It’s pretty much universally agreed that Final Fantasy XIII was a wretched excuse for what fans have come to expect from Square Enix’s long-running JRPG series. While it boasted a great combat system and some cool character progression elements, the decision to replace the series’ typically open-ish world filled with towns, shops, NPCs, sidequests, and all manner of other things with a series of linear tubes, tunnels and corridors proved to be a massive miscalculation.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 plays like an apology letter to series fans who saw their hopes shattered by its predecessor. It is almost aggressively non-linear, with a time-jumping narrative structure that dares you to try to wrap your head around it at almost every turn. This non-linear presentation extends to the gameplay as well. Yes, there are sidequests. NPCs with things to say. Shops. Components to find and engineer into ever-more-awesome items. Big bosses, of both the required and optional varieties. The game may be called Final Fantasy XIII-2, but really, it’s the Final Fantasy XIII that fans wanted to have, should have gotten, back in 2010.
Treading Familiar Ground Is Just As Confusing
The biggest of the bad news is that all of the most confusing plot elements from FF13 are back in FF13-2, only with less context. Now you’ll hear terms like Fal’Cie, L’Cie, Cocoon, Gran Pulse and more but you’ll rarely (if ever) receive any explanation as to what it all means or relates to. The same goes for characters; you probably know who Sazh and Fang are if you played FF13, but newcomers who were scared away from ever playing FF13 will be completely lost without doing some heavy research first on the Final Fantasy Wikia.
What’s more, even if you do have a handle on who’s who and what’s what, you’ll spend so much time jumping between different time periods and time streams that you’ll begin to doubt the accuracy of the facts you thought you were clear on. It’s like the game’s writers looked at every single piece of time travel sci-fi they could find and then mashed it all together. The grid laying out the moments in time you can visit is daunting just to look at; just imagine how much your head will spin when all of the pieces are unlocked for you to visit.
Fortunately, the cutscenes feel as though they’ve been stripped down a bit. There are still some ponderous, Final Fantasy-style monologues that play out over views of the environments you visit, but you can safely skip most of these without fear of missing much, if that’s how you prefer to roll. You can pause and skip any cutscene whenever you like, with the longer ones being broken into sections.
It’s also frankly quite difficult to concentrate as you play, thanks to the music. Final Fantasy games have typically been known and nodded to for their sweeping orchestral scores. Final Fantasy X-2, the series’ only other direct console sequel, delved a little bit into J-pop territory, but carefully so.
FF13-2 instead throws caution to the wind and assaults your ears with an almost non-stop offering of grating J-pop that only rarely fits the scene it’s playing behind. I’m sure there are people on this planet who appreciate the music featured in the game, but I am most definitely not one of them. I’ll take a million minutes of cutscene monologues over one more headache-inducing gauntlet with FF13-2‘s music.
The Many, Many Better-Thans
I’ve painted a grim picture so far, I know. The confusing story and constant aural assault both make the game’s 20+ hour unfolding feel like a slog. Take heart though. Just about everything else is a tremendous improvement over what came before.
For starters, the combat system is almost unchanged. While players are free to queue up specific skills (and certainly should at certain points), the combat still boils down to jumping between different Paradigms — the set of “jobs” that each member of the party is currently performing — as you fill up an enemy’s stagger bar and, eventually, beat them down with lowered defenses after you’ve staggered them. It sounds a little confusing, but if you’re familiar with the FF series concept of jobs, you should take to it quickly enough.
The combat is tweaked a little bit, however, as you’re no longer managing a large party. In fact, you will only ever control two player characters for the length of the game: Serah and Noel. The third party member slot is occupied by captured monsters, Unlike Serah and Noel, who can each take on different job types when they jump between Paradigms, each monster you capture (a randomly occurring event, much like a treasure drop) is restricted to a single job.
Over time you’ll gather components that allow you to level up your captured monsters, using the same sort of Crystarium grid that Serah/Noel for their own leveling. You’ll be able to combine them as well, and pass along new abilities in the process. If you loved stuff like the Chocobo breeding in FF7, then you should appreciate the amount of depth these capturable monsters offer. Once you have enough, you’ll build up a party of three (typically trying to cover a broad range of jobs), and then assign each of those to different Paradigms, as it suits you.
Confused yet? Trying to explain a Final Fantasy game is an exercise in futility. Like the best games in the series, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a very dense, yet thoroughly playable, Japanese narrative. Square Enix took a chance with the previous game and failed spectacularly, and so things are dialed back into a more familiar space in this direct sequel. Ultimately, for any of its flaws, FF13-2 manages to nail the very thing that makes each successive franchise release such an object of curiosity and excitement: for all that’s familiar, you’ve never played a Final Fantasy game like this one before, and you never will again.
Score: 7 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Square Enix)