Review by Steve_JF

"What Final Fantasy XIII should have been. Still flawed, but Square Enix are back on track"

As most of you will know, Final Fantasy is a huge Role-playing game franchise that has existed since the earliest versions of the Nintendo Console. The first Final Fantasy was released in 1990, and the game has held its ground up until present day; a feat that should not be overlooked nor undermined. Each game usually started anew, with completely new characters, different world, and varying battle systems, and with its daring experiments of originality, it has developed and become known as arguably the greatest and largest name for the RPG genre. Mention role-playing games to a gamer, and the majority of people will mention Final Fantasy at some point. So with the franchise ever-changing, and some instalments achieving more appreciation and acceptance than others, 22 years later, Final Fantasy continues to carry its name and Square Enix releases its new title; Final Fantasy XIII-2 to the shelf.

Its predecessor Final Fantasy XIII was very much a ‘Marmite' game- some loved it, others hated it. Oddly enough I sit somewhere in the middle- in essence it was a pretty good game, but it did lack certain elements and detracted harshly from the conventions of the previous instalments before it (more in detail later). For those wanting to know whether quickly whether to buy this game or not, I will cut to the chase for you- if you like Role-playing games and enjoyed many of the Final Fantasy instalments before it, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a must-buy game. No doubt about it. If you are on the fence, give it a rent and simply try it before you hold prejudice against it for its connection with FFXIII. (Note FF= Final Fantasy RPG=role-playing game VA= voice actors)

Story: 7/10
FFXIII-2 is a continuation of the story from FFXIII, but it goes a very different direction to its predecessor. For someone that has not played FFXIII before, I would still recommend playing FFXIII-2. Playing Final Fantasy XIII before XIII-2 would be favourable so you can better understand the plot, the heroes and villains etc, but it is by no means necessary, as you can learn most of the lore through ‘Datalog' in the Menu or via the Internet. I will keep spoilers to a minimum here.

A good RPG needs a good story, and FFXIII-2 surpassed my low expectations. The story in FFXIII-2 is a continuation of where the story left off in FFXIII. Many of the old crew have disappeared or simply cannot be found. Serah, one of the main protagonists of this game dreams about her sister (lightning) who after saving the planet suddenly disappeared without a trace. She remembers her, but no-one else seems to. Out of nowhere anomalies and monsters appear which sets alarm bells ringing. Soon after, Serah meets the second main character Noel, who appears from a time-gate and says he's come to help her because Lightning asked him to. The duo realises that times and locations are dislodged, known in this game as ‘paradoxes'. They see it as their job to correct time throughout the two planets (Cocoon and Gran Pulse) and restore order by travelling through time using ‘gates'. What we learn though is that they both have their individual reasons for wanting to correct the time-line. This adds a great base for character development, in particular with Noel who we know virtually nothing about.

In a nutshell the plot revolves around time travel- changing the past present and future. While any plot about changing time gives me a headache with all its confusion and has been done hundreds of times before, I actually really enjoyed the plot in FFXIII-2. Firstly, the story is told very well and the dialogue used helps keep everything simple and in Lehman's terms for those not well-versed in physics (me). Secondly, It is also told with charm and surprisingly ties everything together well- changing time in one location accurately affects another and causes a domino-effect to past and future. Furthermore, because the story is better told than the prequel you no longer have to rely on reading the ‘Datalog' to keep up with what's going on. Now it is optional rather than necessity.

Noel and Serah both compliment the story excellently- they both show common sense and rationality, and help the gamer decipher what is happening in the plot. The main Villain of this instalment named Caius (bad-ass) has his own ambitions like most villains and wishes to stop/kill Noel and Serah's time travelling antics for reasons and end-of-the-world type ambitions you later discover; the usual Typical bad guy stuff with a twist. Keeping FF tradition, he also carries a massive sword that would be unwieldy to human beings.
The story has some serious negative points though. For a Final Fantasy game the main storyline is actually pretty short, numbering at 30-40 hours excluding side-quests and all that grinding. It could have easily been expanded and fleshed out more, but instead it felt rushed, especially towards the end where several shocking revelations occur in a short space of time. As the plot revolves around time-travel it naturally becomes somewhat ridiculous, and there are more than a few loop-holes to spot. The ending of the game is also disappointing in my eyes, but you may feel differently.

Game-play: 8/10
Game-play throughout every Final Fantasy has always been very solid, (with the exception of FFII for me) and with hundreds of games being released each year, a video game has to stand out from the rest in order to monopolise your interest. With Square Enix's reputation on the line and other RPG's to compete with, does FF XIII-2 make it? With FF X-2 being a bit of a flop, and FF XIII being quite the red herring in the Franchise, I was prepared for the sequel to fail. I was wrong- this game resuscitated my passion and enjoyment for gaming once more.

There have been numerous improvements over its predecessor. The biggest one for me is the ‘free-roaming' and freedom elements of the game being rectified. FFXIII suffered the most from this detraction- hours of dreary corridors and linear walkways was its plague, and most areas you were unable to return to, ever. FF XIII-2 remedies this in a big way. Though there is still no return to the good old world map, but we have something similar called the ‘Historia Crux' which has a long chain of locations and different time zones that you can freely come and go to as you please. You are not forced to go in one direction- you can stall the main plot and instead do side quests and collect key items (fragments) to your hearts content. The more places you visit and explore, the more locations you unlock in the time grid, and then you get more quests, and so forth.

You can also kill some hours at A casino park playing slot machines and betting on chocobo races. The game as a whole has a much more light-hearted feel to it than its prequel that oozed melodrama. It still has the threat of world domination and impending doom for the main characters, but it does not force it upon you every five minutes. A good addition to FFXIII-2 is the dialogue choices. Every so often, during the main plot or through the side-quests, you get a choice of four options on what to say as Serah, either in the form of questions or answers. This is a clever way of allowing the player to ask what they want to know themselves, or merely respond with the funniest dialogue choice. As you can usually only ask or respond with one option, this gives you something different to do next time.

FFXIII-2 kept the old Paradigm system from FFXIII and in reality made only a few small changes, with battles operating pretty much the same. This may cause uproar for haters of FFXIII, but I think there's nothing wrong with it. It is an innovative way of making the player alter their strategies, change tactics and keep players on their toes. The main problem with FFXIII was the levelling up in the ‘Crystarium'. You were unable to level your characters freely and instead were only given the option to level characters in their three primary roles without great cost. FFXIII rectifies that. As soon as you first level up you can unlock a new role for your characters and each role costs the same amount of points as the other, so that you are not penalised for customising your characters the way you want. Thumbs up Square Enix.

A bold move that FFXIII-2 took was the implementation of capturing monsters and having them fight with you in battle. I was unsure if this ‘Pokemon' element would work well at first, but after a couple of hours experimenting with monsters, I became more engrossed in raising monsters than Serah or Noel! You capture monsters after beating them in battle (with a certain success rate) and you level them up via the ‘Crystarium' using materials that you get throughout your journey. Monsters ultimately become your ‘third party member' but each monster has only one paradigm role and set moves, which encourages you to experiment with many different monsters and utilise them in different ways. The fans will recognise many monsters in the huge bestiary such as Cactuars, Tonberries, Behemoths, Flans, Chocobos (you heard right) and many more that bring much nostalgia and comedy to the game.

As much as I enjoy the new changes and additions that FFXIII-2 embraces, there are certain factors that damage the game-play too. One weakness lies in the form of collecting fragments. Visiting new places and accepting new quests is great fun at first, but at a certain stage you are likely to find collecting fragments and opening new gates frustrating. To open new locations and time zones you need certain 'Artefacts', and these are frequently either well concealed, difficult to find, need certain conditions to be met first, or are ridiculously expensive to buy. As a consequence you can spend many hours searching every crevice of land for a lead, constantly going from one location to another until you find something, or have to spend either thousands of coins on the rigged slot machines or hours on Chocobo racing. Monster materials can also be scarce at times so grinding is often necessary to beef-up your monsters. Because the main story is unusually short for a typical FF game, you will probably recognise these flaws sooner than you think.

To fully complete the game, you are also forced to replay the story and events for different outcomes or possibilities. While this new gimmick is smart and rewarding at times, it can also be monotonous and is obviously a method of getting you to milk the game for all it's worth. Contrary to FFXIII which I found extremely challenging, FFXIII went pretty much the opposite way. Sadly, the majority of the game can be beaten without that much strategy and paradigm shifts needed. There are quite a few tough bosses and encounters I can recall off the top of my head, but most of the game will pose little threat to your humans and monster companions, which is a shame because the ‘Crystarium' and the monster levelling in this game has great implementation. Moreover, FF fans who were expecting the custom optional bad-ass boss to max your characters out against will feel disappointed, as there isn't one yet, but perhaps DLC will sort this omission out.

Graphics: 10/10
For those that played FFXIII, you know exactly what to expect. For those unfamiliar with Final Fantasy games, prepare to be mesmerised and enchanted by the games visuals. If there's one thing that is difficult to fault Squaresoft/Enix for it is graphics and appearance. The visuals in the franchise have always been ahead of the game, and very few games released today can come close to the stunning eye-candy that this game has to offer. Characters look almost life-like (save their perfect skin) with intricate detail to face expressions and character clothing. The scenery looks amazing from rippling water and light effects from the sun glare to the rustling trees. Cut-scenes which rival that of the Final Fantasy film ‘Advent Children' are also what you should expect and be blessed with.

Right from the start of the game you will be plunged into some of the coolest and absolutely mind-blowing action sequences that you have ever seen that will make you watch in amazement. Locations like the ‘New Bodhum' beach that you are introduced to in the first twenty minutes of the game are nothing short of beautiful. Even the common NPC's of the game look top notch in terms of colour, texture and detail. The only real negative to be found here is that a decent amount of the locations you visit seem like they have merely been pasted from the prequel with only minor changes, and re-using the locations for different time periods is clearly a shortcut that Square Enix relied on. Then again, it is the same world(s) so it is plausible. Luckily the best and most colourful locations were usually chosen for this sequel.

Audio/ sound: 8/10
The sound and music in FF XIII-2 is of slightly lower calibre to the graphics and visuals. Most fans of Final Fantasy will probably vouch for me when I say that the audio and sound in FF games has always been of high quality. Since the market for games has evolved, voice acting has become an integral part of games and often has a strong bearing on what defines a good game and what does not. Fortunately, the voice acting in FFXIII-2 in my opinion is excellent on the whole. Many of the main protagonists return from FFXIII that did the predecessor much justice (Vanille was very hit and miss though). I myself think the old characters are actually voiced even better in this one, but their parts in this game are fairly minimal.

Two completely new characters, and another character from FFXIII that barely said anything, take the limelight this time and from my point of view, they are voiced marvellously with decent lip-synching too. Very rarely did I get irritated or tired of hearing the main characters talk which is important seeing as you will hear them a lot. Mog has possibly the most lovable voice for a Final Fantasy mascot. Some of the NPC's voices are pretty shoddy and blatantly are unfit for the characters, but I can't see how this should ruin a gamer's experience.

As for the music in the game, it is a mixed bag but overall very likable. It has a variety of music from orchestral, techno, J-pop, rock and even some metal. A decent portion of the soundtrack is transferred from the prequel, some with minor changes. If you had any aversion to FFXIII's soundtrack, then you may be disappointed with this games soundtrack. Despite this though, about half of the soundtrack is new and in general is of much better quality than the re-hashes. The music at New Bodhum near the beginning of the game is a wonderful and welcome change to a different style of music in FF, and the battle music creates the right atmosphere for the adrenaline-filled action and epic bosses that stand in your way.

Though the voice acting is pretty untouchable, the music isn't. Since the composer Nobeu Eumatsu left Square Enix, the music has lacked the ‘x-factor' that was so prominent and memorable in the likes of Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, VIII, IX and X, and hardcore fans of the franchise will notice his absence. The re-cycling of the FFXIII's soundtrack also screams ‘lazy' on the part of the developers, and won't do this sequel any favours to the fans that disliked the prequel soundtrack. The newer soundtracks as I mentioned are all in all much better, but in truth a new game should have a completely new soundtrack. Those new to Final Fantasy and those interesting in role-playing games should thoroughly enjoy the music in this game, but the big fans of the franchise will probably have high expectations that may not be met.

Overall Rating: 8/10
So what you probably want to know is- “will I like this game if I liked/ disliked the prequel?” I will say this much: even if you disliked Final Fantasy XIII, it does not mean you won't like XIII-2. Don't paint the two games with the same brush because the gaming experiences are vastly different. After playing the game for a good 50-80 hours, I could not help but feel Square Enix returned to its greater roots with its sequel: a return to open exploration, better locations, an improved level-up system, an intriguing plot and likable main characters are just a few of the many things to expect in Final Fantasy XIII-2. With a harder difficulty, collection of all the fragment, and hundreds of monsters to experiment with, there is plenty of replay-ability for everyone. Honestly- if you are a fan of role-playing games and/or Final Fantasy games, you would be depriving yourself of one hell of a game if you don't play it. It has my official stamp of approval.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/02/12

Game Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (EU, 02/03/12)

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