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Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

January 29th, 2012 by Tony Garsow

It’s been a full year since the announcement of Final Fantasy XIII-2, one of the shortest development and localization times Final Fantasy fans across the globe have had to endure. As the sequel and successor to Final Fantasy XIII, one of the most contentious Final Fantasy games to date, XIII-2 has a lot to prove to its audience. Fan feedback from the original title was the impetus for making many of the design decisions this time around, and the developers have been unabashed in their efforts to rectify what they feel were the biggest faults of XIII.

Final Fantasy Network had the chance to travel to Square Enix North America’s office in LA this past October, where we played through the initial chapters of the title, and where some of our formative opinions that will guide this review come from. Now that we’ve had a wealth of time to play around with the final version of the game, those opinions have begun to take and solidify.

Since this is our first official review of a Final Fantasy game at Final Fantasy Network, I’d like to invite you to share your opinions about this review in the comments field for this article. If there’s something you thought I explained well or left lacking, please let me know! I enjoy your guys’ feedback!

So without further delay, follow the jump to read our review!

Note: Yes, this is a spoiler-free review!

– – –

CHANGE THE FUTURE is Final Fantasy XIII-2’s motto, and you’ll be doing plenty of it as Serah Farron and Noel Kreiss. Assuming the role of Lightning’s younger sister Serah, whom you may recall was encapsulated in crystal post l’Cie-hood for the majority of the previous game, you set off on a quest to find Lightning and uncover the mysterious circumstances behind her disappearance. What starts off as a tale of a sororal bond, evolves into a plot to change the futre and save mankind.

Along for the ride is Noel Kreiss, Lightning’s messenger from the future, and the last human to live on the surface of Pulse. As an entirely new character from a different time period, his background differs completely from the Final Fantasy XIII cast to provide an interesting juxtaposition of contrasting viewpoints and motivations to Serah.

Beyond the first ten minutes of the game, you’ll be taking control of the duo for the entire length of your journey through time and space. Though Snow Villiers joins the party briefly as guest in the Sunleth Waterscape, it’s a two man and one monster affair this time around. To that end, Final Fantasy XIII-2 seems a bit more intimate than it’s predecessor with a smaller cast, but what holds the characters back is the general structure and the modus operandi of their development.

Past the initial chapters, Serah’s quest to find her sister becomes more amorphous to include saving her other friends, and even the world itself. This is guided in large part by her interactions with Noel Kreiss and her travels through time and space, but we never get to see much of her inner character other than through her simplistic monologues. Even then, there’s slim pickings other than her desire to reunite her family and friends.

Noel on the other hand is a character we learn too little about at too slow of a pace. He’s definitely got a back story, but it’s revealed in a sluggish trickle, so when his relationship with another character is revealed, it’s a bit unsurprising and predictable. There are some sour points with Noel too, such as his diatribes against Snow, which are weakly justified, contrived, and annoying.

While featured in the game’s prologue and cover, Lightning has little screen-time in the story other than to kick it off in style and to show up at a certain point when you’re about twenty hours into the thick of things. She appears at other points in the plot through interjected monologues, but that’s about it. Her purported rival Caius, seeking to restore the timeline being undone by Serah and Noel, has cryptic motivations as well as the seeress Yeul. Like Noel, we seem to learn about him too little and too late, so that when his actions become clear and have actual gravitas, it’s hard to care.

The original party from Final Fantasy XIII (aside from Hope) are featured sparingly even as NPCs, so it might be bit of an uphill battle for XIII fans to reinvest.

The entire narrative itself keeps an even pace, which is an accomplishment due to the nature of a game featuring time travel. There are some moments where you feel the story beginning to drag, but since the pace of the narrative is more prone to the player’s whims, you’ll be able to proceed in a way that feels comfortable to you. The tempo facilitates this quite well with an appropriate amount of exposition for each location you travel to so that things don’t seem too off-kilter. Really, the Historia Crux is and excellent means to get this done.

The game’s wealth of information through the Datalog will please any lore junkie, especially those with a fascination about the overarching Fabula Nova Crystallis lore being established in these games. In some sense, it provides more entertainment story-wise than the plight of our protagonists, and when you reach the end of the journey, you’ll no doubt have some intrigue for it’s inner workings.

Final Fantasy XIII-2’s narrative will take you around thirty hours to complete, but it’s a tough call on this one. With a broad palette of places and times to explore as well as fragments to collect and mini-games to play, it’s not hard adding another ten to fifteen hours on to the clock for people who don’t proceed through the story elements alone. As a more player-driven experience, how much time you clock in ultimately depends on the pace you enjoy your RPGs at.

Forthcoming downloadable content will expand the game’s story in episodic fashion, and while this has no bearing on our review of the final in-store version, we’re excited to see what comes.

THE HISTORIA CRUX is your ticket to all the times and places on Cocoon, Gran Pulse, and beyond. You’ll be using it frequently to unlock new paths through the timeline, and you’ll even have the choice of tackling different areas out of order. Director Motomu Toriyama likened it to a DVD menu scene selection screen, and you’ll be able to hop in to each node exactly where you left off. Or, through collecting the appropriate gate seal, you can replay the section entirely.

Numerous incentives such as the collection of story Fragments, collecting rare monster crystals, and answering the game’s many Live Trigger prompts differently prevent revisiting old places from getting stale.

You’ll be doing a lot of exploring in Final Fantasy XIII-2, whether it’s to uncover Artefacts to unlock gates, complete NPC-initiated missions, or to just plain wander. Maps have become considerably less cramped than Cocoon’s environments in Final Fantasy XIII to support this. Not only that, but they change as you visit them at different times, an example of which is the Bresha Ruins turning into a snowscape or the Yaschas Massif being darkened by an eclipse.

NPCs wander camps and cities alike, and it’s fun to listen in on their banter as you’re running past. There is more conventional dialogue that can be started by walking up to a person with a ellipsis Talk icon above their heads and tapping the confirm button. You’ll want to keep tapping though, as most chat-able NPCs have up to four or five different lines. It makes the world you inhabit much more alive than Final Fantasy XIII, but by no fault of it’s own since a goal of that game’s story was to paint l’Cie as fugitives and cut off from the rest of mankind in the lower world of Pulse.

It’s genuinely interesting to see how places evolve over time and through your actions, and I found myself hurriedly whizzing through the selections in the Historia Crux to see what’s changed. This, in turn, built a connection to the places I visited — making them unique and memorable.

Live Trigger sequences are the game’s method for delivering dialogue options, something present (but not as often) in previous Final Fantasy games. More often than not, Live Triggers affect the immediate dialogue in a cutscene, but there are a few important decisions interspersed as your journey transpires. As far as dialogue options go, they are great opportunities to get more exposition, or perhaps a laugh or two from the sillier choices.

COMMAND SYNERGY BATTLE returns in full force, and largely in the make of it’s predecessor — but with a few welcome tweaks. Six roles will comprise your battle strategy, and by setting up six different paradigm combinations you alter back and forth between offensive and defensive stratagem in battle. The system in place here is rock solid, enjoyable, and rewarding those who take the time to tinker with it’s mechanics.

In Final Fantasy XIII-2, you’ll be able to switch party leadership role from Serah to Noel and back again on the fly, as well as change battle AI with Paradigm Tune. Blood Damage will also put pressure on you to end the battle quickly and efficiently, at risk of your maximum HP becoming too small to keep up the pace of battle. If your party leader gets KO’d in battle, leadership will change to the other of the two protagonists; should both fall, you’ll be prompted with the “Game Over” retry screen.

These tweaks add some nice refinements to the excellent battle system, but since so much of it is a carryover from the original game, there’s very little to experiment with. It would have been nice to see some braver twists. Another problem persists in that through exploring Final Fantasy XIII-2’s environments, it’s a bit easy to get overpowered, especially if you choose one role in the Crystarium to focus on such as I did. This in turn can make many random encounters menial, only lasting a few seconds. But as a whole, the battle system remains as engaging as it was in Final Fantasy XIII, and there will be encounters that test your understanding.

I asked Final Fantasy XIII-2 producer Yoshinori Kitase this past October if there was any concern for players outpacing the difficulty curve of the game, and he answered that RPGs in general seem to have this issue, so in XIII-2 they left it up to the player to decide whether they want to grind to get overpowered. In a sense, there’s not much you can do to prevent people from grinding in a game like this, so it’s best to let them choose. This is reflective of the final product and perhaps the result of Final Fantasy XIII’s Crystarium feeling too limited in character growth options.

Joining you in battle is your monster friend, crystallized and collectible. There are over 150 different types of monsters to recruit, grow in the Crystarium, and customize the appearance of. Infusion is by far the most interesting mechanic here, and I spent extra time to fatten up my monster pal only to feed him to another later. Doing so makes them more effective allies in battle in their paradigm role. It’s wholly satisfying.

You can customize your monster as well, by adding adornments to their models, or by renaming them. There are a great number of pre-selected names (most of my monsters are named Tony) to choose from, but the option to enter in a custom name is sadly absent.

Cinematic Action sequences also pepper many boss fights, but they’re usually reserved for the end — a sort of reward for surviving the battle. They’re done tastefully though, so you won’t have to sacrifice the actual battle system depth for the sake of a few QTE prompts. Flashy, over-the-top, and fun to look at. You know, typical Final Fantasy cutscene fare.

AN ECLECTIC SOUNDTRACK accompanies Final Fantasy XIII-2, running the gambit of sweeping orchestrations with thundering choirs to hip-hop and electronica. Masashi Hamauzu returns to compose the game’s major themes, with Final Fantasy XI’s Naoshi Mizuta and The 3rd Birthday’s Mitsuto Suzuki rounding out the rest of the soundtrack. What’s particularly of note are the amount of vocal tracks present, praiseworthy songs such as “New Bodhum” and “Starting Over” feature wonderful vocalists and melodies that add and extra sense of life to the environments you traverse. Somber and melodic character themes such as “Yeul’s Theme” give the score a sense of character amidst the random smattering of musical genres. Perhaps an example of how the team was dedicated to incorporating fan feedback into the game involved the removal of the vocals from the song “Invisible Invaders” after a mostly negative reaction.

The game also uses considerably less pre-rendered cinematics than the original, mainly to bookend the game’s opening and conclusion. The art direction, spearheaded by Isamu Kamikokuryou, paints a very colorful world from the dusty plains of the Archylte Steppe to the sprawling metropolis of Academia. The designs that paint the world of Final Fantasy XIII-2 are quite fantastical and creatively conceived (if a bit silly or unrealistic), and continue to set the series apart from others in it’s genre. The actual in-game graphics have taken something of a dip from the original Final Fantasy XIII though, and you’ll be able to spot a smattering of bland textures and more pronounced dithering on character models.

On rare occasion, the framerate chugs when there’s a lot to render. Load times are brief, except when entering a world from the Historia Crux: it’s not a painful wait, but definitely noticeable. Saving is automatic in Final Fantasy XIII-2, though you’re able to manually save through the start menu at pretty much anytime you’re not in battle or watching a cutscene.

Should you want a breather from exploring the vast worlds of Pulse and Cocoon in different times and spaces, you can travel to Serendipity — a casino where you can race chocobos and take your chances at the slot machines. Chocobo racing is pretty fun, albeit a bit different from Final Fantasy VII’s iteration. Different chocobos have different abilities you can use while you race, and timing the deployment of these abilities is your key to winning races and a subsequent amount of coinage.

At this present stage, NPCs in Serendipity will inform you that the park is not yet finished — with a box that pops up to let you know more will be added through upcoming DLC. It makes me excited for new content, but a bit disappointed it wasn’t included in the final version. It’s sort of breaks the fourth wall too, taking you out of the moment. Perhaps it was better left unsaid until the content was actually finished.

FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 is a game that sets out to rectify the design choices made in the original, and it successfully pulls it off. You always feel like you’re at the center of the world as it rotates around you, and the world of Final Fantasy XIII and it’s sequel are better off for it.

Despite this there are definitely weak moments that reign in this sequel from highest praise. The biggest problem here is the story. The steady narrative suffers from characters that poorly drive it, and so it ends up all over the road. There are many motivations that are under-explained, and leave you wanting to understand more but are relegated to a slow and frustrating trudge through “subtle” hints as to what’s really going on. While the main cast’s voice performances are good, they are severely limited by the script and poor (sometimes laughable in a bad way) dialogue. On the other hand, much of the background lore about the people and places in the world does shine through at moments, just when the last of your curiosity begins to wane.

Those with a penchant for wanderlust will find Final Fantasy XIII-2 an enjoyable romp, especially with the variety of worthwhile collectibles to search for and new areas to unlock. An excellent battle system augmented with a Crystarium and monster system that’s fun to play around with and customize, it’s easy to get sucked in and watch the hours slip by. The Historia Crux is a masterful system that allows the player to experience and explore at their own pace, yet never feels intrusive as the gateway between you and all the game’s content.

Production Department 1 in league with tri-Ace put on a presentation that is definitely of Final Fantasy caliber, minus a few graphical blemishes and performance issues. The soundtrack, composed by a triumvirate of Square Enix musicians, is like a goulash with tastes you thought you wouldn’t like but work wonderfully in tandem with the rest of the dish.

The overall experience Final Fantasy XIII-2 leaves you with is quite satisfying, minus the the storytelling involved. There is ambition and promise here to make memorable player-driven moments again, something that the Final Fantasy series is known for. While a brief development cycle is most likely to blame for the “undercooked” feeling of some of the game’s new ingredients, it still leaves a good taste in your mouth. Something that with more care and attention, can be excellent the next time you make it.

★ ★ ★ ★

(Now scroll back up and read the review!)

Note to our readers: Square Enix provided a free review copy of the PlayStation 3 version of Final Fantasy XIII-2.

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  • BLKMagusv.2

    Good, but not great, in other words seems to be the review for who deems story to be of large but not too large in relativity to the rest of the game.
    Honestly, sounds like they hit Problem Numero Uno of FFXIII – too much linearity in the game and story. Well, if that wasn’t the goal, we’d have gotten a different game (or the ever elusive Versus XIII) instead.
    If I hear good on the Side-Quests end of the spectrum (long, rewarding quests that are many in number and rarely tedious ideally) I’ll end up making the buy.

  • lol “Now scroll back up and read the review”… I read first, but anyway I’am still at a pass on this.

  • dan hibiki

    “Despite this there are definitely weak moments that reign in this sequel from highest praise. The biggest problem here is the story. The steady narrative suffers from characters that poorly drive it, and so it ends up all over the road. There are many motivations that are under-explained, and leave you wanting to understand more but are relegated to a slow and frustrating trudge through “subtle” hints as to what’s really going on…ecc”

    That’s exactly what I feared. Seems to me that SE made this game with such a desperate hurry that they forgot to plan an almost passable plot. I don’t know if I will be buying this game anymore, for me the plot is what makes a good Final Fantasy title.

  • SQEX_Me

    I’m not buying it on day 1. However, I will get it when it’s cheaper. Your review makes it sound like a good game but I just have a backlog of games to play that I got for Christmas. I’ve been too obsessed with Skyrim since then and I still see myself playing that for the next few weeks. It would be great for a FF to have an open world like this, IMO.

  • lalik

    I knew the story was not something to be proud of. But oh well, Imma get it anyways. But yes, the story is what makes a Final Fantasy for me, not the graphic or anything else.

  • stab244

    Anyone know if the XBOX360 version of the game has multiple discs again like in the first XIII?

  • Tony

    @stab244 The 360 version is one disc because they use a lot less pre-rendered cinematics.

  • Brad

    Great review, Tony, especially since it’s your first one. Very well-rounded. Unfortunately, IMO, they made some poor decisions with the story. I know I’m not the only one who liked Sazh, Lightning and Fang, yet they are either inconspicuously absent or, as you said, briefly featured. They put Hope in a more major part than the original game’s main character? For a sequel, it seems that they did not do great justice to the original game’s story and characters. Personally, and feel free to disagree, but I thought XIII had a great core story. It may not have been executed perfectly (lack of gameplay variety and some poor characters) but the whole “fighting your fate” concept was cool. This game’s seems like a major step down from that…..

  • Steven

    While I’m still dissapointed that they didnt think of a story which would include the cast of ff13 plus new ones, that didnt stop me from pre-ordering the collector’s edition.

    FF13 lacked gameplay variety
    FF13-2 lacks story…
    Maybe one day Toriyama will be able to deliver a full package.

    While I’ll be getting the DLC for this game for sure, I still think that they should have pushed the release until all content is done and included on the disc.

    I’m impatient to get my copy, FF rules !

    By the way, I can’t believe some people actually complained about Invisible Invaders vocals… its the only vocal song I liked ! Come on ! If some vocals had to be removed from a track it had to be either Crazy Chocobo, Historia Crux or Worlds Collide.

  • AntagonistGB

    Glad you could genuinely enjoy this game. I can’t see myself being able to do the same, so I’m definitely going to pass on this one.

  • dan hibiki

    @Steven
    I don’t think that day will ever come, I’ve lost all faith in Toriyama’s capabilities.

  • final getsug

    i sort of have to disagree with your review on how the story lacks. surely the story may have weak moments and with lightning having to be played only in the beginning but still the story is interesting because it’s something that no one hasn’t really come up with and is truly marvellous. however, it can be too complex at some times and thus the sacrifice for lightning. if lightning we’re just playable throughout the entire game then obviously the plot is pretty much ruined. it’s great idea that the older sister saves her younger sister and then vice versa in the sequel. thanks for hearing out my feedback. other than that i’d rate it five stars because it was emotional at some parts and left a mysterious atmosphere with great graphics.

  • BLKMagusv.2

    I think the story’s probably more “mediocre” than weak (it simply isn’t great. Its another sequel with the theme “save the hero from last game” what can be expected?).
    The major plague (I believe) is the lack of good, likable characters. Lightning is as arrogant as Squall, more quiet than Cloud, and really too old to pull off the angsty teenager act. Snow is always hated for little good reason, but frankly whenever I need a good, dumb laugh, Snow’s “hero” lines are great material to mock. Sahz was actually rather likable, and his motives were believable. Fang and Vanille, well, they were interesting, but they certainly had the “wft, Square? This is about as random as those ostrich commercials for FFIV.” They were a breath of fresh air, but one that poorly translates across the Pacific and seems a bit out of place. As for Hope, most of his haters tend to curse his realism (that VA sure can whine, huh?), so I’m not gonna say anything bad about a character being realistic.

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