When I got the opportunity to review Final Fantasy XIII-2 (from here on in known as FFXIII-2), I was excited and a little anxious at the same time. After all, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve played a Final Fantasy game and I actually didn’t get a chance to play Final Fantasy XIII. So I wondered, “Will I be confused with the story?” “Will I be used to the new battle system?” and “Will I be able to put it down?” Luckily, my fears were alleviated and I am glad to report that the latest installment in the series is strong and fresh, if perhaps a little overdone.
One of the trademark features of any Final Fantasy game is its’ story and FFXIII-2 is no exception. The story develops quickly and can get quite complex, but fortunately the developers added a feature where the game updates players (after they’ve loaded a game) through a series of clips showing the significant events that have happened so far. A handy feature especially if you haven’t played for while.
The storyline takes place a few years after the events of FFXIII where the heroine (Lightning) has disappeared and is presumed dead. Her younger sister (Serah) sets out to find Lightning after monsters attack her home. She is not alone though as along for the ride is a time traveller named Noel. Noel claims he is from the far future and that he has met Serah’s sister. Together they travel back and forth through time to to find Lightning and discover why the monsters have arrived, all the while battling enemies who threaten both of their worlds.
During my playtime I found that the narrative was interesting and the characters were likeable. I actually found it refreshing having a female lead in a popular game. The relationships within FFXIII-2 adds some emotional attachment to the characters, which is in contrast to some other RPGs where you create a character with no real bond to any NPC in the game. On one hand games like Final Fantasy may seem scripted but it does add a sense of structure and purpose for the player in how it plays out.
FFXIII-2 is also not a particularly difficult game, especially with the use of the auto battle system and your health refilling to full after a battle. Still, I am grateful that despite not playing FFXIII I was able to slide into FFXIII-2 without too much trouble. I would recommend players new to the series read the helpful tutorial and stick with some basic paradigms in the beginning.
FFXIII-2 really pulls you in and starts off quite dramatically by throwing you into a battle almost immediately. Here you fight monsters and powerful enemies while briefly controlling Lightning from the previous game. You learn the battle system of FFXIII-2, which is an interesting mix of picking your tactics or allowing the game to battle automatically if you like. For the most part, monsters pop up as you go from point to point on your map, but you have a period of time, known as the MOG clock, where you can either try to run or fight. If you do decide to battle, you can pick your abilities to fight (or defend) against the enemy, but you must wait until your “ATB bar” (Active Time Battle) fills up prior to making your move. You also have the option to fight using an “auto battle” command, where the computer decides which attacks to use at that time. During battle, you can also use items, such as potions, to fill youe own health or that of the remaining members of your party (these are controlled by the AI until you die and then you switch to the next human character).
A new feature in FFXIII-2, which was not seen in FFXIII, is the use of monsters in your party that can be tamed after a battle. These monsters are collected similar to Pokemon (hey, I had to reference it) and can be added to your team and used in battle. Various roles such as healing your party, attacking the enemy, or provoking the enemy to attack your tamed monster instead of you, these are some of the roles they can take on. You can also level up your tamed monsters but their paths are more linear compared to the human characters you level up.
The AI controlled players, or monsters, in your party can also be assigned various specialties or tactics called paradigms with the basic roles being “commando”, “ravager” and “sentinel”, which essentially are offensive, magic and defensive specialties. While for most battles a balanced approach is sufficient, such as having one character being the commando and the other two as a ravager and sentinel, switching up your paradigms is more critical when encountering a level boss.
In addition to the regular battle sequences, players can also participate in cinematic battle sequences on occasion by pressing certain buttons as directed on the screen, which if done quickly and correctly produces more damage to the enemy and an upper hand in battle. This was an interesting aspect of the game, as it required paying attention and having quick reflexes, while at the same time it made it seem like you are part of the action as the story unfolded before you.
Considering I was new to the battle system employed in FFXIII-2, as I am more familiar with the old turn-based style of Final Fantasy, it took a little while getting used to the real-time aspect of fighting; however, once I became accustomed to this style, I liked how it kept the action more constant and required to think both strategically and quickly. In addition to battling and running around, you will occasionally have to solve puzzles in order to proceed to the next level. The puzzles that I encountered were not difficult but they did add an interesting mix to the overall gameplay experience.
FFXIII-2 seemed kind of linear in such that I didn’t get a sense of freedom to explore wherever I wanted to. Some areas of a map are blocked off with electronic gates (and a little random), which I found was too obvious in limiting your movement until you’ve progressed to a point in the story where you were then allowed to proceed back and through a blocked area. The nav-map is a little small on each level but it does help you to get where you need to go by following identified markers on it.
Although the whole FFXII-2 experience does feel somewhat linear, you do have some freedom in the how the game’s events unfold. There are different choices in your conversations that ultimately have some impact which can lead to different results and affect accessing items that otherwise may be unavailable in the future. There is also a time travelling feature that can affect the story as you can change the past by some of the things you may, or may not, do in the future. It’s a pretty cool little feature for sure. The controls are also fairly straightforward and easy to learn. The menus are fairly accessible and customization of characters and their equipment and stats are a breeze.
Graphically, FFXIII-2 is a beautiful looking game. The cutscenes seemed like they were from a high budget Japanese computerized anime featuring stunning details such as flowing strands of hair and fluid movements of all the characters. The visuals are amazing including the clothing, armour, and weapons used by the characters, which seemed to be a fusion of technology from the future combined with old school magic from mythical times. One thing I did notice was that it seemed like there were too many cutscenes, which I felt broke up the action and pace of the game, especially when you may have to skip multiple cutscenes (with loading times to boot). In fact, the beginning of FFXIII-2 was so much about telling the story through cut-scenes that I felt myself grow impatient as I just wanted to get right into gameplay. Despite the frequency of cutscenes, the graphics are undeniably good and the battle scenes are over the top with lots of flashy moves and action. The regular gameplay graphics may not be as dynamic as the battle scenes but the environments are nevertheless well designed and artistic.
In addition to the great graphics, the sound in FFXIII-2 is also very good. That being said, I did wish that the voicework was available in Japanese just to get a true sense of how it was originally planned and developed. Some things can get lost in translation as I found some of the dialogue was a little over dramatic. Still, the voice acting is top notch and the actors matched the characters they played. While the music is a mix of annoying metal, passable electronica, and dramatic vocals, you can tell a lot of effort was put into this area and it could be impactful at times. Finally, the sound effects are also top notch and really go well with the action, from weapons hitting their mark to magic and spells being conjured up and used.
Overall, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a solid game and delivers what the series is generally known for: deep and enjoyable gameplay mixed in with great graphics and an interesting story. Fans of the franchise should be definitely be satisfied while newbies, or those coming back after skipping a few installments, should appreciate what FFXIII-2 is all about. While I personally could have done with fewer interruptions in actual gameplay while the cutscenes played out, I can’t really be blamed, as I just wanted to play a beautiful looking and engaging game and FFXIII-2 fits this bill.