I don?t think anyone could have predicted the backlash that fans brought when Final Fantasy XIII was released almost exactly a year ago. It was a Final Fantasy game from Square-Enix, they knew what they?ve been doing for many years now. The majority of fan reaction to the drastic changes that Final Fantasy XIII brought wasn?t the most pleasant. I was in the minority and really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII for what it was, so when a sequel was announced to my surprised, I initially was excited and high hopes, though unsure where they could take the story.
I understand that many are going to simply pass over Final Fantasy XIII-2 without even giving it a fair shot because of the disappointment the last game, but that would be a mistake. It seems Square-Enix has listened and has made some drastic changes once again, obviously to appease fan criticism from XIII. For starters, it?s no longer a fully linear game and you can explore fully opened areas whenever you choose, which was the biggest complaint many fans had about XIII. Gone are the summons that morph into silly vehicles, Moogles (well one anyways) make a return, towns exist and have folk to converse with, many optional side quests, the game fits on a single disc this time around, among many other changes that I?ll delve into shortly.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes place three years after the conclusion of XIII, though don?t let the trailers and box art fool you, Lightning is no longer the main protagonist for this adventure. She?s disappeared since that day they all saved the Gran Pulse and many believe she?s either dead or been turned into a crystal alongside Fang and Vanille. Serah Farron, Lightning?s younger sister, has been having dreams and visions of her big sister fighting someone named Caius in a place called Valhalla. One night, a meteor crashes nearby Serah?s village, bringing with it a guy named Noel Kreiss (who to me seems like they tried to blend Cloud from Final Fantasy VII and Sora from Kingdom Hearts together) who says Lightning has sent him to find Serah and to stop Caius. Noel turns out to be from Gran Pulse as well, but he?s from a different time, seven hundred years in the future. I don?t want to delve much more into the story, but be prepared to pay close attention, as you?ll be travelling through time quite often, and keeping track of all the different timelines will become confusing if you don?t follow it closely.
You?ll see many places that you did in your travels with XIII on Gran Pulse, but many places and people have changed since then. You?ll run into many of the previous characters, and they did a fantastic job at transforming the whiney young Hope into a man. My only complaint with many of the other characters, is that some of them are simple one-off cameos, which is a shame, as I?ve grown to care for them after the first game.
All of your time travelling ways will be done through the Historia Crux system. To understand the timeline, you first need to understand the new ?calendar?. When Cocoon fell, the years were ?reset? so to speak and on that day, it was 0AF (AF for after the fall). Since XIII-2 starts three years after XIII, the year in which this game begins is 3AF. Still with me? I hope so, cause if not, you?re going to become confused very quickly when you start factoring in paradoxes. The Historia Crux will show you the timeline, beginning in 3AF.As you progress through the story, you?ll not only travel forward and backwards in time, but you?ll also branch off in other ?what if? timelines that run parallel to the ?true? timeline. Because of this narrative setup, this allows for many multiple endings depending on your choices based on when in time you currently are.
You?re able to revisit areas as often as you wish, sometimes to simply explore and grind for experience, other times to unlock new paradoxes and timelines. Seeing the same area in multiple different years is interesting to see the change that the world has (or hasn?t) gone through based on your actions of changing history (or futures). The gates that open new areas for exploration need artifacts to open, and finding those themselves is no easy task. This system allows for unlimited exploration and you can even close gates to ?reset? a whole location and make different choice (thus unlocking new paradoxes). There are even places that don?t exist in time properly, like Serendipity, which is clearly homage to the Golden Saucer from Final Fantasy VII, and is the casino area to spend (probably waste) most of your gil; unless you partake in the Chocobo races of course. On a side note, it was kind of saddening to see that I went to an area of the casino and was told to come back later as DLC games will be coming soon.
There?s a new Live Trigger system that allows for multiple options for dialogue between characters. While nowhere near as in depth as a Dragon Age or Mass Effect for dialogue trees (you usually only get to make one of four choices, and there?s no branching afterwards), it?s a welcome inclusion that made me feel like I was more in control of Serah?s path. Since the multiple endings are essentially already built into the game storyline and mechanics, these choices won?t affect a final ending.
New to XIII-2 is the lack of monsters that roam on the map, like they did in XIII. Instead, we get the classic randomly generated encounters (seemingly every 15-20 seconds in some areas) that we?ve all come to know over the years. Now, when a monster appears, the ?Mog Clock? will appear in the bottom-middle of the screen that looks like a dial counting down (not a compass, which takes getting used to). Before the dial reaches the red zone, you can either attack the monster for a bonus preemptive attack and haste to start off the battle, or avoid the mob with enough distance to avoid the encounter. Should you not attack in time or get attacked first, you?ll have penalties applied to your party for that encounter.
The Active Time Battle (ATB) system returns along with the Paradigm Shift system that was introduced in XIII, but with some tweaks and improvements. You can still choose to use single segments of the ATB for quick attacks when needed, or fill the bar for more powerful or numerous assaults. You?ll need to be more effective with your Paradigm shifting in XIII-2 though, as the battles are at a much quicker pace and you?ll need to be almost constantly shifting and casting when you reach the endgame. A very welcome change to the combat system though is that the game will not end if your party leader falls in combat, as long as Serah or Noel are alive, you can keep continuing the battle and hopefully recuperate for a comeback.
Some of the bigger boss fights now implore a Cinematic Action sequence; don?t let the name fool you, it?s still a Quick Time Event (QTE), but I found these used more appropriately and less frequently than many other games where you come to dread the QTE?s. It?s not overly done and you know when they are coming, so you don?t have to miss any action, waiting for the prompt to appear. Succeeding 100% in these QTE?s may even net you some extra bonus items, so be quick with those fingers.
The largest change to the whole combat and party mechanics though has to be the inclusion of monsters. Your party is comprised of three members; Serah, Noel, and a monster of your choice (three can be put into different paradigm setups). That?s right, when you defeat monsters, you have the chance to capture it and then make it fight alongside Serah and Noel. This almost turns a part of the game into a Pokemon style of gameplay, as I found myself spending a few hours trying to find and then capture those rare and powerful monsters. To further this, you can also infuse monsters with each other that can significantly boost a monster?s stats and abilities (my silver Chocobo sentinel with over ten thousand hitpoints was my best friend). It almost becomes a meta-game, trying to find the right monsters, leveling them up, and then using those ones to boost another?s ability (thus losing it in the process). To really put it over the top, you can even collect decorative items that your monsters can wear; there?s nothing like seeing a menacing saber cat wearing a sheep on top of his head. These adornments are purely for fun and make no stat differences in your monsters though.
The Crystarium returns from XIII, though also improved. You earn crystogen points (CP) for winning battles and these can be used to level your skills up. As you spend CP, what role you decide to put points into, will give you bonus stats for choosing that role to level (among new abilities), such as hitpoints, magic, or strength. As you fill a complete crystogen route, the next tier unlocks and you get to pick between bonuses, such as boosting certain gains and abilities, unlocking new roles, adding more accessory capacity, or lengthening your ATB gauge. I highly suggest planning ahead what kind of characters you want to make Sarah and Noel, as there are huge bonuses if you spend your CP wisely early on.
I mentioned Moogles were back, that?s because Mog will be following you throughout your travels. Not only will the crystal on his head start glowing when you?re near a secret hidden treasure, but eventually you?ll even be able to throw Mog to obtain those out of reach treasure spheres, once you can be trusted of course. There are hundreds of hidden items, which also plays into the now non-linearity of XIII-2, as you?re now encouraged to explore every nook and corner (there may even be rewards for every map you?ve 100% explored). The other reason that Mog follows you around, well, is because Mog also transforms into your weapon. Yea, I can?t really explain that one, sorry. Kupo!
Pacing and leveling felt fluid and I never felt I needed to grind out of necessity; actually, I found myself doing it unknowingly sometimes when I was hunting for a specific monster to try and tame. Aside from the final area, the leveling curve is a tad on the easy side, especially if you happen to use CP wisely and tame a few of the more powerful monsters for your party early on.
DLC is new to the series and will be coming in many different forms. Right now you can purchase weapons and cosmetic clothing, but soon you?ll have new playable characters like Lightning, new boss battles, and apparently new story segments as well. All of this I?m fine with, it was just the in-your-face style that the casino zone advertised it that seemed blatantly missing.
The music score was epic, which is what you expect from a Final Fantasy, though there were a few tracks that seemed really out of place, especially the rock/metal song (with lyrics) that plays during some boss battles. The voice acting is superb and flawless as to be expected, even with some of the cheesy and predictable lines.
There are a few minor framerate issues that kept popping up over my playthrough when I?d be rapidly switching paradigms and casting big spells, though nothing was a deal breaker and it didn?t happen terribly often. Some sections of the story progression is incredibly difficult to figure out on your own, and I admit, I needed a walkthrough for a few parts, as I didn?t always know where to look or throw Mog to uncover a hidden artifact. Aside from that, it did take me awhile to really start caring about Serah and Noel, and only briefly seeing some of the returning cast as a little bit of a letdown; but at least they were there and not completely ignored.
Completing just the story will take you roughly twenty five to thirty hours, which is par the course for a game of this size and caliber, though expect countless others if you?re going to try and 100% the game, tame all of the monsters, and find all the other secrets nestled away. With numerous endings, extremely challenging bonus bosses, and a pokemon-like addictiveness of trying to catch them all, Final Fantasy XIII-2 definitely surpassed my expectations and I?m glad that many of the shortcomings of XIII have been addressed and fixed. If you were let down with XIII, give XIII-2 a shot, you might be impressed with all the improvements and changes. I hope this isn?t the final fantasy. Kupo!