Platforms: Xbox 360, Ps3
ESRB Rating: T
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date(s): 15 December, 2011 (Japan) 31 January, 2012 (NA)
3 February, 2012 (PAL)
I'll get this out of the way first and foremost; I had virtually no issues with Final Fantasy: XIII. Whereas many faithful fans to the FF franchise had what can only be coined as a widespread state of animosity, in my own somewhat skewed perception of the game, it was nothing short of an exhilarating experience which served as one of my first entries to the longstanding series. That being said, upon reflection, Square Enix's attempt at a slightly streamlined installment is not perfect by any means, leaving those with just criticisms some form of merit. The developers have listened to the almost unanimous complaints and their latest attempt at appeasing the great beast known as us consumers has succeeded on many levels its predecessor did not.
Three years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII, Vanille, Snow, Fang, Lightning and all other remotely interesting characters have either run off on their own adventures, vanished without trace or are encased in crystal. Previous minor character and Lightning's sister, Serah Farron has taken centre stage. Her dreams plagued with visions of her lost and forgotten sibling engaged in an epic battle with someone who looks like a failed Dir En Grey member on a godly plane known as Valhalla. Serah is soon confronted with newcomer and Kingdom Hearts reject Noel with an offer to be reunited with Lightning in the future.
We do unfortunately get stereotypical character types back
Right off the bat, things can get quite confusing with the introduction of time travel with the newly added "Historia Crux" item only exacerbating the already convoluted central story arc. As it begins, XIII-2's basic plot outline serves as a more personal adventure in contrast to the worldly destructive force present in its predecessor. Of course, this soon gives way to a much larger threat, endangering the very fabric of time and space but the fundamental plot point of personal struggle remained mostly intact with only slight deviation from point to point.
This slight transgression in narrative tone is brought about by Square's first alteration to the formula that was so hated by the general public. The linearity from before is now almost completely nonexistent. For some gamers, this is nothing short of a godsend. For others like myself, the offer of endless exploration and expansion to the main world only tends to lessen the importance of the main questline. Not to mention, many of these sidequests wrapped up as a love letter to fans tend to be nothing more than repetitive menial tasks but it is easy enough to avoid and get back on track.
I stress the previous use of the word "can" when describing XIII-2's confusion in its plot. While it's easy to get off track and have many of the nonsensical monologues seem entirely meaningless, with its ballsy attempt at a story including such intricate care as time travel, Square should be commended for their efforts in at least experimenting with the idea. Do come mentally equipped to accept the dozens of plot holes as they come because if you want to dissect every aspect of the story, you're just asking for mental strain. Some of these cracks in the fabric of the story can be glanced over or humoured, at least, but many crucial plot points right down to the main antagonist's motivation throughout is subject to inane contradictions.
In other words; the elaborate and expansive narrative Square Enix fans have come to know and love is still here but it is somewhat bogged down by asinine decisions in structure. Many of the rules XIII-2 follows in its plot concerning time travel appear only predicated on rules that don't really make sense. In particular, this presence surfaces most notably in the ending(s). Without spoiling anything, I'll simply say that it manages to pull an Assassin's Creed on us in the most "fuck you" way possible. The absence though of characters who drone on with insipid non sequiturs is a welcome change, so there's that to be happy about I guess.
Oh God, I'm not
In spite of this, however, everything gamers asked for to be improved upon is here and is particularly notable in gameplay. The previous auto grindfest that was XIII has since been replaced with a more fast-paced and intricate battle system, allowing the most tactical and the most casual of gamers to find common ground. Larger parties are replaced with two main characters throughout, allowing a steadier flow of gameplay. The core of XIII is still there, but it's been tweaked enough to offer a fresh experience for those tired of its predecessors ventures.
Roles are still put into place as before (Commandos, Sentinels, Medics, etc.) but the setup found in XIII-2 adds more to the way of choice on how to deal with certain situations in battle. This negates any past rigidity found in its predecessor. The difficulty curve has been greatly improved from being piss poor easy tedium punctuated by absurd spikes in bosses to a more traditional RPG style flow. This style is a welcome change to the handholding ease of other games.
I'm still not entirely sure what's going on here but it was fun
This isn't to say the game is by any means a simple task. While its level of challenge isn't as tight as it can be in previous entries, the massive amount of extensive content allows for leveling to be ready for more daunting forces. Coupled with the History Crux level design and mini puzzles between areas to connect the "bridges of time," and the simple but useful addition of a save anywhere option makes for a more intelligently designed RPG.
This also comes into play when mentioning the newly rendered cutscenes. All are done in engine rather than full CG work, allowing for both quick time events and dialogue tree options that result in multiple outcomes. Although a little gimicky at this point and forced to some degree, its inclusion doesn't mitigate enjoyment in the slightest.
As is what can only be considered tradition at this point, XIII-2 continues its groundbreaking visual prowess by making even the best looking and most colourful set pieces look like something out of Gears of War. The aforementioned cutscene transition from CG to in-engine serves to not only improve upon the games already impressive graphics, but allows smoother gameplay as well. Not once during my 30 hour playthrough did I experience framerate problems or texture pop-ins. There's a fair bit of asset reuse in the game but its presented intelligently enough to not come across as overtly lazy. Visiting different areas in different time periods changes the environments enough to warrant further exploration, especially when these setpieces look as amazing as they do. While certainly noticeable, it isn't enough to warrant complaints of repetitive level design.
The astounding voice acting is something to be highly praised as well. Unlike before with ear raping performances by Vanille and... well just Vanille, there are no weak links in the game's cast. The dialogue flows more naturally and this, along with excellent motion capture nearly perfecting facial animations add to a sense of cinematic aptitude where its narrative does not. Something that is paramount to the Final Fantasy experience has always been its soundtrack. I was somewhat disappointed with the OST of XIII but XIII-2 manages to improve upon this, if only slightly. It certainly caters to a wide array of various music styles, ranging from DMC inspired metal to something one might find in a gay bar, but after prolonged listens, it feels very hit or miss though many are no doubt to find it the best in a long time for the series.
10 point deduction for more cryptic bullshit!!
Thinking back on my enjoyment of previous Final Fantasy titles, I've noticed a similar pattern. The moments that stick in my mind most don't consist of tedious exploration, numerous sidequests that manage to deviate importance from the main story or even the monstrous battles. It's the story tied with each character as an individual and that's where Final Fantasy has always peaked in my eyes. FFXIII-2 manages to do that again with its more personal story of Serah's desperate search for her lost sister and how it manages to unravel such a tale all the the while tying into something greater shows the series hasn't lost its steam just yet. While this is hindered by Square Enix's offer of a non-linear story arc and somewhat absurd storytelling, it isn't hurt in a way that can entirely negate entertainment and immersion. There was nothing wrong with FFXIII in my eyes, but the developers here should be applauded for listening to their audience and giving them what they want, even though sometimes whining fanboys aren't the best things to be listening to.
Remember that I am now taking requests for reviews, so any suggestions for future reviews or lists you may have, please let me know via PM or in the replies to this review.