It is no understatement that Square Enix stands a lot to prove with Final Fantasy XIII-2, the sequel to this generations most anticipated and ultimately hotly controversial Japanese Role Playing Game, Final Fantasy XIII. Fans have been anticipating the first major sequel to a Final Fantasy title since 2003’s Final Fantasy X-2. Square Enix too has put a lot of effort in taking XIII-2 in an entirely different direction from its predecessor. The company gave us the chance to sit down with what appeared to be a near full build of the game, allowing us to experience the game at our own pace in a three hour session. (You can find more of our coverage by clicking here.)
Ask several Final Fantasy fans why they love the series and it would not be surprising to get a host of different answers. That intrinsic quality that makes a Final Fantasy game not just great, but a worthy installment, has been the topic of much debate over the years, particularly after each successive release.
While this topic is beyond the scope of this write up, I can say with confidence that Final Fantasy XIII-2 succeeds in capturing this essence, something I had feared the Fabula Nova Crystallis sub brand was incapable of doing. The sequel has been the most fun I have had with a Final Fantasy title this generation, and I remain cautiously optimistic that the full game has the ability to deliver early next year. Part one of my preview focuses primarily on the story and world that the first few hours of the game introduced me to and the immediate reactions I felt.
XIII-2 straddles an almost awkward line in all it tries to do. It is a sequel that was never asked for, and yet just about everything it does is to distance itself from its predecessor. Being a sequel though, it is almost obligated to borrow from the original and it does so remarkably well. Most of the earliest areas (New Bodhum, Bresha Ruins, Sunleth Waterscape) are locales those familiar with Final Fantasy XIII have some sort of connection to, yet have been completely transformed and recreated in the time span between the two titles. The way the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon have evolved really makes the events of the original all the more significant, bridging these two games together.
This is where I can really appreciate what XIII-2 is trying to do, something I felt X-2 touched upon but never fully grasped: that the worlds established in Final Fantasy titles do not simply just disappear once the world has been saved from impending evil, but actions have consequences, and their environments will continue to change as time passes on.
And how suitable it is that XIII-2 introduces a time traveling element to fully explore this theme. The Historia Crux system, granting players the ability to travel to different locations during different time periods, is a tool that allows the developers to explore the theme of change fully. In the game’s opening locations, there is a sense of mystery as to the full dynamics of how this all plays out, the story starts off three years after the events of the original, and by the second chapter the player is already time traveling: Serah is at this point puzzled at the fact that she has ended up in the Bresha Ruins two years in the future. In all honestly the idea of time travel, never mentioned in the XIII universe up until now, does seem rather zany, so this type of reaction is not only expected, but makes the entire ordeal more believable.
Despite this initial confusion, by the end of chapter two we become fully invested in the time traveling aspect, done through gates spread out throughout the game’s locations. While we are unable to specify on the exact number, the Historia Crux menu did reveal that just about every locale has multiple time periods that can be visited. This theme of cause and effect was already being introduced in the early stages of the game, with optional quests, branching paths, dialogue options, and different paths to the same goal.
What I am hoping is that these elements are all in place to further emphasize player choice in fundamentally transforming the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse as the story progresses. What we do know is that different gates, portals used to access different locations and time periods, are scattered throughout the game world, some of which will be hidden or only available upon completing specific tasks, once again, another element that maximizes a story of cause of effect.
With all the focus on revisiting this world, it is then perplexing how the story, in the first few hours, seems to favor throwing in new and at least initially out of place elements, over expanding upon the story established in the first game. I am of the opinion that Final Fantasy XIII, while a complete game with a mostly straightforward story, preferred to carry out its exposition with an ambiguous, repetitive script which left much to be desired. Despite having the main cast repeat chummy sentiments over and over, very little is actually revealed through the cut scenes themselves.
It is then entirely logical that a sequel would work to flesh out these more lackluster elements, but XIII-2 instead prefers to repeat what has become a staple of Final Fantasy sequels (think X-2, Revenant Wings, Dirge of Cerberus): the inclusion of unnecessary new elements into stories. Now to be entirely fair, this is simply based off the very early parts of the game, but already I find myself comparing the purple haired Caius to Genesis from Crisis Core.
Not all of this is entirely without reason however. I certainly “get” the significance of Noel in terms of setting the game up for new players, possibly unfamiliar with the story up until now. Like these new players, Noel, the last human in existence, time travels to Serah’s time period completely unfamiliar with the lives of Lightning and company up until now. This serves to establish a connection between player and character akin to Tidus in Final Fantasy X.
To be fair though, I am at the very least looking forward to how these new elements will be tied into the existing narrative, especially considering the entire reason for Lightning’s disappearance from Pulse was her desire to resurrect Vanille and Fang. In the first few hours at least, none of this is mentioned however, instead focusing heavily on Serah’s desire to seek out Lightning and information on Noel’s past and time traveling. Whether the new story elements and expansion of the mythology will end up detracting from, rather than enhancing, the original’s lore is easily my biggest concern coming out of this play through.
These new elements only prompt more concern when drenched in some of the most severely deprived dialogue in the series. Particularly during intense outpourings of emotion or staged, forced drama , I found myself feeling rather uncomfortable, almost embarrassed by the cheesy one liners and out of place grunts. On the plus side, if you watch these scenes with a completely different perspective, like I eventually forced myself to, you may find yourself amused and in some cases even laughing like one would during a poorly written horror movie.
In retrospective, the real saving grace through these scenes (particularly the intro) was the new cinematic action system which is very akin to quick time events or the reaction commands in Kingdom Hearts 2. While never particularly challenging, they provided some form of interactivity with the story scenes, and I found my success or failure definitely changing how that particular moment played out.
In a welcome change of pace, these exposition scenes are contrasted by much more light hearted and casual dialogue, particularly between Noel, Serah, and the NPCs: discourse in which Serah begins to gush about why she loves Snow in a high pitched voice, as well as an exchange between Noel and Gadot (complete with dialogue options, one of which allows you to talk about Snow in a negative light) involving Noel potentially making advances on Serah. Scenes like these set up a completely different tone and make the characters seem much more real, fleshing out to what are supposed to be lively, complex characters.
In the end, what gets me really excited is that, finally, this potentially amazing world really shines through and feels real. Every townsperson in New Bodhum gleams with a fully voiced (although very much so anime inspired) personality. The Bresha Ruins, despite being inhabited by monsters, are also populated by soldiers who will do their best to attack enemies that may be chasing you. Every bit of NPC dialogue seemingly enhanced my understanding of the rapidly changing world around me. These essential JRPG characteristics seemed lost to XIII, but are back in full force here, and suddenly something old is new again.
Look forward to part two of my preview where I go over my thoughts on the game play elements and battle system enhancements. Feedback is always welcome as well.
- The opening menu music is amazing. Menu has Downloadable Content and Extras options.
- New Bodhum gives off a very similar feel to Besaid in Final Fantasy X.
- In keeping with comparisons, Serah frequently delves into internal dialogue with the player, which gave off similar vibes to scenes with Yuna in X-2.
- Carbuncle plush originally seen in Nautilus are seen in New Bodhum.
- The Datalog is back. In the first few hours at least, it seems less useful to understanding the plot than it was in XIII.
- It is not completely clear in the first few hours whether the live trigger dialogue options actually have any long term effect on the story, or if their effects are restricted to the scenes they are in. There were certain scenes where things would not progress unless I picked the correct dialogue option.
- The Moogle companion is awesome in my opinion. I can see certain players being annoyed by it though.
- There are recaps of the events of XIII through optional dialogue.
- You will be riding a Chocobo within the first few hours.
- The load times between cut scenes and game play are on the level of XIII, perhaps even faster. However, they appeared to be a little longer when selecting new areas in the Historia Crux system. When entering Bresha Ruins for the first time, I counted twelve seconds.