Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Square Enix, tri-Ace
Publisher: Square Enix

Caius, the antagonist, informs the heroes that, “If you change the future, you change the past.” While this line directly relates to Final Fantasy XIII-2’s time travel heavy plot, it has more to do with Square Enix positioning this sequel as a more successful entry than its predecessor. The criticisms of Final Fantasy XIII – lack of towns, overly linear level design, and condescendingly protracted distribution of combat mechanics – are deliberately tackled head-on in XIII-2. By listening to their fans, but not taking their suggestions to heart, Square Enix managed to craft a marginally better game around the same mechanics that lacks inspiration and identity.

Lightning, the protagonist is Final Fantasy XIII, is trapped in a realm known as Valhalla. Her disappearance is linked to an alteration in the world’s timeline, so Lightning’s sister Serah, and Noel, a boy born 700 years in the future, travel through time to correct the timeline. These are the only two party members you will control during the whole game, which would allow for a more intimate adventure. Unfortunately the writers seem out of their element. Serah only talks about missing her sister, and Noel’s character conveniently conceals his past and emotions. Their interactions consist of Serah picking his brain and Noel responding with as little information as possible. In a story focused on time travel, where they only have each other as constants, and everything and everyone they know cease to exist or remember who they are, there is a lot of squandered potential for intimate dialogue. Even the antagonist is poorly characterized, even though he and Noel share an interesting history.

Worse yet, the mechanics of time travel are ridiculously convoluted. Explanations are provided, but they are hurriedly described before boss battles, making comprehension impossible. The recaps in the menu are nothing more than a crutch for the writers, who lack the ability to coherently convey their narrative. Considering there were serious story issues with Final Fantasy XIII, it comes as no surprise that its sequel is equally jarring. Square Enix needs to learn, or rather relearn, how to create three-dimensional characters and interesting relationships. Reliance on melodrama and convoluted narrative make it entirely too difficult to give a shit.

On the plus side, time travel allows for an open-ended structure that encourages leisurely progression. The Historia Crux, or timeline, can be accessed from the start menu, so you can warp around to different locations at any given time. Many of the locations are recycled because they take place in different times, and little is done to hide this fact, other than color palette and weather changes. Because the openness of XIII-2 is achieved through an elaborate menu, the game’s setting is practically non-existent. By warping, not traveling, to each location, everything feels disjointed from each other and thus failing to create a cohesive world.

The side quests that fill out each area are mostly unimaginative, often requiring you to find and talk to a random NPC. These time-wasters do little to make up for the repeated environments, and their integration are as basic and mundane as feasibly possible. And when they replace these fetch quests with puzzles that take place in outer space, it forces you to wonder if these are even preferable to its intensely linear predecessor.

While these additions are minor, the battle mechanics has been improved significantly. The first few hours are quite daunting as a plethora of options and strategies are thrust upon you, but this is definitely better than the slow distribution of mechanics in the previous entry. XIII-2 still uses the paradigm system, where you organize your teammates into combinations of roles that can be switched on the fly. You still only directly control one party member, but the paradigms and accompanying artificial intelligence are enough to successfully execute specific strategies. The six paradigms are all unique and necessary in certain situations. Since you can customize six different combinations of paradigms, exploring and experimenting each role is beneficial.

Monster collecting is new to Fantasy XIII-2 and it proves to be a worthwhile addition. Each creature has a paradigm assigned to them, can be leveled up, and can be infused with others to attain special bonuses. You can add three to your team, but only one to each of the six paradigm combinations, adding another level of depth. All of these components mean a significant amount of time will be spent tweaking your party in the menu screen, but it is a small price to pay for extensive, rewarding combat.

This depth is somewhat mitigated by poor enemy balancing and questionable leveling. For the most part, this game is a breeze. The first couple hours may be difficult for those unaccustomed to the battle mechanics, and the fast-paced nature, coupled with obese menus, certainly make for a steep learning curve. Once the basics are down though, most enemies do not prove to be that challenging. There are a few tough bosses, and the last area has ridiculously challenging monster encounters, but for the most part you will be repeating effective tactics that you devised early in the game. Another issue is that the medic, synergist, and saboteur paradigms are optional. Because you do not have access to these immediately, and can choose not to get them, means that each battle is designed so that victory is possible without them.

Even though all of your actions in battles are based around hefty menus, the visual representation is blissfully chaotic. An oblivious bystander could easily mistake this for an action title, yet there is already an astounding amount of information on display that taking direct control of these brawls would prove entirely too involved. No other battle system orchestrates turn-based combat as elegantly.

You can replay old story missions and perform different actions to create ‘Paradox Endings’ which are alternate conclusions to the narrative. Inspired ideas like this are few and far between in Final Fantasy XIII-2, but they show that Square Enix still have the creative chops to craft interesting mechanics around strange conceits. But when the other inclusions are as minimal as they are, claiming this sequel to be a successful reinvigoration of old ideas in a new structure is as difficult as justifying upgrading from an iPhone 4 to an iPhone 4S. Final Fantasy XIII-2 attempts to rewrite its own history, but without enough new inspired content, its legacy will remain tethered to its misguided prequel.

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