Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the latest game in the long-running RPG series, and the direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII. Anyone who played the original FFXIII will know that it suffered its share of troubles due to horrendously linear gameplay, over-reliance on written codices to fuel understanding, and a distinct lack of just about everything that fans felt embodied what a Final Fantasy game was supposed to be. Square Enix, its developers, came up with Final Fantasy XIII-2 in part as a way of listening to its fan base and releasing the game the fans wanted. Did they do right this time? Let’s find out.
For those of you who find Final Fantasy’s numbering scheme a little confusing, it may help to know that each numbered game is a completely different story with a different setting, different world, different plot, different characters, and so on. Any time a roman numeralled game has a “2” after it, it’s the direct sequel to the numbered game, and features the SAME world, characters, etc. About the only overt similarities between the games are the names of the magic spells, the names of many of the monsters, the idea of certain overpowered creatures being summoned by party members, and the existence of a peculiar breed of rideable bird called chocobos. The first Final Fantasy game was released in 1987 as director Hironobu Sakaguchi’s fantasy of what a game should be; essentially a gamble on creating the game he wanted to create without outside interference. His feeling was that should the game fail, Sakaguchi-san would quit the game industry and head back to university (in essence, a final gamble on his fantasy). The rest, as they say in the vernacular, is history, as Final Fantasy went on to be one of Squaresoft’s most profitable game franchises. Now, 25 years on and more than 30 games that revolve around the title (not to mention two movies, a standalone anime series, and numerous anime spin-offs), we have the latest game before us.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes place three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and the protagonist this time is Serah, the younger sister of XIII’s protagonist, Lightning. For reasons unbeknownst to Serah, Lightning disappeared shortly after the end of XIII’s events. Not disappeared as in “walked off”, but disappeared as in “never made it out of the final battle alive”. Everyone else seems to remember one truth while Serah remembers Lightning emerging victorious. Desperate to find out more, she allies herself with a time traveller called Noel (who reminds me very much of an adult Sora from Kingdom Hearts—now there’s a conspiracy theory to push for!) in order to set the timeline straight and rescue her older sibling.
This review was only ever destined to be a “what’s new in this version of Final Fantasy?” piece, and the simple answer to that is: one heck of a lot. And a heck of a lot is the same too, but with interesting new twists. One of the biggest changes to the game has been the complete and utter removal of anything approaching linearity. Square Enix were so burned by everyone yelling at them about how linear XIII was, that they’ve gone completely in the other direction. The way they’ve managed this is by making time travel a major plot point and game mechanic (Chrono Trigger, anyone?). Instead of a single world separated by miles of wandering around (or flying around, depending on how far you’ve made it through each respective Final Fantasy game), you’re allowed to visit any of the places and points in time that you’ve managed to unlock. The order that you unlock each place/era isn’t quite linear either, although you are required to complete some regions before you can unlock others. The game even handles the idea of paradoxes well enough by allowing you to visit alternate timelines and jumping around from there. This ability to complete events in whichever order you please has some strange consequences, though, because the dialogue was written with the assumption that you’d complete things in a certain order. So while I had already discovered a certain event in one of the futures, when I jumped back in time, the characters were still wondering “what causes all that?”.
Another huge change to the game is in the party system. No longer do you have an implausibly massive party of characters to cart around (half of whom are seemingly useless in any given battle—the arbitrary limiting of a battle party to three characters doesn’t make much logical sense! What are the others doing while the rest of us are killing things?), although some of the characters from Final Fantasy XIII make cameo, mostly non-active appearances in this game. Now the entire roster of characters is limited to Serah and Noel. Oh, and a veritable Pokedex worth of summonable monsters. Yes, FFXIII-2 now features a “gotta-catch-em-all” mechanic where any monsters you manage to capture (a random process in itself) can be enlisted to fight alongside you. You can nurture and grow the monsters too. Or feed them to each other to allow certain monsters to absorb the talents of others. The monsters that do fight with you also have something called a “feral link”, essentially a meter that slowly powers up over the course of a battle. When the meter is full, press the required button, complete the requisite quick-time event, and the monster pulls off a nice special move to hurt your enemies. The battle system itself hasn’t changed much, however, and you can still win whole swathes of battles by repeatedly pressing “auto battle”. The paradigm system is also still in play, allowing you to create a pack of up to six party skillsets that you can swap and change between during battles, allowing a degree of strategy and flexibility in contrast to the “auto battle” button.
One of the interesting changes to the battles is that, unlike XIII’s monsters, the monsters in this game aren’t roaming around freely, but instead pop up randomly (with a nice, dramatic bolt of lightning announcing their arrival). When the monsters pop up (or pop down, depending on how you look at it), you don’t automatically go into battle, but instead something called a “Mog clock” starts ticking down. This gives you time to either catch the monsters at a disadvantage, or time for you to pick up your skirts and scarper. If you don’t pre-emptively attack, or don’t run away before the timer runs out, its into battle you go at a minor disadvantage. The system is fun, and combines the best of the random battles with the ability to run for it should you not feel up to fighting. There’s no incentive to avoid battles, however, since your health and status resets at the beginning of each battle. Furthermore, any battles you start at an advantage can be retried should things start going bad for you. If, on the other hand, you manage to ham-fist the easy task of a pre-emptive attack and allow the Mog clock to run its course, the retry option locks and you have no choice but to fight to win.
Another of XIII’s criticisms—the lack of any minigames—has been dealt with in completely the opposite direction. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is so stuffed to the gills, rafters, and holds with minigames that I’m surprised there’s actually a pretty decent RPG hidden amongst it all. There are chocobo racing minigames, slot machine minigames, puzzle minigames, timed minigames, heck there’s even an entire area called “The Carnival” that’s devoted to nothing BUT minigames. You wanted minigames, Final Fantasy fans? Well, you’re not going to be wanting for them in XIII-2. There’s even a quiz minigame, and knowing the answers to the quiz depends very much upon whether you’ve played Final Fantasy XIII. In fact, some of the dummy answers relate to older Final Fantasy games, so if you’re a long time fan of the series, you’ll probably have an easy time of the quizzes purely by weeding out the answers that don’t pertain to the FFXIII universe.
Bizarrely, I have very few criticisms about this game. Note I said “few”, not “none”. One of my biggest problems is the loading time between eras. Loading in a new area can take anything up to half a minute, although once an area is loaded, you can happily nonce about, playing as much silly buggers as you like. That is, unless you want to switch quickly between different areas to accomplish tasks. Because you CAN’T. Not quickly, anyway. Another annoyance I found was the nature of some of the fetch quests. You get told that you’re on a fetch quest, but then there is very little in the way of clues to lead you to the item you’re searching for. This means scouring the entire. damn. map. This, of course, is made more of a pain by the constant claps of thunder announcing a monster that wants to do the happy clappy sword cha-cha, meaning that it’s difficult to explore a map, let alone look for random tchotchkes, gewgaws, and mcguffins that various personages send you scampering around for. The sheer proliferation of minigames can also be a bit maddening, but that’s really a personal thing.
All in all, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the game that Final Fantasy XIII should have been, and a bit more besides. It’s fun, whimsical, non-linear, and filled to the brim with exploration, one of the factors that made the original Final Fantasy games such a blast to play. The music, while painfully not the work of Nobuo Uematsu, is still pretty funky, with many of the themes having a vocal component. The artwork is still very much unchanged from XIII, but the drastic changes in gameplay are well worth the pain we suffered over Final Fantasy XIII. It’s not just a worthy successor, it’s what we should have received in the first place. Still, at least Square Enix listens to its fans, and this game makes me glad once again to be a Final Fantasy fan. If you played the first game and felt burned by it, trust me: this one is parsecs ahead, and more than makes up for XIII.
Final score: 8.5 time travelling prawns out of 10 (points lost mostly for lousy loading time, and for having had to have Final Fantasy XIII inflicted upon us in the first place)
Developer: Square Enix
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Release Date: 3 February 2012
Age Rating: 13