Review by Dark_Epathy
Aesthetics and emotional punch can't make up for what is essentially half of a game.
Final Fantasy XIII divided fans and critics alike upon its release. Some praised the focus on story while others criticized the extreme linearity and lack of substantial optional content. Now we have Final Fantasy XIII-2, a seemingly unnecessary sequel that addresses some of the original's problems but exacerbates others. Let's see what went right and what went wrong.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 begins with the original game's protagonist, Lighting, locked in battle with the mysterious Caius. The duel is a spectacle for the eyes as the two warriors fly through the skies of Valhalla, a frozen realm beyond the reaches of time. Lightning and Caius fight to a stalemate, and then a young man suddenly appears through a portal in the sky; his name is Noel Kreiss, and Lightning charges him with finding her sister Serah and resolving the issue at hand. Noel obliges, and thus begins his and Serah's journey to reunite with Lightning and save time itself.
Like that of its predecessor, the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a mixed bag. There are cool ideas present, and the time-traveling component of the story is interesting, even if not necessarily totally thought-out. Serah and Noel investigate different points in time on their journey, and the relevance of their visits vary widely between each other. Some locations are visited for less than a few minutes; others take up a few hours. The constant hopping back and forth does a number on the game's pacing, and revelations often come at weird, awkward times. Before you know it, the game is even warning you that you're about to pass the point of no return--it comes as a shock, as the game climaxes before anything really happens. Worse, a tedious final platforming section eats up the game's momentum, and a brutal volley of final battles can come as a surprise and necessitate going back and exploring more of the vast optional content. In other words, grinding.
Which is probably the main point and flaw of the game--simply going through the main story will net you a dead end. The game encourages exploration even at its end, which is disorienting. On the matter of side content, the game boasts an impressive number of side quests, but these side quests never really delve into anything fun. Fetching items through time, answering trial-and-error quiz games, and solving tedious, annoying puzzles constitute a large part of the optional content at hand. What makes this even more grueling is how little variety there actually is in the game's locales. Traveling through time is the kicker here; you'll visit the same area in different time periods, but any one area is never really different, save for a swapped color palette or environmental affect. It comes across as lazy.
Still, the game is not without its strengths. Gorgeous graphics and sumptuous art design are a feast for the eyes, and wonderful music and voice acting complement the visuals. Final Fantasy XIII-2, like the original, is a true treat for the senses, certainly one of the most inventive and breathtaking games currently on the market in terms of aesthetics. The story is also at its best when it brings Serah and Noel into contact with members of the old guard; reunions with characters such as Hope and Snow are always exciting and endearing, and the game has its sensibilities in the right place when these and more characters explore their motivations and desires.
The game's combat system, the real meat of the experience, is also worth noting. While largely the same as that of its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIII-2's combat is fast and responsive. The Paradigm Shift is the combat's key; Serah, Noel, and a third slot occupied by captured monsters switch between different roles to either maximize attacking, healing, or defending. With a variety of different combinations, constructing different paradigms and utilizing them effectively is always fun and engaging. However, the system's full potential is hardly ever tapped. Only a handful of boss battles require extensive use of different paradigms, and some of these are optional fights. So, while the combat is fun and competent, it is still often tedious when faced with the constant small fry the game throws your way.
When not in combat, the game follows your chosen party leader around the map, where you can interact with NPCs and search for items. Serah and Noel are accompanied by Mog, a cute moogle whom is able to sniff out hidden items or be thrown to find ones that are out of reach. Sometimes these items are hidden in clever locations; other times they're not, instead packed away in obtuse corners and frustratingly difficult to find or trigger.
Ultimately, Final Fantasy XIII-2 comes across as focused more on its mechanics and gameplay than it should be, which, yes, sounds ironic. The game isn't bloated with content, but it certainly feels like it is; tedium is its constant companion, and brief moments of actual fun are too often blotted out by yet another frustrating fetch quest or aggravating puzzle. The haphazard, awkwardly-paced story is no help, despite several sincere and heartwarming moments. Final Fantasy XIII-2's heart is in the right place, which makes the story's shortcomings all the harder to bear. And, as if to test its own limits, a shocking and vicious, if exciting, ending may ask too much for some players to bear.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a technically superb game, but tedium and too many half-baked concepts, both gameplay-wise and story-wise, drag it down and keep it from being a true improvement over the original. If you're interested in more Final Fantasy XIII or simply hungering for extensive JRPG trappings, approach with tentative zeal; others, be more cautious.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (US, 01/31/12)
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