Final Fantasy XIII was a polarizing role-playing title when it was released in 2010. The linearity, auto-combat, and story were both panned as much as they were praised. Overall, I thought it was a good, but flawed game; an engaging combat system with an average story and characters. Because of its mixed reception, Square Enix produced a sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, hoping it would fix the original’s setbacks and satisfy its fans’ needs. Their effort is indeed sincere, but Final Fantasy XIII-2 sadly fails more than it succeeds trying to meet those expectations.
FFXIII-2 retains the enjoyable battle system from the original. You have your standard Abilities and Item commands, though XIII-2 has ‘Auto-battle’ option by default. You can manually input commands on the available ATB (Active Time Battle) slots, if you want. A new addition to the gameplay is the inclusion of ‘Cinematic Actions,’ quick-time events that occur during boss fights and regular battles. Cinematic Actions don’t contribute much to the gameplay, though it does end boss fights on a more dramatic note.
Yo, quick-time events. That sure is fun.
It’s easy to be disinterested by XIII-2’s combat, because the game does most of the work for you. Nevertheless, timing and continuously chaining your attacks is crucial. The blue ATB gauge constantly keeps filling up, but you can freely choose to partially fill it and immediately strike. This applies with how you fight monsters. Enemies have a chain meter (top right) that charges every time you damage them. This meter slowly decreases over time, but you can retain it by frequently attacking the enemy. When you completely fill an enemy’s chain meter, you trigger a ‘Stagger’ state, which significantly lowers their defense, enabling you to deal more damage.
The Paradigm Shift system also makes a return, which has you assigning roles for each character. Commando role deals with physical attacks, Ravager employs magic, and the Medic restores the party’s health. Other roles consist of Sentinel, which casts protective magic; Synergists enhance party attributes, and the Saboteur debuffs enemies. Up to six Paradigm slots are available for each deck (three in total), so XIII-2 encourages you to experiment with what roles work well together. You can switch Paradigms at will mid-battle to ensure you’re able to meet whatever the situation calls for.
Because most battles can conclude in mere seconds, you’ll end up making things harder for yourself if you don’t pay attention. For example, if you keep attempting to hurt an enemy that’s resistant to attacks, it’ll likely hit you back harder. While you’re not even making a dent, the enemy’s already got you down at low health. And of course if you don’t switch to a healing/defensive Paradigm, it’s game over. You can also change control of either Serah or Noel at any time, so you can revive the other once they fall. XIII-2 also lets you switch between easy and normal difficulty at any given time. These options don’t really impact gameplay, save for being barred from earning certain achievements/trophies.
FFXIII-2 includes some additions and improvements, granting you more freedom during world exploration. Players take control of Serah or Noel in the third-person perspective, and they can interact with NPCs (non-playable characters) and objects scattered throughout the environment. The character Mog can scan the area for hidden treasure, or throw him to unreachable places only he can interact with. Mog automatically alerts the player for hidden loot when his bobble (antenna) glows, which is handy during scavenger hunts. Mog's 'Mog Clock' ability notifies you when monsters have spawned in the field, and gives you a chance to hit them first for a preemptive strike. Shops are now available, mostly in the form of the character Chocolina. She provides you with weapons and items you might need.
You can explore and revisit locations and different timelines.
Time travel is a huge part of XIII-2. Similar to Radiant Historia and Tactics Ogre, XIII-2’s Historia Crux lets you revisit timelines you’ve previously explored. Some locations like the Archlyte Steppe will have multiple variations; whether in 3 or 300 AF (After Fall). What’s great about the Historia Crux is you’re free to replay any story mission. If you missed key items or didn’t like your performance against a particular boss, go for it. XIII-2 doesn’t penalize you for repeating a mission, and they’re limitless. Going the completionist route rewards you with items such as artefacts, which unlocks more time periods. You’ll also come across branching dialogue options called ‘Live Triggers,’ in which your choices can lead to several of the game’s multiple endings.
There are also more things to do in XIII-2, such as sidequests. These range from retrieving items between timelines to defeating enemies. There is also a place worth mentioning where you can play minigames such as Chocobo racing and slots at the casino, but it's on you to find it. Some side missions are enjoyable on their own because it encourages you to explore, though there are puzzle-based missions that are more hit-or-miss. In your adventure, you’ll encounter ‘temporal rifts,’ and can be fixed by completing a sequence of puzzles, ranging from clock puzzles to connecting-the-dots. These can be entertaining, to an extent, but when the game throws time limits at you, it’s more frustrating than fun. For puzzles that are designed for careful thinking, some quests can be uninviting as a result.
Another notable improvement is the Crystarium leveling system, and differing in several ways from the original. Every role is unlocked from the start, so you can augment your characters in any way you want. Each role raises unique traits; Commando raises a character’s strength, while Ravager increases one’s magic, so on and so forth. Larger spheres grant you bonus points when activated. So if you want Noel to have high strength, activating larger spheres with Commando should do the trick. The Crystarium contains many stages, and moves up a tier after you complete every sphere for that stage. Doing so grants you bonuses such as accessory points or an extra ATB slot. Unlike FFXIII, you no longer have to worry about the level capping. Putting it simply, you can totally level up to 99 at any given time. You don’t have to worry about having to complete a 10-hour story event to unlock more of the Crystarium. XIII-2 eliminates any tedious restrictions regarding the latter, resulting in a more approachable game. It’s been streamlined so that you don’t have to navigate multiple menus, a problem XIII-2 solves by combining all the roles together, letting you activate spheres with any role.
I never thought I'd see the day that I'd adorn a behemoth with a lovely bow. Thanks, Square Enix.
It’s disappointing XIII-2 isn’t abundant in party members. At the same time, though -- considering how I’m not fond of some characters, I’m glad they went with a different approach. XIII-2 lets you capture monsters in battle, Pokémon-style. Two member slots will always be occupied by Serah and Noel, while a monster fills the third. Well, okay, you’re not exactly “capturing” them per se; monsters actually turn into a collectible crystal at the end of battle. Monsters are also classified within the six Paradigm roles, meaning some monsters will be Ravager and some will be Medic; a creature cannot be more than one role. They also have a special ability called 'Feral Link,' which is yet another quick-time event that deals extra damage to creatures or benefits your party. It’s a weird yet interesting idea, and I found myself investing hours into finding the strongest creatures.
While the gameplay is solid and fun, XIII-2’s storyline, on the other hand, is not. For all their talk about solving the linear “problem” from the original, it’s not any better when applying a more open-ended approach. It’s worse, in fact. The story is set three years after the ending of Final Fantasy XIII. It stars Lightning’s (FFXIII’s protagonist) sister, Serah, as she’s joined by a new character named Noel Kreiss. Kreiss claims to have met Lightning in Valhalla (an alternate dimension where time stops) and was tasked of protecting the latter’s sister. Paradoxes all over Gran Pulse have appeared, and Serah and Noel are tasked with resolving these issues, saving the world in the process. Conversely, Lightning is stuck in Valhalla. In there, she protects the goddess Etro’s throne from a new antagonist named Caius Ballad. His aim is to destroy Etro and merge Valhalla’s chaotic world with the real one.
To sum it up, XIII-2’s story is a confusing, convoluted mess. Most of the events that happen are inadequately explained, and you’ll find yourself scratching your head half of the time, still trying to figure out what’s even going on. Some of the time-related concepts they introduce are delivered through poorly written, corny dialogue, mediocre voice acting, and monologues that don’t make any sense. On top of that, the new characters -- especially Noel Kreiss -- are incredibly unlikable, resulting in me skipping numerous cutscenes (thankfully you can do that) just to avoid all the melodrama.
Oh please, cry me a friggin' river.
While storytelling isn’t FFXIII-2’s forte, graphical fidelity certainly is. The world of Gran Pulse looks beautiful, with both futuristic and natural environments meshing well together, successfully nailing that fantasy/cyberpunk look. Character models are well-detailed and move smoothly, and the mechanical designs of monsters are as menacing as they are appealing. XIII-2 occasionally suffers from frame rate hiccups, but it’s a minor flaw overall. The soundtrack is decent with fresh, energetic battle themes, though it’s unfortunate they ruined the Chocobo theme.
It’s a shame that Square Enix’s efforts to improve on FFXIII’s missteps didn’t produce the desirable results. While Square Enix listened to fans and made the genuine attempt from the beginning, many of those ended up hurting the game. While FFXIII-2’s ending hints at yet another XIII game (Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII), I’m finally at a point where I’ve just about had enough of Final Fantasy. If Versus XIII fails to deliver or doesn’t even come out, it’s honestly been a nice ride. Regrettably though, my parting with this once remarkable franchise would be bittersweet at best.