It's no secret that I wasn't a fan of Final Fantasy XIII - it had an in-game encyclopedia to convey the story, rather than letting us experience it for ourselves; the characters were either unlikeable or shallow; the villains were forgettable and cliched; the battle system was fundamentally flawed, with little input needed from the player; and the actual game was so linear and devoid of any side content that it might as well have been a rail shooter. Nobody was asking for a sequel, but when Final Fantasy XIII-2 was announced, Square Enix promised to fix many of the things people hated about its predecessor. I've had a great history with the series and I'm not about to let one blemish ruin my ability to enjoy subsequent entries, so I picked up Final Fantasy XIII-2 with high hopes that everything was going to be okay. Within hours I was sold.
Square Enix's penchant for glorious action and jaw dropping visuals is on full display here. The opening cinematic features an epic battle between Final Fantasy XIII's protagonist Lightning and an unknown, purple-clad adversary that serves as the game's villain. Once the opening cinematic had concluded I was rightfully confused but left wanting more. Next you're treated to a beachfront scene that demonstrates Final Fantasy XIII-2's ability to blend both graphical and aesthetic visual elements into what I feel is one of the best looking games this generation. Given how the first game concluded, the entire experience takes place on Gran Pulse, the gorgeously realized organic surface world that the citizens of Cocoon were so afraid of last time we visited. This surface world is composed almost entirely of one picturesque location after another, including forests, mountains, plains, beaches, and technologically advanced metropolises that are truly awe-inspiring in their scale and beauty. The graphics shine bright as the game's most impressive feature.
While the visuals are fantastic, the audio is pretty hit-and-miss, most notably the soundtrack/score. Some tracks fit perfectly, others just don't work and/or are simply annoying. Some of the pieces are actual songs, with lyrics sung by pop artists, whereas most are more traditional instrumental pieces. Songs with lyrics have their place in gaming, usually when it's necessary to accentuate an important scene or strong emotion that's being conveyed, but as random background music it seems out of place and repetitive in short order. I think Square Enix would be better off remembering that just because you paid some pop singer to do your soundtrack, it doesn't make the resulting music more appropriate for your game. That said, the score is pretty consistently good, and each world seems to have different battle themes than the one before, keeping it fresh every time you warp, which is a nice addition.
The voice acting is also good, though there are some missteps. The lip synching is usually quite impressive, but sometimes it's simply bad, and therefore distracting. There are also a few standout vocal performances that made me want to play the rest of the game on mute. The most notable of the annoying characters is the travelling merchant known as Chocolina, an anthropomorphic half-woman, half-chocobo creature who sounds precisely as you'd expect a bird-human hybrid to sound - high pitched and perpetually chipper, so it's not long before you're ready to shove a sock in her mouth. There's also a noticeable problem with the audio levels. As you're walking around between battles, your characters will talk to each other and interact with NPCs, but you can barely hear them because the volume of their voices is significantly lower than the volume of the music. It's not a major complaint, but it's worth noting that it cannot be rectified because of the overall lack of sound options.
Once I'd gotten used to the gorgeous visuals and picked my jaw back up, I continued to enjoy one heart-fluttering, fist-pumping victory after another. If your lead character dies, you can control your remaining ally, and you can switch party leaders in battle as easily as you switch paradigms. This alone takes what I considered to be a broken battle system and transforms it into decent one, though I still don't care for how little input the player has on the proceedings.
It also becomes quickly apparent that Square Enix have fixed the single greatest complaint about Final Fantasy XIII on the whole: linearity. This time around, you're not only given the freedom to explore the locations and periods that you visit, but there's also a steady stream of side-quests and alternate endings. There are fetch quests, exploration elements, and monster hunts throughout. It's a sense of freedom that continues even beyond the end credits. In fact, I'd estimate that the side quests comprise more than half of the game's entirety, which is fantastic for anyone who didn't care for the restrictive and shallow nature of XIII.
In addition to non-linear freedom, some truly great gameplay ideas have also been implemented. Through a gameplay mechanic known as the “Mog Clock”, Final Fantasy XIII-2 manages to incorporate the random battles of the instalments of yesteryear, whilst at the same time retaining the ability to pick and choose your fights. Thanks to the paradoxes in the timeline, a small portal can open at any random time, spawning a series of enemies near you. You can choose to either run from them, or you can attack them pre-emptively, using an incredibly clunky slashing ability. During some boss fights you also get rewarded for successfully doing a series of quick time events known as 'Cinematic Actions'. You wouldn't expect this kind of gameplay mechanic to fit into an RPG, but it actually works surprisingly well and adds a sense of grandeur to some boss battles.
The game's plot focuses entirely on Serah and Noel, leaving an empty slot in your party for a third member. You can upgrade and modify allies to a limited extent, but at any time you'll only ever have 3 allies to choose from. I ended up with a Commando, Synergist, and Saboteur as my allies, but it still didn't feel like I truly had a third party member. You do meet up with some characters from the first game, and for what it's worth they're not nearly as annoying as they were first time around, but they don't become members of your party.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 had a great deal of potential. The time travelling/alternate-reality/chaos theory motif that is the entire plot revolves around how small changes in the past affect the future, and how travelling in time creates parallel universes. It's a brilliant theme, with so much potential that I was genuinely excited to see what was going to happen next. The characters seem mysterious and interesting, the plot hints at going somewhere I wanted to follow, and it certainly kept my interest. The first five hours of the game were, in my opinion, everything I was hoping for and more; Square Enix had tried to do all they could to give fans what they wanted and, for the first couple of chapters, I was convinced they'd succeeded.
But as time went on, I noticed more and more cracks in the pretty shell. Little issues slowly became more prominent, chipping away at my enjoyment as the game progressed. I found more and more issues to complain about, and by the end I was ready to throw my disc at the wall. The story is just as poorly told as its predecessor's was and even narrower in scope, there are poor design choices that seem poised to do little more than waste the player's time, and there's a distinct lack of substance despite an abundance of content.
The plot had so much potential, and the characters appeared to have depth, but the story never even tries to use the interesting mythology that the creators had thought out beforehand. It's all set-up with no payoff. The story simply isn't very good and many of its subtler nuances will never be picked up on without hours of scouring through datalogs. The characters we're introduced to are endearing and enigmatic, but once their motivations are unveiled it just seems like a petty cop-out. Even within the game's own rule set nothing seems to make sense, like how Serah, a schoolteacher with no combat experience, manages to pick up a bow and is suddenly a warrior, or how Chocolina the merchant manages to follow you through time and space to annoy you at every turn. While I understand this is a fantasy game and a willing suspense of disbelief is a pre-requisite, it's hard to take a game seriously when it can't even play by its own rules.
The plot set-up promises a grand epic through time and space, where minor choices can affect things in significant ways. The concept of altering history to suit your own needs and the consequences of doing so could be an interesting and engaging story, but the villain doesn't seem particularly intelligent and therefore he's not much of a threat. He acts like he's some all-knowing keeper of time, but in the end he's just an ignorant, selfish, emotionally scarred, insecure brat willing to do horrible things as he pursues his goal. Because of this, the story ends up feeling narrow and devoid of scope, and is capped off with what is probably the single least satisfying and most disappointing ending I've ever seen in a game.
While I praised the game's changes to the battle system earlier, they bring with them a slew of their own quirky problems. While the first couple of chapters of the game kept me on my toes with challenging enemies, due to the non-linear nature of the game about halfway through the game enemies stop getting harder but you keep getting stronger. It wasn't long before my eyes started glazing over and I stopped paying attention to the battles entirely, and I still did just fine. This continued from the halfway point to the end of the game, where I learned I was able to completely ignore the controller and let my allies do the work even in the final dungeon. Yes, you can literally let the game play itself and do just fine. This is not interactive; it barely qualifies as a game. This is made even worse by the fact that battles take up far too much time and you have little control over your allies during them anyway, beyond choosing their role at least. Sometimes you'll want your allies to focus their attacks on one enemy at a time, but only certain paradigms allowed such a thing. In the paradigm menu, there's an option to 'focus attacks on one enemy', but it's sketchy at best - my allies still hit whoever they wanted instead of following my lead.
Perhaps one of the most jarring parts of the experience is the inconsistent difficulty curve. While I spent most of my time killing enemies that put up less of a fight than a twinkie, there would be an occasional enemy that was clearly designed to be fought only by higher level characters. Luckily, death still holds no punishment more severe than having to restart the battle. The final boss fights also took me by surprise, requiring almost three hours to beat, making them exponentially harder than anything I'd encountered up to that point. In comparison, most of the other bosses can be dispatched with little more than a dismissive wave.
Most of the game is spent waiting on one thing or another, be it an amazingly long loading screen, a stagger bar, an action bar, or just some silly animation that you need to endure every time you want to press a switch to complete puzzles. Even the final dungeon has a platforming section whereby you simply wait an excruciatingly long time for the platforms to move, thereby allowing you to traverse them and make it to the next platform (where, incidentally, the clunky controls could have you fall off and return to the last checkpoint at any time). It seems like almost every design choice was made to stretch things out; battles take too long, and yield lackluster rewards causing you to grind; puzzles have you spending more time waiting for the painfully slow animations to conclude than actually solving them; the time-travel motif is used as an excuse to re-use the same locations over and over again, giving you a false illusion of depth; and most of the side quests are the same three actions repeated ad nauseum.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn't require skill or preparation, it requires a lot of patience and willpower. Square Enix have done everything they could to stretch the game as thin as paper, ensuring that 90% of your time will be spent grinding away or waiting for something to happen, rather than taking the time to give you a deep and engrossing story with characters you can relate to. This is maybe a 5 hour game artificially inflated to 25 hours thanks to repetition and a whole lot of poor design choices. Hinting at untold potential, Final Fantasy XIII-2 ultimately delivers nothing more than persistent tedium; a waste of time for everyone involved.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Final Fantasy XIII-2.