Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

The original Final Fantasy XIII was a game that expected players to let the battle system carry their experience until the game finally revealed the rest of its redeemable qualities in the endgame. While this was enough for some gamers, many more let their voices be loudly heard in response to the now infamous “tunnel”. This vocal outrage proved effective as Square Enix treated Final Fantasy XIII-2 as an opportunity to respond directly to the complaints. The result is a very strong sequel that only contains flaws that are either minor or easy to overlook instead of XIII‘s more glaring faults.

Everybody needs a feather skirt, right?

Lightning is bland, but so cool looking

After the flashy introductory sequence, Final Fantasy XIII-2 attempts to very quickly reveal how different its design philosophies are from the controversial original. If the opening section was not so fun and not executed so well, it may have appeared desperate. Thankfully, it instead properly sets the tone for an engaging experience. The two main characters meet almost instantly and the player begins battling, Paradigm Shifting, and gaining rewards from battle immediately after. All tutorials can be skipped, but even if the player chooses not to do so, the information is concise and helpful.

The game continues to feed the player its mechanics at a brisk pace after that. The hub world connecting all locations and times – known as the Historia Crux – is introduced, followed quickly by the addicting monster-taming mechanic. With so many mechanics introduced so clearly within only a couple of hours, it is more than a breath of fresh air from the hand-holding of XIII.

The story in Final Fantasy XIII-2 remains as high concept and melodramatic as it was in its predecessor, but the big difference is the improvement in focus and character. The poor writing and time-travelling jargon is a lot easier to follow from the more dynamic new heroes.

Serah is a little flat, but she has an arc that is far more clear than Lightning’s ever was in the first game. Hope’s return as a prominent character is far from the groan-fest many may have expected. He is older now and comes well-equipped with more maturity and an improved voice-actor; he graciously feels like an entirely new character. Newcomer Noel is the best of the lot, however, with more complexity to his inner workings than the combined cast of the original. He is not immune to the unbelievable and eye-roll-inducing speeches about hope or human nature or his struggles with his own emo whatever, but the difference is that XIII-2‘s characters rise above the less-than-par writing. This is a welcome returning trend that used to set the Final Fantasy series apart. It is important to note that XIII-2 is not a full return to the timeless characters of the past, but surely a step in the right direction.

I call him Sora, though.

This guy isn't the worst.

There are other good characters and moments worth praise, but none that could be properly described spoiler-free. However, gamers can rest assured knowing that it is far easier to be invested in the story and characters in this sequel than it was in XIII proper.

When Final Fantasy X-2 started the trend of direct sequels to Final Fantasy games, it uprooted the entire battle system of Final Fantasy X to devise something new. The result was one of the greatest battle systems in the series. However, in the case of XIII-2, the original already had another contender for top spot, so the sequel only needed to make minor tweaks to its mechanics. Of course, having full customization so soon into the experience should make it a lot easier to swallow for many of the critics. Minor changes can also go a longer way than expected. Faster Paradigm Shifts allow players to use the mechanic as not just the strategic core of the system, but also a tool to make timing-based decisions. Swapping to a defensive Paradigm the moment before a huge enemy attack and swapping immediately back to an attacking or balanced Paradigm is not only very effective, but incredibly satisfying.

The largest attack launched on Final Fantasy XIII however, was regarding its linearity. Despite XIII-2 still not really having “towns” in the most traditional sense – the engine was not designed for characters to move particularly well in tight spaces – the “tunnel” has most certainly vanished. Locations have multiple paths and are given personality and purpose instead of merely being means of getting the party from Point A to Point B.

In fact, similar to its semi-sister title, X-2, Final Fantasy XIII-2 incorporates a multiple-location and mission structure while maintaining an over-arching story to tie it all together. XIII-2 is more successful at it, however, by including far more new areas and breathing new life into the old ones by presenting them in different time periods. Players will feel pleasantly overwhelmed with the choices in front of them. Side-quests, mini-games, countless monsters to tame and upgrade, and even entirely optional locations are present throughout the experience and after the credits roll as well. This feels like the game Final Fantasy XIII was supposed to be.

Sharp smart or sharp dangerous?

Cute, but sharp.

The game is not perfection, however. In addition to the wonky writing and tendency to drift into melodrama, the game can feel a little unpolished. The framerate is hardly consistent, areas can feel cheapened by some DLC-centric design, the camera goes to weird places during cutscenes, and the otherwise improved Crystarium has a few minor late-game frustrations. Thankfully, none of these issues come close to the original’s flaws which shook the title to its core.

This reviewer would be remiss if the music in the game was not mentioned. Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s soundtrack is again similar to X-2 in its attempt to be vastly different from the rest of the series. Once again, XIII-2 is more successful in this regard. While there are a few spectacular duds, the soundtrack as a whole is unique and often powerful. The frequent presence of vocals surprisingly adds more to the experience far more often than it takes away.

This is truly the HD Final Fantasy game that fans have been waiting for. Meaning and emotional weight finally have a place in the Final Fantasy XIII universe. Critics of the original’s battle system or general mood will find no solace in this sequel, but fans of the series who were frustrated at wasted potential in XIII have many reasons to accept Square Enix’s well-crafted and addicting apology in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Oh, and none of the characters turn into air-headed pop stars. So that is also a plus.

Full disclosure: the author was provided with a free copy of the game for review purposes.

7 Comments

  1. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2012.02.03 at 05:49 | Permalink

    A fine review! Sounds good, I can’t wait to get my copy!

  2. Ethos
    Posted 2012.02.03 at 14:40 | Permalink

    I’m just happy to not be entirely apathetic in cutscenes anymore. I should also note that while most reviewers seem to hate the ending, I really dug it.

  3. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.02.03 at 16:07 | Permalink

    It’s seriously just one of the best RPGs I can think of having played since the turn of the century, up there with Lost Odyssey.

    The gameplay is fun and addictive; the characters are interesting, fun, and engaging; the soundtrack is full of great tunes (even if there are a few that are not); and there’s tonnes of extra stuff for completionists.

    I struggle to find words to express my admiration for what SE has done here. 13/5!

  4. Mel
    Posted 2012.02.03 at 20:36 | Permalink

    Oh man, you mentioned Lost Odyssey and now…..lets just say I enjoyed those short stories a lot.

    But, as for this game, I’ve only played a few hours. I’m liking it about as much as the first. I feel, however, that I’m soon to like it a lot more based upon where I see this game headed. I like the battle system, it has a real focus on the here and now, and incorporates a real fast pace. My one complaint about it, and it carries over into the previous XIII, is that it’s SO fast it feels like the battles should be taking place on the field, and not in a “battlefield” you warp to. I’m sure it was for technical reasons, but I’m in and out of a battle so fast, sometimes I just wish it wasn’t broken up by those old fanfare/victory screen standards. It’s not as fast as XII’s battles, but it’s nearly there, sometimes.

  5. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.02.07 at 13:08 | Permalink

    Final Fantasy XIII-2, A.K.A.: The Mainstream Press Get It Wrong Again.

  6. Brettsuo
    Posted 2012.02.07 at 19:25 | Permalink

    Ethos, I’m not sure how you can say that this is the game Final Fantasy XIII was “supposed” to be. Supposed by who? Here is an alternate timeline proposition (ironic, I know): Everything leading up to the release of XIII is the same but instead XIII-2 is released as XIII (the story wouldn’t even have to be changed much because they give a lot of back story in XIII-2). I think maybe you would have been much more harsh on its significant (I wouldn’t call it little) lack of polish and childish story and writing.

    Also, at least the story in the original has some believable cause and effect relationships between events and characters. In XIII-2, Serah and Noel essentially repeatedly tamper with space-time with very limited knowledge of how it works and/or what exactly to do to fix a paradox and consistently get good results out of it. When I play XIII, I feel like I’m performing a bunch of sidequests that just happen to advance the storyline, whereas in XIII I feel like my actions are more directly affecting the way events unfold in the game. I guess I just feel like the actions of the characters in the original had more serious and believable consequences than in the sequel, and that’s something I need to be able to invest myself in a story.

    I actually like XIII-2 despite this, for many of the reasons you listed in your review. It just pisses me off that to make your point you have to rake the original through the mud and continue to lament its supreme linearity (which I prefer if it leads to a more polished game (and it did)). I think misguided expectations and entitlement issues is what lead you to believe the original was supposed to be something other than what it was, and that tainted your opinion of the game. If anything, both of these games are exactly what they are supposed to be. The original was very ambitious in trying to tell so many stories simultaneously and therefore the environment was forced to be linear and narrow to accommodate the technical detail and polish required by a flagship FF, whereas the sequel is allowed to be more broad and open-ended (as a direct reaction to fan criticism) because it is just telling one story, more or less, but is forced to be less detailed and polished because it is so broad.

  7. Ethos
    Posted 2012.02.07 at 19:49 | Permalink

    Thanks for your thorough comment, Brettsuo!

    I will concede you one point. It is true that Final Fantasy XIII is the game it was supposed to be. In that it is the game that was designed and they had reasons for its particular design, and the result was not a mistake. I hardly think the development team played the game after release and said “oops! This is a giant tunnel with a field at the end! Why did nobody tell us?” So perhaps I used the word “supposed” in a frivolous manner.

    Still, you draw the conclusion that my opinion would have been different had XIII-2 been released first. There’s obviously no telling. I could equally as well argue that I would have liked it more because I would not had have the veil of skepticism that XIII gave me. Neither your argument nor mine is valid because neither can ever be proven. Though it’s worth noting that I went into XIII with plenty of optimism and always gave the benefit of the doubt while playing.

    But no matter how many fine points we may agree on, we simply won’t be able to agree on the effectiveness of XIII’s design choices. Final Fantasy IX and Wild ARMs are both examples off the top of my head that do a very fine job of juggling multiple storylines without the need to create a world drained of choice outside the battle system.

    I’m very glad that you were able to enjoy XIII’s characters and story. I tried really hard to. I would even try to convince myself that I cared more than I did. But at the end of the day, I was apathetic during XIII and not so during XIII-2. Still, I hardly praise the writing of XIII-2 in my review. I think it’s just as crappy in XIII-2, just has slightly less melodramatic characters and a bit more of a focus on stuff apart from “we’re L’cie… this is our fate. I’m going to fake a suicide.” Therefore I was able to make connections when I wasn’t before.

    I also think you misunderstand my stance on XIII overall. I wrote for a different site when I reviewed XIII, but I still completely agree with my assessment: http://riddlethos.com/2010/03/final-fantasy-xiii-review-lost-focus/
    I gave lots of praise to the title which I continue to stand by. I think many things were ambitious about XIII, but the tunnel certainly was not. I pride myself in being able to see all sides of an issue and being able to agree to disagree, but defending the choice to make an RPG with zero exploration or choice until soon before the credits roll will never be valid in my books.

    I think it’s fine to ENJOY the tunnel. I think it’s outstanding that you enjoy the story and characters. I would love to share that feeling. But although I adore Kingdom Hearts II, I would never call it a great game. It’s one of my favourites, but I don’t think it’s very good. I think that’s happening with XIII a lot. I think people are defending bad design as good design because they love it. I take no issue with your enjoyment or love of XIII, Brettsuo, but I don’t agree with your defense.

    And because it is my opinion that XIII is filled with bad design, and because XIII-2 is a direct sequel, I think it would have been irresponsible to not compare the two unless I had never played XIII.

    Always feel free to voice your concerns or issues with opinions here. All people with a public voice should be held accountable, and I appreciate your dissenting opinion!