Written by Craig Will (puffkix) Friday, 10 February 2012 12:00
Final Fantasy XIII was the most disappointing game of 2010 in my opinion, so it was with mixed feelings that I tore the cellophane from FFXIII-2 and slipped the disc into my PS3. I wasn't sure if I should expect more of the same or something different enough to keep me hooked this time.
The first thing to catch my attention was the gorgeous graphics. The opening cutscene really had me drawn in with the visuals, even if I didn't actually know what was happening. You see, while I sunk a decent amount of time into FFXIII I got so bored that after the 11 hour mark I turned it off and never turned it back on. The story didn’t engage me, combat got stale, and there was no exploration to speak of. Because of that I had no idea what was transpiring during the opening video. Maybe nobody does at first. Maybe it doesn't actually tie in directly with how the prequel ended. Either way, I was a little confused but too entranced to care. All of sudden, I really wanted this to just be a new Final Fantasy movie.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. So it was with the opening segment of the game as I, taking the role of previous protagonist Lightning, was thrust into combat atop my valiant steed Odin as we attempted to outrun and simultaneously shoot down the pursuing Chaos Bahumat. It was here that I realized that combat had not undergone any drastic changes – the ATB gauge was still present as was the auto attack feature (and later we learn that so are the combat roles). This should have spelled doom for any hope of me enjoying this game but for some reason, perhaps the high action plot thus far, I found myself not caring that combat was simplistic and boring. I just wanted to see what was going to happen next. I wanted more movie.
More movie is exactly what I got as the latest entry in the JRPG poster child series donned its exaggerated anime action gloves and went to town hurling two human characters into large structures that toppled on impact. While watching the action I noticed a strange icon in the top left of the screen that read "Action." Then suddenly the button prompts were popping up on the screen and Final Fantasy had officially embraced Quick Time Events. And I loved it. I don't always love QTEs but something about having them play out in these really intense moments in FF and occasionally having to choose between different options (Melee or Gun, Ruin or Gravity), each having a different result, really spiced it up. Later in the game there are bonuses in the form of item rewards for perfectly completing these sequences.
The bad news is that eventually the action wanes and it becomes clear that one of my biggest pet peeves with FFXIII had not been rectified: dialogue and the voice acting. Albeit Squenix made the right choice and decided not cast another Vanille, the dialogue is still stilted and painful, bordering on annoying and distracting at best, predictable and cliché at worst. This is not alleviated as control passes from Lightning to her sister Serah. At least Lightning is tough and kick-butt with some good one-liners. Serah's personality is inconsistent; swinging from overtly ditzy and mentally lost to deeply introspective and inquisitive. It also turns out that she's a school teacher.
As far as the story goes it's a real treat that focuses on one of my favorite subjects: time-travel. It starts out a little bit slow but picks up shortly. While the dialogue and some of the character's motivations don’t always make sense and are sometimes inconsistent (there is a "memory" in the beginning that confuses me and makes Serah seem paper-thin as a character), the story is intriguing enough to make it worth it to push on. This may be further pronounced during the Live Action dialogue scenes where control is given to the player to choose the response of one of the main characters. Some dialogue choices reflect the fact that players have more knowledge than the character about certain events and adds to the confusion when those characters talk about something that they shouldn’t know.
As stated earlier, combat is more of the same in the beginning. In fact, it’s a direct copy of FFXIII's Paradigm system, which for all its downsides is at least familiar and functional. My biggest complaint about fighting isn't even directly related to doling out damage to baddies. No, the biggest problem for me was being able to hit the enemies in order to get a pre-emptive attack bonus. As Serah and Noel walk around the map, enemies will appear in a flash of red lightning and a timer will start (imagine a stopwatch). The goal is to press 'X' (or 'A') to hit the enemy before the timer runs out. When the hand on the timer is in the green area a preemptive attack is the result of a successful 'X' press. This is harder than it sounds depending on the enemy. While standard size and larger enemies are easy to hit, the littler enemies tend to slide right under Serah's blade as she glides past them holding her weapon at chest height.
The twist to combat that really spiced it up for me was the inclusion of monsters. On your team. That’s right, it is now possible to “capture” monsters and add them to your roster. One thing you should know about me is that I love collecting and I love monster taming. This makes up for the lack of summons/eidolons/what-have-you or any other characters joining your team and the mechanic behind it is pretty sweet. Basically, there is a chance that a defeated monster will turn into a crystalline essence at the end of battle. There are things that can be done to raise the chance of this like making sure the monster currently on your team delivers the killing blow (especially with their special ability). Once you’ve captured a monster it can be added to the Paradigm Pack. There can be up to three monsters in the Pack and the team Paradigms can be set up utilizing any one of the three monsters in the third party member slot. This adds another layer of depth to the “strategy” of the Paradigm system.
As the battles are fought each monster has a bar that builds up as they take damage or add to the chain combo. Once the bar fills up the monster can unleash their Feral Link, a special ability aimed at doling out the most damage to enemies. One nice thing is that the progress of the bar is carried over from battle to battle. Something to keep in mind is that if one monster falls in battle all the monsters will be KO’d, as if they were all one party member.
Combat in RPGs should mainly exist for the purpose of leveling up. Crystarium returns and is available for Noel and Serah as well as the monsters that have been caught. Leveling up monsters requires special materials that can be found in treasure spheres, received after battles, or bought from the… interesting item vendor.
With the plot focusing on time travel one of the devices used both for the story and for gameplay are time paradoxes. Things belonging to a different time or place are showing up and disrupting the flow of time. These Artifacts are used to open up the Gates appearing around the world. Once the first gate is open the new iteration of the world map, called the Historia Crux, is presented. There are a multitude of hexagons representing different times and places that Serah, Noel, and Mog (a moogle that transforms into Serah's weapon) can and need to visit in order to unravel the mystery of the time paradoxes, find Lightning, and what else – save humanity. There are also certain gates and paradoxes that are resolved by completing little puzzle mini-games like connecting duplicate crystals into a certain shape (think connect the dots) or walking across platforms that fall away behind you while collecting all the crystals before reaching the end. These puzzles break up the monotony of RPGing very well.
Once a new location has been visited from the Historia Crux, pressing the start button will bring up a menu with the option to return to the Historia Crux. This is helpful if an item is found that will complete a mission in a different time or if the monsters are too strong and the gate traveled in is a ways away. When returning to the environment the Historia Crux will dump you off in the same place that you left, a really neat feature for those of us easily distracted.
All in all Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn’t a vast departure from FFXIII but it does add a few new twists and turns along with a more engaging story, monster collecting, and non-linear level design and side quests. If you loved FFXIII then this should be a no-brainer but if you tried and couldn’t stick with it, give XIII-2 a try. You might be surprised, I was.