Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning never strikes in the same place twice or so goes the old adage. Square-Enix returns to the Final Fantasy XIII universe in the most unlikely of sequels. Is there a shock on the cards?
It’s safe to say that Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t vintage Final Fantasy. Yes it boasted an evocative storyline of defying false gods, sumptuous graphics and an excellent soundtrack but it was linear to the point of insanity. Players were funnelled down the world’s prettiest corridor for over 20 hours and when they escaped the monotony they were presented with a battle system that was accessible at best and extremely dumbed down at worst. Square-Enix had managed, in one game, to completely remove the exploration, immersion and intricate battling that had made the Final Fantasy widely regarded as the gold-standard in the RPG genre.
Why then, would Square-Enix choose one of its most maligned entries to its series for a sequel? Perhaps it was a chance for Square to use their fantastic engine one last time or maybe it was simple defiance in the face of the criticism levelled at FFXIII? I like to think it’s the latter. In a game that sees players travelling through time resolving paradoxes and anomalies, maybe FFXIII-2 is Square’s way of righting the wrongs of the past.
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As the name suggests, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a direct sequel to Final Fantasy 13 that sees players take control of Lightning’s sister Serah who, along with the majority of the population of Cocoon, are now living on Gran Pulse following Lightning’s victory over the fal’Cie. Strangely though, the game begins with players controlling a goddess-like Lightning during a battle to save the mythical plain of Valhalla from destruction. This introduction to the battle system and gameplay mechanics proves to be a great way of introducing the system to new fans and giving a refresher to returning ones. Hell, anything is better than using the entire first disk as a tutorial.
The battle system opted for by Square in FFXIII is one that proved fairly divisive for fans. Some saw this system as a much more accessible and manageable one that gave the game room to breathe and tell its story. While others saw it as a dumbed down and overly simplified system that removed any need for the skill and knowledge that made battles in Final Fantasy so satisfying. In a move that will once again divide fans, Square has chosen to keep the system albeit with a few tweaks. The action gauge returns, but this time it is role specific so actions taken in the Ravager role won’t drain the action gauge of the Commando role.
This is excellent news for fans of paradigm shift which itself has been improved through an increase in how quickly paradigms are shifted. The switch from role to role is now lightning (cough) quick, allowing players to change the complexion of a difficult battle in a moment’s notice. Slightly less impressive is the return of auto-battle, a one button system that allows players to attack the weaknesses of enemies or use the best in defensive spells in a single button press. While the system certainly is accessible, and a great way for those new to this battle system to enjoy battling the multitude of monsters, it is a shallow and underwhelming system that ensures you never feel any sort of satisfaction for defeating a powerful enemy.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, Square have borrowed from a certain monster catching franchise to enhance the battle system. Players will encounter a whole host of monsters throughout the timeline, the vast majority of which are tameable allowing them to be used as part of the battle party. Monsters have various roles, ranging from simple damage tanks to medics or stat enhancers adding an extra dimension to the paradigms that players can create and take into battles.
They can even be levelled up using their own skill trees or even infused with lesser monsters to inherit skills. It appeals to the obsessive-compulsive side of RPG players too as there are hundreds of monsters to tame and train and ‘you’ve gotta catch em’ all’ right? The inclusion of tameable monsters is an interesting move by Square. On the one hand, it offers a slight twist on the battle system and gives players a little more to think about during battles but on the other hand, it demonstrates that the story driven elements that made FFXIII so impressive have been replaced in favour of a mechanically better experience.
These tweaks to the battle system and the introduction of tameable monsters are both well implemented, but the most obvious improvement to the mechanics of FFXIII-2 comes, somewhat surprisingly, in the form of exploration. FFXIII was characterised by its linear nature and it was this linearity that was greatly criticised by gamers the world over. It seems that the developers over at Square were listening though, as FFXIII-2 offers players the freedom to explore the various locations they visit as they see fit and there is even a side-quest or two on offer just to sweeten the deal. Nothing highlights this added sense of freedom more than the ability to close time-gates so they can be explored again like you had never visited them.
This allows players to essentially reset certain sections of the timeline offering them the chance to experience the same part of the timeline in a multitude of ways. This freedom allows players to explore the beautifully realised worlds that Square have created and the extra layer of polish doesn’t go unnoticed. City locations are vibrant and lifelike while the more desolate locations have a stark beauty and charm. These are just two examples a lovingly crafted universe that, regardless of gameplay and storyline, will delight all that see them and are a real reward for taking advantage of the new sense of freedom.
As a whole though, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is mechanically, and aesthetically, a better game than its predecessor. But these improvements have come at a fairly steep price; the cost of a focused storyline.
Final Fantasy XIII’s storyline was a focused and driven experience that reflected its protagonist and it’s more of the same for the sequel. However, don’t be tricked into thinking that you’re going to get the same standard of storytelling as FFXIII. Serah lacks the steely determination and the single-mindedness of Lightning; rather she is fragile, generic and fairly boring. Sadly, this is reflected in what little there is on offer in way of story. Serah’s goal is to find Lightning and fix the odd paradox and anomaly she finds along the way, this is the extent of Serah’s story. The games other protagonist, Noel, has even less of a story as after he, literally, falls out the sky, all that is revealed is that he wants to fix the future.
There are some nice moments along the way, most notably between Serah and Snow, but there is very little in the way of motivation for Serah and Noel. This light-hearted approach to storytelling in FFXIII-2 will disappoint fans and leave players wondering why they are jumping around the time-line like a hyperactive Dr. Who. The storyline lacks the narrative punch, nuance and the emotional depth that always makes Final Fantasy games so utterly compelling, and the fact that you’re left with no real conclusion come the end of the game serves to underline this and leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is certainly an improvement over the original. A refined battle system, the removal of the originals stifling linearity and an added layer of polish to the already excellent graphics and soundtrack are worthy of attention. These improvements, however, come at the expense of the powerful and focused storytelling of the original resulting in a more diluted and shallow experience. Fans of the original will be delighted with improvements and the sequel as a whole, but that those hoping that Square-Enix would have used Final Fantasy XIII-2 as a chance to return to form will be sorely disappointed.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is mechanically brilliant, offering players an accessible battle system and the chance to explore some beautifully realised worlds. However, it simply fails to deliver in the storytelling department and it a series, and genre, where storytelling is a key component that is simply unforgivable. Good, but ultimately forgettable.