Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review
When I was younger I could easily point to Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) as my favorite game developer, the legendary studio responsible for many late night gaming marathons, as well as my enduring addiction to Japanese RPGs. Unfortunately, this boyhood adoration of mine has all but faded in recent years, with Square-Enix's titles no longer the ideal that other RPG developers aspire towards, but instead glaring reminders of Japan's stagnant game industry.
Noel tries to comfort Square-Enix stockholders
Most embarrassingly, the culprit largely responsible for Square's damaged reputation is their own flagship series: Final Fantasy. Though still hailed by many as the greatest RPG franchise of all time, recent installments have helped to tarnish this once-pristine reputation. MMO title Final Fantasy XIV was an outright failure (spending more than a year as a free-to-play title while Square made fixes), while the stuffy linear design of Final Fantasy XIII had many wondering how Square could neglect the crucial exploration aspect of the RPG genre, the game's hallway-like environments almost shameful compared to the sprawling open-worlds of Western titles like Skyrim.
Some examples of Final Fantasy XIII's thrilling environment design
As the direct sequel to the lackluster XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an important release for Square, a chance to rebuild fan loyalty and redeem the franchise. Almost immediately the game makes it very clear that Square has listened to the critics, and almost all of the previous title's flaws have been addressed with an almost overbearing level of enthusiasm. The once static environments been heavily expanded, now featuring a variety of both open areas and complicated dungeons with plenty of twists and turns. The game's narrative is similarly structured, with a time-travel plot line that lets players bounce around from past to future, even offering some simple side-quests to distract from the main plot. Though this checklist-style attempt to fix the series doesn't always deliver (rather than build any proper item shops, the game instead offers a shrill female psychopath hawking goods in a Chocobo costume), many of these new aspects are steps in the right direction. Still, despite XIII-2's eagerness to please, many elements of the game seem a bit misguided, and Square-Enix has some lessons to learn before they can return to churning out masterpieces.
Many Final Fantasy XIII characters make a reappearance, Snow now sporting a daring leather jacket / woman's blouse combination
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes place three years after the events of the prior game, with former side-character Serah fretting about the mysterious disappearance of her sister Lightning, Final Fantasy XIII's protagonist. The arrival of a mysterious time traveling boy known as Noel confirms Serah's belief that her sister is alive, and the two set out to repair the broken timeline, an effort to prevent the war-torn future Noel hails from while saving Lightning in the process.
Hey buddy, I don't know how they start epic time-traveling adventures in the future,
but you've gotta at least buy me a couple drinks first.
The narrative is honestly rather inoffensive, intriguing enough to keep gamers playing, though not of such importance that owners of the previous game will feel unfairly forced into purchasing the sequel. That being said, this plot's most glaring fault is it's blandness, the storyline played a bit too safe considering the kind of narrative excitement usually offered by the perils of time-travel.
The main driving force of the storyline are "Time Paradoxes," specific objects or enemies which have gotten mixed up in the time stream, our pair of plucky teenagers responsible for vanquishing these paradoxes and setting history right. Unfortunately, the various errors in space-time never seem overly clever, and solving each paradox seems to result largely in mundane changes rather than any truly epic butterfly effects.
The game's definition of paradox is typically "big scary monster"
One notable example involves the Yaschas Massif ruins, where a group of researchers led by XIII's Hope Estheim are investigating the apparent source of an unending solar eclipse. However, even after the characters travel through time and prevent this eclipse from ever happening, the area remains filled with researchers, despite the former focus of their research having been entirely wiped from history. The game specifically tries to address this with some rather bland logic, but this doesn't change the fact that altering an entire sections of history has resulted in little more than the sky clearing up. This lazy storytelling seems especially egregious given that Square masterfully used time travel as a narrative device in 1995's Chrono Trigger, and it's strange to consider that the crude 16-bit title told a more intriguing story even without pretty CG cutscenes.
When your plot involves the complicated weaving of time, events should probably be explained by more than an educated guess
Interestingly, Final Fantasy XIII-2 features just two playable characters, a stunning contrast to the large casts most JRPGs are known for. Though both characters are likable, they seem to suffer from a severe lack of depth, the game's writers rarely willing to deliver scenes which might convince us otherwise. In one scene, Serah's husband-to-be disappears back into the timeline, ending short their brief reunion. Our heroine is understandably anguished at having her love being torn from her once again, and the brief scene of her lamenting the loss is definitely powerful.
The problem is that just a minute or two later and everything has been put right again. There's been another meaningless life affirmation, another vow to set things right, our characters all smiles as they jump back into the timeline. Every minor advance of the plot seems to end with this same exact scene, the pair considering whatever minor advance in storyline has just taken place, before having the following conversation:
Serah: I am unsure as to whether we can (solve the paradox / help this storyline character / find my sister)
Noel: I am confident that we can indeed (solve the paradox / help this storyline character / find your sister)
Serah: I am now filled with the strength and resolve to accomplish this task. Let us continue.
I also won't stop until we find my sister, save the future, and win every Chocobo race. Go go gadget optimism!
Sometimes the roles are switched, with Noel the one unsure of his abilities, and sometimes the entire exchange is interrupted by a boss battle or pretentious voiceover courtesy of Lightning. But the endless repetition of these optimistic mantras gives the storyline little emotional impact, characters ready for anything regardless of whether they've just defeated a giant tomato monster or discovered that their friend was murdered 200 years ago by a rogue A.I. program. Though the characters do begin to show some depth working up towards the ending, it's an obvious case of "too little, too late."
Though plot is a crucial aspect of any RPG, the game's actual mechanics are what drives the narrative, and many a great story has suffered from lackluster gameplay. Thankfully, Final Fantasy XIII-2 does a fine job of keeping the game entertaining, with the new combat system introduced in XIII helping to keep adrenaline levels high. This system is definitely the most radical addition to the franchise, the frantic real-time combat requiring expert use of the new "Paradigm Shift" job-switching mechanic. Before battle, players customize up to six party combinations, assigning each of the two main characters a particular job, and choosing a "Paradigm Pack" monster ally to round out the team. During battle, players can instantly switch over to a new battle paradigm at any time, for instance bringing out your defensive (Sentinel) & healing (Medic) lineup in anticipation of a major enemy attack, or swapping over to a mixture of physical attack (Commando) & magic attack (Ravager) in order to pile on damage. Characters only have access to the skill set of their current role, so setting up useful combinations of the six different job classes is essential, in addition to wisely spending "Crystarium Points" on new job-specific abilities.
Setting up useful paradigms is a major element of succeeding in battle
The Paradigm shift system admittedly makes combat less of a chore, but it's a bit disappointing that the ability to quickly navigate menus is now more valuable than figuring out a foe's weaknesses. Though I constantly unlocked a bevy of cool sounding skills for my characters, never once was I able to gauge their effectiveness, the overwhelming number of on-screen elements making it impossible to tell whether Serah had just fired off a Fira spell or a Blizzara spell, or whether it mattered whatsoever. Some depth is added by the fact that many foes need to be "Staggered" before they can be damaged, requiring a heavy dose of magic attacks from the Ravager class to put them into this vulnerable state (usually with a Commando poking the enemy to keep their Stagger bar from depleting), but overall the battles feel somewhat lacking in complexity. You'd have to be some sort of autistic savant to make sense of the damage numbers exploding across the screen, and with the camera hurriedly swooping around the battlefield one can really only pay attention to the most static elements on the screen, namely your own HP, your enemy's HP and the Stagger bar. As a result, most players will eventually give up on trying to form any complex tactics, switching out jobs as needed and hammering away on the auto-battle command.
With fifty things happening at once, there can sometimes be a sense of detachment from the battle scenes
Despite the lacking plot and imperfect battle system, XIII-2 definitely makes major strides in the one area that matters: non-linearity. In addition to the plentiful side-quests mentioned earlier, there's plenty of other distractions to keep the game from feeling like a rush from point A to point B. Dedicated players can search out all of the game's 160 fragments of time, hunt down new monsters to add to their paradigm pack (gotta catch em' all!), or enjoy some classic Chocobo racing in the new casino. Square has even added some simple quick-time event sequences to the battle cutscenes, and though they don't forgive the game's over reliance on these fancy CG cinemas, at least players have something to press while their superhuman anime characters fly around the screen.
The "Choose Your Own Adventure" school of game design
Again though, these elements are all steps in the right direction, not fully realized ideals. The Casino for instance is a bit sparse compared to the sprawling complexes of previous games, with the card tables locked until some (hopefully free) DLC becomes available. And though the game now offers a selection of towns to explore and colorful NPCs to talk with, they still lack the unique charm of the original PlayStation-era titles, where designers had the luxury of cramming the simplistic 2D backgrounds with detail, rather than trying to craft understandably more complicated 3D worlds.
You'd think a sprawling inter-dimensional casino would have more than a single slot machine and chocobo racetrack...
Then there's the Live Trigger system, Square's awkward attempt to let players make their own dialogue choices, and perhaps the most telling example of Square's misunderstanding of their own genre. While Western titles like Mass Effect allow players to engage the storyline by guiding almost every conversation, Final Fantasy limits this feature to very specific moments in the storyline, actually rewarding players items depending on their decisions! Real-time dialogue shouldn't be a mini-game, every choice should result in some sort of meaningful exchange. Instead, XIII-2's Live Trigger scenes often end with characters correcting your poor logic, with a crappy bonus item reminding you that you suck at talking.
Making the wrong Live Trigger decision can often ruin an emotional scene
To be quite fair, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an enjoyable game, well-paced and lacking in any major frustrations. The real problem is that this is Final Fantasy, the series which propelled the RPG genre to ever new heights, and I can't help but be unsatisfied with anything short of perfection. The major problem seems to be that the game is severely lacking in honest creative vision, often feeling like little more than a jumbled mess of design decisions guided by soulless market research. The game's features read like a media strategist's wet dream: strong main characters of both genders to widen demographic appeal; an addictive monster collecting element for the Pokemon crowd; a cute mascot character to help sell keychains and plush toys; and of course all of the open-world, non-linear elements necessary to win back disenchanted fans. Hell, even the game's cover features Lightning alone, as if the badass warrior chick who makes only token appearances within the game is more eye-catching on GameStop's shelf than the cute little girl and her stuffed animal.
Square seems unsure of who their target audience is, trying to reach both hardcore RPG fans and fourteen-year-old girls
This is Square-Enix's new paradigm, building universes which are structured not so that they can tell a meaningful story, but so that a greatest number of potential customers can be reached and exploited, while also leaving open the potential for a multitude of sequels and related products. The problem is that this attempt to connect with such a wide audience is disingenuous, and with all the attention paid to these superficial elements, the core experience has fallen apart. The Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy experiment will forever be remembered as a mess, and I severely hope Square realizes they can't simply force a new Kingdom Hearts-style paradigm on consumers just by throwing a variety of things we like into a bag and shaking it violently.
It should be rather obvious that Square Enix wants their products to offer a Disney-level of merchandising potential
That seems to be the lesson here. Once Square put their focus solely on making a great game, not worrying about whether there was enough room for side stories and sequels, or whether the characters would make for good toys, or whether they could get enough costume DLC ready for launch. Square has grown far too ambitious, seemingly unaware that their greatest franchises were all grown organically. And though the demands of next generation development make it tempting to develop sequels in tandem with the original product, looking that far ahead is foolish, especially when it blinds you to the fact that you're developing Hallway Quest XIII, and no amount of shiny graphical gloss can make up for a fundamentally flawed experience.
XIII-2 is an apology letter, Square's message to fans that they're trying to learn how to change. Whether that apology is sincere, only time will tell.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]