Review by Exodist
A big improvement over the original game but still flawed.
I won't lie, Final Fantasy XIII isn't exactly a game I like. In fact, I'd go as far as to say I hate it. I love the series but it is by far the worst main title in the series, I cannot emphasise my hatred for the game more. However, I am still exactly that: a fan of the series. When XIII-2 was initially announced it was certainly a shock, however it also proved to us that the developers realised the mistakes of the previous game, and that the sequel was out to improve the game. One of my favourite things about XIII is all the reviews it go, glowing reviews, only for the same publications/websites to review XIII-2 lower, but say it was a big improvement over the original. XIII has its fans (there appears to be a pretty rabid fanbase for Lightning for no apparent reason), but playing XIII-2 immediately shows what an improvement this game really is.
The story in XIII was pretty diabolical. Sadly, the story in XIII-2 is also diabolical. The game is set some time after XIII, however this time you take control of Serah, Lightning's sister, and new guy Noel, a guy from the future. And that's actually it, two main playable characters. This isn't really an issue so much however (as will be explained later), but this is our hero/heroine duo for the game. Everything is going fine and happy until Lightning suddenly vanishes, who we see has become a knight or something in Valhalla, fighting a battle with new bad guy Caius. Serah sets out to find her sister via the historia crux, which lets Serah and Noel travel through time. This game proves gameplay is king in that they barely seem to have made an effort here. The story is actually quite complex however not in a good way. Dates and events are thrown around everywhere, locations and characters I can't even remember from the first game, and loads of stuff about Etro, goddess' and god knows what. Its really hard to keep track of everything because its just not very interesting. There is a massive story here about time travel, time lines, paradox's, its just not interesting or good. The dialogue is absolutely terrible even by JRPG standards (see Lightning's narration during the opening cut-scene). Serah is a fine character, she is kinda hot and sweet, Noel is a pretty typical good guy with some rage. But thats really it, the characters aren't dislikeable but there's certainly no reason to be a fan of them. Most of the XIII cast are here for cameos bar Hope who returns in a fairly regular fashion. Beyond this, the only part worth mentioning is the ending. By now, most people will already know it but Square really screwed up the ending here. Its pretty brave, I'll give them that, but its not what most people are looking for. As said, you probably already know what happens in the end anyway, but if not just play the game and feel incredibly betrayed as your effort to finish the game is rewarded with pretty much nothing.
The game uses the exact same battle system from XIII with a few additions. One of them is the wound system. This is basically completely pointless. Your characters can take damage, and they can be wounded, where the amount of HP they can have is actually reduced, meaning as the fight goes on they get less and less HP. I don't really know why its here. The game is so easy anyway I never used a potion to increase this through the game and it never really caused a problem. But hey, its there. The system is also faster, for example when you switch paradigm it's always instant. It was a small thing in XIII where the first shift of every battle had a really annoying animation, some people didn't care but it annoyed me to no end, and fortunately here its fixed. Other than that, its the same thing. You have no mana. You swap paradigms of 3 classes, with all 6 classes from the original returning.
The main improvements in the game actually come from game design itself. XIII-2 is the opposite of XIII: full of exploration, side-quests, and no more linear corridors. The historia crux serves as a map, and my favourite kind: a simple layout of each area where you select which one you want to, and you go instantly. Most areas of the game return from the original with some new, however the fun is in exploring the same areas in different time periods. The periods are all fixed of course, but the way the game is designed highly encourages exploration, experimentation and going off the rails a little bit. The problem with XIII is that it was linear, and I mean, really linear. Whilst most older FF games are somewhat linear, there is an illusion of freedom, there were towns and world maps to explore, things to do whilst you played. If you go for it, you can finish XIII-2 in just 20 hours. However all through the game there is always something different to do. The main way this is achieved is through collecting fragments. There are 160 fragments in the game to be collected, and I had just 35 or so when I finished the game (as admittedly I just rushed to finish the story) which can be collected in all sorts of ways. The map keeps track of how many fragments you have from each area making it easy to keep track. XIII-2 is a champion of player choice and freedom. As mentioned, you can just rush through the story and this is entirely possible. There are plenty of side-quests on offer all through the game, the areas are big and encourage exploration. The side-quests generally range, there are plenty of rubbish fetch quests, but there are also a lot of interesting mini-games. The golden saucer kind of returns in the form of Serendipity, a park of numerous mini-games that can be enjoyed in order to earn coins, however here the rewards are actually very useful. There are also plenty of extra boss monsters to fight, the game provides a good amount of content to keep any player occupied. The game does no restrict the way you play, and this can only be good.
Remember how I said there are only two playable characters? This is a little bit of a lie. Your third party member is a monster. Think Shin Megami Tensei if you know of it, and it works pretty similar to this. A lot of monsters you come across can be captured (which is purely random as far as I'm aware, you just kinda get them after battle sometimes). You can then use these monsters to fight. Each monster has its own class and also its own set of abilities that can be learned, along with a rating (1-5) and level cap before it can no longer be upgraded. You can also transfer some abilities from monsters across when swapping monsters out. You can't really use the same monsters you earn at the start for the rest of the game, forcing you to collect and find other types in order to fill your paradigm decks. Its an interesting system because it lets you choose what monsters you want. Serah and Noel are perfectly capable of doing all 6 roles, however it is also inefficient to level all 6 simultaneously (probably), and of course there are only two of them, making the third member missing. I only ever used Ravager, Commando and Medic monsters during my playthrough however there are plenty of monsters with the other roles (in fact, I barely found any medics at all) each with their own abilities differing from other monsters and even from your characters themselves.
The character progression system bears a similarity to XIII in that it looks the same and its called crystarium again. Its an improved system though. You earn CP by fighting battles which can be used to move a space on the crystarium. The amount you need to level up is fixed every time regardless of what class you're levelling up, for example at first it may be 100CP per level, then after a while it ups to about 120CP (by the time I finished I was nearing about 800CP per level). You then pay the points and level up a class, providing a more level based system of old. Your classes can go up to level 99 before you have to level up other classes. When you complete a circuit of the crystarium (which is shaped after your characters weapons), you get a bonus such as unlocking another class, earning more accessory points (accessories require points to equip) or earning boosts within classes. Its a strong system that lets you level anything when you want. In fact, the system is highly in depth in that there are very specific ways to optimise your characters. The nodes that you level up onto vary in size, the bigger the better the reward, meaning when you move onto these spheres you want to level up the role you're trying to best on that character. Noel favours strength, whilst Serah favours magic (basically the only two attributes in the game you want to focus on), improving roles such as commando boosts strength, whilst ravager boosts magic, and medic will boost HP. No matter what class you're actually playing, your totals earned all go up into one whenever you fight. In fact, the levels barely mean anything, its more about the stats you've earned, its like the game merely limits you to getting bonuses from commando 99 times, meaning you're limited to how much strength you can earn.
Whilst the system has this depth to it, you shouldn't worry. I didn't really learn about this until much later and just levelled up whatever I wanted, focusing on three primary classes for each character so I had all 6 roles to a proficient level on Serah and Noel. Abilities for the classes are simply earned when you reach a certain level on the classes, capping at an unusually low average of around 50-60 or so. Your characters are always earning levels and improving through the game, even if you don't maximise the levelling you'll still be strong, although the option to perhaps reset the levels you earned and redo it would have been nice for players who were not aware of this, as it will certainly make your time easier. Monsters also improve in a similar fashion, however you use items instead which are earned from most fights. Different items improve different levels of monster and also determine what stat, items focus on strength upgrades, magic upgrades, HP upgrades, and a general all round upgrade, meaning you want to use magic upgrades for magic monsters and so on. Again, its simply and also flexible in that you can buy most of the items from the awkwardly sexy Chocolina (who serves as the one person shop through the game), providing you can farm the gil you can always improve new monsters to strong heights.
A big issue for me however was the lack of difficulty. Many said XIII was a hard game. XIII isn't hard, most fights in the game merely rely on you buffing, staggering and killing. Personally I felt there was no depth or strategy to the system, and I'm afraid this strikes again. Most random encounters are incredibly easy, staggering not required. You'll breeze through the entire game as bosses also provide no real challenge. There are perhaps one or few which may take an extra try or two, but the game provides no challenge. The last boss itself is pretty challenging compared to the rest of the game, but its done in such a cheesy way it simply feels as if the sudden difficulty increase was placed simply to force you to grind some side-quests to finish the game. Its not the hardest fight and certainly possible with a bit of balancing in classes and strong monsters, but it did feel very difficult compared to the rest of the game when I got there. Even worse, I played the game on normal difficulty. That's right, there's even an easy difficulty option (no hard difficulty, its easy or normal), and considering how easy it felt on normal, I guess the game can appeal to even those who struggle with these types of games. The fights just require no thought or strategy, its simply limited to changing your paradigms at the right time, hardly a taxing matter. Some may not be bothered about the lack of difficulty but it concerned me somewhat a lot.
The graphics in the game are more or less identical to the original XIII, which means they look great. The characters all look vibrant and the locations range from dark and horrible to bright and exotic. There is a lot of variety in the locations however as said before a lot of them do simply originate from the original game. Most of the monsters are pretty much the same too which is a little disappointing, however there are some original monsters and characters to be seen here, the game all fits in the style of the original. One thing I did notice however was the framerate seemed to dip a lot. It never made the game unplayable, but just running around fields seem pretty laggy and not that smooth. Battle scenes are suitably majestic in appearance and animation proving some awesome looking abilities and minimal slow down. Even more impressive, the game now comes on one disc for Xbox, however there is also a noticeable lack of CGI cut-scenes. The music in the game is, bar a few tracks, absolutely wonderful. There are a lot of really great tracks such as the battle theme (I like the one with the guitar... yeah), epic boss fights and also a lot of really nice vocal tracks. In fact this seems to go hand in hand with the rest of game in that there is plenty of variety with loads of music genres being covered. My favourite vocal track is the wonderful 'Starting Over' (played in the Sunleth Waterscape). The game also features a few bad tracks, most notably the death metal inspired tracks. I actually like some metal music, however some of the tracks in this game such as the chocobo one just come across as really bad and dumb. The voice acting isn't brilliant, there are a few good actors in there such as Serah, but the rest is pretty standard, and get ready to become sick of hearing "kupo" as yes, there is a talking moogle in this game which features rather prominently.
Final Fantasy XIII was a massive disaster with a potentially good battle system buried beneath the wreckage. Whilst the battle system returns more or less the same, its still pretty funny albeit incredibly easy. The game however offers plenty of variety and choice. There is freedom in developing your characters, your third party member can be any monster you want it to be, and you can tackle the game how you want, doing the main and awful storyline or taking part in the plenty of fun side-quests the game has to offer. XIII-2 just feels like a proper Final Fantasy game, and although its not up there its a massive improvement over XIII and the game I always wanted XIII to be.
Score: 7/10 - Very Good
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (EU, 02/03/12)
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