Two years ago, Final Fantasy XIII caused quite a stir among long time fans of the series. As the long-awaited current generation entry into the legendary franchise, expectations were high — and disappointment was even higher. While the game managed to have some quality gameplay mechanics that changed the formula for the better, the story and some of the design decisions seemed like an enormous step backward for the series. In many ways, fans have considered Final Fantasy XIII-2 to be a “do-over” or an apology for the lackluster Final Fantasy XIII. But does it go far enough to resolve fans’ woes?
Of course, more than anything else, Final Fantasy games are most remembered for their stories. And while it’s true that most of what constitutes JRPG narrative can hardly be considered story, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is especially incomprehensible. The crazy part about that statement, though? The story is still more enjoyable than Final Fantasy XIII’s.
FF XIII-2 puts players in the shoes of Lightning’s sister Serah and Kingdom Hearts clone Noel as they hunt down the reason that Lightning disappeared immediately following the events of Final Fantasy XIII. What happens after that is mostly nonsense, but I have to say – it’s fun nonsense. I found myself really invested in what was happening to these two characters in a way that I never was for the original game. As weird as it is to say, you have to give props to Square for salvaging such a strange storyline.
Allow me to preface this by saying that Final Fantasy XIII’s story was lost on me by the time I finished it. I still found the ending to be moving, but I had long stopped caring about what happened. That being said, the story of FF XIII-2 is actually pretty well done, although it did manage to lose me again in the middle part of the game. The time travel aspect is highly intriguing and Square Enix did a great job making me still care about what happened to the characters, even if I lost the narrative track. Noel and Serah are fun characters and not at all annoying. There is a clear motivation for what they are doing, even if the details get a bit murky.
Bigger issues are brought up by the game’s ending, which raises far more questions than it answers. While that might be okay for a David Lynch film, it’s definitely not something you want from your 60 hour JRPG. In the end, though, the story is passable, the characters are fun and I was curious to see what would happen next, even if I didn’t always understand it which makes it a benefit rather than a detriment.
Ah, the fantastically addictive combat system of Final Fantasy XIII returns, but with added improvements that somehow make it even more enjoyable. This was the highlight of the first game and that continues in this installment. This time, instead of a whole party to manage, you have the two main characters, Serah and Noel, with your third party member consisting of a captured monster. Yes, Pokemon finally collides with Final Fantasy and the result is pretty damn awesome. The monsters all belong to a specific class, some being healers, some mages, some tanks, etc.. You fight an enemy, sometimes capturing it and then you can feed it components you collect from winning battles to make it stronger and teach it new abilities. You can even feed a monster to another, infusing it with abilities that it otherwise would not have been able to learn. This system is addictive and can sidetrack you from the story for more than a few hours.
I’ll go ahead and say it: FFXIII-2’s combat is some of the most fun that I’ve experienced when playing a JRPG. It really is a shame that such fun, focused gameplay was wasted on such a ridiculous story, but that never stopped me from loving each and every battle. I spent hours honing Paradigms, hunting monsters, creating new monsters and doing whatever I could to max out my Crystarium to the max level. Combat is fluid in a way that few RPGs can hope to match, and somehow even managed to be addictive on top of all of that. In addition, the time traveling navigation in place of the world map is a clever way to move from area to area, and jumping between timelines adds so many layers to every new location. My favorite part of the game was switching between times in a given location to solve puzzles and find hidden items.
As someone who hasn’t played every Final Fantasy game ever (ahem, Anthony) but still has enjoyed a fair share, Final Fantasy XIII-2 easily belongs on the shelf with the rest of the series, while XIII should maybe be set aside in some forgotten bin. It’s got everything that the last game was missing — exploration, hidden items, customization and feels like a legit Final Fantasy game in ways that Final Fantasy XIII could never quite muster. If this is where Final Fantasy is going for future generations, it’s something that I can get behind — so long as Square can get some better writers. But beyond any of that, the game is just absolute fun from start to finish. And even though we don’t always like to use labels like JRPG, it’s hard to ignore the fact that JRPGs are becoming a lost art, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 is one of the best ones to come out in several years. It might even be one of the best of this generation.
This game feels like a love letter to fans of the Final Fantasy series, proclaiming that “Yes, we are listening and we are trying to fix the problems.” The small feature of being able to save anywhere is something that many games boast these days, but for fans of Final Fantasy, was nothing more than a pipe dream. Well, those days of dreaming are over. Save points are done away with, which allows for a less stressful experience while playing. Few things were more annoying than playing, getting into a dungeon and then having to backtrack to save when it was time to stop playing unexpectedly. That problem doesn’t exist now. The music is daring and yet true to the series, although one track is an abomination that could be used to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
It’s clear that Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a harbinger of the future of the series and I am excited about that future for the first time in years. It’s not a perfect game, but it is a large step in the right direction.
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