Developers: Square Enix Product Development Division 1, tri-Ace / Publisher: Square Enix / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen [Drug Reference, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Violence]
I’ll state this up front just so we’re on the same page: I’m a long-standing fan of the Final Fantasy series but I really didn’t like Final Fantasy XIII. I could go through a laundry list of problems I had with the game, but fundamentally it didn’t have any of the charm or personality I associate with the series. That’s why I’m overjoyed that Final Fantasy XIII-2 brought it all back. It’s fun, packed with content, and made me feel that old Final Fantasy magic again.
Though XIII-2 opens with some questionable ret-con to sync up the story with the first game, the characters and plot succeed in delivering an interesting story. This game opens three years after the conclusion of the first game with Lightning completely missing. Lightning’s sister, Serah, partners with mysterious newcomer Noel to travel through time to find her sister and other reasons that are too convoluted to resolve. The setup is enough to set the stage for a good time-traveling adventure, and really reminded me of the mid-90s TV show Sliders.
Of course, if you want to tug at the story’s integrity, there are plenty of holes. Caius, the antagonist and lead guitarist for Def Leppard, is motivated by reasons that waffle and sometimes appear entirely contradictory. On top of that, the drama in XIII-2 is predicated on a universe whose rules don’t exactly make sense. Provided you’re willing to accept a lot of “that’s just how it is because,” it makes enough sense for the story to hang together. Of course I won’t spoil anything, but XIII-2’s ending is incredibly ballsy, and I’m completely on the hook for another sequel if we get one.
Square re-worked XIII-2’s structure, completely weeding out all of XIII’s rigidity. Instead of slogging through fight after fight just to see the next cutscene, you can play through XIII-2 in a number of ways and at your own pace. The Historia Crux functions as a sort of stage select, where you can travel to a specific place and time. In that zone, you complete side quests, fight optional bosses, and unlock gates that open up new levels. Naturally, some parts of the game are a little more linear, but if you ever feel like you want to drop out of the story and explore some side content, you can. Hell, you can even save anywhere you want now! It’s an extremely intelligent and enjoyable way to structure an RPG, and adds a sense of exploration and discovery that was completely lacking from the first game.
The combat system has been tweaked as well, basically making it much faster. Paradigm shifts now happen without a huge pause in animation, buffs and debuffs expire quickly, and enemies don’t wind up nearly as long before they deliver huge attacks. Some of the harder encounters in XIII put me on edge, but the last boss in XIII-2 permanently raised my blood pressure. However, because XIII-2 is more open, the difficulty balance is not as tight. Fights in XIII followed a very natural difficulty curve. Due to some side exploration that put me a few levels ahead, I cracked the difficulty of XIII-2 early on, so most fights were trivial, with a huge spike in difficulty at the bosses.
That’s not to imply the game’s a cakewalk. While the main story is shorter–I finished at the 30 hour mark–there’s an absurd amount of side content. Unlocking all the zones is, itself, a meaty task. On top of that all those side quests, collecting, alternate endings, and a monster taming/leveling mechanic could push your play hours easily into the triple digits.
With a great sense of scale, artistic originality, and technical capability, Final Fantasy XIII-2 looks damn good. Rather than rely on pre-rendered video, all of the game’s cutscenes are in-engine. Not only does this just look better, it also opens up the cutscenes to dialogue options and QTE events. Those additions are more than lip service to modern design, too–you get rewards for the dialogue options you pick, and QTE events in cutscenes will deal bonus damage to bosses or change the on-screen action.
There’s a fair bit of asset re-use in the game, but it works intelligently enough to not appear gimmicky. You can travel to the same area at different times, which of course uses the same geometry and assets, but environmental effects mitigate content burnout. For instance, the same ruins appear in the rain, the sun, and snow, and feels different in each. I played the 360 version, and I have to say the performance definitely improved over the first game. I did notice some frame chop near the end of the game, but it almost wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy if some end-game, world-obliterating spell didn’t make your system catch on fire.
Both the game’s voice acting and soundtrack impressed the hell out of me. I couldn’t enjoy the performances in XIII because the characters stopped every five minutes to yammer on and on about whatever, but in XIII-2 the dialogue is much more natural. The soundtrack deserves special mention because it’s goddamn bonkers. I’ve never heard such an eclectic and awesome mix of music. It will shift from plucky, lighthearted symphonic music to heavily synthed metal, sounding awesome the whole time. In fact, XIII-2 marks the first time in the series since Final Fantasy IX that I’ve really loved the music, and I’m definitely planning on picking up the soundtrack as soon as I can.
Recommending Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an interesting proposition. If you don’t like menus and cutscenes, Final Fantasy XIII-2 won’t change your world view, because they’re still there. However if you, like me, have been waiting for a reason to like Final Fantasy again, this is it.