Review by Amniculus

"Final Fantasy 13-2...Not 'Back to the Future'"

To begin, I think I should delve a little into Final Fantasy XIII, the predecessor, as this game is a direct sequel, and players unaware of what they missed may be a little curious (although considering Final Fantasy's fame, a simply Google or Wiki check would be even better.) When Final Fantasy XIII came out, it presented a new “introduction” on the series with extremely linear gameplay (read: no exploration until very, very late in the game, and even then…), an extremely high amount of cutscenes, and a new battle system that while creative, was more flashy than fulfilling. The story centered around the airborne Eden-like city of Cocoon and the unknown lands of the surface world called Pulse. A band of heroes is “cursed” by Cocoon's fal'Cie (fancy speak for deity) and must undo their fate by exposing the treachery of Cocoon's rulers, etc, while rescuing the main heroine Lightning's younger sister Serah from her crystal prison. If you can get past the hokey parts, than like any JRPG, it can be entertaining. Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes places three years after FFXIII and stars Serah as the new heroine. All in all, not much has changed, but we'll get into that. I had mixed feelings personally on FFXIII, so the following review might sound a little biased, but I'll attempt to describe the actual contents before inserting my personal opinions. I'm also an old-school RPG fan, so there's a few references I make throughout the review. If you don't get them, it's no biggie, as it's probably not even related to the game. (That there is a justification in case this sucks, because it's been a few years since I've written one of these.)

Gameplay: Not Original
Final Fantasy XIII-2's gameplay remains linear like its predecessor, though not as linear…if that makes any sense. Whereas Final Fantasy XIII consisted of literally walking from one point to the next while fighting hordes of enemies, etc, XIII-2 pretty much does the same, but now makes the environment a bit more expansive, as heroine Serah is able to explore places. The exploration isn't very much, but it's there, so regardless, I view it as an improvement. Most of the game's locales are set in different time periods, each time period representing what would be considered a “town” or “dungeon” in any other RPG. The biggest improvement to being able to explore the environment is now the dungeons have quirky puzzles to solve to progress further. Nothing original or anything, but it pays homage to the old RPG era by having annoying labyrinths to navigate through all because you missed that one hidden switch.

There are no stores and no inns, as you are completely healed after each battle (the latter of which I found kind of silly and really takes away from the challenge, but I guess with no inns or means to instantly heal, it makes up for it.) Stores are now all done by a single creepy chocobo cosplayer named Chocolina who sounds like she's on a caffeine-high and is somehow able to appear in every time period at convenient locations. For whatever reasons, the internet's FF fanbase seems to think she's pretty hot and distinguishable, but really, she just scares the hell out of me. Still, it is nice to see some variety in RPG merchants/shopkeepers.

Battles play out much the same, only there's a new twist on enemy encounters, personally my favorite part of the game. Encounters are now both random and decisive. What I mean by that is that heroine Serah (you, the player) will be running around when all of a sudden, a monster appears from out of nowhere. While it's “random” where you will meet these enemies, it also becomes a choice on whether or not you want to fight them or avoid them. When a random encounter occurs, Serah is consumed in sort of a red “force field” and has a limited amount of time to flee the scene should she choose to run before a timer runs out and the battle is forced. At the same time, choosing to assault the beasts can have some advantages as well, as while this brief red force field is up, Serah can manually attack the monster to get those “first attacks” in when the battle begins. It's difficult to explain I suppose, but it's really a neat mechanic, something that would be kind of cool to see in future RPGs.

The battles themselves are almost exactly the same as they were in FFXII: a meter fills up and your characters automatically attack with whatever skills they have equipped, unless you alter their battle pattern by inputting specific commands of your own. (For example: nothing is more annoying than seeing a kick-ass team of heroes who can obliterate anything casting, say, Fire spells on a monster who absorbs it.) By pressing ‘L1', you can switch “Paradigms”, or battle strategies, for your auto-attacking heroes (spell-casting, healing, etc). Enemies have a chain meter that fills up whenever they're attacked (usually with magic), and maxing it out causes an effect called ‘Stagger' where the enemy takes extreme damage, especially when attacks are chained together. Again, for someone who's never played FFXIII, this may sound confusing, but it's actually very easy to learn. The actual challenge comes in with creating specific Paradigm sets and having to switch to them on the fly. In example, if some a-hole boss is taking ten minutes to cast some fantastic spell, then there's no doubt it's probably gonna be a one-shot game over if it hits, so you'd want to switch to a defensive paradigm as quickly as possible, only to switch to a healing one soon after, followed by returning to a damage-dealing one, etc. My personal thoughts on this battle system, while dumbed down from previous series' entries, is actually pretty cool.

Leveling your heroes remains much the same as well: After each battle, Serah and Noel (the other main hero, see my ‘story' section) will accumulate a certain amount of points. These points are used to contribute to the Crystarium, a starry grid where each class (medic, ravager, commando, etc.) can be leveled up with said points, although each level requires more and more points. The highest class level is what the heroes' main level will read as. So really, it's not so much of a traditional leveling system as it is just acquiring more power in each class.

Party Members: Not Pokemon
If you've played FFXIII and are actually reading this, then you probably skipped the last few paragraphs because it's all old news. This part is a bit different, and thus I feel it needed it's own section. FFXIII-2 literally only has two main party members/heroes: Serah and Noel. Your third party member is literally going to be one of the monsters you kill in random encounters. After each battle, there's a slim chance that a defeated foe will become a crystal, enabling you to summon it as your third party member. Chances for monster capture are raised by having a monster already in your party use its equivalent to a ‘limit break', which is a meter that automatically fills with each passing battle and can be used when the icon comes up by pushing the ‘Square' button. These monsters can only be leveled through monster materials acquired after battles, in treasure orbs, at Chocolina's shop, etc., but in the endgame, they prove to be invaluable. A pretty cool twist on the FF universe without being too gimmicky, in my opinion.

Story: Not Chrono Trigger
Contrary to what I've read in other reviews, the story takes up a big chunk of the game, placing random cutscenes in unusual places just so we can see face shots of the two heroes and listen to them bicker about time-traveling hubbub. That's right, this is a time-traveling tale. Set three years after FFXIII, former heroine Lightning has disappeared, leaving the spotlight to her younger sister Serah. Without spoiling too much, the prologue shows Lightning, now a more-clothed armored knight, fighting in a heavenly, futuristic ruin known as Valhalla against a new adversary named Caius (aka Not Sephiroth because he has purple hair). Soon after, Lightning sends a youth named Noel (he looks like he jumped out of the Kingdom Hearts series) into a time portal to aid Serah. Serah, meanwhile, along with many others, have populated the formerly foreign world of Pulse. Distraught over the loss of her sister Lightning and her fiance Snow who went to look for her but never returned, Serah soon meets Noel and learns of her ability to travel through time, via the cleverly placed time gates that have begun appearing in the world. While Serah seeks to reunite with Lightning, Noel seeks to change history as he hails from an apocalyptic future. What commences is Serah and Noel traveling through time having to resolve paradoxes that are skewering history's true timeline. As an example, early in the game, the two must defeat a giant war machine from the future that somehow found its way into the present era. Of course, these paradoxes aren't happening by accident, and Serah and Noel must combat the mastermind behind all this, while discovering the mysteries behind an enigmatic young girl named Yeul, who seems to appear in every time period.

Honestly, the story sold me, which is the main reason I first picked up the game; I love time traveling stories (Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies, haha). However, FFXIII-2 didn't do it the way I had planned, inserting too many stereotypical JRPG cliches into the mix. Serah is a much prissier, more commonplace heroine than her big sister was in the first one, making much of her dialogue difficult to stomach for those like myself who have played far too many RPGs when they were younger where the heroine was a weak damsel in distress, and Noel, while certainly the more badass of the two, I have trouble taking seriously because his design is so comical and cheery-looking (I won't bring up the fact how bright and colorful he looks compared to the other people from his apocalyptic future he comes from). The main villain, Caius, who is voiced by the same guy who does Seth from my beloved Street Fighter IV, is poorly developed and the motivations for his villainy have to be equally as poor and ridiculous. Worst of all, if you get rid of all the inane interjections of Serah and Noel discussing paradoxes and other moonspeak whenever the game feels like it (i.e. every new era you visit, because the game assumes you're either A. taking long breaks and need a recap every half hour, or B. you're an idiot), you're left with a very short story and by extension, a very short game. I won't spoil the ending, but expect something very unexpected.

Sound: Not Memorable
…but entertaining and suitable for the game. While its predecessor had some better background music, mainly cause most of it was song, FFXIII-2 doesn't really have anything too memorable. Most of the music is appropriate for whatever time period/land you're in, but boss music cranks it up with heavy metal-like tunes and riding the aggressive red chocobo sounds like hard rock. Otherwise, get used to a few bouncy techno beats and some softer “town-type” tunes. To be honest, Caius' theme was the only one that stuck with me, mainly because it sounded like it might've belonged in the first. It does pay homage to the first too by reusing some toons. Overall, the music isn't bad, but it's nothing you'll be humming on your way to work/school.

Overall Recommendations
This is a very short game, and all the time paradoxes and history streaming bits make for an entertaining experience. I'd go ahead and recommend picking this up if you liked FFXIII, but for other mainstream RPGers, you may be surprisingly disappointed, as the story's only so-so and there's no real plot twists to look forward to. All in all, it feels like a massive sidequest or perhaps some downloadable content that should've been made available to the original FFXIII. Even for the completionists, this game barely peders over 15-20 hours max. So again, Final Fantasy fans, go for broke; other RPG enthusiasts, let this one softly pass. I give it a 7/10 for being fun and a good, sturdy RPG, but not really too replayable and far too short.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/08/12

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

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