Finally, a worthwhile fantasy
There haven’t been too many times when I’ve outright written off a franchise I grew up with. Even though Link’s made a few missteps along the way, I’m always ready and willing to try each new Zelda adventure. And I’d never think of abandoning Metroid’s Samus Aran, even after Nintendo totally botched her silent-assassin cred with their regrettable “characterization” in Other M.
I came very close to writing off the Final Fantasy series after Final Fantasy XIII, though. I’d already been underwhelmed by Final Fantasy XII and wasn’t a fan of the franchise’s online efforts. It’s hard to believe, but it had been 10 years since I’d played a Final Fantasy entry I was satisfied with—and that’s why FFXIII was nearly the last straw. Throughout its straight-line level “design,” unavoidable-and-at-times-unfair battles, and vapid, trite world and characters, one thought kept returning to my head: “This isn’t the series I fell in love with as a kid.”
While the Japanese RPG isn’t as prolific as it was even five years ago, I’d still have been reasonably happy putting my time and effort toward games like Dragon Quest and Persona while ignoring Final Fantasy. In fact, I would’ve been perfectly content to ignore Final Fantasy XIII-2 altogether—and I was doing a bang-up job doing just that until this past September.
That’s when I headed to Tokyo Game Show and attended a Square Enix preview event, where I sat down with the game uninterrupted for three hours straight. And a funny thing happened…I actually had fun! The equation actually wasn’t too hard to puzzle out, as Final Fantasy XIII-2 reintroduces the elements that drew me to RPGs in the first place, like vibrant towns, chatty NPCs, vast dungeons, and exploration into the unknown.
Part of the improvements also lie in addition by subtraction, in that the vast majority of FFXIII’s agitating cast—airheaded, Aussie-accented Vanille in particular—don’t take center stage this time. Instead, the story focus on Serah, the love interest of the brooding, beanie-clad Snow in the original game, along with Noel, a man from the future who finds himself teleported to Serah’s time. By keeping your party small and avoiding the constant perspective shifts from the previous game, FFXIII-2 makes you feel like you’re going on an actual journey, as opposed to arbitrarily joining certain characters for a couple of hours because the plot demands it.
The game also adds a third member to your party, but in keeping with the theme of wiping the slate clean, it isn’t a flesh-and-blood human—it’s a monster. Several monsters, in fact. Clearly taking a page from Pokémon, FFXIII-2 allows you to befriend certain bested foes and then watch their fighting prowess emerge as you “train” your beasts through battle and level them up through the Crystarium, the ability-enhancing interface that returns from the previous game.
In fact, combat’s the one area where the developers clearly took a hands-off approach this time around, as the Paradigm Shift class system from FFXIII—which revolves around changing your abilities mid-battle in order to get the edge on the enemy—returns essentially intact. If anything, combat’s actually slightly improved. In FFXIII, there was always one “right way” to win a battle, and if you didn’t follow the Paradigm Shifts precisely how the game wanted you to, you’d be toast in seconds. In contrast, FFXIII-2 allows you to avoid battles in the field if you want, get the edge on the enemy if you manage to sneak up on them, and more or less lets you to succeed and fail in battle on your own merits—not because a tutorial determines that you’re not ready to handle the game’s intricacies.
And when it comes to doing things your way, perhaps no Final Fantasy adventure has offered the sense of freedom FFXIII-2 imparts. Rather than having you explore a simple world map, FFXIII-2’s adventure takes you through the pages of history via the Historia Crux. For example, while a certain town might be peaceful in the past, it could become a war zone in the future—and, while it’s not quite Back to the Future in terms of execution, it’s intriguing to see how your actions in one era impact the rest of the timeline. The one issue I had with this interface is that in order to unlock certain gates to specific worlds, you need to track down particular “artefacts”—the process of which can sometimes devolve into fetch quests and wild goose chases.
But while I did enjoy exploring FFXIII-2’s world throughout the ages, some intangible element seemed to be missing throughout the entire experience. Serah and Noel are inoffensive enough, but that’s part of the problem—I wasn’t emotionally invested in them even 30-plus hours in. In previous series entries, I came to genuinely care for the fates of Cecil, Rosa, Tidus, Yuna, Zidane, and Garnet. And even though I’ve got huge issues with FFVIII’s overall design, I did have a soft spot for Squall and his motley band of high-school adventurers. Final Fantasy XIII’s universe just isn’t as vibrant, expressive, and memorable as those from the franchise’s past.
Even though I’m not totally enchanted with its world, I’m happy with FFXIII-2 in another way: It proves there’s still vast potential in the franchise. I know FFXIII has its defenders and haters, and if you loved the original, you might not find what you’re looking for here. But if you’re like me and found FFXIII a painful chore, give FFXIII-2 a shot—particularly if you’ve come close to writing off the series yourself.
SUMMARY: Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn’t quite on par with the best Final Fantasy adventures, but it’s a competent, enjoyable adventure from start to finish—something the series has been lacking in recent years.
- THE GOOD: Return of RPG staples like towns, NPCs, and dungeons impart a much more vibrant world.
- THE BAD: Final Fantasy XIII’s world and characters just aren’t as interesting as previous entries; music isn’t close to the standards set by Nobuo Uematsu (MIA in FFXIII-2)
- THE UGLY: The allegedly “rockin’” “Crazy Chocobo” theme. If he were dead, Uematsu would be spinning in his grave.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is available on Xbox 360 and PS3 at the time of this review. Primary version reviewed was on PS3.