Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review:
It seems like everyone who played Final Fantasy XIII, even those who truly liked it, had at least one bone to pick. Complaints were like snowflakes, unique in shape and consistency. Some disliked the changes it introduced to combat while others maligned its linearity, and some simply found the characters too melodramatic to relate with. As someone who falls into all of the above categories, I approached the review of Final Fantasy XIII-2 with no small degree of trepidation, but also with an open mind. After countless hours on Gran Pulse and Cocoon, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has made me fall in love with the JRPG all over again.
Back To The Future
The story kicks off three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII. Though, everything isn’t quite how fans of the first game might remember them. Lighting has been missing during those years, and her sister Serah is the only one with any memory of her. It’s at this point that Noel shows up with message from Lightning and strangely intimate knowledge of the far-flung future. While only having two playable characters is a shockingly small cast for a Final Fantasy game, it allows them to share the starring role even more effectively than XIII’s ensemble. Serah and Noel both have their own reasons for traveling through time, and it creates a surprisingly believable chemistry without devolving into romance or melodrama. Their chemistry is helped by frequent dialog options, allowing players a limited ability to guide conversations to either avoid or dive head-first into awkwardly out of place responses.
As plot devices go, time travel is just about as messy as it gets. This actually works both in Final Fantasy XIII-2’s favor and to its detriment. The game revels in the paradoxes and inconsistencies that normally would bring a time-travelling tale to its knees, going so far as to turn them into a gameplay mechanic through the Historia Crux. As I jumped back and forth through the timeline, alternate parallel time periods opened while changes could be seen in the future that reflected my actions. A seemingly impossible boss encounter may simply be a matter of rewriting history to ensure it was never born. There was a fantastic sense that my actions had a real impact on the story, with the game at its most rewarding when I chose to explore all possible outcomes.
However, at times the story can become a bit too comfortable with these sorts of story complications. Terms like “paradox” and “space-time distortion” are thrown around so casually and with such frequency that they begin to lose any real meaning. Meanwhile, certain side plots that seem vital at the time they are introduced have a tendency to disappear altogether without even a half-hearted attempt at an explanation.
Shifting More Than Just Paradigms
Final Fantasy XIII’s paradigm battle system returns, but with some notable differences. Enemies are no longer visible on the map, instead opting for the random encounters where players have a few seconds to either run or initiate a preemptive attack before combat actually starts. Combat itself is enhanced by the removal of delays when shifting paradigms. It seems like a small change at first, but it allowed for much greater control as I could switch roles to immediately counter an enemy’s attacks, making each battle more engaging. Players can also save up to three paradigm decks, eliminating much of the hassle from manually changing lineups for boss battles or to counter enemies in particular areas. Most importantly, it is now possible to switch party leaders between Serah and Noel during a battle. If the AI-controlled Serah or Noel weren’t healing properly or using the right buffs and debuffs, an simple switch gave me full control.
Despite the increased control in combat, there are also the occasional cinematic actions to contend with. These glorified quick-time events are a visual spectacle, but are usually used as the coup de grace on bosses, taking away some of the satisfaction of a well crafted paradigms strategy.
The biggest change though comes from the Pokemon-like ability to tame practically every enemy in the game. Each monster falls under a single role, where it can leveled up to learn abilities just like Noel and Serah or combine with other monsters to learn wholly new skills. Up to three monsters can be assigned to your party at a time, and switch in and out during combat depending on the paradigm. I found myself experimenting with roles and paradigms much more in Final Fantasy XIII-2 due to the variety of monsters their abilities. And the more I experimented, the more I enjoyed the combat.
Final Fantasy XIII-2’s streamlining also extends beyond combat. In place of XIII’s complex weapon upgrade system, new weapons are frequently found in shops; all of which are run by the enthusiastic vendor Choco-boco-lina. Leveling up through the crystarium has also seen complications cut, as each role now has a linear progression of skills. Unfortunately the new crystarium was simplified a bit too much, as it doesn’t allow much room for customizing Serah and Noel, which probably explains the game’s emphasis on monster variety.
A Wide World To Explore
One thing that cannot be said about Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that it lacks variety. Frequently throughout the adventure I encountered paradoxes that could only be solved through puzzle minigames. Some puzzles had me traversing a maze-like platform while the most clever of them involved navigating numbers on a clock face. Looking back, they were an utterly bizarre inclusion, but their appearances were spaced out so well that each one was greeted as a brief but welcome change of pace.
Map locations are much more open this time around, with plentiful opportunities to explore. That curiosity is almost always rewarded, leading to new items, monsters, or opening new side quests. Each location has its own side story to tell, often spanning multiple time periods and alternate realities. Whether it’s aiding researchers in Yaschas Massif or exploring the Bresha Ruins, they add a context and weight to your actions in the world that was severely lacking in Final Fantasy XIII. Even Serenity, Final Fantasy XIII-2’s casino, provides a nice diversion where players can race the chocobos they have been raising for battle. The side quests are also almost entirely optional, but they can be the difference between completing the game in under 30 hours or well over 60.
For Final Fantasy XIII-2, Square Enix set out to correct the issues fans had with the first game, and they have succeeded across the board. With improvements to combat, exploration, and storytelling, it feels like this is the game that XIII should have been. But it isn’t just a sequel, as it carves out its own tale to stand among the Final Fantasy pantheon.
Editor's Note: This review was completed mainly using the Xbox 360 version of the game; however, we have spot checked the PlayStation 3 edition and have found no significant differences between the two platforms. If more playtime reveals any differences, we will update this review to reflect those.