Final Fantasy XIII and I don’t quite get along.
That’s not exactly some dark, private confession, though. Our spat was highly public and immediately apparent, when I gave it a score of 5.0 in a review that—for a few days, at least—was highly controversial. I didn’t like the absurdly extreme linearity. I didn’t like the fact that it took 25 to 30 hours to get “good” and actually give the player some control over the proceedings—“good” being a relative term, in this case. I didn’t like the fact that its world and characters appeared to be designed by 13-year-old Japanese girls for 13-year-old Japanese girls.
As players finally got their hands on the game, though, the venom ceased, as the prevailing opinion of users swayed more toward my line of thinking. For many, this was not the Final Fantasy we’d grown up with—and we let Square Enix know our displeasure.
If I hadn’t been reviewing Final Fantasy XIII-2, in fact, I’d have quit about five hours in. So, I naturally thought I didn’t want anything to do with Final Fantasy XIII-2—I’d have been perfectly happy to never see the first game’s J-poppy cast and trite, forgettable world again.
And yet, here’s the amazing thing: After spending a few hours with Final Fantasy XIII-2, I’m actually excited about playing through many hours more. And that’s because it seems like FFXIII-2 is the PS3/360 Final Fantasy adventure we should’ve gotten from the start, featuring such two-decade-old RPG innovations as…towns! NPCs! Dungeons with more than one path!
I kid, but there’s a reason these have been RPG staples for more than 20 years—they help you become attached to the world you’re exploring and give you a sense of purpose. Without them, you might as well be walking through random matte paintings. And after speaking with producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama, it’s clear they now realize that players missed these elements more than they anticipated.
“With Final Fantasy XIII, among the media and users alike, the most prominent negative comment we heard was that the gameplay was too linear,” says Kitase. “We took that comment, as well as all the other comments that the users and the media had, into account with giving the player many more options and choices so that they feel like they’re actually leading the game, rather than the game leading them.”
FFXIII-2 also features a departure from the first game when it comes to the protagonists, as none of the original playable characters return in that form. Instead, Serah—who served as a secondary character in FFXIII’s sickeningly sappy love story with the blond, beanie-clad Snow—takes center stage. She pines for her lost sister, Lightning—the protagonist from the first game—and begins a search for her when she stumbles across Noel, a time traveler from several hundred years in the future (though, like the rest of the males in FFXIII-2’s world, he sports hair and fashion sense straight out of a Japanese boy band).
Much like FFXIII-2’s world gives you a choice in how you explore, the game’s cutscenes give you the option to determine how they unfold. For example, instead of replying seriously to a query from Noel, Serah can say that she zoned out or something similarly silly. While Toriyama’s said that Final Fantasy XIII-2 will feature multiple endings for the first time in a Final Fantasy entry, the so-called Live Trigger system also adds a personal choice to the dialogue.
“The dialogue choices are more meant for spontaneous entertainment within the conversations,” says Toriyama. “So, even if there’s a serious conversation going on, you can give a comical reply, or you can dig deeper by asking more in-depth questions as a reply. So, it’s really dependent on the player’s curiosity.”
You’ll also have a choice in how you actually navigate the game itself. Instead of a typical RPG world, FFXIII-2 unfolds via a timeline known as the Historia Crux, which allows you to tackle various strands of history as they unfurl—and you don’t need to attempt them in a set order. “The biggest objective for us was to create choices in many different facets of the gameplay, not just one choice,” Toriyama says. “In many different elements of the gameplay, you’re given a choice, and that was one of our major goals.”
Toriyama gives an example of how that power of choice might play out in-game via the Historia Crux. “Let’s say you progress the storyline to the future, where your characters are leveling along the process.” he says. “You can go back to an area that you’d previously visited, and then turn back time and fight a boss you weren’t able to beat before. So, you can change the outcome that way. And as you’re going through all this time travel, you’re opening various gates to different areas and different eras, so that opens up more doors for various options on where to go. And if you’re a casual user and you just want to run through the story, you’re able to do so, because you can complete the game without doing all the side missions.”
Despite the fact that I didn’t really enjoy Final Fantasy XIII, I did appreciate its combat system and class-change options, as did most players. To that end, FFXIII-2 doesn’t change too much outside of adding quicktime events during major boss battles. I didn’t mind this during my preview playthrough, but I did experience some frustration when I defeated a fearsome foe after a knock-down, drag-out battle—only to have to start all over again when I missed one tiny button press after the fight. Toriyama says that problem should be fixed when the game comes out in late January, though.
“That’s actually an element that’s come up in user testing as well,” he says. “It’s definitely something we’re adjusting so that it isn’t as punishing—you don’t necessarily come to a ‘Game Over’ screen when you miss one quicktime event. That’s definitely the same concern we’ve been hearing through user tests.”
Here’s my major worry, though: the world and characters of FFXIII were some of the weakest in series history. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Lightning, Snow, Sazh, and Vanille (OK, maybe I hated Vanille)—it was that I simply didn’t care about them or their world in the slightest. Sure, Serah and Noel seem inoffensive enough—but will I grow to care about them at all? For me and many other players, that may well be FFXIII-2’s greatest challenge.
For his part, Kitase’s open about taking the criticism that Final Fantasy XIII’s taken since its March 2010 release in North America. Constructive feedback, he says, has helped make Final Fantasy XIII-2 a better game in the end.
“Obviously, it’s always hard to take harsh criticism, and it does take some getting used to, getting beaten up like that online,” he says. “But it became a learning process, and now we feel like we’ve been able to respond to a lot of the negative feedback that was out there.
Of course, part of that process is determining which complaints are thoughtful and constructive, and which are simple, vindictive trolling akin to brain-dead YouTube comments. “It’s a challenge to see all that noise on the Web and to know which ones are really serious and which ones we really should take into account,” Kitase says. “As a result, we’ve incorporated a lot more user tests to see what the real feedback is and what we should be taking seriously.”