It’s no secret that Final Fantasy XIII didn’t have the warmest welcome when it was released a couple years ago. Taking longer than necessary to introduce the player to the combat system and a few lackluster and annoying characters were some of the problems that plagued Final Fantasy XIII. The most glaring negative was the staggering 20 hours of long narrow paths, which were quite the departure from other Final Fantasy games and the role playing genre in general. Luckily Square Enix was aware of the problems people had with the game and set out to correct them in the game’s direct sequel.
Instead of having long narrow hallways to walk through, you get the wide open environments that you’re used too with plenty of special items and side quests to complete. Yes Square has discovered side quests and it’s not the same set up from XIII that were mainly only available after you completed the game. The side quests are more like the traditional meet a random person or guard, help them find some item or defeat some monster, go back and get a reward. Mostly they’re pretty one note experiences and don’t go into any big separate story line or anything, but you have to commend Square for at least trying it and hopefully in future games they’ll expand on the idea. Square also thankfully learned that save points are stupid and the game will now automatically save for you or you can choose to save wherever you are and pick up later at that same position.
Square also added player choice for dialogue and story events, but for the most part they don’t have much, if any major effects within the game. Mainly the choices just give you different dialogue to hear from the characters that doesn’t seem to affect the story significantly unlike say Mass Effect. Later in the game there are choices that can give you what is called a Paradox Ending, an alternate ending that wraps up the story, but after the cutscene you’re able to go back and replay the section to make a different decision and continue on with the game to get the proper ending.
Time travel is at the centre of this adventure. Having Serah and Noel travel to the future, past or even alternate realities to find Serah’s sister, Lightning who was the main hero in Final Fantasy XIII. Focusing on time travel can at times be really confusing but it also doesn’t help when the story of XIII-2 is this lackluster. The game starts off interesting enough with Noel being sent through time to help Serah find her sister but soon becomes random storyline after random storyline with sprinkles of the main plot coming up every once in a while until you reach the end of the game where it takes centre stage again.
To me it felt somewhat similar to a case of the week TV show, that have one over arching story but each episode focuses on a single event. Luckily, XIII-2’s biggest selling point, it’s battle system, should keep you playing and it’s just as much fun as it was in XIII with some added improvements.
On the surface Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a role playing game, but at its core with the battle system reveals that it is really a strategy game. There are six roles for your characters to build up including Commando, Ravager, Medic, Sentinel, Synergist and Saboteur. These essentially boil down to attacker, spell caster, healer, tank, buffer and de-buffer respectively. You are given six slots to create different combinations of these roles called Paradigms and in battle you can switch to them on the fly, or Paradigm Shift, to deal with the obstacle in front of you. You still only control one character at a time but you are now able to switch between Serah and Noel as many times as you want during battle as well as when you’re roaming the field.
With only two main characters in the game to control, your third party member is now one of the many monsters you confront during the game. Each monster can only use one of the six roles so you can have three different monsters to use in your six slots. Catching these monsters is as easy as encountering and defeating them in battle. For fans of catching them all in Pokemon, you will probably enjoy this new aspect of the XIII-2.
Serah, Noel and your monsters can all be upgraded through the new Crystarium. You’re given some more choice as to which role you want to upgrade compared to the version in XIII. Using the Crystarium Points you earn in battle, you decide which of the roles you want to level up to unlock more skills and improved stats. You upgrade your monsters the same way but instead of using the points you’ve earned in battle they require you to use monster materials which you can earn after battles or by buying from the very energetic, half human/half chocobo, shop owner Chocolina, who follows you throughout your adventure, usually with something entertaining to say.
On the soundtrack front Square, decided to include a large number of vocal tracks in XIII-2, some of which don’t sound too bad and fit the tone of the game. There is also a death metal chocobo song that feels completely ridiculous. Square also included a couple other heavy metal and even rap tracks that sound completely out of the place. There were even a few lengthy boss fights, where I just had to turn down the volume on my TV to ignore the music.
I’m not against the composers trying different types of music or anything. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the PSP included a number of different types of music, some including a number of rock tracks and to this day is still one of my favorite game soundtracks of all time. It is simply that these tracks do not fit the overall tone of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Not all of the music includes vocals, there are still plenty of great and not-so-great orchestrated pieces included throughout the game which I could handle listening too.
There is no doubt that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is big improvement over its predecessor. Square listened to the complaints people had with the first game and fixed almost everything, a shorter introduction, wide open areas and even automatic saving, while still keeping the battle system in tacked. Though the unfocused story and out of place soundtrack were a step back, if you were ever into the Final Fantasy series and don’t hate the combat system, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a game worth playing. Did I mention you can jump whenever you want?
This review is based on a retail copy of the 360 version of Final Fantasy XIII-2.