The original Final Fantasy XIII was a game that expected players to let the battle system carry their experience until the game finally revealed the rest of its redeemable qualities in the endgame. While this was enough for some gamers, many more let their voices be loudly heard in response to the now infamous “tunnel”. This vocal outrage proved effective as Square Enix treated Final Fantasy XIII-2 as an opportunity to respond directly to the complaints. The result is a very strong sequel that only contains flaws that are either minor or easy to overlook instead of XIII‘s more glaring faults.
After the flashy introductory sequence, Final Fantasy XIII-2 attempts to very quickly reveal how different its design philosophies are from the controversial original. If the opening section was not so fun and not executed so well, it may have appeared desperate. Thankfully, it instead properly sets the tone for an engaging experience. The two main characters meet almost instantly and the player begins battling, Paradigm Shifting, and gaining rewards from battle immediately after. All tutorials can be skipped, but even if the player chooses not to do so, the information is concise and helpful.
The game continues to feed the player its mechanics at a brisk pace after that. The hub world connecting all locations and times – known as the Historia Crux – is introduced, followed quickly by the addicting monster-taming mechanic. With so many mechanics introduced so clearly within only a couple of hours, it is more than a breath of fresh air from the hand-holding of XIII.
The story in Final Fantasy XIII-2 remains as high concept and melodramatic as it was in its predecessor, but the big difference is the improvement in focus and character. The poor writing and time-travelling jargon is a lot easier to follow from the more dynamic new heroes.
Serah is a little flat, but she has an arc that is far more clear than Lightning’s ever was in the first game. Hope’s return as a prominent character is far from the groan-fest many may have expected. He is older now and comes well-equipped with more maturity and an improved voice-actor; he graciously feels like an entirely new character. Newcomer Noel is the best of the lot, however, with more complexity to his inner workings than the combined cast of the original. He is not immune to the unbelievable and eye-roll-inducing speeches about hope or human nature or his struggles with his own emo whatever, but the difference is that XIII-2‘s characters rise above the less-than-par writing. This is a welcome returning trend that used to set the Final Fantasy series apart. It is important to note that XIII-2 is not a full return to the timeless characters of the past, but surely a step in the right direction.
There are other good characters and moments worth praise, but none that could be properly described spoiler-free. However, gamers can rest assured knowing that it is far easier to be invested in the story and characters in this sequel than it was in XIII proper.
When Final Fantasy X-2 started the trend of direct sequels to Final Fantasy games, it uprooted the entire battle system of Final Fantasy X to devise something new. The result was one of the greatest battle systems in the series. However, in the case of XIII-2, the original already had another contender for top spot, so the sequel only needed to make minor tweaks to its mechanics. Of course, having full customization so soon into the experience should make it a lot easier to swallow for many of the critics. Minor changes can also go a longer way than expected. Faster Paradigm Shifts allow players to use the mechanic as not just the strategic core of the system, but also a tool to make timing-based decisions. Swapping to a defensive Paradigm the moment before a huge enemy attack and swapping immediately back to an attacking or balanced Paradigm is not only very effective, but incredibly satisfying.
The largest attack launched on Final Fantasy XIII however, was regarding its linearity. Despite XIII-2 still not really having “towns” in the most traditional sense – the engine was not designed for characters to move particularly well in tight spaces – the “tunnel” has most certainly vanished. Locations have multiple paths and are given personality and purpose instead of merely being means of getting the party from Point A to Point B.
In fact, similar to its semi-sister title, X-2, Final Fantasy XIII-2 incorporates a multiple-location and mission structure while maintaining an over-arching story to tie it all together. XIII-2 is more successful at it, however, by including far more new areas and breathing new life into the old ones by presenting them in different time periods. Players will feel pleasantly overwhelmed with the choices in front of them. Side-quests, mini-games, countless monsters to tame and upgrade, and even entirely optional locations are present throughout the experience and after the credits roll as well. This feels like the game Final Fantasy XIII was supposed to be.
The game is not perfection, however. In addition to the wonky writing and tendency to drift into melodrama, the game can feel a little unpolished. The framerate is hardly consistent, areas can feel cheapened by some DLC-centric design, the camera goes to weird places during cutscenes, and the otherwise improved Crystarium has a few minor late-game frustrations. Thankfully, none of these issues come close to the original’s flaws which shook the title to its core.
This reviewer would be remiss if the music in the game was not mentioned. Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s soundtrack is again similar to X-2 in its attempt to be vastly different from the rest of the series. Once again, XIII-2 is more successful in this regard. While there are a few spectacular duds, the soundtrack as a whole is unique and often powerful. The frequent presence of vocals surprisingly adds more to the experience far more often than it takes away.
This is truly the HD Final Fantasy game that fans have been waiting for. Meaning and emotional weight finally have a place in the Final Fantasy XIII universe. Critics of the original’s battle system or general mood will find no solace in this sequel, but fans of the series who were frustrated at wasted potential in XIII have many reasons to accept Square Enix’s well-crafted and addicting apology in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Oh, and none of the characters turn into air-headed pop stars. So that is also a plus.
Full disclosure: the author was provided with a free copy of the game for review purposes.