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Final Fantasy XIII-2 review

by Steve Watts, Jan 30, 2012 10:00am PST

Final Fantasy XIII left me of two minds. The satisfaction of managing its frenetic but elegant battle system stood on one side, in stark opposition to its maudlin, convoluted plot and overlong tutorial. To my surprise its sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, manages the seemingly unlikely feat of furthering the rift between the two. While the combat and adventure structure show improvements that directly address its predecessor's critics, the story manages to spiral deeper into an unintelligible narrative abyss. The result leaves me torn once again.

Combat remains in many ways similar to the experience offered by Final Fantasy XIII. The game does, though, trust the player to grasp the concepts more quickly this time around. As in the original, it's best to worry about the big picture, focusing on shifting "Paradigms" for the right mix of jobs for the situation, and leave the Auto-Battle command to handle the minutiae of selecting skills and attacks.

XIII-2 adds a few small tweaks to the formula that enhance strategic thinking, like Wound damage. These attacks inflict damage so severe that a character's HP can't recover from them with normal healing. They are easy to shrug off in the early game, but choosing when to heal Wounds and go on the defensive to prevent them becomes vital during tougher boss fights. A few story-based battles also make use of quick-time events, which aren't particularly thrilling but add a nice breather to the sometimes nerve-wracking task of constant Paradigm shifting.

Party management sees deeper changes in this sequel. Final Fantasy XIII-2 sets two playable characters for the whole game, and that's it. This does serve to keep level upgrades and equipment simple. The third slot in the party is filled by a rotating cast of monsters, collected throughout the game. Each monster has only one job role, but a group of three can be readied to choose from to fill that slot in creating battle Paradigms. So, for instance, a Sentinel-type monster could be the third spot to pair with the two characters to create a defensive-heavy Paradigm of all Sentinels.

The monster mechanic also adds a layer of depth to leveling up the team. Monsters follow a whole new upgrade path, growing their power by using consumable items--either won in battle or purchased from the shops. Plus, monsters are able to absorb the passive abilities of other monsters. With some careful planning, an already strong beast can be made into a wrecking machine by taking on a favorable combination of other monsters' abilities.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 also offers a world filled with much more variety than its predecessor. With sprawling maps, NPCs to talk to, and various quests to take on, I was never at a loss for things to do. It certainly doesn't suffer from the narrow, locked corridors of XIII, and the various time periods look and feel different from each other while retaining an aesthetic that makes sense. The game deftly communicates these various time periods in the same fantasy style with distinct visual flair.

It's too bad that the motivation intended to move me through that world, the story, felt so undercooked. I could enjoy its melodramatic camp and sometimes awkward script, but it weaves a far too tangled and disarranged web to hold my interest. Time travel, as a plot device, is extremely delicate, and difficult to do well. Final Fantasy XIII-2 uses it only clumsily to loosely tie together some events and not much else. The concept of multiple time travelers intersecting with each other at different, non-sequential points in their own journeys is an interesting one, but one inadequately explored.

Most of the game revolves around resolving "paradoxes," but the word is often flippantly misused to signify monsters that have accidentally wondered into a particular time period. In fact, at one point when characters discuss a very literal paradox--a circular logic loop in which taking an action should negate that action--no one even seemed to notice.

The paradox problem exemplifies the weakness in this winding plot: the science-fiction rules feel like they're being made up as they go. Every threat feels arbitrary, destined to be inevitably conquered with some new magical deus ex machina. I understood the broad strokes, the "what" and "where" of events, but the explanations of "why" vaguely smear science and spirituality into an indiscernible mélange.

To cap it all off, this journey ultimately leads to an utterly unsatisfying conclusion that left me soured on the entire experience. The last few hours are easily the dullest and weakest of the game. The final area is frustrating and visually unappealing, the last few bosses undermine the strengths of the otherwise excellent combat system, and the story fizzles to a non-ending that feels like Square can't wait to milk me for more.

It would all end in tragedy if not for the likable characters. I actually enjoyed Noel as the optimistic protagonist, a refreshing departure from stoic anti-heroes. His voice acting is some of the best I've heard in recent JRPGs, managing to sound charming and occasionally funny, even when he's handed a clunker of a line. Serah (previously a minor character as Lightning's shy younger sister and bizarrely young-looking bride to Snow) holds her own as a determined woman with her own hopes and dreams. It's just too bad they weren’t given anything more interesting to do.

While playing Final Fantasy XIII-2, I could almost sense Square Enix trying to make up for the last game. It's a Greatest Hits compilation of popular elements from other titles: time travel, monster breeding, Chocobo races, a Coliseum, and more. It even includes a mini-game casino eerily reminiscent of the Golden Saucer from Final Fantasy VII.

The game wants so badly to be liked, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 almost won me over, but only almost. It's difficult to care for the nostalgic touches when they serve only as window dressing to a story that implodes on itself. Fantastic though its combat system may be, Final Fantasy XIII-2 cannot break free from the shadow cast by the inability of its storytellers to understand the difference between convolution and complexity.


[This Final Fantasy XIII-2 review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by publisher Square Enix.]





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