Time-traveling, Chocobo-racing and a transforming Moogle, Final Fantasy XIII-2 manages to squeeze all of this in an a lot more besides.
If this were any game other than a Final Fantasy, I would probably start by discussing the visuals, as this aspect would be the first thing that hits the gamer. I would talk about how incredibly gorgeous the game is, how the cut-scenes are movie quality animation, how one could almost be reduced to tears by the sheer beauty of it all. I would want to emphasise how amazing it is to watch the individual strands of hair on the characters in the game, and how even the gameplay sequences manage to maintain such a high level of visual quality. But this is a Final Fantasy game and we, as gamers, have been spoilt in the past to view such a graphical marvel as par for the course. It is what we have come to expect and, in this respect at least, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does not disappoint.
In many ways, the success of the Final Fantasy games, which have been part of our lives for so long, and the expectations that we have when we pick up the latest game in the series, are a hindrance to the developers. We demand the perfection that we have seen before, yet we also want the game to advance and develop in keeping with other modern games. In some cases, changes in the Final Fantasy series have worked well and yet another classic game has been born. But at other times the changes have been less successful and when this happens followers of the series feel betrayed and start declaring the end of Final Fantasy as we know it. It really must be a thankless job for the developers, because all of the Final Fantasy games are impressive, just not always as impressive as we think they should be.
Final Fantasy XIII, to which this game is a true sequel rather than just another entry in the series, was an incredibly beautiful game that simply lasted forever, providing an impressive sense of worth. But many found that it was too linear in its structure, constantly pushing the player from one encounter to the next and allowing for very little by way of exploration. The game also seemed to be targeted at new players and featured what many thought was a rather excessive 20+ hours of hand-holding to introduce the newcomers to the mechanics of the game. The result was perhaps not the success that the developers were hoping for.
Back to Final Fantasy XIII-2. We have already covered the fact that the game looks incredible, so let’s leave that and move onto what, if anything, has changed for this sequel.
The Active Time Battle system from XIII returns, albeit slightly tweaked. To be honest, the combat system wasn’t too bad in the previous game. It was a little bit fiddly and took a bit of getting used to, but then the player did have some 20 odd hours to practice. This time around, things remain essentially the same with the Paradigm Shift System – in which the player can assign different roles to characters on the battlefield – having a few improvements, such as being able to change team leaders part way through battle.
New to the combat system are the Cinematic Action sequences, which basically see the player having to press certain buttons as indicated on-screen in a quick-time event style way. Whilst not really bringing much to the gameplay, these events do look very cool.
Another new feature, and one to make the Pokemon players very happy, is the capture of monsters. There are over 150 monsters to capture in the game and use in future battles. These monsters can then be upgraded and even have special abilities that can be triggered.
Importantly, it would seem that the developers have listened to the criticism leveled at FFXIII. The most overwhelming complaint, that the game was too linear, has been addressed by offering up a certain level of freedom and exploration this time around. The game is broken into distinct levels which give the player much more choice, whilst NPCs providing side-quests, stores and even mini-games are all available to ensure that the player anders off the beaten path and has much more control over their adventure. Whilst it can be difficult to praise the developers for making these changes, as this type of thing is relatively standard in many games and has been for quite a while, they should be applauded for recognising what didn’t work in the last game and making those changes.
The story, which many would consider to be the most important part of the game, is a bit of a brain-ache. Firstly it is quite reliant on the player having played the previous game. Those who haven’t can attempt to catch up using the Beginner’s Primer from the main menu, but will likely still come away slightly confused. It is fair to say that the plot is slightly convoluted, but nevertheless, here we go.
Basically, Serah heads off to search for her sister Lightning (from XIII) with the help of Noel (who comes from 700 years in the future) and a Moogle (cuddly little white things that say “Kupo!” a lot) that can transform into a bow. They travel backwards and forwards through time using special gates known as the Historia Crux which can be activated by using artifacts that the pair collect. Things get a lot more confusing as they discover that someone, or something, has changed time.
Whilst the introduction of time travel goes a long way towards solving the linearity of the previous game, it does mean that the player doesn’t necessarily create a bond with many of the game characters, with everything feeling much more brief and fleeting. It should also be noted that the game is far shorter than its predecessor.
Improvements have been made over the last game, and fans of the series will be pleased with that. It still feels as though it is missing something and is not quite the Final Fantasy title that players would have hoped for. And the reliance on playing XIII to be able to enjoy the story here will most certainly put off the new players.
The fact of the matter is that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a very good game. The hardcore fans of the Final Fantasy series will have been expecting more and will still feel that this entry doesn’t quite hit the mark. But for most gamers, the exploration, side-quests and mini-games (the return of Chocobo racing – Yay!) combined with a decent combat system and the most gorgeous visuals will be enough to encourage a play through.