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Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Release Date: January 31, 2012
ESRB: T for Teen
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Square Enix gets it: a lot of us don't like Final Fantasy XIII. And with its disjointed storyline, linear gameplay, bland environments, and repetitive auto-battle system, there's been a lot to complain about. They've addressed XIII's problems in its sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, by adding all the things the first game lacked, like towns, exploration, side quests — things typically found in most good JRPGs. So it's all good now, right? Everything's fixed?
The story of XIII-2 takes place three years after the characters from XIII stopped Cocoon from crashing into the planet, Fang and Vanille having transformed into Ragnarok in order to prevent this catastrophe. However, this also had the unintended consequences of crystalizing them and sending Lightning to Valhalla. Cocoon’s survivors have taken residence on Gran Pulse, with Lightning’s sister Serah living in New Bodhum as a teacher. Snow leaves Serah to find Lightning and mysteriously disappears, and one year later, monsters descend upon the seaside village. At this time, a mysterious man named Noel is transported to the town, and he and Serah set out on a quest through time and space to find out what's causing these disasters, fix the time paradoxes behind them, and bring an end to whoever's responsible.
For those unfamiliar with the prequel's auto-battle system, fighting is carried out, for the most part, automatically. Strategy comes into play in the form of a Paradigm system, which involves assigning specific roles to your characters (Ravager, Medic, Commando, etc.) that dictate the abilities they use. Up to six paradigms can be stored and switched to mid-battle, but I rarely ever used more than two: one for straight-up offense, and one that incorporated healing and assisting abilities. In fact, 90% of these battles consisted of me tapping the A button twice every ten seconds until everything was dead, which got mind-numbing after the first half hour, and at the five-hour mark I realized my brain was in fact dissolving.
I do have to offer praise for one feature of the battle system though, and that is the inclusion of monster crystals, which contain the souls of monsters you defeat in battle and can be used to summon the monsters to fight on your team, Pokemon-style. The ability to train a cactuar and have it on my party was my favorite part of the game, which is both awesome and kind of sad.
What makes the auto-battle system worse is that the difficulty imbalance from the previous game is still present: battles range from depressingly easy (99% of the game) to unfairly difficult (two or three bosses). There is no warning leading up to these spikes in challenge, and the difficulty reverts to its standard "Easiest Thing in the World" mode shortly after, leading me to believe that Square Enix added this disparity just to force you to grind for hours and bolster the play time of a relatively short RPG.
In fact, dull, time-sucking parts like this comprise a hefty portion of the game. One city, for instance, is completely overrun by monsters that are so easy it's probably impossible to lose to them, yet you're forced to fight a 30- to 60-second battle against them every five steps for no discernible reason. Another area has you rotating floating rooms in order to make a path, leading to a long stretch of gameplay so monotonous it almost had me in tears. In no way does this add anything to the experience: Square Enix simply stuffed the game full of pointless gameplay, presumably while laughing at us behind their giant mountains of cash.
One of XIII's biggest flaws was its lack of opportunities for exploring due to its egregious linearity. This is something Square Enix claims to have fixed. To assist in this newfound freedom, Noel and Serah are accompanied by their Moogle companion Mog, which is literally the worst thing that has ever existed. This thing is the Jar Jar Binks of Final Fantasy XIII-2, except Jar Jar Binks was somehow cooler. But I digress.
Mog helps you out by alerting you to nearby items, uncovering hidden ones, and letting you throw him at items that are out of reach (which is not nearly as satisfying as it should be). Most of what you’ll find is disappointing, though, especially considering how unnecessary the majority of items are throughout most of the game. I only changed weapons twice for both characters, and each of these weapons I easily purchased from the game's only shop. At least the first game had an in-depth weapon customization aspect.
Potions and the like are almost completely useless as well, and once a member of your party learns Raise, you might not use more than ten items for the rest of the game, making item-collecting little more than an exercise in virtual hoarding. Unlike in the first game, you can choose the areas you visit via the Historia Crux, which lets you travel through gates using discovered artifacts. You have a neat little option to close and reopen gates you've already accessed in order to replay events and unlock alternate plot routes, which is nice if you happen to enjoy the game enough to do so.
Another flaw Square Enix claims to have changed is XIII's lack of towns. And yes, there are towns in this game, and yes, these towns are full of people. But remember when speaking to NPCs used to mean receiving new information on where to go or what to do or at least finding out an interesting tidbit? Now, every NPC seems bent on regurgitating all the information you already learned from the game’s many prolonged cutscenes. I never once spoke to anyone who said anything of any importance. Not once. For those keeping score at home, this makes Fans: 0, God of Disappointment: 1,026.
I would like to take a break from complaining to mention the shining point in this game: the visuals, as is to be expected, are magnificent. If you ever want a glimpse of how an otaku views Japan through his/her sad, myopic vision, you only need to check out this game’s shimmering surfaces, wondrous water effects, and masterful movie sequences. Things only get better during the game's sparse-but-exciting Cinematic Action scenes (think Resident Evil 4), during which pressing buttons influences the direction a scene takes. These are always a delight to watch, and I only wish there were more. This is one area where Square Enix definitely delivers.
The same standard of quality is not present in the music, however. I hope you like lots and lots of stringed instruments, pretentious piano pieces, and an unsettling amount of English-translated J-Pop, because that’s almost all you’ll get out of this soundtrack. The music starts out promising and ends on a high note, but it's all obscured by the music in between, which is so cliché it gave me crippling indigestion. There are even a few curiously-chosen death metal tracks that just boggle the imagination — for instance, riding on an inbred-looking red-and-white chocobo cues the hard rock version of bowel cancer (sample lyrics: You’re loco if you think you’re gonna hide this chocobo/Everybody’s gonna wanna ride your chocobo/It’s choco-loco style in a choco-rodeo/Gonna ride him straight through— OH GOD MY BRAIN IS BLEEDING). There was a time when Final Fantasy music stood out above the rest. That time has passed.
Which brings me to the story. Throw everything you thought you knew about time-travel out the window. That Ray Bradbury tale, A Sound of Thunder, in which stepping on a single butterfly alters the entire course of history? Nah. This is Final Fantasy, and it don’t take kindly to logic and reason in these parts. This is a world in which you can pretty much stomp all up and down the time-space continuum and resolve everything by fighting a boss or two. Which is fine in a video game, I guess. Or it would be, if Square Enix didn’t expect you to treat this concept like it was written by H.G. freaking Wells.
The truth is, this story is ridiculous, directionless and shallow, and is further marred by characters more unlovable than Al Qaeda. Seriously, these people in no way respond to situations like human beings should. A man travels 700 years back in time and the characters barely bat an eyelash. They speak to an ominous Grim Reaper-like entity called the Arbiter of Time like he’s just some cranky hot dog vendor. One of the characters literally says at one point something along the lines of “… And so I started traveling through time, and then this happened,” like it’s the punch line of some surreal joke. Characters yell at each other for no reason. Characters whine and cry without provocation. It’s like the entire script was written by a grounded fifteen-year-old.
And don't even get me started on the dialogue: the game's instruction manual is more captivating than this ear-violating script. Nearly every line is either a reiteration of something that has already been covered, mindless chatter, or a piece of the soppy pseudo-poetry that Square Enix games revel in. I would bet anything that if you took all instances of the words “future” and “hope” and replaced them with “hot sauce” and “chili,” the story would be at least ten times more compelling. “We have to save the hot sauce!” “Things may seem desperate, but we still have our chili!” “With hot sauce on our side, we can create the chili we want!”
And yet, judging by the background music, and the characters' expressions and movements, we're supposed to care what happens to these stiff, robotic non-humans. I don't want to go on a 2,000-word rant about the story alone, but listen: a good story is important in a 30-hour RPG. A little more thought should go into it than "It's like Chrono Trigger, but without all the interesting stuff." Just saying.
I may sound harsh, but as video games become more and more accepted as a legitimate art form, they should be held to higher standards. As a game, this is merely an annoying sequel with mediocre gameplay, but what Square Enix is doing to this once illustrious franchise feels like a personal injury. This is a game no one needed, and very few wanted, and it doesn't even deliver. And here's the kicker: if the hasty cliffhanger ending says anything, there will almost certainly be a Final Fantasy XIII-3. Sigh.
+ It’s very, very, very, very, very, very pretty
+ New monster-raising portion is fairly involving
+ A few of the boss battles are outstanding
- Ridiculous storyline starring unlovable characters
- An auto-battle system that takes even less gameplay out of the game than its predecessor's did
- Dull, unrewarding exploration
- Arbitrary difficulty level
Overall: 5.0 (Out of 10)
Play if you're a fan of shallow-but-pretty Japanese things, and buy only if you must own every Final Fantasy-related thing in existence.
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