and strength. At certain key levels, they will even learn new abilities. This abilities can be incredibly useful. For instance, there is a creature (Flanitor) which is a medic type that eventually learns both Esuna and Raise which makes him a top quality medic. You can also infuse monsters with the abilities of another. Doing so consumes the monster who is bestowing the abilities to another and higher level creatures bestow more abilities. Some creatures have level caps to keep them from being overpowered but this tends to be in the middle tier of creatures. Most lower level creatures can level quite how so that you don't have to dump them after putting effort in but most creatures stop short of top tier to give you a reason to get the best monsters in the game. And doing so will reward you quite nicely.
Leveling your human party members has been simplified. You only ever have one shape for each person's Crystarium and the crystals are all generic until you assign them. When you have enough CP to level up, you chose a role to assign each crystal to. For instance, you could assign the first crystal to Commando and then the next crystal to Ravager. Each assigned crystal levels up that role by one. At key levels, the characters will learn extra abilities to use in that role and every unlocked crystal adds health, strength, and magic. When you've unlocked every crystal in the Crystarium, it will add another layer (level) to the crystarium in the exact same shape and allow you to do the same thing over again. Every time you add a level to your Crystarium, you are granted your choice of a bonus ranging for an increase to a role's bonus effect to adding an extra segment to your ATB gauge. This allows you to level up however you wish. You'll do so more gradually but the results over even just an hour of play are very noticeable.
Arranging paradigms operates largely the same way. All of the roles are still present though some will have to be unlocked when you level up your Crystarium. There are two new additions however that make things easier. The first is an ability to save a deck of paradigms. You are allowed to save up to three preset decks while modifying what you are using currently. Also available is the ability to fine tune your paradigms. There are three settings and you can apply them to any paradigm. The first option is the normal setting where your party memebers will act in a general manner consistent with the role. The other two are Cross, which causes your party to focus all its effort on one target and Wide, which makes your party focus on separate targets. This becomes useful for paradigms where you have multiple party members with the same role. For instance, using Cross on a paradigm with three Commandos will force them to focus all their attacks on one target where they would normally attack three different targets.
Shifting paradigms during combat is much faster and doesn't have that long cinematic forced on your first shift of the battle. The battles themselves are relatively simple and most can be beaten with just the Auto-Battle button except for shifting paradigms. Of course, like 13, this is where the real battle takes place. You must strategize and change Paradigms wisely. Again, you can simply level past needing to change paradigms for most battles but if you want to try any of the harder content in the game, learning the nuances of paradigms is key.
The last significant difference is the Feral Link ability. As your party makes actions that coincide with a creatures role, you will build up your Feral Link bar with that creature. Each creature has its own bar so you can have three creatures synchronized at once (good for boss battles) and each creature has its own special ability when they use their Feral Link. Sometimes it's as simple as dealing damage but sometimes it can be something like a bunch of bonuses status effects for the entire party and healing wound damage (at the same time!). These take the form of Quick Time Events in the middle of battle. The faster you do it, the better the results. Using these is very important in tougher battles but, like most aspects of battle, are not required if you don't want to use them.
The only real drawback to gameplay is that there are Cinematic Action events that take place during or after battles (usually). Basically, these are just Quick Time Events. They didn't particularly bother me except that it meant I had to focus on hitting buttons rather than watching some glorious Final Fantasy cutscene. However, if QTEs are not your type of thing, they really only appear at important boss battles and failing them usually doesn't hurt you in any way, though you don't gain any bonus which could be anything from an item to a significantly easier battle.
What is there to conclude? From a gameplay standpoint, the game is hugely improved in almost every way. Even people who liked FF13 (me included) will not find any real drawback to the gameplay while those who did not will find the freedom they craved. There is a small dip in how well you are drawn into the story since you can do a story mission and then just explore for three hours before coming back to the story. This causes a certain loss of urgency but is otherwise unnoticeable.
I'll give this a solid 9.5 with almost all of the points off simply for the brevity of the main story being unusually short for a Final Fantasy game (though I find it completely acceptable).
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 02/08/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (US, 01/31/12)
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