Review: FFXIII-2 (PS3)

58370-ffxiii2_top-thumb-480x269-58369.jpg

Square Enix’s FF13 was a controversial title to a number of longtime fans of the flagship series. Much has been made of its heavily linear area designs, overly long tutorials, shallow world, and its twitch-centric combat system. To more than a few, for a game expected to carry the series forward, it seemed to be heading in the wrong direction.

FF13-2 wants to change all of that. Or at least head back in a direction that won’t burn as many bridges behind it. Boasting a new story packed with all of the ludicrously beautiful visuals that HD televisions squee with delight over, Square Enix took much of what was criticized about the first game by focusing on hammering out the rough edges.

It’s not the first time that they’ve followed up on one of the series’ major chapters in this fashion as FF10-2 can testify, but it is probably the first time that the changes aren’t so much experimentation as they are a belated do-over of what didn’t work as well the first time around.

FF13′s heroine, Lightning, is on the cover but she or her friends won’t be saving the world this time. At least not directly. The story takes place three years after the events of that game and centers instead around her sister, Serah, and a time traveling youth named Noel from the future who arrives to help her find Lightning. History has been changed and everyone thinks that Lightning disappeared at the end of the final conflict. As Serah and Noel discover later, that’s only the beginning of a plot that threatens to destroy their world and time itself.

As a time traveling yarn, 13-2′s story takes a lot of liberties with its Chrono Triggerish gameplay cast around a story hopping from one era to the next. There’s no butterfly effect cascading down and changing its protagonists as 13-2 keeps things fairly simple to keep the story moving forward  especially when no one thinks twice about two people jumping about and bending history.

58338-ffxiii2_1-thumb-200x112-58337.jpg

All of this also plays into the refreshingly open areas of the game, a big change over FF13′s boxed-in tunnels. FF13-2′s “world” is further separated into distinct time periods centered around those areas and a hub called the Historia Crux is where the player will travel up and down the timeline as gates are unlocked via “artefacts” (FF13-2′s spelling).

The main story follows a string of areas from beginning to end, but there are extra “side” zones that act as huge dungeons that can also be unlocked for a little extra story, new “fragments” to recover that can unlock “fragment skills” such as being able to jump further, and more opportunities to find and collect monsters for your party.

The original heroes from FF13 make cameo appearances throughout the game, but it’s mostly centered on the snappily dressed adventures of Serah and Noel. Keeping up with who is responsible for what can be a little tricky and the game gets off to something of a slow boil, but it eventually begins to pick up later on as events begin rushing together to make better sense of what is actually going on. Parts are peeled back over the course of the game so while certain things make little sense early on, FF13-2 thankfully delivers enough material to sort through it over the course of the game though there are still a few oddball holes that are left.

Both Noel and Serah are clearly defined, though they don’t tend to stare too deeply inside of themselves to flesh their characters out. Much like the game’s handling of time travel, characterizations tend to be brief and to the point which can be refreshing but awkward when things turn sugary with JRPG-styled melodrama before standing back up again as if nothing had happened.

58341-ffxiii2_10-thumb-200x112-58340.jpg

Taking a page from other RPGs, FF13-2 also pulls in party conversations between Serah and Noel as they make observations about the world around them. Expanded dialogue choices present the illusion of being able to fundamentally change the direction of events in specific instances, but they mostly exist only to change the attitude of a particular story piece or character with items as a reward. It’s as if the designers wanted FF13-2′s choices to have the same kind of impact that BioWare’s Mass Effect or Atlus’ Radiant Historia do, but then held back on going any further.

If you weren’t a fan of FF13′s combat system, the changes are welcome ones in the right direction though the fundamentals remain largely the same. So if you hated its automated feel, don’t expect this to make you a fan overnight. It still emphasizes speed mashing through each battle until your team lays apocalyptic waste to whatever is in front of them. One nice change is that when your leader goes down in battle, it won’t end the fight as it did in FF13, along with being able to now switch between them. It’s a small slice of common sense that urges a second chance and players might be surprised at how much of a relief this is.

58344-ffxiii2_11-thumb-200x112-58343.jpg

Serah and Noel have their roles defined under Paradigms which determine your party mix as it was in FF13. Switching between Paradigms on the fly during battle changes their roles changing the party’s battle strategy whether it’s digging in defensively right before a smashing attack or going on the offensive to dole out spell-driven damage in a short amount of time to stagger an enemy. In heavier battles, quickly swapping between Paradigms feels as if the system wants you to embrace the glittery onscreen action. The designers have also tweaked the swapping by dropping the animation sequence that delayed the change from one paradigm to the next as it did in the last game smoothing out the experience. It’s not something that appeals to everyone, but while the changes don’t reinvent the system, they do polish what is already there to make it less cumbersome and more casual in its ease of use.

Almost as if the designers knew that the hardcore RPGers will dive into grinding anyway, FF13-2 also tries to save them time with a faster leveling scheme and a simplified Crystania system which focuses more on a straightforward path for all roles. Crystania Points, or CP, are earned in most every battle and go towards role upgrades. But with the number of points dropped at nearly every encounter, especially within certain areas, grinding is almost an afterthought as Serah and Noel buff up on an almost constant basis.

Now that they’re doing the work of everyone else, they have to. Serah and Noel are the only two party members in the game aside from whatever monsters are captured. So as a result, they have a stack of roles that they can level up through that others were often better at in FF13. They’re not completely identical; both don’t have exactly the same set, or number, of skills in every role which promotes a bit of careful planning over simply feeding CP to them blindly. Upgrades start out reasonably cheap and slowly scale over time, though the values never became insane even after my Serah and Noel had mastered three roles at the maximum level of 99. Powergamers will find FF13-2 an appealing, casual leveling paradise.

58347-ffxiii2_12-thumb-200x112-58346.jpg

In addition to picking out which roles to develop early on, bonuses can also be unlocked upon completing a Crystania level such as new roles to dive into or extra attribute points further testing the player’s choices. While it can be easy to make a few mistakes because it doesn’t exactly tell you how big of a bonus you might get, the system makes it easy to get over them thanks to how quickly you can develop both heroes with a grinding side trip. Casual players intimidated by spreadsheets of statistics from other RPGs will find that FF13-2′s upgrade system a friendly experience that can keep things simple by asking them only to pick a role and push a button.

A Pokemon-like system is also introduced allowing players to collect monsters to use as a third party member. These can even be swapped out on the fly via the Paradigm system. As with Serah and Noel, monsters have their own roles but these don’t change. Instead, players can feed them items to improve their statistics or even other monsters to inherit certain attributes such as a higher resistance to fire. It’s an addition that makes combat a little more interesting by pursuing a beastly menagerie, though I only used a tiny handful of monsters in my own playthrough. For those that want to scratch their collection itch, however, it’s another activity that will be deeply appealing.

Battles in FF13-2 revert to random encounters versus being able to see your foes like in FF13 and actually makes sense within its convoluted story when monsters pop in out of thin air and disappear the same way, though some might still see this as a step backwards.

When enemies appear, a “Mog Clock” starts ticking down giving you time to run away, hit them first for a surprise attack, or be dragged into the fight anyway when it runs down. It’s a decent system, though the frequency of the battles in some areas can get repetitive. There was one especially boring grind through one zone that threw trash mobs in my way at an almost constant basis until I reached a certain point, something that felt as if it served no other purpose than to waste the player’s time.

58350-ffxiii2_7-thumb-200x112-58349.jpg

Despite having a nice, flashy, and polished system to draw from, the most of the fights still felt as much as they did in the last game: passive experiences relying on only one or two roles especially after my party became powerful to the point where they could sleepwalk through most fights. QTEs have been added to the occasional battle, such as against the bosses, and successfully doing these not only helps in battle but also rewards the player with decorative items for their monsters at the end. Failure just means you’ll miss out on the goodies – and extra damage.

Still, on the Normal setting, most encounters were fairly simple to get through with little challenge, though specialty encounters floating around can still humble a reasonably powerful party. And like the last game, they’re still a remarkable waste of tactical 3D space that other games such as FF12, Namco Bandai’s Tales series, or even Dragon Age: Origins have used to their advantage as well as that of the player’s. It’s remarkable how often the party clumps together to make themselves appealing targets for area attacks.

FF13-2′s segmented world is still beautiful to behold. There’s no question that Square Enix’s artists can consistently pound out visually stunning venues from their imagination factory, especially when it comes to the rendered cinematic work underlining key moments within the storyline. At the same time, though, some of the in-game cuts come off as clumsy seconds with twitchy clothes and NPCs that randomly walk in and out of a scene, sometimes into the main characters, or who talk to themselves in the background.

58353-ffxiii2_9-thumb-200x112-58352.jpg

Cocoon and Pulse are alive with vibrant, bursting color and melancholy greys where needed within detailed backdrops peppered with roaming NPCs. Much of the world design is loaded with eye candy with a city whose Rabanastre-like vastness makes Mass Effect’s Citadel look like a tiny apartment complex, though everything still relies on an overdose of invisible walls to keep players from going where they aren’t wanted and not every door is an invitation to something else.

Hidden goodies, side quests, and additional opportunities to pry loose a little side story material from the game indulge the more open approach of each zone. NPCs provide “side jobs” such as finding certain items or retrieving others, but none of these have any direct bearing on the story other than in rewarding you with items that are range from being useless decorations or one of the 160 “fragments” that lie scattered throughout the game that shed more light on the background lore of FF13-2.

Using Mog, Serah’s Moogle buddy, hidden trinkets can be revealed from invisible pockets of time or retrieved from far away by throwing him at them. If anything else, it’s an extra activity for completionists to play with especially if they’re looking for more Wild Artefacts to open certain gates and expand their own timeline playground.

58356-ffxiii2_2-thumb-200x112-58355.jpg

FF13-2 also has many puzzles set up as mini-games to go through which are a lot of fun and can often be tough challenges, though like the wandering NPCs during its in-game cinematics, can be awkward for simply being there. Walking into a “paradox” event of swirling energy can shunt the player into a series of different tests such as eliminating a number spots in a set order on a giant clock face, for example. Fortunately, the story-based ones tend to be easier so as not to overly frustrate players.

Stores are also back in the game in the form of a wandering shopkeeper named Chocolina whose bubbly greeting isn’t as grating as some parts of the forgettable soundtrack can be. She’s everywhere and provides the only real storefront that the game gives the player. And for the most part, her inventory is relatively barren. If you’re hoping for a return of weapons variety, armor, and other things, it’s not in this sequel.

The accessory system has also undergone another change that seems like an unnecessary attempt to inject a layer of complexity into a system that fared just fine without it. Accessories are now tagged with slot numbers that tell you how many they take up. Serah and Noel start out with a paltry 50, though with further Crystania improvements, this can go up to 100. Items can often require 25, 55, or even 100 slots to be equipped pushing the need to focus on what to gear up with. It’s a bizarre change that doesn’t have much of an explanation as for why it’s there other than to restrict equipment in a forced attempt to lend depth to the gameplay.

Crafting has also been gimped so if you liked it from the last game, FF13-2 gives you little to work with now that the focus is on breeding your monster corps instead. There are a few times that I actually used the system, but with so few options to pick from in comparison to FF13′s vast workbench, it doesn’t leave much to play with.

58359-ffxiii2_6-thumb-200x112-58358.jpg

A casino has also been added in, but it won’t even score as a footnote on a flyer for FF7′s Golden Saucer. There are only two games available to players: a moody slot machine and chocobo racing. Card games are also teased, but as the game told me, that’s coming in as DLC which seems to be a refrain that FF13-2 seems poised to deliver on. I played a bit of slots before becoming bored and breeding, raising, and racing chocobos seemed about as numbing as it was to me in FF7 – though there was much more to pick from there. Instead of winning casino coins for the prizes, I just ground up what I needed in gil and traded that in for the requisite coins.

FF13-2 is not the shortest Final Fantasy anyone might play, but at 45 hours, it didn’t take me nearly as long to get through this adventure as it did with FF13. And that was after doing a number of side quests, grinding up a bit, and unlocking extra time periods to explore. If I had gone straight through instead, I might have been able to shave five or more hours off of that score so your mileage may vary depending on how much of FF13-2′s world that you want to explore.

Yet there’s a hollow feeling to reaching the finish and part of it has to do with the controversial ending. There really isn’t one, only a promise to follow up later on with what might possibly be the real conclusion to this story later on leaving it leaving an empty pit that a lasting sense of completion should have filled in.

58362-ffxiii2_13-thumb-200x112-58361.jpg

It probably wouldn’t have been as bad a pill to swallow (movies have been doing what 13-2 has done for ages) if it didn’t feel like a cheap advertisement for DLC. Here, it comes off as the kind of stunt that storytelling shysters tease their audiences with – not something that a powerhouse like Square Enix would lower itself to doing.

Yet up to that point, the game duly delivers a solid, entertaining experience – if you can tolerate the mechanical feel of its combat to appreciate what it does better. FF13-2 manages to hit the biggest criticisms leveled against its namesake with varying degrees of success, yet the overall picture that each change colors in easily set it apart as the better game. Every tweak has been engineered to provide as fluid an experience within its relatively loose and open approach leaving what had previously gone awry inside the closed world of its predecessor far behind. Despite the shortcomings, I found myself enjoying this game more so than FF13.

The fixes also suggest to newcomers leery about FF13 to play this instead especially since it summarizes everything making going back an even less appealing option along with putting more options into players’ hands early on as opposed to the hours that it took there.

58365-ffxiii2_14-thumb-200x112-58364.jpg

Character development still blurs both Serah and Noel into relatively similar positions after a certain point, the story can sometimes leave players as lost as often as it clips the timeline into fragments, and the weak ending threatens to act as cannon fodder for FF13 haters. On the other side of that chocobo fence, the journey to get there isn’t without moments imbued with the sense of wonder and kinetic joy that its climactic battles and tragic twists can still bring.

For fans that are already put off by FF13′s world and its characters, the improvements giving it a new coat of pixels may still not be enough to convince them to return. But for those that dare to step back into the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse, it’s hard not to get the impression that this was the game that FF13 should have been.

FFXIII-2
Square Enix / Square Enix
Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed for PS3)
Rated: T for Teens