Inside Pulse 12

Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Final Fantasy XIII-2
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 01/31/2012

To anyone who has read the site on a regular basis or read some of my other work, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the Final Fantasy franchise. The reason I bring it up is not because this game automatically gets a free pass from me. I just want to give you, the reader, some perspective as to how well received this title is to someone who has played all of the games in the franchise since the original.

And as long as we’re on the topic of perspective, I will say that I liked the original Final Fantasy XIII. I liked it enough to even play through it more than once. Despite that, even I will admit that the game had its fair share of problems that have alienated even the most dedicated fans of the franchise. The pacing was poor, the majority of the characters weren’t particularly likable, and you weren’t given any freedom as the player until near the end of the game. No, I didn’t forget the linearity as I didn’t even think that was a big deal. Final Fantasy X was linear as well and I know that shows up constantly on a list of favorites, including mine. So are many other JRPG’s for that matter, but that’s neither here nor there.

It would seem that Square-Enix has been listening to fan feedback about what was disliked about FFXIII in hopes of improving upon the formula for the sequel. If you had a chance to play the demo at all, you may have seen the more open areas, the addition of sidequests, and the new monster capturing mechanics. Just how well does that translate to a good game for supporters and detractors of the original? And can non-fans still get into it? Best make yourselves comfortable.

Let’s Review

Story/Modes
Let me just say right off the bat that if you have any intention of finishing Final Fantasy XIII at all, you’d best do it before starting this game. The ending is referenced in a number of scenes which will be spoiled for you if you haven’t already seen it. This isn’t to say you have to play FFXIII in order to play this one, as most things are summarized for you both in cutscenes and on the main menu of the game. Plus, a lot of the key events and characters play small roles in FFXIII-2 so you won’t be completely left out in the dark if you hadn’t experienced it.

Despite the impressive opening sequences that feature Lightning doing battle with a new antagonist wielding what looks like the sword Soul Edge from the SoulCalibur games, it’s actually her sister Serah that is the star of this show. She is joined by newcomer, Noel, in order to find Lightning and discover the origins behind all of the paradoxes that are twisting the timeline. You also have a moogle partner named Mog that can transform into weapons for Serah, such as a sword or a bow. From there, the rest is history you could say. Yes, I totally just said that.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a smaller playable cast this time around, but the two main characters are much more developed and likable than the majority of those from the previous game. Serah didn’t get a great deal of screen time in the first game, but even then she was not portrayed as being a battle hardened leading lady like her sister was. While she’s still not a badass in the sequel, you do see her grow into a character that is able to stop leaning on others and stand on her own two feet. The character of Noel looks like he was shot right out of a Kingdom Hearts game, which made me think that perhaps he would be an overly enthusiastic character that would plague my experience from beginning to end. I’m happy to say that this was not the case, as he is instead a very serious let’s-get-this-done kind of guy. He has his baggage to be sure, but this is explored without portraying the character as being emo and his likability rivals even that of Serah. Even the returning cast has seen some big improvements. I won’t say much more than this, as if you haven’t watched any of the trailers, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

While the characters themselves were an improvement, the overall story is only better in some aspects. It’s far better paced this time around and there aren’t a lot of terms that you have to familiarize yourself with in such a short window like there was with the original. On the flip side, the time travel storyline isn’t as effective as it is with games like Chrono Trigger and Radiant Historia and concepts such as paradoxes and time loops were way more confusing than they ought to be with the way they were presented. There are some touching moments in the game, but they don’t hit with the same kind of impact as previous games in the series. With some of the characters, we don’t get to witness the relationships grow to the kind of level where as the player, we are emotionally invested in what’s going on. Still, it’s a solid story and one that kept me interested until the end. Especially since the cutscenes were able to say more things with less scenes, which is always a bonus.

Speaking of the end, I took particular issue with how it concluded, but to explain why would spoil it. Still, it’s not enough to tarnish my view of the game as a whole, so I’ll leave it at that.

Story/Modes Rating: Enjoyable

Graphics
Everything looks just as good as it did in 2010, and not necessarily because of reused assets. When Final Fantasy X-2 came out two years after the original, much of the maps and characters were copy and paste jobs from its predecessor. Not so with XIII-2. There are a few characters that you meet from the previous game that look the same as they did before, and some of the locales that you visit look very similar to what they did previously. Much of it has changed though, and many areas you’ll get to see after a several century time jump.

While there are a few pre-rendered CG sequences peppered in here and there, most of the cutscenes are done with the in-game engine, which is impressive. Since you’re in far more open areas in comparison to the narrow corridors of the original, everything comes to life that much more. You can rotate the camera freely too, which is something that was restricted in some parts of the first game. The worst thing I can really say about it is that since it has been a couple of years since the the original, the visuals are slightly less impressive now. But make no mistake, the game looks fantastic and I didn’t have any problems with performance.

Graphics Rating: Classic

Sounds
The soundtrack is simply amazing. Not only are there a ton of new tracks (which to give you a bit of perspective, there are about 80 songs in the collector’s edition soundtrack), but there are some that are plucked out from the original game that blend in well. I saw samples and articles floating around prior to the game’s release commenting about how absurd some of it was, such as the death metal chocobo song. I think that’s being a bit nitpicky. There is honestly something in here for everyone. There are some well done vocal pieces, some instrumental bits, a bit of hard rock boss themes, and more.

Look, I like having Nobuo Uematsu’s work in Final Fantasy games as much as the next guy, but I think Masashi Hamauzu did a great job with FFXIII and his work in the sequel is equally appreciated. I was a fan of his compositions in Unlimited SaGa and I hated that game. Now that’s saying something about how much his work stands out. If he and his team kept doing the music for the rest of the series, I would be okay with that.

There were a few new characters that I did not enjoy the voice work for, but apart from them, I think the English cast did a very good job. Laura Bailey in particular is no stranger to video games and anime, better known for her roles in Dragon Ball Z and Fullmetal Alchemist. I think she’s fitting for the character of Serah and brings the same kind of enthusiasm as she does her other roles. FF veterans might recognize Caius’s voice actor, Liam O’Brien as being both Kain from the FFIV remake and Red XIII in Advent Children. In short, they put together a really good crew, so kudos to them.

Sound Rating: Amazing

Control/Gameplay
If you’ve played Final Fantasy XIII, you should have a pretty good idea of how it works. If not, it’s all about shifting paradigms. You can create up to six paradigms with your characters that can consist of up to six classes. Commandos are for dealing heavy physical damage and maintaining stagger, and Ravagers deal magical damage and are for building up your stagger meter. The stagger meter is significant in that if you manage to stagger an enemy, they are more susceptible to status effects and your attacks do far more damage than they would otherwise. These are the core of your offense. For defense, you have Sentinels that act as your tank to soak damage and provoke your enemies into attacking them. You also have Medics that can heal damage done, revive your allies, or remove debuffs. Finally you have Saboteurs and Synergists that can debuff your enemies and buff your own party respectively.

You are only in control of the leader of your party while your teammates sorta do their own thing according to whatever role they are given. The idea is to be able to react to situations quickly, rather than micromanage each individual action. In fact, depending on the urgency of the situation you are in, you may not even have time to give even your party leader individual orders to do. In which case, you can have the game auto select what it thinks the best options for you are. It doesn’t seem all that exciting at the beginning of the game when many of the battles are easy and don’t require much switching, but during the more challenging battles is when it really shines.

In the previous game, if your party leader falls it would spell an instant game over. Now, you can switch between Serah and Noel as the active leader and if you get KO’d as one of them, control will instantly switch to the other. This should alleviate the stress of losing a battle because your leader got afflicted with a death spell or some other unfortunate incident.

During some boss battles, you’ll encounter what are called Cinematic Actions. These are essentially like active time events, which are a nice alternative to the otherwise passive cutscenes that you would be watching otherwise. If you do well in them, you’ll earn items and possibly achievements. The new Feral Link feature works similar to this, as it involves your monster building a meter from both taking and dealing damage and then unleashing an attack specific to them. When you use this attack, it will prompt specific button presses, much like the Cinematic Actions do. I found the majority of the Feral Links to be only mildly useful, so expect to only make use of it on a small selection of monsters.

New to this game is the ability to capture monsters as your third party member. When you defeat enemies, there is a random chance that you will obtain their crystal. Much like Pokemon or the Shin Megaten games, each monster has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as a solitary class they occupy. For example, a Cait Sith would act as your healer and something like a Behemoth would be a Commando. You can add three of them into your paradigms at any given time and when you switch paradigms, you will rotate these monsters as well. Paradigms can be modified to accommodate the nature of these monsters to have them all focus on one target or just do their own thing. You can also infuse these monsters with other monsters if you wish for them to adopt more desirable passive traits. Further, you can find items in which to dress your monsters up in, like cute little hats. Yes, I sounded excited about that last part, don’t judge me.

Character growth is done by what’s called a Crystarium. It’s slightly different than its predecessor in that you have a base amount of CP to burn on your next level up, regardless of which job it is for. As you’re moving about the grid, there will be small spheres that don’t do anything special when you use a level up on them. When you encounter big spheres, they will impart a bonus depending on the job you decided to level with these. For example, if you were building Noel to be a better Commando, you would want to use the bigger spheres as he will receive an attack bonus for doing so. You will also periodically be prompted if you want to make a choice between extending your ATB bar, boosting one of your roles, or increasing your accessory capacity. The system is somewhat similar for monsters, except they don’t earn CP. Instead, you find items that you pick up from defeated monsters that can be used to move them around the Crystarium. This is nice, as if you find a new monster that you want to add to your party immediately, you can get them built up using a surplus of these items.

Random battles have made their return in FFXIII-2. In the previous game, all enemies were immediately visible and you would initiate combat just by running into them. The downside was that they could sometimes block your path and there was no running away from battle. This time around, the enemies will pop out of the ground while a Mog clock shows up on screen. At this point, you can choose to strike the enemy to get a preemptive attack on them, or you can just run away from them. If you can’t get away before the clock runs out, you are automatically thrown into battle without the option to retry (which isn’t entirely true since you can retry if you die).

Each time period has a number of gates that have to be unlocked with an item called an Artefact. These items are picked up during plot events in order to progress to the next destination in the timeline, though there are optional ones that are hidden away in invisible chests. When you encounter these, Mog has an ability to “distort time” or something to that extent to make these chests accessible to you. If that’s not enough, you can also pick up Mog and throw him up onto cliffs or into canyons if it’s a chest out of reach. Once you have an Artefact and unlock its matching gate, you can go to the Historia Crux menu to access the new area. You are taken to the Historia Crux automatically after passing through a gate, but you can access it at any time by going to your start menu. You can even rewind events in each time period to do them again, which becomes necessary in order to find certain items. It’s a neat system and well implemented.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Great

Replayability
There is a lot more side stuff to do this time around, which I think is great. While the main game can be completed in the ballpark of about 20 hours, you will spend many more just on the various sidequests and such littered throughout the game. Some time periods aren’t even a requirement for progressing through the game, so there is a ton to explore outside of your main journey. While the original had an assortment of hunts that you can go on that were a ton of fun, much of it couldn’t be accessed until near the end of the game or even after the game was over. FFXIII-2 disperses these more evenly, with some being available in the opening chapters. They are far more diverse though, as they do not just lead to simply killing a monster (although there are those too). Some of them may involve finding an item or answering questions.

If that’s not enough, there is also an area called Serendipity which is like this game’s version of the Golden Saucer. You can participate in chocobo races or bet money on the casino. There isn’t the variety in minigames that there was in Final Fantasy VII, but it’s a good time waster nonetheless. And while I can’t say too much about them without spoiling anything, there are multiple endings to be discovered as well, similar to how there were in FFX-2.

Replayability Rating: Great

Balance
The problem with the difficulty in Final Fantasy XIII was that it was straight up mash the A button for the first few chapters until the more intricate aspects of the paradigm system were introduced. And even then, save for the occasional boss battle here and there, it was pretty easy until you got near the end or started doing the side stuff. FFXIII-2 is more even in its difficulty, though for the most part, this means it is also easy. Enemies don’t have the ridiculous amount of health that they did in the previous game and there doesn’t appear to be a level cap instituted by what chapter you are on, so you can easily grind your way past even the most difficult encounters. If you are really struggling, there is an easy mode that you can enable, but this reduces your chances to get rewards.

On that same token, this is speaking as someone that completed every sidequest in FFXIII, so perhaps my familiarity with how to use the battle system effectively might skew my vision on it a little bit. Regardless, there are a ton of side things to do after the game is over that offer some challenge, so if you’re looking beyond the main storyline, I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

Balance Rating: Enjoyable

Originality
While I still think that the battle system in this game is a unique spin on previous Final Fantasy design traits, much of the package consists of things borrowed from other titles. It’s if they sat down and said “Okay, what games are popular and how can we integrate them into our own game?” Just to give you a few examples, there are time travel aspects pulled from Chrono Trigger and Radiant Historia (or even the original Final Fantasy if you want to go back that far). There is the monster collecting borrowed from Pokemon, Shin Megami Tensei, and Dragon Quest games. Even dialogue choices appear to be inspired from more western RPG franchises like Dragon Age or Elder Scrolls.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think all of these things work really well together, which is surprising considering the diverse nature of the games it uses as inspiration. It’s just that, if you were looking for a radically different experience than its predecessor, you may be disappointed.

Originality Rating: Decent

Addictiveness
When the original Final Fantasy XIII came out, I took time off work and went on a week long binge where I did nothing but play that and consume Vault. I even had a Vault can pyramid when I was done that I was really proud of. While I didn’t cut work this time around, FFXIII-2 shares the same basic gameplay as its predecessor and inherited all of the same addictive elements. It was alarming to constantly look at the clock and realize that two hours had passed and it didn’t even feel like I had been playing that long. It’s also one of the few games I actually care to complete sidequests for as I normally just gun for the finish line and call it a day.

My experience may be unique as the gameplay was the primary driving force behind the hours spent on the game. If the storyline is the most important thing to you when playing an RPG, it might be a bit tougher to suggest that you’d be glued to the experience for as long as I have. If you enjoyed the combat from the original though, you’re in for a treat.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

Appeal Factor
The Final Fantasy franchise has as big of a following as you could possibly get for a JRPG in North America, so I know a lot of people are going to be able to get into it. That, and there are so many different elements borrowed from other successful games that even non-fans may want to check it out for those reasons alone.

On the flip side, despite the high sales of FFXIII, there was a negative fan reaction to it for a number of previously discussed reasons. Those same fans are going to be more hesitant to dip into the sequel of a numbered entry that they didn’t like. Especially since the combat system is largely unchanged. When Final Fantasy X-2 released as a sequel to FFX, the battle system as well as the general tone of the game were completely different. FFXIII-2 doesn’t carry that same trend and thus fans may be more reluctant to give it a chance.

Despite all that, the downloadable demo that released a couple of weeks ago turned some heads and I think it got people interested in the franchise again. A few reservations aside, I think fans that decide to give it a chance are going to be pleased.

Appeal Rating: Great

Miscellaneous
While it may seem like a minor detail, Final Fantasy XIII-2 has the important distinction that it auto saves for you as you play. This is huge, as in previous games in the series you always had to manually record your save file and you could create multiple ones if you wanted to re-experience a part of the plot. While the ability to rewind a time period allows you to do this anyway, I’ve found that you can, in fact, have a separate save file. If you save from the Historia Crux menu, it will bring up the list of save files for you so you can duplicate it if you wish. I personally create multiple saves for security as well as being able to relive certain parts of the game, so you may find this to be useful as well.

It was already known that there would be DLC on the way, including an outfit for Noel that makes him look like Ezio from Assassin’s Creed II. It was also announced recently that there will be content involving Lightning, and a successful battle against her will allow you to add her to your team. Additionally, there will be more DLC episodes that flesh out other characters for the game. I had always wished that they would offer some form of downloadable quests or hunts for the original game, so the prospect of such things for FFXIII-2 has me optimistic. Hopefully, whatever they decide to release will be reason enough to keep the game on your shelf for some time to come.

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores
Story/Modes: Enjoyable
Graphics: Classic
Sounds: Amazing
Controls/Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Enjoyable
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Great

Final Score: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
There’s a very simple test you can take to determine if you’ll like Final Fantasy XIII-2. Did you enjoy FFXIII? If yes, then buy this game. If no, then what didn’t you like about it? If you said the battle system, then there’s not much this title can do for you. If you answered the linearity, the pacing, and/or the lack of towns, then you may want to give this a try. It addresses nearly every complaint that was made about the first game while throwing in traits from other successful titles such as Chrono Trigger and Pokemon. The characters are more likable this time around and the story is much better paced, topped off with an excellent presentation. The battle system is largely unchanged, save for a few improvements such as the ability to change leaders mid-battle and customize the targets of your paradigms. This is everything the first game should have been and more.

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