Final Fantasy doesn’t really as much play these days. Many JRPG fans first became enamoured of their preferred genre because of the nonpareil output of Square-Enix (then Squaresoft) during the 90s when they released their two most critically-acclaimed games: Final Fantasy VI (or 3 in the US) for the SNES and Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation. Yet, as the years passed and these starry-eyed JRPG fanatics found other places to call home – the crushing difficulty of Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei or Namco Bandai’s colorful Tales, to pull two examples from this very site’s recent output – the Final Fantasy franchise fell out of favour as the games got mired by some truly unfortunate bad habits such as an overly self-serious maudlin temperament, a predilection for outlandish fashion involving belts and half-shirts and an increasingly hoary turn-based combat system (though it’s worth noting XII as an exception). Even the most ardent fans of the franchise (among their numbers I, almost begrudgingly, include myself) weren’t too thrilled with the milquetoast offerings of the series’ two MMOs, the inclusion of which within the main numbered entries seemed like a slap in the face for the many who enjoyed the single-player story-driven experiences of their antecedents.
When talking about Final Fantasy XIII specifically, however, most of the detractors point to its extreme linearity as its most egregious shortcoming. While RPG fans appreciate a strong narrative, they tend to resent an inflexible railroad of an experience that offers no deviation or respite, nor do they appreciate being presented with worlds of stunning grandeur (graphically the Final Fantasy games have always reigned among their contemporaries) that they cannot interact with; they’re only able to observe this picturesque wallpaper from the singular path stretching endlessly before them. It was clearly an issue that director Motomu Toriyama, who has been – along with producer Yoshinori Kitase – the chief creative force of the series since the warmly received tenth entry, felt needed resolving. As a result, the game’s direct sequel FFXIII-2 not only does away with the unwavering path model almost entirely but even pokes fun at the idea of an unerring course.
Final Fantasy XIII-2, first and foremost, requires that you have beaten Final Fantasy XIII, or are at least familiar with that world, its facets and its characters. There is some manner of an in-game “Datalog” that fills you in on everything you need to know, but the game doesn’t actively spend a lot of time explaining what exactly happened during the events of the previous game or who any of the returning characters are. You play as Serah Farron, who spent the entirety of FFXIII as a crystal statue, and the new character Noel Kreiss, who has something of an “I Am Legend” complex going on as the last surviving human being in the bleak distant future he calls home.
It’s now, when I start describing even the most basic elements of the plot, that we encounter FFXIII-2’s most consternating problem: Its story. It’s well-told, more or less, with some effecting characters that receive plenty of development and backstory to make you care about them. Their purposes are clear – Serah wants to find her AWOL sister Lightning, Noel wants to change the future to be a little less apocalyptic and even growly antagonist Caius Ballad has a sympathetic, if nihilistic and insane, mission of his own. It’s just how the game perplexingly presents the duo’s journey through time and specifically how they deal with the time paradoxes caused by the machinations of Caius and, occasionally, themselves.
A time paradox, the game will patiently explain, happens when you visit a time period that has been diverted from its original path by an incongruous event in that region’s past. Subsequently, the whole area is kind of unstable and a lot of monsters and general bad shit starts leaking through. Serah and Noel must figure out how the timeline got affected and then either fix the paradox in the present or rewind time to the point where it can be undone. The world is saved (or rather this isolated part of it) and the duo find a new gate and Quantum Leap their way to a different part of the space/time continuum, hoping to find the gate that takes them to Lightning at the end of time. To the game’s credit, it never gets as absurdly layered as, say, the movie Primer. You aren’t fixing one time paradox to find it spawned half a dozen more elsewhere, as each “episode” is largely self-contained. However, it can still be a bit of a headache to follow what’s been happening in each of the different chronological and geographical regions, especially when now-correct variants of areas/times appear after solving its past paradoxes.
The other problem I had with this game is that each of the areas (and much of the soundtrack) has been entirely recycled from Final Fantasy XIII. You’ll visit a series of locations from FFXIII-2’s progenitor in a random order, slightly modified to be a little more open. It’s perhaps fair enough that you’d be given a chance to visit all these expensively-produced backdrops with a little more freedom, especially for a game set in the same world, but it still feels a little lazy at times.
Yet there’s plenty to like about this game. The combat’s system’s mostly untouched, maintaining the six classes and paradigm shifts of its predecessor. The third slot in your party is now taken up by any of a trio of pre-assigned monsters, which can now be recruited by acquiring a monster’s crystal after defeating them in combat. The two characters and all the monsters have their own simplified “Crystariums”, the development system that also makes a return from FFXIII, except now there’s only one course for all six classes and the player can focus on developing whichever classes they want to specialize in (the monsters only have a single class each). Battles play out as they did before, with strategies that range from simply wailing on your opponents to linking magical chain attacks until they’re “staggered” – a state in which enemies are extremely susceptible to damage – then switching to physical attacks to finish them off. There’s the buffer Synergist, the debuffer Saboteur, the healer Medic and the damage-absorbing Sentinel roles to provide a sterling array of strategems with which to face down any foe. It’s all very impressive even though, to reiterate once again, it’s been transferred mostly wholesale from FFXIII.
There’s also a huge amount of side-content to find. There’s plenty of time periods and geographical areas that you never need to visit to conclude the main story that tend to offer little side-stories of their own. Some of it works – following up on mysteries, chasing down tough monsters, catching up with some secondary characters – whereas other parts don’t. For instance, the same trio of time distortion “puzzles” that involve you turning clock hands around or following a path of disappearing panels to find crystals. They’re fun initially but start to drag on a bit as they increase in difficulty. I’m also less than enamoured with the token Golden Saucer ersatz known as Serendipity – a glitzy Vegas haunt floating through the void of time and space that offers an arbitrary slots mini-game and an interminable chocobo racing mini-game. However, this degree of optional distraction is still very much appreciated after FFXIII’s minimal deviation. The achievements/trophies are far more reasonable this time around as well, with more emphasis on exploration and side-missions and less on mindless grinding.
Overall, it’s difficult to recommend FFXIII-2 even when you consider that it’s actually quite good. If you aren’t a Final Fantasy fan – or haven’t been for some time – this is not a game you could easily jump into, at least not without any fundamental knowledge of the world of FFXIII. It’s hard enough to sort out all the time-travel paradox gobbledegook without knowing who any of the characters are or why people keep talking about a giant globe suspended by a crystal pillar or “fal’Cie” and “l’Cie”. If you did enjoy FFXIII, then it’s very easy to recommend FFXIII-2 as a marginally improved sequel that keeps most of what worked and loses most of what didn’t. For everyone in between, it’s kind of a hard sell.