Until Squaresoft and Enix merged into a RPG producing powerhouse Final Fantasy sequels were virtually unheard of. Yes there are tons of FF games out there, but most of them are set in their own universe and therefore not linked to each other. That however changed with the release of the Charlie’s Angels like Final Fantasy X-2. Since then we have had spin-offs to the legendary FF7 and even a downloadable follow-up to the old school Final Fantasy 4. The trend of capitalising on existing properties continues with Final Fantasy XIII-2 which is set three years after the last game. The question is do players really want to revisit the world of Gran Pulse? Thirteen proved to be an unlucky number for Final Fantasy fans. Yes the game sold well, but it alienated purists who didn’t care for the linear levels, simplified combat and omission of towns/stores to explore.
The good news is that Square Enix has listened to their critics when crafting this game. Gameplay tweaks and more freedom in how you go about questing make Final Fantasy XIII-2 a more satisfying experience than its predecessor. If you opted to skip the last game don’t worry because you can dive into this chapter without too much trouble. By navigating the game’s main menu you can read up on the events of the last adventure to get up to speed. Technically speaking the ending of the last game didn’t even happen due to the changes in the time stream that you’ll be tackling in this quest. That titbit of information might infuriate those who invested many hours into the last game, but I don’t mind. If that ending never happened I can convince myself that I never heard the dire Leona Lewis track they played during Thirteen’s conclusion.
One thing that divided fans the last time round was the new combat system. In an attempt to make things feel more action packed it was decided that players would only directly control one party member, with the rest of the team being handled by the A.I. This along with the “auto” button which picks the best attack in any given situation felt really restrictive. Strategy wise the meat of the game was changing your warriors’ roles on the fly to adapt to what was happening on the battlefield. Are you low on health? Then change someone to a medic who has access to restorative powers. Is the boss your facing too buff? Switch someone over to a saboteur who can cripple the target with status ailments and so on. If you disliked the combat I am sorry to report that the same system is in place this time round, but for some reason it seems more fun.
I’m not sure why that is, but despite loathing the battles in the original, I liked them on this occasion. For a start the encounters don’t last too long so they don’t get dull. One beef I had with the last game was that if your team wasn’t set up optimally for the opponent you were facing the fight would drag on for ages. This isn’t the case this time round, with the exception of the last boss which took me yonks to best. My how I cursed his ability to summon bodyguards that would prevent me from striking him directly. The quicker combat also means that your characters level up faster which is great as no one likes grinding for hours just to develop their team. Another thing that made the combat more bearable was the removal of game overs if your main character dies. Providing that your team mate is still conscious you’ll keep on fighting. That’s much less frustrating than losing automatically just because a beastie knocks you out with a lucky sucker punch in a duel you were otherwise dominating.
MONSTER ENCOUNTERS AND CAPTURE
With all this talk of combat I have forgotten to mention how encounters are triggered in the first place. For this game Square Enix have decided to mix the traditional “random battles” with the system of the last game were creatures were visible and would be engaged by walking into them. Whilst traipsing along the levels monsters will randomly spawn near you and then it is up to the player to decide whether to bump into them, to start a fight, or avoid them altogether. It’s the best of both worlds in my opinion. If you are in a hurry it’s not too difficult to sidestep the menaces and head to your destination. If on the other hand you want to earn items and experience via battling you just have to take a few steps to make hostiles appear. This beats having to zone in and out of areas to summon adversaries as was the case in the last game.
Speaking of monsters, taking a leaf out of Pokemon’s book, it is possible to capture vanquished critters and enlist them to your cause. In battle you control the protagonists Serah and Noel who can switch roles as explained earlier. As you triumph in battle you earn points which are spent to level up their roles which in turn bestow them new powers and increase their stats. The third team slot is occupied by your captured monster of choice which specialises in a particular job (some heal, others tank and so on.) To beef up your pets you feed them items which drop from beaten foes or can be purchased from shops. The introduction of tameable monsters was something I enjoyed as it gives you a vast range of options in assembling your party. I also got a kick out of fighting side by side with famous Final Fantasy mobs such as Chocobos, Tonberries and Cacturs.
NEW FEATURES AND RETURN OF TOWNS
Moving away from the bloodthirsty warfare I would like to comment on other improvements which have made the sequel’s gameplay a far richer experience. Firstly are the quick time events that pop up during cut scenes and certain battle sequences. Normally I’m not a fan of pressing button prompts that appear on the screen, but it works in this game as it gives you something to do in parts were you would normally be relegated to twiddling your thumbs whilst a flashy video plays out on the monitor. Another feature that has been introduced, to improve Final Fantasy’s normally rigid interactivity, is the ability to choose dialogue choices when speaking to other characters. How you respond to people doesn’t seem to affect the story, as it would in Mass Effect, but it’s not a bad feature as it allows you to ask for clarification on something you may have missed or say something comedic to lighten the mood.
I’m also happy to report the return of towns to the franchise. In an attempt to streamline things in the last game you had no settlements to explore which made things feel rather empty. Thankfully in this quest players can walk into settlements, mingle with the locals and acquire side quests which encourage exploration. It might not seem like a big deal, but having towns and cities to visit makes the game feel less sterile and more alive. It’s especially neat revisiting areas in different time periods to see how your actions have affected a particular community. The same applies to reintroducing stores for buying items over getting them at save points. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather purchase things from an eccentric shop keeper, who happens to be a human/bird hybrid, over a mute floating sphere.
STORY AND CHARACTERS
One area critics have not been so praise worthy with has to be the game’s story. To be honest I don’t agree with the majority as I much preferred this tale, that gets down to business, over the convoluted mess we had to trawl through in the original. The plot deals with Serah trying to find her sister Lightning (the heroine from the last game) who has vanished due to a change in the time stream. Her journey involves travelling through different eras fixing paradoxes that have been caused by an unknown force. Joining her is Noel, a hunter from the distant future, who has an invested interest in changing the past as he is the last living human from his time line. What I liked about the story is that even though your intentions are noble, sometimes the changes you cause lead to unexpected consequences that result in good people getting harmed. It makes you question whether Noel and Serah should be playing devil’s advocate with their chronological manipulation.
I have to commend the game for having some strong characters. Serah matures from being a princess in distress, in the last game, to a more fleshed out heroine. Noel on the other hand is a selfless hero you can get behind. It’s nice to see a likeable lead, like Zidane from FF9, as opposed to the more angsty protagonists the series is known for (I’m looking at you Squall and Cloud.) The cast from the last game also make cameo appearances which have a strong impact on the story. I was especially surprised by how much more amiable the grown up Hope was, given how he was such a whiny brat in the first game. The villain of the piece, named Caius, is a solid schemer who always seems to be a step ahead of the heroes. Like most good villains you can sympathise with his motivations, even if you may not agree with them. Cursed to live forever, as an immortal guardian to a seeress who is trapped in an endless cycle of dying young and reincarnating, you can see why he would be compelled to freeze time.
As you would expect from a Final Fantasy game the visuals are gorgeous. The character models are life like and at times it is easy to confuse them with real people (aside from their gravity defying brightly coloured hairstyles.) I would however have to say that the graphics aren’t quite as impressive this time round as they end up reusing enemies and scenery from the original game. The soundtrack is exceptional and I often find myself going off to Youtube to listen to some of the tunes from the score. There’s a good blend of orchestral pieces, rock and pop with some of the songs boasting vocals which is a little unusual. The singing isn’t bad per se, but for players who are used to instrumental exclusive background music it can be a little distracting hearing lyrics until you get used to them.
Overall I think the game deserves full marks. I was astonished by how much I enjoyed it given how little impact the series has had on me in recent years. I’m saddened to hear that this sequel didn’t sell as well as its predecessor as it is superior to it in almost every way. Square Enix could have just given us more of the same and laughed all the way to the bank, but instead they used the original as a foundation to build on. They listened to the negative feedback and used it to give us a more complete Final Fantasy game. Aside from the main story there’s side quests to do, mini games like Chocobo racing to take part in and the option of tackling quests in whatever order you like. There’s plenty of content on the disc to keep you occupied, but if that’s not enough Square Enix is supporting the title with regular DLC. My only real gripe is that the story ends on a cliff hanger, but given how much I enjoyed Serah and Noel’s adventure I wouldn’t be opposed to playing through a third game set in the same world.