Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a wonderful, beautiful game.  It has an incredible amount of very strong elements from gameplay to graphics to the best battle system I have ever seen.  It is entirely different from its predecessor Final Fantasy XIII, for better and for worse.  And yet, while Final Fantasy XIII-2 has so many things going for it, the game is not woven together into a cohesive experience.  This keeps it from reaching its full potential of being the masterpiece it should be.  Despite this, however, XIII-2 does succeed in many ways simply because it has so much heart, and that is why it deserves a chance.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 begins three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII.  Lightning has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and almost all of the characters of XIII have gone their separate ways.  Lightning’s sister, Serah, is living in the town of New Bodhum on Pulse, and is the only one who thinks Lightning is still alive.  Everyone else believes her to be dead or trapped in the crystal pillar that is holding up Cocoon.  Serah’s suspicions are reawakened when her town is attacked by monsters one night, and a mysterious young man named Noel appears to save her.  Noel tells Serah that he has seen Lightning in a place called Valhalla, and that he can take her there to find her sister.  He also reveals that he is from the future, and that traveling through time is the only way to reach Valhalla and Lightning.  With the promise of seeing her sister again driving her forward, Serah steps into the flow of time with Noel to start their adventure to find Lightning. 

Join Serah and Noel on their quest to find Lightning.
A large part of the game is of course time travel.  I myself have always been a bit reserved about games with time travel – they usually feel very cluttered and confusing.  From a gameplay perspective, however, XIII-2 avoids these traps and uses time travel in a clean, efficient way.  Essentially, there are gates in each world that can be unlocked.  When you successfully unlock a gate with the right “artefact”, it will open up a new location and/or time period.  You can then navigate different locations and/or times through the “Historia Crux”, which essentially acts as a world map.  The Historia Crux is laid out in a very clean, orderly way, and makes traveling through time very accessible.  Going back in time is surprisingly rewarding – not only are the level designs usually changed somehow, but also the enemies and even some items are unique to different time periods as well.  Visiting the same location in different times also allows you to search for different fragments.  There are a total of 160 fragments in the game.  These fragments are usually pieces of information and/or memory, that essentially help to explain something about the world of FFXIII-2.  As you move through different times and locations, you discover that someone has been rearranging the timeline.  As a result, things that should not exist in a certain time are existing, and that is what is called a paradox effect.  By solving these paradox effects, you can correct the timeline to what it should be, eventually leading you to Valhalla.  Returning to locations in order to fix paradoxes does not feel tedious at all, but can be rather exciting.

While XIII had a very slow start and took hours to really get into, XIII-2 draws you into the story right away.  This is in large part due to the gameplay.  From the beginning you are free to explore the worlds you visit in any way you choose.  The linear feel is completely gone, and instead these worlds feel free and vast.  The introduction of the ability to jump anytime you want actually makes a big difference.  You can interact with almost anyone you meet, and there are treasures to be found as a reward for exploration.  At the same time, exploring these worlds does not feel overwhelming due to a clean, helpful map system.  The maps differentiate between areas you have explored and have yet to traverse, and have areas of interest clearly marked.  In fact, the menu system is extremely efficient and good-looking in all areas.  It offers a lot of customization without ever feeling like endless tinkering is required. In particular, the leveling-up menu is very user-friendly.  It offers a lot of choice as to how you want to level up your characters, and is fun to use at the same time.  The worlds open up to you the more you explore, and in a way you feel truly connected to the places and times you visit. Moving through the universe of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a true joy, and really makes the moment-to-moment play engaging and fun.  The game also offers a great variety of activities to do with your time.  Obviously battles play a large part of the game, but there are several side-quests (usually involving fragment collection), mini-games, and puzzles.  For the most part, these elements are actually fun and come as a breath of fresh air in offering different types of gameplay.  The only puzzles that were not enjoyable were the “Hands of Time” ones.  Trust me, do not waste your time trying to figure these out.  Just use a solution online.  You can spend literally hours trying to complete these, and it is just not worth it.  Other than the “Hands of Time”, however, these various elements offer fun challenges that are certainly worth pursuing.

One of the best battle systems around.
I loved the battle system in FFXIII, and XIII-2’s only gets better.  In fact, I cannot think of a more engaging, fun, complex, and challenging battle system I have ever experienced in gaming.  The Active Time Battle setup of the series returns, as does the Active Time Gauge of XIII and all of the different moves that accompany it.  Essentially, as the gauge fills in real time you can select different moves (which each take up certain parts of the overall gauge) to then unleash on your foes.  The auto-battle feature allows you to use the most effective moves against your opponents, and the paradigm system with its many different roles introduces a unique challenge that always keeps you on your toes.  A few key changes have been made in XIII-2 that make this basic system even better.  You can now switch party leaders at any point in the battle (which becomes key when you want to select certain moves manually), and also allows the battle to continue if one of your main characters falls.  This feature introduced a lot of depth to the battles, and I found myself using it quite often.  Another huge change is the introduction of monsters into your party.  As you battle monster opponents, you will be able to collect them and add them to your party.  Each monster fulfills one of the six battle roles, and can be leveled up in much the same way as the main characters.  This element actually adds a lot to both the gameplay and the battle system – a whole new strategic element that is both fun and complex.  Spending time hunting down certain rare monster pays off in a big way – they can be the edge you need to overcome your most powerful foes.  The only criticism I had for the monster collection is that there really isn’t any emotional connection to the monsters.  They seem to just function as tools.  Being a huge fan of Pokemon, I have to say I did miss that connection.  The other big change to the battle system is the introduction of cinematic action sequences.  These take place during cut scenes, and consist of completing button combos within a short period of time.  While these were not particularly hard, I actually really enjoyed them.  They brought me more into the cut scenes, and always kept my adrenaline racing.  They also carry quite a bit of weight, particularly towards the end of the game.  Overall, XIII-2’s battle system is incredible, and drives the game forward in a fun, unique way.

Getting lost in the worlds of XIII-2 is not a bad thing.

Final Fantasy XIII-2’s graphics are truly awe-inspiring.  The worlds are gorgeous and offer a lot of different environments to explore.  Fans of XIII will see the return of certain iconic locations, and it really is fun to be able to fully explore them in XIII-2.  The cut scenes are incredible to watch – the character animations and movements are elegant and incredibly detailed.  There are a few scenes where it is like watching an anime movie – and those scenes are breathtaking.  The voice acting only adds more depth to these scenes.  While the script can be a bit corny at times, the voice actors (particularly the ones playing Noel and Serah) do an incredible job.  The music for the game is also very powerful – offering a lot of variety and mood to the different worlds you visit.  Both the graphics and sound of XIII-2 are outstanding, and Square Enix should be commended for it.

With all of these fantastic elements in the game, you may start to wonder what stops XIII-2 from being a "perfect" game.  And the main obstacle to that wish is the story.  As you progress through the game, you find out that a mysterious warrior named Caius is responsible for altering the timeline.  You also find out that Lightning is battling Caius in Valhalla and needs your help.   What begins as a quest to find Lightning becomes a journey to stop Caius from destroying the timeline.  It is actually not a bad premise, but the problem is that you spend much of the time very confused as to why all of this is happening.  Of course the characters are confused as well, but there is no clear path to discover what exactly is going on.  Spending time collecting fragments and exploring worlds certainly offer clues here and there as to what is happening, but I often found myself wondering how everything related back to the main story.  There were a few instances where a paradox effect would tie in to the events of the story, but for the most part it simply became about solving paradoxes just to solve them.  I wanted to know how solving these paradoxes would help me find Lightning, and how they would help me stop Caius.  But that was never really explained.  And while you do find out more about the characters and their motivations, it is still very unclear how they feel about each other and their fates.  Final Fantasy XIII was confusing for the first part of the game and then started to make a lot of sense; XIII-2 stays confusing until the very end.  And even when things do become clear at the end, it never really all comes together.  I will say that exploring post-story play does offer some insight into the plot.  And it was actually nice to replay certain events because experiencing them twice made it much easier to understand certain events.  But I was still left with a feeling of incompleteness, no matter how much of the game I played.

 The main cast of FFXIII-2.

The essential question then is this: even with brilliant game mechanics, if an RPG game does not have a strong story, then what is the point in playing it?  In the case of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the answer is the characters.  Specifically, Serah and Noel literally save Final Fantasy XIII-2.  As I mentioned before, almost all of these characters are shrouded in mystery at the start of the game.  Serah seems like a helpless damsel in distress, and Noel is just an unknown entity.  But as you progress through the game, you learn more about them – their pasts, their hopes, and their dreams.  Serah proves herself to be incredibly resilient and strong, and Noel turns out to be extremely loyal and caring.  They are pretty confused about what is going on during most of the game, just as I was, but in a strange way that connected me to them even more.  The other characters do not disappoint – Caius is an incredibly complex villain because you start to understand why he is doing the terrible things he is doing.  Fans of XIII will recognize the entire cast returning in XIII-2 (some are featured more prominently than others), and I have to say I really enjoyed every reunion scene.  Even the sometimes annoying Mog the Moogle (who also functions as Serah’s weapon) becomes endearing.  Essentially, you don’t really understand what is happening to Noel and Serah for most of the game, but you do care for them deeply.  I wanted them to be happy, and that driving force kept me playing for hours at a time.  In fact, there are some moments (particularly at the end of the game) that truly moved me in a way few video games have.

As for the much discussed controversial ending, I will actually be writing a separate article about it, so be on the look out.  All I will say here is that it serves as a representation of the whole game: some truly fantastic, beautiful elements that are not fully brought together to reach their full potential.  Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a wonderful game: it is a challenging, rewarding RPG experience.  What is so frustrating about it is that it could have been a true masterpiece.  But if you are an RPG fan or a Final Fantasy fan, XIII-2 deserves your time.  I have rarely encountered a game with this much heart – a game in which I care about the characters this much.  Serah and Noel share some incredibly beautiful moments at the end of time, and those moments make the journey into the world of Final Fantasy XIII-2 very worthwhile.  I sincerely hope this will not be the last time we see Lightning and her friends.

Will Lightning and her friends ever truly be happy?

Violent Score: 9.1 (Out of 10)


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