Review by SuperPhillip
"If at first you don't succeed..."
It was but two years ago and some change that Final Fantasy XIII released to both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Many criticized the lame, embarrassing story; little to no character customization; lack of towns; and lots of linearity. Overall, a huge representation of the Final Fantasy fan base was not pleased with the franchise's first entry in HD. While Square Enix cannot jump into a time gate like Serah and Noel of the game's sequel, they can try, try again at creating an in-depth RPG that doesn't make as many sacrifices as Final Fantasy XIII. The company's answer to the many criticisms it received is Final Fantasy XIII-2, a time traveling epic that seeks to retain some of the series' lost fans. Is it "time" for forlorn fans to give Final Fantasy another shot?
Lightning was the heroine of the original Final Fantasy XIII. However, she has since gone missing from her sister Serah's world since the events of the game's ending. Now off Cocoon and with a new band of friends, Serah wakes up from a dream depicting her older sister duking it out with a purple-haired new foe. What she doesn't know is that this incident was not a dream, and a man named Noel Kreiss has come from Lightning's location and date to let Serah know that her older sister is indeed alive. While everyone else believes her to be dead, Serah does not give up hope and decides to team up with Noel through the annals of time to search for Lightning. While the story is above average for an anime-inspired tale, the factor of time travel isn't considered too well when compared to a movie like Back to the Future. Really, there is no consequence for changing the past and going back to the present. It's just poor storytelling, and sadly, that is something that is now common in mainline Final Fantasy games.
One of the chief complaints about Final Fantasy XIII was the immense amount of linearity in the dungeon design and the lack of an overworld map. Most of the time you were just taking Lightning and her crew on a stroll through endless corridors, battling enemies, and then sauntering through featureless areas. I can report with pleasure that these linear dungeons are all gone in Final Fantasy XIII-2. There are wide open vistas with multiple pathways, secret areas that simply beg to be explored, and hidden alcoves where treasure rests. The places range from seaside plateaus to ancient ruins. For instance, the Bresha Ruins, the second area of the game, is absolutely massive and full of alternate roads and nooks and crannies to venture into. Serah and Noel can jump at any time, but area exploration isn't a full-fledged platformer like Mario as you might think. There's circular markings on the ground at sections where Serah can leap to a new platform. However, there is still no overhead map. Instead you choose from a menu screen of various years and areas and select which one you wish to be transported to.
As Serah and Noel journey through the aforementioned dungeons and other areas, monsters will occasionally spawn around them. At this point a ring appears around Serah on the ground. You can choose to either attempt to attack an enemy, ensuring a preemptive strike, or you can try to run away. Serah's moogle guide acts as a clock. If the monster or monsters are still inside the ring by the time the clock runs out, you are forced to fight without the ability to retry the battle. This means if you're caught with your proverbial pants down and facing a truly strong monster, then you must either win or perish. Thankfully, dying just lets you start near the point of your death, so losing a lot of progress is unheard of in Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Battles are pretty simple to understand. Like other parts of the game there are tutorials for enemy encounters as well. You have multiple parts of your attack gauge. Say you have five portions on your gauge. You can assign five weak attacks like Fire, Blizzard, or Thunder or you can opt to do three weak attacks and one medium-strength spell or move like Cura which takes up two spaces of your gauge. In a fight you only control one character. However, you can switch at any time and will automatically take on the role of another party member if the character you currently control loses all of his or her hit points (HP).
An important factor in battle to understand is the Paradigm Shift. In Final Fantasy XIII-2 there are six roles you can take in a given encounter: Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, Synergist, and Medic. Depending on which role you choose, your experience level, battle strategy, and ability set will change. You can have six different paradigms set up at once, and you can shift between them at any time in battle with the press of a left front trigger on either the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 controller. Finding the perfect Paradigm Shift for the right occasion in a fight is paramount to winning each encounter you face.
Sometimes you will become fortunate and persuade a monster to join your side by defeating them. Any monster (besides bosses, of course) can be coaxed into joining your ranks. A monster like Cait Sith, while weak in attack, is perfect as a healer early in the game, while a monster like a Behemoth, which is slow, is perfect for exacting massive damage on foes. When the gauge of a given monster fills completely, you can perform a Feral Link with them. This is a quick time event where successfully pressing the right buttons and moving the analog stick in the correct direction (QTEs are an important part of boss battles too) will unleash a powerful attack on your foes. If you manage to get the final attack on a monster, you have a better chance of getting that monster to join your cause.
One of the problems with Final Fantasy XIII-2 comes from the difficulty curve of battle. One bout with beasts might be easy as pie, while the next can have you feel like the odds are overwhelming. Even with the game's option of letting you play on Easy mode (you can switch between Normal and Easy at any time during your quest), the fights against certain bosses can have you grinding for CP, to lure new, more powerful monsters to your side, and to gain enough gil to buy better weapons just to have a fighting chance. This inconsistent difficulty turned me off from the game a little bit.
When a battle ends you are ranked based on how you performed on a scale of zero to five stars. This is based on how fast you vanquished all enemies compared to the target time created by the game. Getting five stars usually nets you rarer drops and more Crystarium Points (or CP) than if you completed the encounter with a lesser amount of stars. The retry option allows you to restart a battle as long as a single enemy still stands. This is great for attempting to get a high star rank and trying out other strategies in battle.
You do not earn experience levels in the traditional sense in Final Fantasy XIII-2. That is, you do not get stronger by beating monsters alone. Instead you get CP or Crystarium Points from most bouts with opponents. You use CP in the Crystarium section of the menu screen to purchase new abilities, spells, and skills for each of the previously mentioned six roles (Medic, Commando, etc.). Each time you use CP your HP, strength, and level for that individual role increases. At specific levels (say, level 10 or level 25) you earn new abilities like Poison or Ruinga. At first the Crystarium menu is confusing. Why the developers of this system felt the need to create a complex interface for something that is quite simple is beyond me. Depending on which role you switch to in a Paradigm Shift, your experience level will change, as will your strength and HP. This is because each of the six roles has its own unique levels, HP amounts, and strength.
Time travel is an important part of Final Fantasy XIII-2. In fact, it's the main selling point. If for some reason you desire to redo a specific section of the game, you have special items that allow you to go back in time and relive a part of the game, fighting bosses over again in an attempt to best them with a five star ranking. That's not the only reason to go back in time. You can only obtain one of a dozen or so Paradox Endings through pulling a Marty McFly.
The main game of Final Fantasy XIII-2 will last players anywhere from 30-50 hours. This depends on if you are willing to go for all of the 150+ fragments (40 are handed out over the course of the story alone) and attain all of the achievements/trophies. I must admit that when a game turns getting things to boost your Gamerscore into a chore, something is not right.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a remarkable looking game, as is pretty much expected from Square Enix. The company at least knows how to push the hardware it places its games on, even if its recent output in the category of quality of gameplay hasn't been the best. The handful of cinematics are glorious to gawk at, while the actual in-game graphics are gorgeous on their own. Textures are highly complicated, character animations are well done, and lighting is superb, too. Serah and the other cast members of the game have great voice actors and actresses representing them, even if they have a typical anime story to work with. On the music front, the intense battle themes, charming character themes, and dungeon area themes are all composed splendidly and sound supreme. This is a terrific looker of a game.
Aside from some questionable difficulty spikes in the main game and a story that doesn't develop the idea of time traveling too well, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a capable and competent JRPG that fans of the franchise can look fondly on. It has fragments of error, such as the high learning curve found in the battle system, and the Crystarium system that is also hard to understand at first thanks to some boneheaded design decisions (I was stuck at level 2 for both characters and didn't know why for the longest time), but all in all, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an intriguing title worthy of your time.
[SuperPhillip Says: 8.5/10]
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 02/17/12, Updated 03/05/12
Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (US, 01/31/12)
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