Review by Alpha_Omega9999
"First Final Fantasy game where the sequel trumps the original"
Like many others, I was unsure of whether or not to purchase this game, since its predecessor had such incredibly linear gameplay that I bored fast. Thankfully, it appears my preconceptions were very much wrong. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a massive improvement over XIII in nearly every way. Generally, I don't have very high hopes for sequels in the Final Fantasy genre, as they always turn out horrible, but it appears that for a change, SquareEnix has done the game justice. Gone is that "walking down a straight hallway" feeling; the game is very non-linear, and you can return to literally any point at almost any time.
The story of the game is the most important part of any Final Fantasy game, in my opinion. Thankfully, XIII-2 does not disappoint. The entire story is based on the time traveling concept. Lightning, the protagonist from XIII went missing at the end of XIII, due to a paradox which warped the timeline. Gates have begun to appear around the land, allowing the main characters, Serah (Lightning's sister, who spent the first game mostly in crystal stasis, the result of completing her focus as I'Cie) and Noel (the new guy from a distant future, where he is the last surviving human) together are trying to save Lightning, who is trapped in a world called Valhalla. While the story's concept seems simple and almost selfish at first, it quickly escalates into an attempt to save the world, as all Final Fantasy games do (though I'm not complaining). Despite being a sequel and being held back by the restraints of the previous game, the story is incredibly expansive, and captivated me better than XIII did. On a side note, I would strongly advise playing XIII first, regardless, as the connection to the story and its characters would feel broken and incomplete (it IS a sequel, after all).
The only major complaint I have is the game's terrible ending. It's not that it's by any means lackluster; quite the opposite, if anything, but it goes out with a bang in the same way as most TV series finales; leaving us hanging as we wait to know what really happened.
The characters of the game can also vastly change the game's feel. It's not just the story that grants full immersion into the game, but also how the characters act in the story. In our case, the scope of playable characters is extremely small compared to XIII. The game is played almost entirely with Serah and Noel, with a moment with Lightning at the very beginning. As a result, though, you get to know Serah and Noel very well, and I found them to be perfectly crafted characters. Sadly, the much can't be said about all the others. Lightning, despite being on the cover and having the first 10 minutes of the game dedicated to her, is absent for most of the game, and feels aloft and mysterious for the few times you see her. Mog, your moogle companion who joins you for the course of the game is by far the most annoying character in the game, kupo. Thankfully, Hope is portrayed more mature this time, and despite being unplayable, has a large role in the story and fills it well. On the antagonist side, Caius is the game's principal antagonist, and quite possibly the best in the series due to the internal conflicts he faces, which force you to question if he's necessarily the true "bad guy". The end result is that we have two strong main characters, one strong supporting character, and a very strong antagonist; but everyone else feeling weak and incomplete. Thankfully, you spend so much time focused on the three strong characters that the rest hardly make an impact.
Gameplay is always the big one. This is covering everything except the battle system, which is massive enough to be graded separately. As mentioned, the game is thankfully far less linear than XIII. The various locals are accessed through a time traveling location called the Historia Crux, which can be accessed at almost any time. As a result, you can travel to different locations, from the beginning to the end of your journey, with a number of optional areas available as well. You can also "close" a gate when you find the corresponding gate seal, which essentially lets you start that stage as though you just arrived again, allowing you to change the actions you've taken. The gate can be reopened later to restore how it was before you closed it (though items you find, etc, during the time the gate was closed are kept). Unlike most RPGs, you can actually freely jump for a change (and even temporarily float, with the aid of a fragment skill). It seems like such a minor change, but it greatly improved gameplay for me; I've always disliked the "cement shoes" RPG characters seemed to normally suffer.
A subsection of gameplay, you'll likely spend half of the game in battles, so obviously it's important to get it right. The fast paced system isn't much different from XIII, but SquareEnix has thankfully fixed some of the flaws in XIII's system. Most importantly, if the party leader dies, it's no longer an instant game over; you switch to the other human character instead. However, you only have two human characters, with the third combatant being an AI-controlled monster. Monsters must be captured by defeating them in battle, after which there's a small chance of capturing it. However, you still can only control one party member at a time, during which the rest are AI controlled. Admittedly, with the hyper fast-paced battle would be rather difficult for a human to keep up with (and thus why we're often spamming the AI controlled "auto battle" function on that one party member we can control). Sure, the fast paced battle system is, well, fast paced, and that makes it seem exciting, not to mention gets the battles over faster, but I found the fast pace to be detrimental to strategy. The battle system used in Final Fantasy IV-IX was pretty much the same concept, but was considerably slower, allowing the time to give actions to all allies (without the need for AI assistance), and would work better in XIII-2 than this hyper version (seriously, they used the same basic ATB system for at least 9 games).
With all that being said, I must at give SquareEnix justice in stating that the AI controlled characters really do quite well. In the majority of instances, the AI performed optimally, attacking the foes weaknesses and performing their roles effectively. If a staggered foe can be launched into the air, the AI will utilize that by starting with an attack command generally followed by a chain of ruins. Magic attacks smartly decide whether to use a large area affect attack or spam single target attacks. Saboteurs take note of foes weaknesses and immunities when applying status ailments. Synergists use buffs that best suit the foe (so if a foe delivers very strong physical attacks, protect will be one of the first statuses applied). However, the synergist is also the role the AI seems to play the worst; using single targeting spells instead of an area targeting spell, even when the latter would be far more efficient. Sure, you can manually take control of the synergist and use the right spell, but that's the other flaw with the AI-only monsters. Neither Serah nor Noel can actually learn all of the abilities, making it necessary to depend on monsters (for example, neither of them can learn the invaluable faith and bravery abilities).
All in all, the battle system is exciting and thrilling, but strategy is almost entirely in setting up the right paradigms and switching between them accordingly, while spamming the auto commands. While I can't say the battle system is boring, it certainly seems to lack strategy and innovation. Also, random battles (call me old school, but I prefer random battles)!
Battle system: 8/10
Leveling and equipment systems
No RPG is complete without ways to customize your characters to your liking. XIII-2 follows in it's predecessor's footsteps, using a similar crystarium for leveling. You must collect crystarium points, or CP, from winning battles. This CP can be spent on advancing in a chosen role (either commando, ravager, sentinel, synergist, saboteur, or medic), which advances your stats (available in any role) and learns abilities (specific to that role). You have levels in each of these, maxing at level 99 in all roles. My biggest complaint is that abilities aren't well spread out in the roles. There's no particular reason to get an extremely high level in one specific role over spreading out over all the roles, as you stop learning new abilities quite early on. Some of the roles you learn your last ability around level 30 and the last 70 or so levels are purely stat increases. Not to mention you can't learn all the abilities anyway. Your human characters never learn brave, faith, or armour breaker, for example, requiring you to leave those for monsters to learn.
Speaking of monsters, they're leveled in an entirely different way, using monster materials obtained as drops or buying from Chocolina, the game's sole way to purchase items. I never thought I'd actually say I preferred XIII's method of shops at save crystals. Chocolina seems very out of place and actually quite annoying.
On the equipment side, however, I am woefully disappointed. XIII-2 continues Final Fantasy's increasingly dumbed down equipment spiral, with the choice of a weapon and up to four accessories on each human character. And to further limit that, each character has a capacity metre, which maxes at 100, and limits the accessories that can be used. So while you might be able to equip four really weak accessories, you'll likely only be able to equip a single really good accessory. Not to mention that for whatever reason, the majority of very useful accessories have some type of hefty negative to impact there use. I understand the ability to nullify an element of damage is quite useful, but it's not so much of a game breaker that the accessory really needs some negative to deter its use, is it?
On the weapons side, the game starts off with a very slow trickle of available weapons, but jumps near the end, though you generally have two practical choices for weapons: either ones that boost your ATB gauge (either by increasing the rate it charges at or granting an extra slot), or ones that offer sheer high stats. Near the end of the game, the ATB +50% weapons are invaluably the best, even more so than the ATB +1 weapons (which give an extra slot rather than increasing the charge rate), despite the fact the former requires the ATB +50% weapons as a component. The "ultimate" weapon in the game requires you to collect all 160 fragments to be of any use at all, and even then the ATB +50% weapons are still more useful (not to mention that getting 160 fragments means you've totally completed every aspect of the game).
Leveling and equipment systems: 5/10
Final Fantasy has always been known for having fantastic graphics. Sure, XIII-2 isn't as realistic as the current crop of first person shooters, but with its unique art style, it's a beautiful world. The world is a fantastic, vibrant place. From the bustling metropolis of Academia to the soft lighting of New Bodhum to the grim forbidding of A Dying World, the game looks fantastic in every way. The world is immersible and well designed. In particular, I found the lighting was unmatched, setting the mood for the locations and completing the graphics perfectly. While there's not much difference technically from XIII, the crop of new locations look great and even returning locations look fantastic. There's not really much to say about the graphics other than that SquareEnix did a darn fine job.
Level design is a bit of a tricky. I've come to loath when games recycle level design too often, finding it very noticeable, not to mention the dullness of overusing a similar art style in these levels. Despite the fact that XIII-2 often requires traveling to the same location more than once, in different times, it doesn't have that repetitive feel I expected. You travel to Bresha Ruins 3 times in the game, once in 5 AF (After Fall, the years since Cocoon's fall), then later, optionally, in 300 and 100 AF. The first visit finds rainy weather, while the second is a snowy winter land (speaking of which, your characters and all the monsters change appearance in winter settings), and the third is full of a greenish smog.
Most levels are fairly easy to maneuver, with a number of optional side branches. You can generally find a map which reveals the layout of the entire level early on. The ingame map is better than most games, but still far from perfect. However, some large areas such as Academia are confusing labyrinths to manage. With that being said, though, the confusion adds to the level, showing the sprawling size of the city (particularly since we can only access a tiny portion on the "500th floor".
Level design: 10/10
Wow, where do I begin? I admit, I don't usually pay much attention to game music. In fact, some games sport 8-bit music so annoying I can't bring myself to listen to it. Not to mention that annoying sound menus like to make. Thankfully, XIII-2 has none of that. There's lots of vocals and the music is tailored to the areas very well. In particular, the music in A Dying World stood out so well for me that I had to stop for a moment just to reflect on the music. I don't usually do that, so can only give SquareEnix kudos for the amazing soundtrack.
Voices and sound effects
For the most part, sound effects are fine. Nothing special, but nothing terrible. The voices aren't too bad, but two particular characters have voices so annoying that I almost wince when they start talking. In particular, Mog and Chocolina just annoy me with their voices. Mog being the worst by far, with the very high pitched voice and ending every line with kupo (I can actually manage the kupo if it's unspoken, Final Fantasy IX didn't murder my ears with that, if only because there was no voice acting). Thankfully, Serah and Noel's voices are well done, though I still can't help but want to murder Mog.
The bottom line
XIII-2 has a strong story, fantastic graphics and level design, great music, and an interesting, fast paced battle system. I found the game to be too easy at times (except collecting all the fragments - monster professor in particular), and would have liked to see a hard mode in addition to the normal and easy modes. The game develops well, and sheds that horrid linearity XIII suffered from. Sadly, the battle system still lacks strategy, with the paradigm setup and switching being far more important than giving your characters commands, which you rarely manually do.
Battle system: 8
Leveling and equipment systems: 5
Level design: 10
= 80/90 = 8.8 (rounds up to 9)
A note about bias: Reviews show the opinion of one person, namely myself. Thus, they are always biased, no matter how neutral the writer tries to be. So for the record, this review is the opinion of a long time RPG fan who cares more about the story than the graphics and likes a reasonable degree of challenge (but not too much; dying sucks). Final Fantasy IX was the first Final Fantasy I ever played (and would have been perfect if not for the fact only three of the characters were actually good), though I've since played nearly every one of them. If you're the kind of person who thought Final Fantasy XI through IX were the best, then this review should be on par with your tastes.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/27/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (US, 01/31/12)
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